Temperatures are rising after a summer of standoffs.
With players due to report to training camps on Thursday for medical evaluations, and William Nylander’s withholding of services last season serving as a cautionary tale, the first pressure point in negotiations is here for this talented crop of restricted free agents.
On Monday, Zach Werenski provided hope – if not a path forward – that all can be resolved on time, at least for the big-name RFA defencemen still unsigned.
The forwards such as Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen and Matthew Tkachuk? They’re another matter of finance entirely. But the structure of Werenski’s deal may have given all a reason to raise an eyebrow.
Werenski, 22, signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was arguably the price-setter for the RFA market on defence, the leading comparable for both Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov and Boston’s Charlie McAvoy.
What's interesting is Werenski is scheduled to earn $4 million in each of the next two seasons, followed by $7 million in the last year of the deal in 2021-22.
That means that the Blue Jackets must offer Werenski a qualifying offer of at least $7 million to retain his rights into 2022-23 as a restricted free agent.
Clearly, both sides would like to find a way to agree on a longer-term extension before getting to that point in 2022. But if Werenski is to remain a Blue Jacket in 2022-23, the contract he signed on Monday will be no worse than a four-year deal worth $22 million.
That's a style that the RFA forwards could copy, a wrinkle that may make a shorter-term deal more palatable for both sides.
Three years isn’t quite a bridge deal, but it certainly isn’t the longer-term contract (five or six years) that most of these players have been seeking.
The key moving forward in a three-year term contract is the negotiated final year of the deal. A three-year deal for Marner with a salary cap hit of $9 million, but including a $12 million salary in the final year, could really become a four-year, $39 million deal ($9.75 million AAV). That would also walk Marner to the brink of unrestricted free agency.
The expectation is talks will heat up on Provorov and McAvoy considerably over the next couple days. Provorov’s agent, Mark Gandler of International Sports Advisers, said he has been in “active conversation” with the Flyers.
Werenski’s 38 goals rank ninth and his 128 points over three NHL seasons rank 21st among all NHL defencemen since he entered the league in 2016-17 – not just RFA defencemen.
So for Columbus to get him locked up in the short-term at a $5 million salary cap hit that won’t break the bank is a coup for GM Jarmo Kekalainen. The leverage was on Columbus’ side, with no real market set and no arbitration rights for Werenski.
“Zach Werenski is one of the best young defencemen in the National Hockey League and we couldn’t be happier that he will continue to be a foundational player for the Columbus Blue Jackets,” Kekalainen said in a statement. “He is a gifted offensive player that has continued to improve in all facets of the game and will be an elite player for many years.”
Provorov’s camp was originally believed to be set on a long-term deal. Monday’s development may have changed that notion. Provorov has eight fewer goals and 31 fewer points than Werenski over the course of his career, but is coming off a rollercoaster season. He scored 17 goals two seasons ago as a 21-year-old. Provorov also averaged 25:07 of ice time last year in Philadelphia, more than two minutes more per game than Werenski.
When healthy, McAvoy’s numbers compute to an average of nine goals and 43 points over an 82-game season, but he has missed 47 games over the last two years.
The clock is ticking to get creative.
As one agent told TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie on Monday: “We’re going to try to do in two or three days what we haven’t been able to do in two or three months.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli