31 Thoughts: Tense RFA waiting game hits final stages

NHL insider Chris Johnston discusses who holds the best leverage in the Maple Leafs vs. Mitch Marner contract negotiations, and why Marner doesn’t need to take a discount, but also shouldn't expect Auston Matthews money.

• What’s holding up Marner, Boeser deals?
• Should NHL shrink exhibition schedule?
• Ovechkin wants Gretzky’s goals record

Now we find out who is serious, and who isn’t.

A few years ago, one particular player remained unsigned as the season approached. There was a lot of rhetoric about his situation. He agreed to terms days before Game 1, and was ready to go for puck drop.

I sent him a congratulatory text. He called back to reveal he was never going to miss games. “Just wanted to see if I could gain anything by waiting,” he said. “I’m in good shape, wasn’t worried about the pre-season.”

I was telling this story to a GM on Monday. He laughed a bit and said, “Some (of this year’s unsigned players) will do that, yes. But this generation seems more willing to say no.”

There’s been so much hot air about RFAs over the past year that it might be responsible for Greenland’s record ice melt. Finally, we’re getting to the deadlines that really matter: training camp, the start of the season, and, ultimately, Dec. 1 — the last day any of these players can sign and still be eligible to play in 2019-20.

If I were a team, I’d want term. The price for talent never goes down. Look at all the great players who extended in the summer of 2016 — Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan and Mark Scheifele among them. How much has the market changed in three years? It’s massive. If you really believe in your free agent, lock him in for as long as you can.

Colorado wants this with Mikko Rantanen. Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar are up in two years, MacKinnon in four. They don’t want to worry about extending the talented Finn a second time in that span. The Avalanche seem willing to make Rantanen their highest-paid player, but don’t want him making, say, $4 million per year more than MacKinnon. 

The dynamic is similar with Matthew Tkachuk in Calgary. A five-to-eight year term makes him the highest-paid Flame. Everyone understands that. But how much higher than Gaudreau and Mark Giordano is the question. 

Toronto prefers term with Mitch Marner (more on him later). It’s believed Kyle Connor prefers security in Winnipeg. You can’t blame a player for choosing this route, but, as part of the CBA talks, everyone’s been told to expect a bump in the American television rights for the 2021–22 season. Not everyone will want to lock in for eight years knowing a revenue injection is coming.

Patrik Laine, for one, is believed to want a bridge (we’ll discuss him later, too). Some teams won’t have a problem with that. Those without breathing room face two more seasons of tight squeezes before the new numbers kick in. It is expected that Brayden Point and the Lightning will follow organizational history with something in the three-year range. Most agents and executives picked Point as the RFA that would get done first, since he’s made it clear he wants to make it work in Tampa. But nothing yet.

Back on July 1, San Jose and Timo Meier filed a contract that provided a path through stalemate. Meier signed for four years and $24 million, with the fourth season worth $10 million. Upon its completion, the winger will be one year from unrestricted free agency. If he wishes, he’ll be able to take the qualifying offer San Jose has to extend in order to keep his rights (one year at $10 million), and walk right to freedom.

Essentially, it makes Meier’s contract a five-year, $34-million deal. Zach Werenski followed that model with his three-year, $15-million extension in Columbus. Because its final season is worth $7 million, it’s essentially a four-year, $22-million offer that could walk him right to the open market.

After Werenski signed, a few sources indicated they believed several other RFA defenders (Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov) could follow the same path. Another source thought Philadelphia might do this with both Provorov and Travis Konecny

There’s no doubt there are renewed efforts to end these skirmishes. Still, we wait to discover who is serious about sitting.

31 THOUGHTS

1. The hardest to read right now is Brock Boeser and Vancouver. They’ve discussed different contract lengths. There’ve been times of optimism and there’ve been times of pessimism. This is a huge year for the Canucks. They need a great start. It’s going to be much more difficult without Boeser. Only four teams scored fewer goals than Vancouver the last two seasons. Boeser’s 55 goals during that span are equal to Artemi Panarin and Jonathan Toews; more than Filip Forsberg, Jack Eichel and Mark Stone.

2. It is impossible to write or talk about Marner without offending someone, so here is my attempt at a bias-free take: It’s tense and personal. My belief is Toronto is willing to go to an $11-million AAV, but only if he signs for seven years. I’d heard both sides might agree to two years — then let arbitration sort it out — but a few sources threw cold water on that. I mentioned during a radio hit last week the rumour that Marner’s representatives pitched a three-year contract with a structure similar to the Meier/Werenski setup, with the third season as high as $15 million. However, I’m told that was several months ago and is no longer relevant, although both sides have continued to explore that kind of an option. I don’t sense things are anywhere close.

3. Laine’s looking for a bridge, but his situation is unique. This is as much about “fit” as anything. Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are hard-driving perfectionists. They demand a lot of themselves and of everyone around them. There’s not much of an “off” switch. It’s wrong to say Laine doesn’t care, but he likes to relax, turn off his brain and do other stuff. If I’m the Jets, I’d like his game to evolve — the sooner, the better — but I recognize his incredible talent and am not giving up on it. Everyone here has to work to understand each other, for the betterment of the team.

4. Anaheim and Carolina have a deal in principle, and it is now Justin Faulk’s decision. The Raleigh News & Observer’s Luke DeCock reported Ondrej Kase is part of the return, and he’s someone the Hurricanes tried to acquire last season. The Ducks are on Faulk’s no-trade list, and the two sides are trying to hammer out an extension. Faulk makes $6 million in salary this season, and while he’s not going to reach Jacob Trouba territory, that contract raised the bar for the field. You have to think he’s targeting $6.5 to $7 million. The Ducks appear willing to make the move without any long-term security at this time. At the very least, Faulk has to see the writing on the wall in Carolina. You never know how life will go, but, on paper, it’s not ideal for a player heading into free agency. 

5. At the Canadiens’ golf tournament, GM Marc Bergevin confirmed his interest in Jake Gardiner. I think Vancouver and Winnipeg looked there, too. His best offer came in Carolina, but if it wasn’t Toronto, he wanted something quieter. It will be good for him.  

6. A few teams expressed surprise with the reports about Kase. He’s not someone who was available for a long time. Anaheim must be concerned about his health. 

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

7. There are teams out there who like Pavel Zacha, too. Monday’s mini-blowup had other GMs wondering if the Devils would trade him, although Tuesday’s treaty makes that unlikely. Two-way centre who kills penalties. Still young, room to evolve. Centres are hard to find.

8. Tuesday will be the third business day in a row the NHL and NHLPA have met for CBA negotiations. There were several more meetings in the summer; those went under the radar. With the player deadline to re-open the CBA on Sunday, there’s a soft deadline, and deadlines spur action. Last spring, the players were hoping the escrow problem could be solved by their pension or benefit costs being moved to the ownership side of ledger, but, as far as I can tell, that’s not on the radar.

What I do think is a possibility is both sides work to avoid what happened last year, where an $83-million cap was projected only to have it fall short. That squeezed the teams — and the middle-class player. What could happen is that the 2020–21 cap is set much earlier than we’re used to, based on 2018–19 revenues, instead of waiting until next June. Setting the cap earlier gives a better chance to avoid overly optimistic projections and decisions made because of them. That might end up happening throughout the extension. We don’t know if it can be done by the weekend, but there’s no question we’re getting less rhetoric than we’re used to. Thank God.

9. The Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont reported last week that Jeremy Jacobs signed ownership of the Bruins to his six children. That doesn’t mean his influence will wane. Jacobs remains chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors.

10. I’m very curious to see if, as part of the new CBA, NHL teams get the right to send some 19-year-old Canadian Junior picks to the AHL. 

11. There were reports last week that Edmonton had interest in Patrick Marleau, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

12. Jesse Puljujarvi knows what he has to do in Finland — play hard and play well. He’s off to the right start. The Oilers talked with Carolina (Julien Gauthier) and Tampa Bay (Alexander Volkov was someone they liked), but didn’t get to where they felt comfortable. 

13. The NHL/NHLPA media tour (held last week in Chicago) is such a home run. The players are in good moods — it’s too early to hate us. Jeff Marek and producer Amil Delic taped several 31 Thoughts podcasts, and there was some good stuff. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said there hadn’t been a face-to-face yet with new GM Ken Holland, but there was a phone conversation. Did Nugent-Hopkins request anything in particular?

“I think, for me personally, [it’s] consistency,” he replied. “That’s something that’s kind of been lacking when we have tough years. Obviously, when you are not having success, you want to change things up, but I think at the same time, it’s important to keep guys together…. I’ve had eight or nine head coaches and this is going to be my ninth year…. It’s a huge thing in my head where I want to play with the same guy, I want to build some chemistry — whether it’s one guy or two guys. Something I really haven’t even able to do the last few years is find a linemate — even one linemate — I can stick with, build chemistry with. (Holland) is a steadfast guy, and what he’ll bring is some steadiness.”

14. Teams are currently mandated to play between six and eight exhibition games, with rules in place to make sure they don’t show up with a Tuesday night beer-league squad. I polled players about how many exhibition games they think they should be playing, and only Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrick Kane said four, preferring to play instead of practice. Everyone else went the other way, with no one going more than three.

“The last two for sure — maybe one more,” Derek Stepan said.

Thomas Chabot pointed out he played just one last year, and really liked it, “because you do plenty of skating even if you don’t play.” The website fivethirtyeight.com calculated that this exhibition season, NFL Week One starting quarterbacks accounted for less than 12 per cent of all passing attempts, a huge drop from 2018. Teams aren’t wasting their best.

The NFL’s biggest pre-season story was Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement. Two NHL GM’s — Arizona’s John Chayka and Toronto’s Kyle Dubas — attended Colts camp this summer (Chayka was there right around the time Luck injured his ankle), so I was wondering if all of this would affect their approach in hockey.

“There’s certainly a paradox with it,” Dubas said. “You don’t want your guys to burn out and spend a massive amount of energy in games that don’t matter in the standings. The shift is going to go more toward playing less. Whether that’s fewer games overall, or fewer core guys, I don’t know. But you have to respect what your coaching staff wants. [Mike Babcock] has a long-held belief and it’s proven to have success in getting guys up to speed.”

Two new assistant coaches in Toronto — including a new power play — affects decisions, too.

“You have to remember that coaches and players have far more skin in the game,” Chayka said. “Good young players, or those who were in the AHL, want to show what they did all summer. You have to give them that opportunity, and get veterans the games they feel they need.”

The Coyotes GM said the thing he was most impressed with in Indianapolis was how the Colts go about hiring and drafting people, the research they do to make sure everyone is a fit — “how you make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction, while maintaining diversity of thought.”

(As always, no one quoted in this article is used as an anonymous source.)

15. There is at least one NHL team considering having its NHL roster together right from the start — rather than mixing the groups — for practice purposes. The fivethirtyeight article said the NFL’s pre-season future might be controlled scrimmages instead of games. Dubas said he’s wondered about that. “I don’t know how you do that in hockey…. Maybe coaches who have a good relationship in separate conferences is the way to go.”

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16. When Chris Tanev hits the ice in Vancouver, word is it will be with custom-made shin pads and gloves, created by the team’s trainers. He’s missed too much time because he plays hard and refuses to bail out on the ice. In 2019–20, it will be with greater protection.

17. Ehlers on how the Jets want him to maximize his speed: “That’s obviously my biggest strength. For the first couple of years, I felt like I had a problem with when to use it, and when to — not take it easy — but … how to use it as much as possible. And I think it’s gotten a lot better. And [coach Paul Maurice], of course, wants me to use that as much as I can. Not just when I get the puck and skate down the side with it. But also in forechecks, in back checking, in all that.”

Ehlers had a great quote about the summer trade rumours. “Everyone around me in Denmark was like, ‘Hey man, where are you going, what’s happening?’ and I was like, ‘I have no idea. I haven’t heard or seen anything from anyone.’”

He said people would reply with, “What? How do you not know more than I do?”

“I don’t think about it,” Ehlers said. “The only time I thought about it was when people asked me about it.”  

18. That Central Division is going to be brutal. There are five legit Stanley Cup contenders there including the defending champion. Nashville and Winnipeg were the big boys the past couple of years, but there is much love for Colorado and Dallas. Are the Jets and Predators being disrespected?

“I don’t care,” Ehlers replied. “I really don’t care. I don’t care if they talk a lot about us. We know what we’ve done; we know what we can do. They can talk about everyone else as much as they can, and we’ll stay in the back and do our thing. We’re good with that.”

19. Sidney Crosby, on the Evgeni Malkin trade rumours: “My reaction to that, honestly, was that I’ve been through this before,” he said. “And I didn’t like it, because it brought back those memories of so many times in that window between 2009 and 2016 where we fell short. And the next few days, it was like, ‘This trade’s going to happen.’ That’s the consequence and the result of losing. I understand. I’ve been through it but I also know that’s the way it is. You wait for the dust to settle to really evaluate things…. Usually when you do that, everything gets a little more clear and you figure out what it is you have to do…. The whole Geno thing, that’s part of losing. You understand there’s always different possibilities, different outcomes that come with that, but I’m happy to know that he’s back.”

Does Crosby ever ask to speak to GM Jim Rutherford about these things?

“I don’t really talk to Jim that often. He’s great at getting a pulse on the group and guys individually. I just try to focus on playing. I haven’t really been one to ever call a GM and say, ‘I need this or I think we need to do that.’ They’re there for a reason, that’s their job. If they [ask for] an opinion [I will give it], but I’m not one to be knocking on the door.”

20. There was a twinkle in Alex Ovechkin’s eye when he tied the two years remaining on his contract to the length of his career, but we did ask him if wanting to see his son grow up in Russia would be factor in his decision.

“No, I think, for him, he’s going to speak two languages anyway,” the Capitals captain answered, before joking that the boy might want to speak even more. “The most important thing is [to be] healthy. If you’re healthy, you can still play the game the way you want to play. I don’t want to be a player who signs a contract and and then, ‘Okay, I’m hurt, and I’m just going to get a paycheque and going to enjoy my life.’ I don’t want to do it.”

I always remember one of my favourite baseball players, Mike Schmidt, retiring two months into the 1989 season because he felt he wasn’t good enough to live up to his standard. I have an admiration for that thinking. Wayne Gretzky’s goal record?

“Of course it matters,” Ovechkin answered, “but like I said, I’m not going to score 300 goals in two years. It’s going to take five or six years. I have to be healthy enough to do that. I don’t want to play just for that record. I want to be healthy, I want to have fun, I want to enjoy the moment when I’m on the ice.”

21. Unrestricted free-agent-to-be Torey Krug on whether he’s concerned about the lack of contract talks with the Bruins: “I wouldn’t say concerned…. [I] would say just interested to see what is going to happen. It’s my future. It’s going to affect my family, where they live. It’s going to affect my kids, where they go to school…. It affects a lot things. Not concerned, just curious to see what is going to happen.”

22. At the recent basketball World Cup tournament in China, Canada’s Melvin Ejim watched via FaceTime as wife Samantha gave birth to their second son. Krug came close to a similar experience during last year’s Stanley Cup Final. Wife Melanie gave birth to the couple’s first child four days after Game 7. What would he have done?

“We had discussed the implications of that,” he laughed. “Being our first child, labour is typically a little longer than normal. She had given me the green light to play in any game if it happened in the morning of the game or something — ‘Go ahead and play and get your ass back here before the baby comes!’ I’m very thankful and glad it worked out the way that it did. Unbelievable experience — leaves you speechless to be honest.”

23. It was noticeable how hard Buffalo and Boston prospects went after Jack Hughes in their rookie games. A preview of what he will deal with this season. 

24. Curious to see if Nick Suzuki gets any time alongside Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin during pre-season play.

25. The Athletic’s Craig Custance reported Calgary’s Noah Hanifin tinkered with his one-timer at Darryl Belfry’s skills camp last month. He’s not the only Flame working on his finish. Another is Sam Bennett.

“I can do a better job of finishing opportunities,” he said. “Release points. Someone told me every time I shoot the puck it’s the same. Sometimes you need to mix it up, change the angle, change the release point, and I was working on that.”

Bennett added he was working on shooting off different feet, as well. 

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

26. Mathew Dumba led all NHL defencemen in goals (12 in 32 games) before going down with a season-ending injury. Has he set a goal for this year?

“Kind of like to keep that to myself,” he said, before relenting under fierce interrogation. “I want to tickle 30. I want to try to get up there, break 20-25. I want to get into that range.”

Never bad to aim high. 

27. There’ve been rumblings that Sabres players have been pleasantly surprised by their meetings with new coach Ralph Krueger. Eichel confirmed that in Chicago.

“I’ll tell you, I went to meet him for a cup of coffee in Slovakia (World Championships) and ended up going to dinner for three hours,” the captain said. “I was extremely blown away by my meeting with him. If he says that he does something, it makes you want to do it. He started talking to me about Bikram Yoga and how much he loved it, so I went and tried Bikram Yoga.”

Eichel joked that he sweats a lot, so he fit in nicely.

“He brings the best out of people. I don’t think we had one negative conversation the whole summer. He’s very calculated. He knows what he wants to do and has a plan for it. Nothing’s spur of the moment. Nothing emotional for him, he’s very thought out. I think it will be very good for us.”

Eichel said their conversations spanned more than just hockey, with topics including “rock and roll, cars, travelling, everything.”

Does Krueger have good taste in music? “He likes ’70s rock,” so yes.

28. I never got to use this quote from last summer, but I loved it and wanted to include it here. At the NHL Awards, Jordan Binnington was asked how a guy who thrived with an edge would keep it after achieving the ultimate goal.

“It’s an interesting question, because I think you’ve always got to find your motivation, and that’s really key,” he said. “You know, after a certain amount of wins, I was like, ‘All right, like, what’s your motivation now?’ But you just keep finding things that push you. Life is tough and it’s a grind, and you’ve got to keep finding things that will excite you and push you. Yeah, I think I’ll find some things.” (Thank you to NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika for transcribing.)

29. Good note from former AHL Belleville coach Kurt Kleinendorst, now running a bench in Nurnberg, Germany.

“My team played a tournament in Bolzano in August, and Jaromir Jagr was there with his team,” he texted. “How many guys in our world are owner, GM and player at 47 years old? That’s crazy in an awesome way. I watched two of his practices and what a treat. If he’s not the hardest worker, he’s one of [them]. And how he treats people is absolutely refreshing. He had time for everyone, on the ice and off. After the game he took individual pictures with half my team. Couldn’t have been more gracious.” 

30. There’s some element of, “What did you do during the summer?” when you meet up with players and staffers at the showcase. One of this year’s best stories came from Tampa Bay’s Senior Director of Communications, Brian Breseman. His in-laws, Dave and Cathy Helman, live in southeastern Iowa. Dave is a retired federal prison warden, Cathy a teacher. According to Breseman, their family possesses the oldest farm still run by its original owner in the entire state — East Grove Farms.

“I came home one night, and my wife (Sarah) was on the phone with them,” Breseman said. “She said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but Elizabeth Warren is coming to the farm.’”

There is a weekly regional flight from St. Petersburg to Cedar Rapids, so they got to Salem (where the farm is located) two days before the Democratic presidential candidate’s visit. It’s a mead and wine farm, and the couple spent the day before the event helping set up. Hours before Warren’s arrival, they attended a breakfast with another candidate — Cory Booker — at a local breakfast cafe. (Dave Helman was once chairman of the county’s Democratic party.)

“Once the higher-ups got there, things changed,” Breseman said. “Ten minutes before she was supposed to speak, I was on a stool, screwing and unscrewing flags. You’ve got to make sure they are facing the right way…. The state flag has to be smaller and not higher than the country’s flag.”

On the property is a historical landmark, a Victorian-era homestead restored to look like it did back when it was built. Warren toured it with Sarah’s uncle. Critical information: Her dog, Bailey, did not make the trip, but her husband did.

“He had a few meads,” Breseman laughed. “East Grove ships mead, too, if your Canadian friends want some.”

Warren tried the Growler Home Brew. Did Breseman get her to sign any Lightning merchandise?

“No, I didn’t,” he replied. “Not to nerd out or anything, but I had a copy of her Time magazine cover, and I had her sign that.”

I distrust politicians of all kinds, but am glad to hear Warren was friendly and low-maintenance.

31. Whenever athletes retire, they always talk about missing not so much the games, but the behind-the-scenes moments. I can say it’s 100 percent the same when it comes to Nick Kypreos, Doug MacLean and John Shannon.

Doug is the biggest ballbuster alive. Every show he would gleefully tell me how terrible I was. My opinions were terrible, my facts were terrible — everything was terrible. I would always joke what a great motivator he must’ve been as a coach because I knew every time I was on the air I would be done if I didn’t perform better next time. I’ll miss that.

John’s a great teacher. When I thought I was good, he would say, “You could’ve been better, and here’s how.” When I thought I wasn’t good, he would say, “It’s not that bad, but here’s how you can fix it.”

The Nick you saw on the air is Nick off the air. Passionate, forceful, and you never knew what could happen around you. Rather than words, just watch the video below. This is Nick Kypreos. And even though this happened years ago, I still laugh my head off whenever I watch this:

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