Five NHL teams plagued by RFA dramas as training camp looms
When you've got Blue Jackets president John Davidson accusing agent Kurt Overhardt of "extortion," it's no wonder that the Ryan Johansen contract kerfuffle is grabbing all the headlines.
But the Columbus sniper is hardly the only unsigned player at odds with his team. And with training camps opening in a matter of hours, it's likely that Ryno won't be the lone star left sitting at home when his teammates take the ice on Friday.
Consider Minnesota, where Wild beat writer Mike Russo reported late on Tuesday night that Josh Harding, the team's presumptive starting goalie, suffered an off-ice ankle injury that has him on crutches and puts the start of his season in question. (Update: According to Russo's latest report, Harding actually broke his foot when he kicked a wall after an altercation with a teammate.)
Harding is expected to be out for two to three months, missed time that will be tough to swallow for this hard-luck keeper. Harding got off to a brilliant start last season, leading the NHL with a 1.65 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage, but missed the second half while struggling with side effects from a new medication that he was taking to deal with his multiple sclerosis. He got his health back in order over the summer and was set to reclaim his role as the Wild's No. 1 before his latest setback.
The injury is bad, but the timing is worse for Chuck Fletcher. Minnesota's GM was using the readiness of veterans Harding and Niklas Backstrom to play contract hardball with restricted free agent Darcy Kuemper. The 24-year-old goalie's bid for a one-year, one-way contract had gotten little traction and he seemed destined to fold. Now, the uncertainty surrounding Harding's situation could force Fletcher to bend to Kuemper's demands.
Fletcher does have options—Ilya Bryzgalov, for one. The mercurial Russian got his game in order after joining the Wild at the deadline last season, going 7-1-3 with a 2.12 GAA and a .911 save percentage to help Minnesota secure a playoff berth. But as nice as it is for Fletcher to have that bullet—or Martin Brodeur or Tim Thomas or Tomas Vokoun—Bryzgalov and the other veterans don't make a whole lot of sense for the organization since they would command at least the same one-year, one-way deal, but at a higher annual salary than the $850,000 Kuemper reportedly is seeking.
Kuemper had no leverage before. Now, depending on the results of Harding's examination on Wednesday, he could have a lot. He could be signed to the exact deal he wants in time for the start of camp.
The sides have agreed that a two-year bridge deal is the way to go, but they're still far apart in terms of compensation. Schwartz can make a decent case for himself. He ranked third on the team in goals last season (25) and fourth in points (56). He led St. Louis with a +28 rating and was effective in all three zones. The Blues would counter that Schwartz has played only 132 NHL games, a sample that is too small to justify a hefty raise. It's easy to see the merit in both arguments.
But there are two other issues at play here. First, St. Louis is tight under the salary cap, with just $2.7 million worth of space. Barring a trade—an option GM Doug Armstrong is disinclined to pursue—there's not enough room to meet Schwartz's demands and leave the team with space left over in case of an emergency. Second, the Blues are loaded up front. They already have 12 forwards on one-way deals, to go along with job-seeking prospects Jori Lehtera, Dmitrij Jaskin, Ty Rattie and Peter Holland. Sure, St. Louis would miss Schwartz's production, but it's not like his absence would leave a huge hole.
Schwartz is a terrific player and a big part of the team's future, but the Blues hold all the cards right now. A resolution depends on him coming to terms with that fact. It seems likely, if not certain, that he'll miss the opening of camp, and there's some chance that his absence could stretch deep into September. But at least there's a cordial tone to the negotiations, which suggests that the chance of the season opening without Schwartz in uniform is close to nil.
That's certainly not the case in Nashville, where the Predators' talks with Ryan Ellis are dead in the water. The free agent got into 80 games in the final year of his entry-level deal, and had 27 points to rank third among the team's defensemen despite the fact that he averaged just 16:04 of ice time. That disparity highlights the stumbling point in these negotiations. Ellis wasn't trusted by the coaching staff to play significant minutes at five-on-five, but he found a way to contribute with time on Nashville's second power-play unit. That point production has real value to a team that averaged just 2.61 goals per game last season, but until he proves himself dependable at even strength, the Preds will be in no hurry to over commit.
The two-year $5.2 million deal signed recently by the Avalanche's Tyson Barrie provides a decent framework, but Nashville isn't likely to approach that amount even if they truly believed that Ellis, a former first-rounder, had a big upside. If this stalemate drags deep into camp, it's as plausible that Ellis will be dealt as it is that he will be signed.
The situation in Boston where entry-level free agents Reilly Smith and Torey Krug have been consigned to the back burner while GM Peter Chiarelli sorts out his cap issues, seems no closer to resolution. It's clear that the Bruins need to make a deal to create space, but the fact that they haven't yet suggests that Chiarelli doesn't like the returns being offered—or that hasn't yet decided which player to trade. Speculation has surrounded veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk, but his value to a team with Stanley Cup aspirations is significant. It's possible that Chiarelli could look instead at moving a forward such as Brad Marchand, Loui Eriksson or even Smith. That would seem counterintuitive—the B's have depth on the blue line and are short some talent up front—but it all comes down to maximizing assets. If there's more value to be had from moving a scorer while creating room for a prospect like Ryan Spooner or Alex Khokhlachev, that could be the way Boston creates the space it needs.
But other teams know that they have Chiarelli over a barrel and they're not inclined to make his life any easier. It's all but certain then that Smith and Krug will miss the start of camp.