NHL Column: The RFA game 

Mitch Marner just finalized his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs after holding out. He is a perfect example of how the free agent mark works with many players waiting for better contracts.  Photo from The Associated Press.

Mitch Marner just finalized his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs after holding out. He is a perfect example of how the free agent mark works with many players waiting for better contracts. Photo from The Associated Press.

Training camp is underway, yet many of the game’s best young stars remain without contracts. Others, such as Charlie McAvoy and Mitch Marner, finally inked deals this past week.  

With the game getting younger, a greater focus is being put on the restricted free agent market. In the NHL, players are bound to their original franchise until they turn 27 or accumulate seven years in the league. But in today’s game, players are reaching elite status and becoming core pieces of their franchises well before they can become unrestricted free agents.  

The trend created a commonplace of painful stalemates every summer. On one hand, the team has leverage in retaining player rights. In order for outside teams to sign restricted free agents, they must relinquish valuable draft picks. In the past, this provided teams with the ability to underpay young players. But as the league’s youth have transformed into the sports’ biggest stars, this power evaporated.  

Opposing teams have become more courageous, willing to give up the necessary draft picks to offer an RFA. In accordance with this, players are more comfortable holding out until they get the contract that they feel they deserve. Last year, Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward William Nylander waited until November to re-sign. Likely fearing deja vu this year, Toronto did not allow the contract saga with winger Marner to drag into the season. He signed a six year deal with an average annual value of $10.9 million.  

Certainly deserved, Marner’s contract was a huge player win, proving that young stars are going to get the money they deserve going forward. It appears general managers across the league are realizing the league-wide trend of young talent. This summer, the league saw fewer unrestricted free agents get overpaid. The change could signal a coming of bigger contracts for young stars and less money for washed-up veterans.  

Mikko Rantenen is one of the many remaining free agents who have yet to sign a contract with their team.  Photo from The Associated Press.

Mikko Rantenen is one of the many remaining free agents who have yet to sign a contract with their team. Photo from The Associated Press.

But for teams looking to compete for a Stanley Cup, being able to retain top young talent at a low value for as long as possible can be crucial to creating a championship contender. Once these young stars start getting raises, it becomes more difficult for general managers to deepen their squads. This dilemma could press the Maple Leafs in upcoming years as they have already blown past the cap despite having few defensive pieces locked down long term.  

As they watched Marner get paid this past week, remaining RFAs including Patrik Laine, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Mikko Rantanen and Matthew Tkachuk are unlikely to budge on their asking price. As such integral components of their respective rosters, they hold more leverage than the teams do.  

Of course, the itch to get on the ice with their teammates could always cause them to take less than they want. Unlike Marner’s deal, McAvoy’s was much more team friendly at $4.9 million per year for the next three seasons.  

Boston and Toronto’s contrasting outcomes is telling of the state of each franchise. Boston, while still hungry to win after losing last year’s cup final, got a reasonable deal that works for both the team and McAvoy. Toronto’s deal with Marner feels much more like they gave into the demands of the player. It presents both their desperation to find playoff success, and also their fear of an impatient fanbase.  


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu