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Nazem Kadri, Derek Stepan and other NHL RFAs find they have no upper hand

Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple LeafsNazem Kadri is learning he's not worth quite as much to the Maple Leafs as he thinks he is. (Icon SMI)

By Allan Muir

Everyone wants the upper hand in life, but as Jerry Seinfeld keenly observed, hand is tough to get.

And even when you believe you've got it, you probably don't have nearly as much as you think.

If Nazem Kadri hasn't digested that mind vitamin just yet, he will very soon. So will Jared Cowen, Cody Hodgson, Marcus Johansson, Cody Franson and the rest of this year's crop of high profile restricted free agents.

These players may be on the verge of NHL stardom, but their hopes of cashing in big on their second contracts are quickly fading. With training camps starting next week and their talks at a standstill, their unwillingness to recognize when they're beaten puts their start to the 2013-14 season in jeopardy.

The key here is timing. And unfortunately for these players, theirs is lousy.

The diminished salary cap hurts the pool of cash that teams are drawing from, and each new signing leaves an even smaller pile. There's no club that's willing to risk the draft picks and blowback that come with tendering an offer sheet. And the start of camp puts the RFAs and their demands on the back burner and allows other players a chance to step up and fill whatever holes their absences create.

It's a miserably perfect salary-depressing storm.

"We'd love to have [Cowen] in camp, but we played a lot of games without him last year," Senators GM Bryan Murray told The Ottawa Sun. "Can we replace Jared Cowen? No, we can't replace him, but we certainly have guys in the organization that want a chance to play.

"We showed last year with a lot of injuries to top, top players, we can weather the storm. That's not our choice, but we certainly have shown that whether it's Jared or with someone else, we can weather that storm."

And that right there is a strong display of hand.

Murray knows that a team that managed to make the playoffs despite losing Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Craig Anderson, among others, will get along just fine without Cowen.

Cowen has shown no interest in the eight-year, $28-million offer the Senators made last month. So now they're talking something of a shorter duration, but the payday, somewhere between $2.5 and $2.8 million per, isn't getting any bigger.

And there's no reason it should. The Sens have determined what Cowen is worth to them -- something less than the $3 million they're paying veteran Marc Methot -- and that's where they're staying. Because there's no reason for them not to.

The same is true in Buffalo, where Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons can fill in at center while Hodgson waits for the right deal. He'll get a nice raise from the $1.66 million he earned last season as the team's second-leading scorer, but he won't get term and he'll have to show a bit of patience. The Sabres have a history of playing chicken with their RFAs, waiting until camp has started before signing players like Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis in the past couple of years. And if the impasse goes longer, fine. The Sabres aren't a playoff contender, so whatever impact Hodgson's absence has on their early season success won't bite them in the end. They can afford to wait.

In Washington, the Capitals have something in the range of $2.6 million left in the kitty to appease Johansson, a player who is looking for something north of $3 million after showing great poise skating on the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps also have 12 forwards signed to one-way deals and a 13th, top prospect Tom Wilson, ready to step in. Johansson would be missed, but GM George McPhee has the assets in place to wait him out.

Kadri's case has garnered most of the attention, because, well, it involves Toronto, plus there's that sense of self-worth he's displayed that's wildly out of proportion to his brief track record of success.

It's not just that the Leafs don't have enough room under the cap to pay him the $5-6 million he thinks he deserves . . . it's that he hasn't come close to proving himself worthy of that kind of commitment. Unlike, say, Johansson or Hodgson, Kadri is a key to Toronto getting a quick start. But the money isn't there, and the sooner he recognizes that he's better served by a short-term bridge deal that allows him to cash in when the cap has been raised, the sooner he's lighting his cigars with $100 bills.

In Franson's case, the Leafs feel like they have a couple of interesting options in Paul Ranger and Morgan Rielly who might be able to step into his second line spot and chip in on the power play. And just yesterday, Niklas Hjalmarsson's new deal with the Blackhawks gave the Leafs another comparable to slice away at Franson's claims. Like Kadri, the promise is there, but hisĀ curriculum vitae is a bit too sparse. Ultimately, though, it comes down to the cap pinch. With two players to sign and less than $5 million to spend, there's only so much to go around. And the first player to sign is likely to get the biggest piece of the pie.

While that group will have to settle for whatever scraps they can find under the table, there are two RFAs who still hold some cards. In St. Louis, Alex Pietrangelo is the undeniable No. 1 defenseman and the centerpiece of the franchise. The Blues have space -- something like $7.6 million this year -- and desperately need him in the lineup if they hope to make a run at the Stanley Cup. But the playoffs are a long ways off, and the Blues can survive in the short-term by adding any one of several veteran UFA's who are available at rock bottom prices. Meanwhile, they can leverage Pietrangelo's limited experience, and his desire to get off to a good start to impress Team Canada's brass, against him.

Pietrangelo's worthy of a big-dollar, long-term commitment, but the Blues have always shied away from those deals in the past. They can afford to stick to that path if they want.

Derek Stepan of the Rangers might not be quite as vital to the success of his team as Pietrangelo is to the Blues, but he's not far off. After posting statistical improvements in each of last two seasons, it's not about potential with this young center. He's the now in the what now for this team. And after watching the Rangers sign defenseman Ryan McDonagh to a six-year, $28.2 million deal earlier this summer, Stepan can make a case he deserves that much and then some.

But the Rangers are tight on space (less than $3 million to spend this year) and have 14 forwards signed to one-way deals. They can create some room if they want to by cutting Darrell Powe and Arron Asham, but they're in no hurry. They're covered.

And if the New York Rangers can afford to wait on Derek Stepan, it's pretty clear that every team has hand when it comes to RFAs.

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