Wednesday, 25 September 2019

The Bill Comes Due

If there's one thing that proves that players and player agents are getting smarter about the rules in the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, it's being shown in the negotiations that are happening between restricted free agents and NHL teams. Specifically, the bridge deals that are being signed by the players recently show a savvy that we haven't seen from these younger players. Agents are smart people and they deserve some credit in figuring out how to get their clients back on the ice for maximum dollars, but these agents have also figured out how to essentially turn a shorter contract into a longer one through intelligent negotiations.

There are a number of players who have followed a model where they take less upfront and save the big payday for the final year of the contract. The length of the contract is usually ends within the restricted free agency years, meaning that teams would be forced to offer a qualifying offer to those young stars in order to retain their services and negotiate further with them. If an NHL team does not offer the player a qualifying offer, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and can sign with any other NHL team.

Clearly, the qualifying offer is an important tool for NHL teams to use when trying to retain this young talent. And this is where agents and players have worked to structure contracts that make them far more lucrative than what they may have received has they followed a normal contract structure.

The first surprise of the RFA market came way back on July 1 when the San Jose Sharks - thought to be tight against the salary cap - inked young star Timo Meier to a four-year deal worth $24 million. The final year of that contract sees Meier miss UFA status by a full year, meaning that San Jose would have to offer a qualifying offer to Meier upon the completion of the contract in order to retain his services and negotiate another contract.

At first glance, it looks like Meier and his agent may have made an error in negotiating this deal, but it seems they laid the groundwork for every other restricted free agent who wants to maximize the payout he receives prior to entering UFA status. In negotiating this contract to end one year from Meier's UFA status, Meier allowed the Sharks to put off paying a potential higher average salary overall by backloading the final year of his deal. Of the $24 million he'll receive over the four years, $10 million come in the last year. And that appears to be the key to all of these RFA contracts that have been handed out.

Meier essentially guaranteed himself a qualifying offer from the San Jose Sharks at $10 million in order for them to keep him as the CBA states that the qualifying offer made by the team must be equal to salary in the final year of a player's contract. If San Jose doesn't offer a qualifying offer, he becomes an unrestricted free agent one year earlier than anticipated and can seek another lucrative contract from another team. If Meier takes the qualifying offer - which seems elementary at $10 million for the season - he'll become an unrestricted free agent the following summer. There is almost zero risk in this deal for Meier, and that's exactly what players want in terms of a deal.

Rather than looking at Meier's deal as a four-year pact, it should be pretty clear that Meier actually signed a five-year deal with San Jose worth a total of $34 million unless San Jose walks away from that qualifying offer. Either way, Claude Lemieux, Meier's agent, has guaranteed that Meier will get paid handsomely by either the Sharks or on the free agent market.

There are other players who have followed this structure this summer. Zach Werenski signed a three-year, $15-million extension in Columbus while falling one year short of UFA status. The final season of that $15-million deal sees him paid $7 million, so Columbus would have to qualify him at $7 million for that final season before free agency. If they don't, he's an unrestricted free agent and will likely command that on the open market.

Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins signed a three-year deal with the Bruins a couple of weeks ago for $14.7 million, but his final season in this contract will see McAvoy earn $7.3 million while still being a restricted free agent so Boston will have a big decision to make. Brock Boeser signed a three-year deal with Vancouver for $17,625,000 with $7.5 million owed in his final year. Vancouver will be on the hook for the qualifying offer in the summer of 2022. Tampa Bay and Brayden Point agreed to a three-year deal that sees the sniper earn $20,250,000, but will pay him $9 million in the final year of that deal.

Why is this important?

Another player who was seeking some solid compensation is off the board today as Matthew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames came to an agreement on a three-year, $21 million deal that will pay Tkachuk $9 million in the final year of the deal. Tkachuk's deal pays him fairly handsomely for the first two seasons - $5 million and $7 million annually, respectively - but it's that final year that turns Tkachuk's deal from a three-year deal into potentially a four-year, $30 million deal based on the qualifying offer that Calgary will have to make if they want to retain his services.

With the NHL and NHLPA both opting to keep the CBA intact until 2023, expect to see more of these deals as we move forward, especially in the cases of players such as Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine this year and Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, Mikhail Sergachev, and Mathew Barzal next year. While the NHL teams who negotiate these deals are able to keep talent together during these deals, the cap hits for those qualifying offers will force teams in having to make some hard decisions down the road.

As Mordo told Dr. Steven Strange in Marvel's Dr. Strange, "The bill comes due. Always!" By prolonging the time by which teams figure they can underpay their young stars in order to keep the assembled talent together in the present, the future of the team is put at risk when it comes time to deciding on qualifying offers. GMs will be forced to make hard decisions at that time, and it may lead to teams falling out of contention for the Stanley Cup, losing a good young player or players for virtually nothing as teams work to remain within the salary cap limits, or both. Deferring payments now only means tough decisions later, and those decisions may cost GMs their jobs if they manage this problem poorly.

The bill always comes due.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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