TORONTO – One by one, eventually, they all cave.
It’s their only option.
So they swallow a small lump of pride, funnel any residual frustration through the blades of their sticks and skates, and force their employer to fork over a monster raise two or three years down the road.
P.K. Subban, Nikita Kucherov, Braden Holtby… even the elite at every position have done it.
It matters little, then, that Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey, a top-four defenceman on a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, or Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart, a two-time 23-goal scorer, will provide more much value to their organizations over the next two seasons than their new annual average salaries (both over $3 million but below $4 million) indicate.
Players want to play, need to play. And those whose contractual tussles keep them in limbo, or out of the continent, open up slivers of opportunity for the guys who out to steal jobs.
Fair compensation only becomes relevant when you’re purchasing UFA years.
The unsigned William Nylander has already sat out one week and counting of Toronto Maple Leafs training camp. Wednesday in Ottawa, he’ll miss the first pre-season game he would have played alongside star centre Auston Matthews and his new/old wingmate Patrick Marleau.
Into Nylander’s place, temporarily but indefinitely, slides free-agent pickup Tyler Ennis, happy to sign a one-year deal at $650,000.
How difficult will it be for Nylander, busy training in Sweden, to catch up when the waiting game gets tired and an agreement does get reached between player agent Lewis Gross and patience-preaching Leafs GM Kyle Dubas?
“It’s just harder. I don’t care what workout you’re doing. These guys are getting better every day,” coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday.
“You’re at rink somewhere or your own, or maybe with one or two other people. You’re not doing this. That makes it harder for you.”
One man’s lack of presence is another man’s gift.
Make no mistake, the small and speedy Ennis, 28, is a top-six placeholder and could become a Marlie once Nylander picks up his pen. But after fizzling out in Minnesota, the former 20-goal guy is making the most of his opportunity on Matthews’ right side.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Ennis said ahead of his unofficial Leafs debut. “Very exciting. I’m in a good situation.
“I got to know Auston well. Forming chemistry is key.”
In attitude and work ethic, Ennis has made it a mission to fit into his new club and third different sweater over the past three Septembers. Being traded by Buffalo, then scratched in the playoffs by the Wild and subsequently bought out has left a chip on his shoulder.
“Absolutely,” Matthews said. “Just talking with him — I’ve been spending a lot of time with him off the ice — he seems like a very driven person. The last couple years maybe didn’t go the way he wanted. Coming here, he wants to earn his way on this team, and he’s been very motivated.”
Mitch Marner, too, has been part of those dinners among teammates and has been impressed by Ennis’s energy.
“Seeing him out on the ice here, you can see that confidence in him. You can see that step. He knows how good he is,” Marner said.
“The opportunity he’s got right now, he’s going to definitely take full advantage of that. He’s very good at finding open holes, and he’s got a great shot.”
Never missing a chance to douse lighter fluid on the fires of internal competition, Babcock says Nylander’s stalemate has given right-wingers Ennis and Josh Leivo greater exposure than they’d have otherwise.
“Matty came back and he’s skating at a whole different level. Patty came back and he’s right there for the fitness test. Obviously, we expected Willy to be here, and that would’ve made a difference,” Babcock said.
“But hockey’s a business, and he’s got representatives, and Kyle and them will work things out, and he’ll eventually find his way back here.”
Matthews is a star who aims for them. He’s wise enough to not put a ton of stock into exhibition games, with their sloppy appearances and meaningless outcomes. But the centre does believe it’s important to find rhythm with your wingers’ tendencies and reacclimate yourself to the pace of NHL game action.
“Each and every practice, scrimmages and that, we’ve been able to feel each other out more and more,” said Matthews of Ennis and Marleau. “Hopefully we can just get better, so tonight’s going to be a good start for us.”
Tonight also signals another soft deadline missed as a result of the gap between Nylander’s request and Dubas’s ideal budget plan. Opening day of camp? Missed. First pre-season game? Missed.
“I don’t really know everything that’s going on,” Matthews said. “You just kinda hope it gets done soon, and I know he wants to be here as much as we want him here. So I’m sure it’ll get figured out soon.”
Opening night of the real show is only two weeks away, and although both sides ultimately prefer a long-term commitment, Nylander might have to settle the way so many other RFAs without arbitration rights have before him.
Thoughtful defenceman Connor Carrick said Nylander’s empty stall isn’t discussed much among his teammates.
“I’m sure he’s skating. He’s always been a guy who takes pride in his own preparation. He has his own way of doing things,” Carrick assured.
“Could skipping a big chunk of training camp hurt Nylander’s year?” we wonder. “Or do those of us on the outside make too much of the gelling that takes place in pre-season?”
Carrick suspects Nylander’s absence could affect the Matthews line or the power-play unit or hinder some of the coaching staff’s prep work, but it doesn’t drastically impact the group at large, most of whom are intent on carving out their own niche.
Eighty-two games is a long haul. There’s plenty of runway to find your groove.
“Certain guys are famous for showing up, they haven’t unzipped their bag all summer. Day 1: ‘Hey, guys, wassup?’ And they’re spectacular,” Carrick explained. “Other guys need a lot more work. Maybe they’re not as natural.”
From what we’ve learned about Nylander over the past three years, we feel safe edging him to the natural side of the scale. Unzip and fly.
“Is it as big a deal? I’m not sure,” Carrick said. “You’d have to ask Willy.
“I’m sure he’s well aware of the risk you run staying out of camp. At the end of day, as a player, what’s the most fun is being really good at your craft. I’m sure on his end, that’s an element in his daily decision-making in terms of what he wants to do and how immediately.”
And so we wait.