Can RFAs Afford to Miss Training Camp?

All eyes have been on Mitch Marner as well as other Restricted Free Agents in the lull of the offseason to see who will re-sign first. (Photo courtesy: Claus Anderson, Getty Images)

Let’s be honest: there’s not much to talk about hockey-wise in August. So, we look to every single potential story, and patiently, desperately, wait for something to happen.

The biggest story fans of the NHL have been waiting on are the big restricted free agents that still have yet to re-sign with their teams. In case you aren’t aware, here’s just a small list of notables:

The Players

Mitchell Marner

Team: Toronto Maple Leafs, LW

Age: 22

Previous Cap Hit: $894,167

Point Totals: 26-68-94

Brayden Point

Team: Tampa Bay Lightning, C

Age: 23

Last Cap Hit: $686,667

Point Totals: 41-51-92

Mikko Rantanen

Team: Colorado Avalanche, RW

Age: 22

Last Cap Hit: $894,167

Point Totals: 31-56-87

Matthew Tkachuk, LW

Team: Calgary Flames

Age: 21

Last Cap Hit: $925,000

Point Totals: 34-43-77

Brock Boeser, RW

Team: Vancouver Canucks

Age: 22

Previous Cap Hit: $925,000

Point Totals: 26-30-56

Patrik Laine, RW

Team: Winnipeg Jets

Age: 22

Previous Cap Hit: $925,000

Point Totals: 30-20-50

Zach Werenski, D

Team: Columbus Blue Jackets

Age: 21

Previous Cap Hit: $925,000

Point Totals: 11-33-44

The Issue

There’s quite a few future superstars that are still without a contract come puck drop in early October. Almost more important than that, however, is the training camp that begins on September 11 for all NHL teams.

It’s way more important than some casual fans may realize: players have been recovering from injuries or surgeries, attending charities or swinging at the links, or, for the Stanley Cup champions, just been living it up this summer. The training camp is when the whole team gets back together and back to business for the next season.

That presents an interesting issue for these RFA’s and their respective franchises. None of the RFA’s, until signed, can play with the team at these training camps. If the contract negotiations last until December 1st, they can’t play at all. While offer sheets are an issue, it’s barely practiced in the league anymore, and rarely works. In a league that only seems to be getting exponentially faster and harder to play in, that doesn’t spell good news for these young, talented players.

The New Era

Of all the things that are going right (or wrong) in the NHL, the training regimen within franchises is going exactly where it should be. From physical workouts to drills and scrimmages with teammates, to preseason games; NHL franchises are hitting 1,000.

Think of when players of the ‘70s and ‘80s would grab a few drinks or smoke after practice or a game, and almost regularly. Those kinds of things don’t happen in the NHL anymore; there are nutritionists hired to help monitor players’ diets and making sure they’re 100%, night in and night out.

With the RFA’s, however, they can’t get any of that. Sure, maybe they continue their workouts as you see on Instagram or Snapchat all the time. Perhaps they still try to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Perhaps they practice some routines on the ice. However, the training camps are necessary for not only the proper regimen but also for team chemistry. The team aspect of ice hockey, in particular, plays a much more crucial role than the individual’s style of play, and more so in the NHL than any other league.

Nowadays, the players in camp are up to speed in every facet of their game, from drills, lines, nutrition, the energy from preseason games, mental and physical wellness; the list goes on. Everything about the events from September 11th to the first week of October gets amplified, and the most significant result is the confidence level.

The Precedent

Look at William Nylander, for instance. Back in 2018, Nylander was an RFA with the Leafs, and his negotiations lasted through September, meaning he wasn’t with the team at training camp. In the last two seasons of his entry-level contract, Nylander put up 61 points in both years; 20 goals and 41 assists in ‘17-18. Now, with a Leafs’ regular season that included Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Patrick Marleau, Nylander was still a no-show.

Just hours before the December 1 deadline, Nylander signed a 6-year, $45 million contract, with $10,277,778 being awarded the first year. Nylander walked into the organization in mid-December cold (no pun intended), and the Leafs organization said getting him back up to speed would take “a couple of weeks.” The result? William Nylander played 54 games and racked up a total of 7 goals and 20 assists for 27 points. In his first 20 games from 12/6 to 1/20 (45 days), he grabbed just three assists.

Fifty-four games, 27 points. Half a point per game, on a salary of over $10 million for that season. Let that sink in.

The same story went for Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau back in 2016. After another drawn-out negotiation, Gaudreau had his worst statistical year to date for ’16-17. Maybe not as drastic as William Nylander’s numbers, but there is a genuine issue present when these younger players are held up by the numbers in their contracts.

The Next Move

It’s entirely possible that maybe it’s just the mental preparedness for the season that these players won’t have if contract talk goes into December 1st. Possibly players at a superstar caliber like Mitch Marner won’t be that adversely affected by missing some preseason games. However, the NHL and its franchises have locked down the best training regimens for one of the biggest team sports in the world. The NFL and NBA aren’t affected by these issues as much, but the team aspect of the NHL is so much of a different animal, especially today. It has a real, lasting effect.

Is the training camp as necessary to other players as well? Is Seth Jones calling up Zach Werenski and saying “hey, get this contract nonsense over with and get to practice”? Perhaps not, but coaches and staff, like one Mike Babcock (who’s likely on a shorter leash after last season’s disappointing end) may not be so patient with Marner and his agents drawing out negotiations.

Pending RFAs like Werenski, Rantanen, and Point are rumored to be waiting for the Marner domino to fall. Marner will be paid very handsomely, and likely for a long while; that much goes without saying. Now, most of the players are waiting to see how much Marner gets to set a precedent and ask similar amounts of their teams. However, the bottom line is this: in regards to the players, the best action is to sign the contracts and lace up the skates at training camp.

To play at the elite NHL level, they did before; they need to train within the organization to stay their most productive. If these young players want to contribute to their franchise at their highest potential, and eventually hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup, it starts by putting pen to paper and stop worrying about trying to make eight-figures.

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