As activity around the league screeches to its usual August halt, one of the questions around Montreal is what is the delay in getting new deals done for restricted free agents Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling. However, it’s really not much of a delay at all but rather is standard procedure for players in their situation.
Before getting into that, I wondered if it could be related to the offseason cap. Teams can go up to 10% over the Upper Limit (which would be $89.65 million) during the summer. The Habs are over $83 million before factoring in the other elements that are included (one-way contracts for ‘buried’ players, pro-rated charges for players who split time in the NHL/AHL, etc). But Montreal doesn’t have many of those; you could add loosely another million or so but that’s about it. That still leaves ample room for Kotkaniemi; Poehling’s next deal is likely two-way and since he never was on the NHL roster last season, he wouldn’t even count against the offseason cap. Between that and offseason LTIR potential for Paul Byron (Shea Weber’s isn’t certified by the league yet), the cap isn’t a factor here.
As a result, it appears that the answer is the obvious one and it falls under the radar every year. Both Poehling and Kotkaniemi weren’t eligible for arbitration; Poehling isn’t even eligible for an offer sheet. As a result, the deals often aren’t prioritized by teams at the beginning of the year and players try to wait it out until close to training camp (or into camp) in the hopes that the team will increase their offer.
(Before moving forward, I’m aware of Kotkaniemi’s father having cancer but that situation likely isn’t factoring into contract discussions which are handled by the agent, not Kotkaniemi. They can still work on a deal if they wanted while Kotkaniemi is spending time with his family.)
At the time this article was published, there are 33 restricted free agents remaining around the league. The majority have one thing in common – they’re coming off entry-level deals and aren’t old enough to be arbitration-eligible. This is normal and happens every year. In most cases, it’s generally not a sign of the sides being far apart but rather a sign that each side knows they can wait and that is likely the case with Montreal’s players.
Let’s look at Poehling, for example. There are really only three ways his contract will go since he doesn’t have much of an NHL track record. He’ll sign for $874,125 on a one-year, two-way deal which represents his qualifying offer and carries a $70,000 AHL salary. Even though qualifying offers have expired, players can still sign contracts for that amount. That would maximize his NHL earnings potential but since he’s waiver-exempt and the Habs could be tight to the cap once Byron returns midseason, the lower AHL salary could hurt Poehling if he’s sent down and replaced with someone making less in the NHL.
Alternatively, he could sign for the NHL minimum ($750,000) with a higher AHL salary, guaranteeing him more money and perhaps a better shot at seeing NHL action if the Habs are tight to the cap ceiling at any point. Option three is an extension of that, a two-year deal with the first year having that structure and the second being a one-way deal. There have been tons of those contracts signed lately including by Jake Evans last year.
Contract negotiations basically boil down to the Habs saying to Poehling’s agent – do you want Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3? The soft deadline to sign is basically the start of training camp. Poehling’s camp can hope that a better offer materializes but it won’t. And as a result, he’ll sign one of those three contracts over the next four weeks, probably sometime in September. That’s not a delay but rather a standard operating procedure that is in play with about 15 other similar players at this point.
Kotkaniemi’s isn’t as cut and dry as the potential does exist for the Habs to overpay him now on a long-term deal that buys out some UFA years in the hopes of seeing excess value as the years progress. I don’t think that’s a likely scenario – such a move would warrant at least a six-year agreement and good luck finding an acceptable salary for both sides at that term – but it’s technically still a possibility.
Realistically, the likely contract is a bridge. You know it, I know it, so do Bergevin and Markus Lehto (Kotkaniemi’s agent). There’s a bit of negotiating on a one, two, or three-year term but the general parameters of those contracts are known to both sides at this point. Perhaps Bergevin wants to make another move which could then dictate which bridge deal they can afford. Otherwise, they’ll eventually pick which of the three doors on a bridge contract they want to go through.
There are pressure points for various free agents. UFAs get top priority which is why re-signing Joel Armia was high on Bergevin’s list. Then it’s time for the arbitration eligibles which is why Artturi Lehkonen was next; Michael McNiven filed likely for the piece of mind of having a contract to avoid being unsigned closer to training camp. Those that don’t fall into either category can easily be pushed aside until closer to camp without any concern.
There are better players than those two still unsigned and there are worse players around the league that are still restricted free agents. In mid-September, that will probably still be the case. At the end of the day, there really is no delay here. This is just normal around the league and for Montreal in recent years; I could probably start writing the Nick Suzuki version of this article for next summer now as guess what, there’s a good chance that it’ll happen with him as well.
If you’re worried about Kotkaniemi and Poehling not being signed, you don’t need to be. I can tell you three people who aren’t – Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, and Marc Bergevin. If they’re still unsigned when training camp starts, then it’s a story. Until then, just enjoy the rest of the summer.