Contracts for top restricted free agents rising as NHL GMs dither
Brad Treliving is in an interesting spot.
By dithering in negotiations with restricted free agents Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, the general manager of the Calgary Flames has allowed other teams to set the market by signing their own RFAs to long-term deals.
On Friday, Winnipeg inked cornerstone center Mark Scheifele to an eight-year, $49 million deal ($6.125 million average annual value). Not long after, the Avalanche followed suit, agreeing to a seven-year, $44.1 million deal with center Nathan MacKinnon ($6.3 million AAV).
These are generous numbers to hand over to two players who coming out of their entry level contracts, especially with a more affordable short-term bridge option in the mix. But that doesn't mean these are bad deals. In fact, given what both players have produced to this point, and how they project, these contracts could look like bargains for their teams in just a year or two.
Scheifele, the seventh pick in the 2011 draft, is the surest bet. The 23-year-old has 227 NHL games on his resumé, scoring 58 goals and 145 points. He emerged as a possession-driving top center while filling in for the injured Brian Little this season. If any young player deserves a long-term commitment, it's Scheifele. It's not hard to picture him sliding into the No. 1 role full-time for the Jets in 2016-17.
MacKinnon has posted similar numbers (59-94-153) in 218 career games, but has struggled with injuries, finishing each of the past two season on IR. He missed the final 10 games this year with a knee injury, and wound up with just 21 goals in 72 games. More was expected of the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, but this deal illustrates Colorado's faith that he can become a consistent 30-goal, 80-point producer and possession driver on the top line.
The key to his deal is that MacKinnon three years younger than Scheifele. Being equally accomplished at that age, at least in terms of raw numbers, not only earned him slightly more money on the AAV, but it also allowed him to set the deal up so that he'll become an unrestricted free agent at 27, three years earlier than Scheifele.
Both of those contracts will now have a direct influence on what Treliving has to pay Monahan. The 21-year-old center has posted superior numbers to both players, scoring 80 goals and 159 points in 237 games with the Flames. That goal total is an eye-catcher. That's more than anyone drafted since 2012 has put up—not bad for someone was taken in 2013. Monahan's also proved himself to be more reliable defensively, which is critical on a team that struggled in its own end last season.
A long-term deal with an AAV upwards of $6 million now seems like a safe bet, although there's another factor in play: the Gaudreau contract.
In just two years, flashy winger has established himself as one of the top young forwards in the game ... and he's about to be paid like one. Given his importance to the franchise, he can pretty much write his own check. On his own merits, the best comparable is probably the eight-year, $60-million extension that Vladimir Tarasenko signed with the Blues last season. Tarasenko, 23, earned it by scoring 66 goals and 135 points in 179 career games. Gaudreau has 52 goals and 136 points in 153 games and is coming off a season in which he finished sixth in the NHL scoring race, contributing to one out of every three goals his team scored. And he won't turn 23 until next month.
The trick for Treliving will be keeping both players happy while trying to ensure there's enough money down the road to keep the Flames' young core intact. To do that, he might have to overpay Monahan, while convincing the superior Gaudreau to take one for the team.
The best option? Treat them like a package deal the way the Blackhawks did Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Both were rewarded with identical eight-year, $84 million contracts that recognized their mutual value to the club. It was a smart move for Chicago, and it's the smart play here for Calgary. Best-case? Something like eight years and $56 million for each of them.
Treliving's not the only one trying to re-work his math in the face of an escalating market. St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong also has an eye on the recent deals as he pitches Jaden Schwartz on a new contract. The 24-year-old is coming off an injury-shortened regular season, but he posted 14 points in 20 playoff games and has similar career numbers to Monahan, MacKinnon and Scheifele (74 goals and 157 points in 157 games).
The Blues might like to use the deals signed by Kyle Palmieri (four years with a $4.65 million AAV) and Vince Trocheck (six years, $4.75 million AAV), and given the underlying numbers, those would be fair comparables. But Schwartz has one factor working for him that those two didn't: timing. His value to the Blues was significantly enhanced by the departures of free agent forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer, and that could move him out of the $5 million range into MacKinnon/Scheifele money.
Those deals could inflate the price for Washington's Marcus Johansson as well. The 25-year-old is coming off a season in which he scored 17 goals and 46 points in 74 games. He's not a primary scorer the way those players are; in fact, he appears to have pleateaued as a sub-50-point support forward. Still, with the market heating up, it might take something in the neighborhood of Trocheck's deal (say, five years, $22.5 million) to get it done.
The only certainty here is that prices are only going to rise. The sooner each of these managers takes care of business, the more room he's likely to save himself under the cap.