Entering last week, five notable restricted free agents — Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point, Calgary Flames left wing Matthew Tkachuk, Colorado Avalanche right wing Mikko Rantanen and Winnipeg Jets left wingers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor — remained unsigned.
With the start of the 2019-20 NHL season fast approaching, reports suggested those players weren't close to re-signing with their respective clubs. Some observers speculated negotiations could drag into the opening weeks of the schedule, drawing comparisons to William Nylander's lengthy impasse last fall with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
By week's end, however, the five were all under contract. Laine agreed to a two-year deal, Point and Tkachuk accepted three-year pacts, Rantanen signed off on a six-year term and Connor agreed to seven years.
The unusually long period to get those stars signed — as well as Toronto's Mitch Marner, Boston's Charlie McAvoy and Vancouver's Brock Boeser — raises the possibility that next summer's top RFAs could see a similar fate.
The 2020 RFA class includes New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal, New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier, Chicago Blackhawks forwards Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome, and Columbus Blue Jackets center Pierre-Luc Dubois. Other notables include Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, Boston Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk and St. Louis Blues rearguard Vince Dunn.
Barzal, the 2018 Calder Memorial Trophy winner, was the Islanders leading scorer in each of the last two seasons. Hischier, the first-overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, finished second among Devils scorers in his first two seasons.
DeBrincat and Strome formed two-thirds of a potent second line for the Blackhawks last season. Dubois finished third among Blue Jackets scorers over the last two seasons.
Like this year's training camp holdouts, the aforementioned are completing their entry-level contracts. They will be in line for significant raises, especially if they enjoy career-best performances this season.
How much they'll seek, and for how long, could clash with what their respective clubs are willing to pay.
Cap Friendly indicates the Blackhawks have over $61.8 million invested in 13 players for 2020-21. Assuming DeBrincat enjoys another 40-goal performance and Strome maintains an almost point-per-game clip like last season, it could cost a combined $14 million to get the duo under contract. That won't leave much for the Hawks to fill out the remainder of the roster.
The Blue Jackets also have over $61 million committed to 14 players. If Dubois shines as a first-line center he'll want to get paid like one. That could complicate efforts to re-sign winger Josh Anderson and goaltenders Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
The Islanders, meanwhile, have over $65 million tied up in 18 players. That's enough to re-sign Barzal but they must also ensure sufficient room to re-sign defenseman Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews, who hold arbitration rights this summer.
With over $48 million committed to a dozen players, the Devils seemingly have no worries about re-signing Hischier; however, management could try to keep his cap hit as reasonable as possible over the long term. Plentiful cap space is no assurance of quick and tidy negotiations. The Avalanche, remember, had over $16 million in salary-cap space but it took the entire training camp and preseason period to get Rantanen signed.
All of the aforementioned RFAs could be re-signed to new deals before next summer. Perhaps their respective general managers will try to avoid protracted negotiations.
But if those young players are still unsigned entering July, they could take a page from this summer's class and play the long game to get what they want.