Late RFA signings: Analyzing recent cases and how players performed

NHL insider Renaud Lavoie joins the Jeff Blair Show to discuss William Nylander's contract situation, saying there's a good chance that the talented winger doesn't finish his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

We’re now less than two weeks away from a new NHL season and four RFAs remain unsigned. Don’t call these players holdouts, though — they are without a contract, exercising their right to negotiate and using the little leverage they have.

William Nylander is the biggest name still without a deal, though Shea Theodore stands to hold a top-pair spot on the Vegas blue line, and since they are already without Nate Schmidt for 20 games Theodore’s absence is perhaps the bigger blow to the roster.

It’s not unusual for players to miss a part of training camp while negotiating a new deal, but it’s less common for these to carry into the regular season. It does happen though.

How do these players typically do in seasons where they miss most of training camp, or all of it, and don’t sign until after the season starts? Is it true they tend to struggle out of the gate, or overall? And how often do these players end up getting traded away?

Here are some recent, notable examples.

MISSED START OF REGULAR SEASON

Ryan O’Reilly: Signed Feb. 28, 2013
The skinny: Coming off his entry-level contract and a career-best (at the time) 55-point season, O’Reilly wanted to get paid big bucks. The Colorado Avalanche, meanwhile, didn’t want to hand out an inflated deal and throw off the cap balance of a young and budding team.

Usually RFAs have a Dec. 1 deadline to sign or are ineligible to play that NHL season. But given this was a lockout-shortened slate, that cut-off wasn’t in place. Still, it took an ill-informed Calgary Flames offer sheet to budge the Avs and O’Reilly off their staredown. The Avalanche matched the two-year, $10-million offer sheet, which inflated O’Reilly’s price when the two sides again had to come to terms in the summer of 2014.

This situation soured the relationship between the two sides and likely made it inevitable that O’Reilly would leave Colorado, and the team traded him in 2015.

The interesting point here was that had the Flames been successful with their offer sheet, they would have given Colorado first- and third-round picks as compensation. But because O’Reilly had played a couple of KHL games after the NHL season had started, he would have been subject to waivers before becoming a Flame, so Calgary nearly made a huge mistake, where it would have been charged the compensation, while facing the likelihood another team claimed him for nothing.

How O’Reilly performed: Following his career season, O’Reilly actually improved from a points-per-game perspective, rising to .689 per game from .679. His role was mildly scaled back, however; O’Reilly went from being the most-used Avalanche forward with an average time on ice of 19:32 per game in 2011-12 to 18:30 in 2013 that ranked fifth among Colorado forwards.

P.K. Subban: Signed Jan. 28, 2013
The skinny: The crux of this disagreement was around term. The Habs wanted to get Subban signed to a bridge deal, while the defenceman and his agent were eyeing a long-term contract. From Subban’s side, the comparison at the time was Jamie Benn, who had signed a five-year deal with Dallas that came with a $5.25-million cap hit.

This is a great example of how a bridge deal can present so much risk to a team’s future cap outlook. Had Subban got his way, the Habs could have had him under contract at that price through the 2016-17 season. But because he performed so well over two years, Subban was in position to ask for a vast sum of money in 2014. The two sides went to arbitration in 2014, but were able to come to terms on a long-term extension before a ruling came down: eight years and a $9-million cap hit.

After two more seasons, Subban was traded to Nashville for Shea Weber.

How Subban performed: Not every RFA who missed camp or even a part of the regular season underperforms upon return. Subban only missed a couple of games at the start of the lockout-shortened 2013 season and ended up playing 42 of the 48. He tied for the defencemen scoring lead at 38 points and won the Norris Trophy.

Pinder and Steinberg
Chris Johnston talks William Nylander's contract,remaining RFA's and the China Games
September 18 2018

Jacob Trouba: Signed Nov. 7, 2016
The skinny: After requesting a trade out of Winnipeg in May of 2016, Trouba was slow to come to terms with the Jets, who had little intention of moving him. Trouba was getting close to the Dec. 1 cutoff date — had he not signed by then, he would have been ineligible for NHL games in 2016-17.

A day after signing his two-year bridge contract and returning to the dressing room, Trouba rescinded his trade request, which put that storyline and distraction to bed for the time being. It’s followed him behind the scenes ever since, though. The contract expired this past summer, and rather than sign a long-term deal to stay in place, the defenceman went to arbitration and was awarded a one-year, $5.5-million contract.

He’s eligible to go through the same process again next summer, and then becomes UFA eligible in the summer of 2020. When discussing who is the most likely Jet to be traded ahead of next season’s cap crunch, Trouba’s name tops the list.

How Trouba performed: The main sticking point for Trouba was that he wanted top-four minutes on the right side, but Tyler Myers and Dustin Byfuglien were the right-shot veterans taking up those minutes. He ended up getting his wish almost immediately, but not exactly in the way he wanted.

Myers was injured on Nov. 11 and missed the rest of the season, which bumped Trouba to the right side and his average ice time per game jumped to 24:58. He hasn’t looked back since.

Points-wise, 2016-17 turned out to be Trouba’s best to date with eight goals and 33 assists in 60 games for a 0.55 points-per-game rate.

Hampus Lindholm: Signed Oct. 27, 2016
The skinny: Though he was a sixth-overall pick, Lindholm often flies under the radar when it comes to the best young defencemen in the game today. But through the first three years of his NHL career, the Ducks scored 59.27 per cent of the 5-on-5 goals when Lindholm was on the ice, which was a higher mark than any other defenceman with at least 3,000 minutes played. Lindholm was also 18th in CF% over this time. He’s always been a possession monster.

The sticking point here, really, was cap space. The Ducks were right up against it — they actually went a little more than $1 million over the cap when Lindholm signed — and faced comparables to Seth Jones ($5.4 million) and Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.4 million) when trying to come to terms with Lindholm off his entry-level deal. Ristolainen signed his deal one day before the start of the 2016-17 season, and the Ducks defenders ended up signing for a $5.205 million AAV.

Since he still needed to get a work visa after signing, Lindholm didn’t get into game action until Nov. 9, at which point the Ducks were 6-5-2. Anaheim went 40-18-11 the rest of the way — we’re not saying it was all due to Lindholm, but he was a huge factor.

How Lindholm performed: Points-wise, 2016-17 was the worst output of his career with 20 points in 66 games and a .303 per-game rate. But, as has been the case each and every season, his average time on ice rose from the year prior and his possession numbers remained strong: Lindholm was 18th in GF% and 11th in GF%. He remains one of the quietest, yet sturdiest defenders in the NHL.

Andreas Athanasiou: Signed Oct. 23, 2017
The skinny: Athanasiou and his agent passed up various offers over the summer, but wasn’t able to settle and missed the first six games of the regular season, over which time the Red Wings were winless. The problem here largely had to do with role on the team. Athanasiou believed he had earned more than 13:28 of ice time per game, and an increased special-teams presence.

Without arbitration rights, this dragged on before the two sides finally agreed to a one-year, $1.387-million deal.

How Athanasiou performed: His average ice time increased by nearly two minutes per game, with his power-play minutes only marginally rising. He scored 16 goals and 33 points, which was a small increase on his output from the previous season.This past summer he signed a two-year extension that counts for $3 million against the cap and starts this season.

MISSED TRAINING CAMP

Ryan Johansen: Signed Oct. 6, 2014
The skinny: Coming off his entry-level deal, Johansen was seeking a large raise, initially as high as $6.5 million per year. He had combined for 33 points in his first two seasons before breaking out with a 33-goal, 63-point contract year and tried to cash in big. As is his right.

At the time, the ask would have made Johansen the highest-paid player coming off his ELC, and some other agents around the league thought the player’s side was “mishandling” the negotiation. Two days before the start of the season, he signed a three-year deal that came with a $4-million cap hit. He didn’t make it through that contract before Columbus traded him to Nashville for Seth Jones.

How Johansen performed: Although he hasn’t hit the 30-goal mark since his third season (he took 237 shots that season, and has reached 200 only once since), when Johansen’s drawn out contract negotiation finally ended he took off on a career season. He scored 26 goals and 71 points, but has mostly settled in as a playmaking, 60-point player since.

Johnny Gaudreau: Signed Oct. 10, 2016
The skinny: Coming off his entry-level deal, Gaudreau was looking for a hefty raise, and why not? He just had a 30-goal, 78-point season that made him a top-six scorer in the league. Teammate Sean Monahan signed a seven-year extension of his own in August that came with a $6.375-million cap hit and since Gaudreau outscored his centre both seasons they played together, he reasonably expected a higher AAV. He got it, signing a six-year, $40.5-million deal two days before the start of the regular season.

How Gaudreau performed: The 2016-17 season was easily Gaudreau’s worst to date, even though he still managed to lead the Flames in scoring. This remains the only season in which Gaudreau failed to reach the 20-goal mark and he only scored twice in his first 14 games. His 61 points ranked 35th in the league — a far tumble from the high-end producers he was surrounded by the season prior.

Rasmus Ristolainen: Signed Oct. 11, 2016
The skinny: In the final year of his ELC, Ristolainen became the No. 1 defenceman in Buffalo, averaging 25:17 per game, which was the 10th-highest rate league-wide. His point total more than doubled, too, rising from 20 to 41 from his second to third season.

The difference between Ristolainen and these other holdouts is that while he sat out pre-season games, he did practise with the Sabres and took part in team meetings. So he wasn’t completely away from them. One day before the start of the season he signed a six-year deal with a $5.4-million AAV that was comparable to other young No. 1s like Morgan Rielly, Jones and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

How Ristolainen played: Still just 22 years old, Ristolainen’s average minutes rose to 26:28, which was fifth league-wide. He had a career year points-wise, too, posting 45 in 79 games.

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