By Jackson Starr
We are currently entering the month of September. NHL training camps are starting, the pre-season starts in about two weeks, and the regular season is a little under a month away. Despite this, the NHL still has one massive flaw that they must fix: being just one month away from puck drop, 30 total RFA’s are still not signed to a contract. Players like Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Brayden Point are still unsigned for the coming seasons. This issue exists for many different reasons - some of which the NHL can fix, some which they cannot - but before we get into the details, however, we must clarify what a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) is, and how it differs from an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA).
An Unrestricted Free Agent is a player who is no longer under contract with an organization. This means that he has either been released by his team, or the length of his contract has expired. He is free to explore and negotiate another contract with any other team in the league. Therefore, this player’s new team can acquire him without giving up any physical assets on the roster, as they would in a trade.
The situation is more complicated for a Restricted Free Agent. An RFA has just finished his 3-year entry level contract (A contract signed right after this player is drafted) and is seeking a new contract with the organization that he currently plays for. This team must offer this player a qualifying offer in order for the negotiations to get underway. If the player doesn’t accept the qualifying offer, then the two sides must negotiate a contract until they are able to come to an agreement, and the contract is signed.
These two new deals could potentially be massive for the NHL, with major implications not only on the RFA’s or the salary cap, but for the game of hockey as a whole.
This is a good system on paper, but the NHL has an issue. While player salaries around the league are rising, the average player’s age is dropping. This means that young, valuable players are asking for ridiculous amounts of money at a younger age.
For example, in February 2019 the Maple Leafs signed their star RFA centerman, Auston Matthews, to a 5-year contract worth $11.6 million annually - a good contract for a guy who the Leafs hope will contribute to the team for many years to come. In comparison, the Boston Bruins extended star winger David Pastrnak (who was also an RFA) to a 6-year deal worth $6.67 million annually, only two years earlier. These two players are incredibly productive for each of their teams, but the difference in the average annual value between these two players is massive. To put this into perspective, the salary cap only went up by $2 million this offseason, from $79.5 million to $81.5 million. This leaves teams with a minimal amount of space to maneuver. This is, in essence, what the teams of these big name RFA’s are struggling with, but the fact that in the span of two short years the annual salary of top bidding RFA’s has risen so much, along with the fact that the salary cap is not increasing at a fast enough pace, means that this is a big issue that the NHL has to resolve.
In the short term, this will affect the quality of play that we will see at the beginning of this season. With so many talented players out, the overall level of play will not be as good. This could affect other aspects of the industry as well, such as a reduction in ticket and jersey sales, or a potential decrease of TV viewership in some smaller markets. And all because of key players who are unable to come to terms on a contract with their team.
The good news: there is a potential light at the end of the tunnel. Some big money could be coming into the NHL when the league’s deal with their American television affiliate, NBC, comes to an end after the 2021-22 season. Their last contract saw the NHL making $200 million per year, and with the game continuing to grow in the US, this new deal could be a massive one. This would not only be good for the league, but for the RFA’s as well, benefitting their teams by enabling a rise in the salary cap. Additionally, the NHL and the NHL Players Association are in need of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The current agreement comes to an end on September 15, 2022 and they are already in the early stages of negotiations for the coming CBA. These two new deals could potentially be massive for the NHL, with major implications not only on the RFA’s or the salary cap, but for the game of hockey as a whole.