MILTON, Ont. — One of the secrets to success in the NHL’s salary cap world is that a team needs to get contributions from young players on reasonable contracts.
However, that formula comes with its share of problems, too.
So it is with the Toronto Maple Leafs as they inch closer to a training camp that is likely to open next week without centre Nazem Kadri and defenceman Cody Franson — the team’s second- and fourth-best scorers from last season — anywhere to be found.
While both were happy to lend their support to the Leafs’ annual charity golf event at RattleSnake Point on Tuesday, they each made it clear that the goodwill would only go so far as long as they remain without new contracts.
And at this point there just doesn’t seem to be any reason for Leafs management or either of those players to blink in negotiations before the blue and white officially return to work on Sept. 11.
“I’m just kind of waiting on them to make a move so that I can be ready for training camp and get the whole process going,” Kadri said in an interview before hitting the links.
It might end up being a long wait — at least based on the public posturing.
Dave Poulin, the Leafs vice-president of hockey operations, took the rare step of discussing negotiations with reporters Tuesday and refuted an earlier claim from Kadri that he was being asked to take less money than he deserved to help get Toronto out of its precarious position with the salary cap.
“Nazem has a very fair offer,” said Poulin. “It’s not salary cap-related. There’s plenty of money there for both of them. It’s not cap-related — we believe it’s a fair offer, it’s representative of the body of work that he has done in his time here.”
Franson appears to be in a similar kind of holding pattern.
The 26-year-old defenceman is locked in his second contract standoff in as many seasons and seemed to be in the dark about the current status of negotiations. He’s mentally prepared to get back to work next week, but didn’t seem overly confident he would be reporting for physicals alongside the rest of his teammates.
“I’d like to get something done but that’s what I pay my agent for — to make sure that I don’t have to deal too much with the business side of things,” said Franson. “The business side of the game is sometimes the most difficult.”
Rocky negotiations are nothing new for players coming off their first or second NHL contract. Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban and Ryan O’Reilly each held out in similar situations in recent years and the current list of unsigned restricted free agents also includes Alex Pietrangelo, Cody Hodgson, Jared Cowen, Derek Stepan and Mikkel Boedker.
From purely a hockey standpoint, there is no question that the Leafs would love to get both Kadri and Franson signed as soon as possible.
They were key cogs in the team’s success during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign — “they made huge contributions to our hockey club,” said coach Randy Carlyle — and would be expected to fill similar roles again.
So why shouldn’t they paid like two of the top players on the team?
For starters, roster management is paramount in today’s NHL and RFA’s aren’t able to exercise much leverage in negotiations beyond sitting at home. With offer sheets essentially non-existent, teams are able to confidently hold the line in a bid to get those type of players to accept more cap-friendly deals.
Historically, a breaking point tends to emerge during the stalemate and a contract eventually gets hammered out.
“Sometimes a deadline is required,” said Poulin.
It’s unclear when exactly that deadline might come for Kadri and Franson, although it seems unlikely that it will be before the first day of training camp.
Perhaps the season opener in Montreal on Oct. 1?
Depending on how the Leafs end up handling the depth positions on their roster, there is probably as much as $6-million under the cap to be split between them.
Even though a deal worth $3-million annually would represent a significant raise for both players, it would also leave them making less than nine other teammates. The Kadri and Franson contracts are also undeniably linked since the value of one will directly affect the other.
Despite the scrutiny that is only going to intensify the longer his contract situation remains unresolved, Kadri sounded like he was ready to dig in and fight for what he believes is fair.
“It just seems like everyone who doesn’t know the situation seems to know what’s best for me,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case. I think everything is going as planned and hopefully we can come to an agreement soon.”
The Leafs management team remains confident that it will be able to satisfy both Kadri and Franson — even with a salary cap that will drop (to $64.3-million) for the first time in NHL history.
“We are confident we can do that,” said Poulin. “We think we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can move forward with the team intact.”
It might take some time before the two unsigned players see the situation the same way.