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One by one, the dominoes appear to be falling.
All it took was one.
Days after Mitch Marner re-signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs last Friday, Vancouver’s Brock Boeser, along with Boston’s Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, all agreed to terms with their respective teams. Now that the market has been set, the expectation is that it’s only a matter of time before even more restricted free agents come off the board.
So who’s next: Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk? Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen? Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point? Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine or Kyle Connor?
Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer — or a news conference for that matter. It appears that some dominoes are cemented into the ground.
“Not even close,” player agent Mike Liut, who represents Laine and Rantanen, told Postmedia in a phone interview on Tuesday morning. “Part of that is there isn’t anything to say. You hold your convictions. That’s part of the negotiations. At some point everybody has to do what’s agreeable and you come to an agreement. You try to get it done as soon as possible, but we’ll see the way it goes.”
If Marner’s six-year, $65 million deal and the two- to three-year contracts that Boeser, McAvoy and Carlo each signed showed us anything, it was that not all restricted free agents — even the ones that you would suggest are superstars in the making — are viewed the same.
Some have a proven track records built on playing at a superstar-like level in the league for the past three years. Others have shown signs of stardom, but haven’t even played 150 games yet. And some, while extremely talented, are still skating around with question marks floating above their heads.
That’s the difference between a short-term “show-me” deal and a long-term commitment. According to Liut, it’s a difference that the player and the team don’t always agree upon.
“When a player signs for a longer length of time, they’re making a bet that they’ll continue to perform at that level,” Liut said. “You know some of those years are going to be clunker years. But at the end of the day, if you’ve committed money to players who are motivated and good athletes it’s generally a good deal. A bridge deal is one where you’re not sure.”
The Leafs were as sure about Marner, who signed a six-year deal worth $65.358 million last Friday, as they had been with Matthews, who signed a five-year, $58 million contract in February.
Marner had played three full seasons in the NHL, having improved from 61 points as a rookie to 69 points in his second year to 94 points last season. There were no surprises.
Contrast that with McAvoy and Boeser, who burned a year of their entry-level contract by either appearing in the playoffs as a rookie or in the final nine games of the regular season. Because of injuries, McAvoy had played 117 games and Boeser had played in 140 games. That’s a snapshot.
Most hockey fans who had seen McAvoy in the playoffs last year would probably agree that he is a No. 1 defenceman who could reasonably win a Norris Trophy in the coming years. As for Boeser, this is a player who when healthy has averaged .42 goals per game. Then again, staying healthy has been a problem.
With Laine and Rantanen, the arguments are different but somewhat similar.
The Jets still aren’t sure what Laine is or what he will be. He scored 36 goals in 73 games as a rookie and then finished second in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 44 goals, before slumping to just 30 goals and 50 points last season.
Rantanen, meanwhile, was a 38-point scorer as a rookie before a promotion to Nathan MacKinnon’s line resulted in him putting together 84- and 87-point seasons. The question is whether MacKinnon turned him into a point-per-game player or whether the opposite was true.
That’s the holdup. That’s the reason why a deal — whether it’s a long-term one like Marner’s or a bridge contract like Boeser’s or McAvoy’s — hasn’t been done.
In an ideal world, you’d like to wait another season before deciding. But that comes with risks as well, since a monster season could further drive up the price on a player who the jury isn’t sure about.
“We know what they are. We knew it immediately,” Liut said of Laine and Rantanen, who are both planning to skate with SC Bern in Switzerland while negotiations continue. “You can pick lint off a very expensive suit. It’s still an expensive suit. (Laine) has scored 110 goals. I know that it wasn’t a good year last year. But he still scored 30 goals. Goals matter. He scores goals that other people can’t. That’s just a fact. That matters.”
As for Rantanen, Liut added: “There’s no surprise here. This is a player that drives the play like Marner. It’s a rare skill as a winger. With MacKinnon, it’s all about compatibility and being able to read off each other. Not everyone can do that. It’s no different than (Connor) McDavid playing with Leon Draisaitl.”
It’s interesting that Liut mentions Draisaitl, who also happens to be his client. It was two years ago that Edmonton re-signed Draisaitl to an eight-year contract worth $68 million. It was a massive investment, the kind that we aren’t really seeing anymore.
Part of that is that the team isn’t sure about what the future holds for the player. But it’s not just the team that’s concerned about what things will look like years from now. The player wants an exit strategy as well, which means the onus of that “show-me” bridge deal is not as much on the player anymore.
“It gives them the flexibility of saying management made a couple of left turns here and all of a sudden we’re not so good anymore and I have an option to leave,” said Liut. “Players have control. That five or six seems to be a reasonable saw off.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019