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Campbell's Cuts: Why so many RFAs are still unsigned

James Neal scored 27 goals and 55 points in 78 games for Dallas last season. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

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James Neal scored 27 goals and 55 points in 78 games for Dallas last season. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

There are not many areas of the collective bargaining agreement where NHL teams can say they’ve used a whole lot of common sense. But as they’ve found their way in the cap world, their strategy with young players has improved.

In particular, their dealings with players coming off entry level contracts is far more in line with what they were trying to accomplish when they locked the players out six years ago. While some teams continue to sign outlandish deals they have no intent on seeing through with older free agents, they seem to have grasped the concept that they have young players where they want them and are using the leverage to their advantage.

That much is evident with this year’s crop of young players who did not have arbitration rights. It’s with this group of players teams are saving their cap dollars and flexing their CBA muscles.

Historically, players of this ilk have had almost no power, since their only sources of leverage have been the unlikely threat of an offer sheet and the possibility of sitting out. As a result, with just more than two weeks left until training camp, a good number of them – Carey Price, Bobby Ryan, Marc Staal, Martin Hanzal and Niclas Bergfors, to name a few – still find themselves without a contract. And two of the interesting things about what is happening with these players are that, first, teams are not offering any of them long-term deals (though Ryan is seeking fewer years than what the Ducks are offering) and second, their worth is being determined by the markets in which they play rather than what other players around the league are receiving.

Take James Neal of the Dallas Stars, for example. He is still without a contract with the Stars, who have progressively become a budget team and one that is in the process of being sold. Clearly, he’s not in the Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry stratosphere, but he’s a 27-goal scorer who seems to have enormous potential. The Nashville Predators signed Patric Hornqvist to a three-year deal with a cap hit just shy of $3.1 million after Hornqvist came out of nowhere with a 30-goal season. On the surface, you would think Neal would be worth at least as much, but he might not get it.

Part of the reason why Hornqvist received as much money as he did was that he signed a three-year deal, which is a long one by current RFA standards. Because of that, the Nashville Predators were able to cover two years in which Hornqvist would be eligible for arbitration, so if he becomes the offensive player the Predators think he will, he could be quite a bargain.

The fact the CBA expires in 2012 probably has as much as anything to do with the fact that most young players aren’t getting any more than two-year deals. The rare exceptions on that front were Hornqvist and Bryan Little, as well as Niklas Hjalmarsson, who got a four-year offer sheet from the San Jose Sharks that was matched by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chris Stewart of the Colorado Avalanche is another good example. He led Colorado in goals with 28 last season and emerged as a budding power forward. Conventional wisdom might suggest the Avs would want to sign him to a long-term deal, but they’re only offering two years and Stewart will probably have to settle for something in the $2.5- to $3-million range. The Avs are being even more aggressive with Peter Mueller, to whom they’re offering about $1.6 million a season on a two-year deal.

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Now Stewart and Mueller and other young players could simply elect to withdraw their services and continue to sit out until they get the contract they want. But what good does that do for either them or the team? Historically and generally speaking, sitting out of training camp has been a mistake for a good number of young players who end up spending much of the season trying to catch up to their peers. And they can also only sit out until Dec. 1 because they’re ineligible to play for the rest of the season if they are not under contract by that time.

Actually, it’s kind of refreshing to see teams use some common sense with these players. The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t get all goofy after watching Steve Downie put up a career season and gave him a two-year deal at an average of $1.85 million a year. Neither did Downie get greedy or develop a sense of entitlement after one good season. He knows if he proves his worth in the next two seasons, his payday will come.

And isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?

THN Puck Panel: Youth vs. Experience

PRODUCER: Ted Cooper

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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