As Labour Day Weekend comes to a close, the hockey season is right in front of us. This week, rookie camps and tournaments will start to open across the league, and next week full training camps will come together. Before you know it, we’ll see pre-season games and in just less than a month from now, the real competition begins.
Despite how close we are to the new season, some teams still have some unfinished business. There are some noteworthy and impactful restricted free agents who remain unsigned, players who didn’t have arbitration rights and, therefore, not much leverage in their negotiations. Should no deals be reached, they could with hold their services or sign in Europe.
A few players who would have been on this list signed over the long weekend. Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg signed a six-year deal for $29.4 million ($4.9-million cap hit), and Anthony Duclair signed a one-year, $1.2-million deal after a down season in 2016-17.
We should expect most or all of these guys to sign before training camps begin (or at least before Oct. 4), but their situations are worth monitoring. Here’s a look at the most noteworthy unsigned RFAs, any recent updates, and their fit with the NHL team.
DAVID PASTRNAK, BOSTON BRUINS
The 21-year-old had a huge breakout season in 2016-17, jumping from 26 points in his sophomore season to 70 in 75 games, and his 34 goals made him a top-10 goal man in the NHL.
Pastrnak was the 25th-overall pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, a real steal for the Bruins.
As far back as June 2, GM Don Sweeney said contract talks were “moving in the right direction” for Pastrnak. But the big-money deals given to RFAs Leon Draisaitl ($8.5 million) and Evgeny Kuznetsov ($7.8 million) could complicate this situation.
Earlier reports indicated that the Pastrnak camp was interested in waiting to see what Draisaitl signed for to gauge the market value. Now, signing him for $8.5 million per season may not be in the cards, but it at least opens up the possibility the team could have to pay him more than the $6.125-million cap hit going to Brad Marchand, a far more accomplished NHL player.
The other thing to consider is that Pastrnak is RFA eligible for another four seasons, so any contract that goes longer will take out some of his UFA years.
The Bruins organization has not been shy to trade away players in their early 20s before, so the longer this has gone on, the more fans have worried about the potential outcome. Sweeney told the Boston Globe the team is “not trading Pastrnak,” while Pastrnak’s agent, J.P. Barry, also had to chime in on the rumours.
“We will continue to negotiate — we still have lots of time,” Barry told the Globe. “David prefers to sign a longer-term deal with the Bruins.
“The negotiations between myself and Don have been very open and both sides understand each other’s positions. Hopefully we can agree on an overall structure that is amenable to both sides in the next month.”
Despite winning just one playoff series in the past four years, the Bruins are set up in a way to believe the window to win is still open. But most of the core of this team is ageing, so locking up a young talent like Pastrnak keeps the high production of the present and steadies the move to the future. But what is a player who has just one season over 30 points (albeit an exceptional one) worth, and should he get top dollar on a long-term deal?
Can the Bruins afford to head into camp without Pastrnak under contract?
SAM BENNETT, CALGARY FLAMES
Here’s a tricky situation. Bennett, 21, was the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 draft and although he’s shown flashes of the vast potential he came with, overall he’s had a disappointing start to his career. Everyone expected Bennett to grow from the 18-goal, 36-point season he had in 2015-16, but instead he regressed to 26 points. As such, he’s become a big question mark in Calgary’s forward unit.
Two of the three players who were drafted ahead of him have already received their big contract extension, Draisaitl in Edmonton and Aaron Ekblad in Florida ($7.5 million). But neither of them are comparables for Bennett anymore.
“We’re going to get Sam signed,” GM Brad Treliving told Eric Francis of the Calgary Herald. “Every contract is unique and takes its own course. We’re working away at it and we think Sam is going to be a good player in this organization for a long time. He’s growing and I know he’s had a good summer. We’ll keep banging away at it.”
Meanwhile, the Flames are undoubtedly making a push for the Stanley Cup and have been linked in rumours to Jaromir Jagr, who would potentially be a good fit on the top line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau (Treliving downplayed the team’s involvement with Jagr to Francis). The big question right now with Bennett is whether he can fit in that role, which would probably be the Flames’ first choice, or if he’s a third-line centre (or worse).
Based on anything said from within the organization, the Flames don’t seem to want to give up on Bennett at all and believe he can become the player they thought they drafted. Head coach Glen Gulutzan was asked recently which player he expected to improve the most in 2017-18, and Bennett was top of mind.
“Sam Bennett,” Gulutzan said. “You look at the maturation of these players, and he’s had a good summer. I’ve talked to him a couple of times. So I think that’s the young guy that if I want a big leap, I’d pick him.”
At this point, Bennett seems like a candidate to come in at around $2-3 million per season based on his NHL production to date. But while he’d likely want to sign a long-term deal like all the top young players do, there’s no way he’s earned the kind of money he’d need to agree on such a contract.
This looks like a short-term “show me” contract situation. Bennett’s value in the trade market isn’t very high and all based on a potential player we’ve only seen in short bursts so far.
BO HORVAT, VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Here’s a deal that looks like it could happen some point soon.
“It’s going well,” Canucks GM Jim Benning said on The Starting Lineup on Sportsnet 650 Vancouver. “Hopefully we can get it done here in the next week.”
The ninth-overall pick in 2013, Horvat led the Canucks with 52 points last season for his breakout year, and the belief is there’s more production to come for the 22-year-old. He’s the leader of Vancouver’s rebuild as they move towards a younger core, and with approximately $5.375 million in cap space currently, the Canucks have the room to get it done.
The only remaining question is whether or not he signs a long-term deal with the team. He told Sportsnet’s Luke Fox earlier this summer that he thinks he’s deserving of that kind of comittment.
“Yeah, I do,” Horvat said. “I’ve proven myself. I’ve taken my game to another level this year.”
ANDREAS ATHANASIOU, DETROIT RED WINGS
At 23 years old, when you take a quick glance at Athanasiou’s stat line and see 18 goals and just 29 points, you may wonder what the big deal is here. But this player is one of those analytics darlings who still has some untapped offensive upside that could come out with a bigger role and more minutes.
A fourth-rounder in 2012, if anything, the Red Wings need him because they lack some real pop from young players as the team continues to trend down and away from playoff contention. Whether or not you believe in Athanasiou, he is a lottery ticket with some numbers revealed. He’s fast, he loves to shoot and he’s smooth handling the puck.
Rumours have now started that Athanasiou has an offer to play in the KHL this season, which he is considering.
Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press updated the situation on Tuesday:
The odds look more and more like Andreas Athanasiou will leave the Detroit Red Wings for Russia.
Darren Ferris, Athanasiou’s agent, told the Press today that “because of the huge disparity, the KHL has moved to more of a probability at this time.”
Athanasiou is believed to have an offer of one year at $3 million from AK Bars Kazan. The Wings fattened an initial offer of one year at $1.25 to two years at $1.9 million per year.
The Wings are currently over the salary cap, but that should come down a bit after training camp and when Johan Franzen is placed on LTIR. But they are still a team tight against the ceiling, which could at least partially explain what the hold up is here. The KHL is known as a league that can throw around a lot of money in its offers, and this season it can also offer the chance for players like Athanasiou, a London, Ont., native, to play in the Olympics.
Detroit also only played Athanasiou an average of 13:27 per game last season, one of the lower marks for a full-time player, so while some in the hockey community are excited about Athanasiou, the Wings may not be ready to lock in a player they use that little.
NIKITA ZADOROV, COLORADO AVALANCHE
The Avalanche need to do just about anything to avoid the kind of awful season they had last year. But there remains a real weakness on the blue line, which lacks depth in NHL experience. So re-signing a 22-year-old defenceman who can play 19-plus minutes a night, and who was a key piece of the trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo in 2015, should be a priority, right?
With $11.6 million in cap space and only three NHL blue-liners under contract, it’s almost unbelievable that Colorado would let $500,000 separate them from signing Zadorov before camp. The KHL is a real threat here, too, and if he did go to Russia’s league then Colorado would only be left with J.T. Compher from the O’Reilly trade. Not to mention an even bigger problem with filling out the blue line come October.