A way-too-early look at the NHL’s 2020 RFA panic

This summer, the NHL was split into two camps when it came to restricted free agents and their unsigned contracts covered in nervous droplets of flop sweat from general managers: Those who believed this was the new normal, and those who believed this offseason was an anomaly.

I’ve been Team Anomaly. Things got weird this summer, and not just because our culture was briefly ruled by spiked seltzer and a chicken sandwich. We had an offer sheet — an actual offer sheet! We have a player in Mitch Marner who may or may not be gumming up the market as he asks for a contract that every general manager thinks is preposterous and every agent hopes resets the bar. We had a crop of young stars all coming up at the same time and all deserving of significant deals, with no one wanting to flinch.

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Yet when it comes to next summer’s RFA class, the Arizona Coyotes flinched: Forward Clayton Keller was handed an eight-year deal with an average annual value of $7.15 million on Wednesday, making him the second-highest paid Coyote behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($8.25 million AAV), whom GM John Chayka also signed a year before his contract expired.

It’s one of the first significant deals out of the gate for next year’s RFAs. Earlier this summer, the Tampa Bay Lightning took Andrei Vasilevskiy out of the mix with an eight-year deal with a $9.5 million AAV. While that contract had its critics, the Keller deal had more of them.

Micah Blake McCurdy called the contract “a disastrous idea.” Evolving Hockey was stunned by the term, and had the cap hit more in the $6.4 million range. But Rachel Doerrie thinks the cap hit will look rather good for the majority of the deal.

No matter what you think of Keller — and I think he’s getting paid for potential, rather than performance, especially on the defensive end — the Coyotes basically said they’re not going to play any RFA reindeer games next offseason. While next year’s group of RFAs isn’t as stacked as the Class of 2019, there are some significant names up for new deals that could cause some significant stress for fans and GMs if their contract status is allowed to linger.

Here are the 10 most interesting pending RFAs in 2020:

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OK, so make that 11 RFAs.

There are other RFAs that we could have slotted in here — Dylan Strome, Anthony Cirelli, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou to name a few — but the position Reinhart and Montour are in is fascinating. Reinhart is coming off a bridge deal that pays him $3.65 million AAV this season, while Montour makes $3,387,500 AAV this season in the final campaign of his bridge deal signed with the Anaheim Ducks last summer. Both players are arbitration-eligible, and go RFA in a summer that’ll see Buffalo have just nine players under contract and more than $35 million in cap space with which to play. How much of that goes to these two players, or do they both end up part of a grand reconfiguration of the roster? (This being Buffalo, we suppose we should additionally ask which general manager will be making that decision …)

Likely demoted to the third line with the Kevin Hayes signing, and coming off a bummer of a sophomore season, the No. 2 overall pick from 2017 has to be looking at a bridge deal that would allow him to build up some cache and momentum toward something more lucrative.

Unlike many of the players here, Nurse is coming off a bridge deal. He signed a two-year extension last September, paying him $3.2 million against the cap through next summer. Jonathan Willis of The Athletic ran the numbers with some defensemen who did a similar thing, and sees the Nurse extension rivaling that of Matt Dumba‘s ($6 million AAV over five seasons) or Esa Lindell‘s (six years, $5.8 million AAV). Sounds about right.

DeBrusk shouldn’t be labeled a product of David Krejci, although he spent the majority of his time with him in scoring 27 goals last season. His numbers are more than respectable without Krejci, and DeBrusk has gone a long way towards accomplishing what he wanted to accomplish last season, which was quieting any trade talk involving his name.

As for what he’s worth … the Bruins are going to have a ton of cap space next summer, but will need new contracts needed for Charlie Coyle and (one assumes) Torey Krug, and will have some holes to fill in the lineup. One assumes they’d like to get DeBrusk in before addressing those issues. Stanley Cup of Chowder had some good analysis of his potential next deal.

Everything in the Devils’ financial orbit is affected by the gravity of the Taylor Hall extension, which makes you wonder about Hischier’s next contract. Does GM Ray Shero tackle it first to secure “cost certainty” (TM, Gary Bettman) before trying to ink Hall, or does this deal follow in the wake of whatever happens with the Devils’ star winger?

In the past two seasons, DeBrincat is 52nd among forwards in points scored (128), and 47th in points per game (0.78) for players with at least 150 games played. His contract is up right as the Blackhawks gain some cap flexibility, although much of that is thanks to $11 million in goaltending contracts expiring. Hopefully that’s enough to break the Stan Bowman cycle of great young offensive talents needing new contracts and then getting shipped out of town. Hopefully.

It’s amazing to think about where Max Domi was a year ago, which was coming off two straight nine-goal seasons and having people wonder if he was washed up at 22 years old. Then the Montreal trade happened, followed by 28 goals, 44 assists and a new lease on his career. He makes $3.15 million against the cap this season. He’s arbitration-eligible, but one assumes the Canadiens will want to lock him before it gets to that point, and the same goes for Domi’s side.

Two words: Artemi Panarin. Dubois played 1,699 minutes with Panarin in the last two seasons at 5-on-5. The Blue Jackets generated 56.00 percent of the shot attempts with the duo on ice. They scored 59.63 percent of the goals, for a goal differential of plus-31. They had an expected goals percentage of 55.57. They were great. Dubois without Panarin? He played 634 minutes, earned 47.92 percent of the shot attempts, had 48.33 percent of the goals and had an expected goals percentage of 51.22.

What Dubois does in the first season of a post-Panarin Blue Jackets will determine plenty about his next deal.

Ryan Wilson had an interesting look at what GM Jim Rutherford has given his goaltenders in the past as far as percentage of the cap. Cam Ward‘s six-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes when Rutherford was running that show was 11.8 percent of the cap. Marc-Andre Fleury‘s contract with Rutherford — a four-year deal signed in 2014, before his reversal of fortunes and the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cups — was for 8.33 percent of the cap. Sticking with the lower end of that scale, it could mean an AAV of over $7 million for Murray, which is in the neighborhood of what Fleury’s making with the Vegas Golden Knights these days on a three-year deal. Arbitration will be an option.

Despite a statistical dip last season — which probably had more to do with Barry Trotz’s stylistic changes than any wilting in the post-John Tavares spotlight — Barzal is the Islanders’ franchise player, and they’ll seek to compensate him as such. The question, then, is what kind of term commitment Barzal is going to seek: an eight-year franchise deal, or something in the Auston Matthews range?

One benefit for the Islanders: The Belmont arena is scheduled to open in the 2021-22 season, offering Barzal the kind of clarity on the franchise’s future that Tavares never had. One drawback for the Islanders: whatever Marner gets.

This has been a partial look at the RFA Class of 2020. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Sebastian Aho was also a free agent next summer. No, the other one this time.

From earlier this summer, from Florida Georgia Line:

@StLouisBlues y’all need some hype men? 🤙 pic.twitter.com/lqW49nj1vJ

Let’s assume that when the band played Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, the Blues were kind enough to gift them personalized jerseys, which as you know would not be a Foul. But ripping off the sleeves like the sweater just insulted Chewbacca … no. No, no, no, no. I don’t care if there are some companies that might traffic in blasphemy and create a tank top jersey. What you have here is the hockey equivalent of someone taking the Shroud of Turin and refashioning it into a Speedo.

Speaking of the Blues:

THIS delivered!Such an honor & tribute to LAURA & AMAZING @StLouisBlues & “Gloria” story that has forever united a Stanley Cup Championship team & its city.❤️ “GLORIA! GLORIA!” FOR YOU, LB!❤️🌹💙🎶💛Thanks to the one who gifted this-you know who you are.😊~ Kathy, Other Half Ent. pic.twitter.com/n5csTUinjG

The tale of the Blues official victory song “Gloria” continues, as a Stanley Cup ring was created in the late Laura Branigan’s honor. The “82” is in reference to the year the song hit the charts. Such a very, very cool gesture.

Instead of re-signing with the Carolina Hurricanes, captain and postgame celebration coordinator Justin Williams announced he was “stepping away” from the NHL for a bit after feeling “unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey” during the summer.

Williams is either going to return to the Hurricanes at some point or hang up his skates. If he chooses to return, it’ll likely be in the middle of an 82-game grind he couldn’t get up for, and with some clarity as to what the Hurricanes are going to look like next season. If you’re 37 years old, and you’ve played 1,244 regular-season and 155 postseason games, this makes too much sense — get back when it matters, and with fresh wheels.

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That’s what Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer did back in 2007, after the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup. “It’s a big commitment, and right now I just don’t feel that I have the energy and am willing to make that commitment to start camp,” he said in announcing he wouldn’t be with the team to start the season.

Niedermayer, 34 at the time, found that commitment by December. “You always want to try to get back to do the same thing, and I guess maybe early on, I just didn’t have that in me, to dig down and do it again. As time progressed, I found it again,” he said, returning to the team on Dec. 16.

Teemu Selanne took a bit longer, staying out of the lineup until February as a 37-year-old free agent (who would go on to play until he was 43). The Ducks made the playoffs, and lost to Dallas in the first round.

What Williams might end up doing here is far from unprecedented. It’s kind of amazing this doesn’t happen more frequently with veteran players. Not that it’s exactly the best thing for the NHL to have prominent names sitting out for a few months, comfortable in knowing that 50 percent of the teams in their conference make the playoffs. But if you’re a Hurricanes fan who watched Williams score one goal in four games against Boston in the conference final, you might be OK with him storing up some energy for later.

The full season archive of our podcast can be found on iTunes. Emily Kaplan and I will return in a few weeks, and already have some stellar NHL guests lined up.

Brian Boucher, a once and future ESPN On Ice guest, has apparently been promoted to a lead analyst role with NBC, according to Rick Carpiniello. Boucher has the good as an analyst, bringing a goalie’s perspective to the proceedings and an ability to break down plays in a succinct manner. He’s a part of the broadcast without ever feeling the need to overshadow the broadcast. His commentary and chemistry make him feel like a seamless part of the team rather than an uninvited party guest. This is a positive, overdue move.

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