At what point this summer do we change the “U” in UFA to unwanted?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Washington Capitals

For those NHL players who don’t step willingly into retirement, there eventually comes a day when UFA stands for unwanted free agent rather than unrestricted free agent.

As July ends and August begins, we’re now closer to the start of NHL training camps than we are the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For unsigned UFAs, that’s an added layer of anxiety. What if nobody wants me and I’ve played my last NHL game?

Take a browse through capgeek.com and you’ll see half the NHL teams are already at the 23-man NHL roster limit. Another nine teams are at 22 players. And that doesn’t even include the several dozen or so non-roster rookie prospects who will surely make big-league rosters in October.

So not a lot of roster openings remain.

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With no resolution in sight, Canadiens taking arbitration risk with P.K. Subban

Ken Campbell
P

Barring a couple of last minute settlements, Rand Simon of Newport Sports and Andre Lepage of the BCF law firm in Montreal will have a very busy couple of days. And they’ll probably get to know each other a lot better.

Simon, a former staffer here at THN and now an indispensible contract resource for Newport Sports, is scheduled to argue the salary arbitration cases for Nick Spaling of the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday and P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens Friday. Lepage, whose firm is retained by both the Penguins and Canadiens, will be arguing in front of the arbitrator in favor of the teams involved.

Of the 23 salary arbitration cases that were originally filed, only Spaling and Subban remain unresolved. Twenty came to terms before their hearings and Vladimir Sobotka of the St. Louis Blues, who will play in the Kontinental League next season, was awarded a one-year deal for $2.725 million, which he must honor whenever he returns to the NHL.

The arbitration case involving Subban is certainly the most compelling and prominent of all those that were filed and it’s looking as though the two sides are on a collision course that will see this thing go the distance. The two sides have had a history of having difficulty in contract negotiations and as of Wednesday morning at least, were not even close to consummating a deal that is suitable for both sides.

And there’s no doubt the Canadiens are taking a substantial risk here. In their pre-arbitration filings, the Subban camp is asking for $8.5 million and the Canadiens are requesting an award of $5.25 million. The Canadiens could have elected to take a two-year award, but chose only one. And there are a couple of reasons for that. First, Subban will still be one year away from being an unrestricted free agent after the 2014-15 season and the Canadiens have the option of taking him to arbitration next summer. If Subban doesn’t have a banner season, the Canadiens can come in with an offer of up to a 15 per cent pay cut on whatever Subban is awarded.

Secondly, a two-year award would not allow the Canadiens to even talk to Subban about a contract extension for at least 12 months, whereas a one-year deal will allow them to try to hammer out a deal with Subban starting Jan. 1, 2015.

But the risk for the Canadiens is very real. If Subban has an even better season in 2014-15, he could take the Canadiens to arbitration again next summer and really torch them on a one-year deal. If all that happens and he goes through arbitration again, it’s difficult to fathom Subban wouldn’t simply play out his last season before unrestricted free agency then explore the market. And even though the Canadiens can announce as early as June 15 of next year that they intend to take him to arbitration, any team would be free to submit an offer sheet before July 5. The Canadiens would then either face the prospect of losing Subban for draft picks or be forced to match the offer and not be able to trade him for a year.

Either way, Subban wins here. The Canadiens request of $5.25 million represents a 40 percent raise on the $3.75 million Subban made last season. And that’s the worst-case scenario for him. Best case will be arbitrator Elizabeth Neumeier chooses Subban’s number of $8.5 million, but she can also pick a number anywhere between the two. (Spaling filed a salary request of $2.85 million for next season, while the Penguins countered with $1.65 million.)

Subban’s hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday and the decision must come down by Sunday afternoon. The two sides have until the decision to work out a deal on their own, but the reality is that if this one gets to the hearing stage, there almost certainly won’t be a deal.

So the fate of one of the NHL’s best defensemen and one of its most marketable players is very much up in the air. And if it goes to arbitration, Canadiens fans had better get accustomed to uncertainty surrounding Subban, probably for the next two years.

The Toronto Maple Leafs need bottom-six help and Daniel Winnik can do that

Ryan Kennedy
Daniel-Winnik

As they saw last season with Mason Raymond, the Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping a couple recent signings can result in great bargains.

The latest is local product Daniel Winnik, who signed with the Buds for $1.3 million on Monday and projects as a third-liner with the squad. Winnik played some very tough minutes with the Anaheim Ducks this past season, ranking third among the team’s forwards in Quality of Competition relative to Corsi.

Winnik was relegated to the press box for four playoffs games by Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, including the first three games of Anaheim’s second-round series against Los Angeles. The Ducks lost two out of three of those games Winnik was scratched for, ultimately losing the series in seven.

A center who can play on the wing as well, Winnik will join a long list of recent Leafs signings who can replace players lost during the off-season such as Nikolai Kulemin, David Bolland and Jay McClement. Another recent signing that fits along with Winnik in terms of strategy is David Booth.

Like Winnik, Booth was cast off by his former team (Vancouver), but brings potential to Toronto at a relative pittance of $1.1 million. Booth struggled through injuries as a Canuck, but he was one of Vancouver’s best possession players when he did suit up and finished more shifts in the offensive zone than he started. Also noteworthy is that both Winnik and Booth drew more penalties than they took this past season.

Toronto was abysmal while shorthanded in 2013-14 and on top of staying out of the box, Winnik can also help the penalty kill, as he led all Ducks forwards in shorthanded ice time (Anaheim finished 15th on the PK; Toronto was 28th overall).

Although the Leafs lost a bunch of forwards, they now have a logjam thanks to the Winnik and Booth moves. Along with those two, Toronto brought back Matt Frattin and Leo Komarov for a second tour of duty and added newbies Petri Kontiola and Mike Santorelli. Along with youngsters from the Marlies (and perhaps even 2014 first-rounder William Nylander), that’s a lot of competition to suss out for coach Randy Carlyle.

New deal for Lars Eller is another reasonable gamble by Habs GM Marc Bergevin

Adam Proteau
Lars Eller (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Canadiens locked up center Lars Eller to a four-year, $14-million contract extension Thursday, avoiding a Friday arbitration date that could’ve poisoned the waters between the team and the 25-year-old center. It’s not a bargain signing at this stage in Eller’s career, but it’s another one of GM Marc Bergevin’s reasonable gambles.

Eller’s $3.5 annual average value is a massive raise on the $1.325-million he earned in each of the previous two seasons – and far more than the $1.65 million salary the Habs suggested he receive prior to the arbitration meeting – but Bergevin had to do it if he was going to buy the first two years of unrestricted free agency away from Eller. Bergevin has given Eller the same contract he gave to Montreal center David Desharnais last summer and is clearly projecting bigger and better things for the Danish native, who struggled during the regular season (12 goals and 26 points in 77 games) but was a solid contributor for the Canadiens in the playoffs, finishing second in points (13) behind P.K. Subban.

Once again, an NHL team has shown arbitration is a true last resort. It would’ve been more financially prudent to put Eller through an emotional wringer and come away with a smaller salary for him, but the damage it would’ve inflicted on his psyche wouldn’t be worth it. Now they have a happy player determined to atone for his poor regular season – and if he doesn’t fit into their long-term plans, the contract isn’t outrageous enough for him to be untradeable. Read more

Buffalo Sabres sign Andre Benoit, ease pressure on blueline kids

Ryan Kennedy
Andre-Benoit

In a few years, the Buffalo blueline will be run by players such as Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Jake McCabe and Mark Pysyk. The hope of course, is that the Sabres will be a playoff team by then, helped up front by names such as Sam Reinhart, Zemgus Girgensons and perhaps Connor McDavid. But in order to get that organic progression, the organization must ensure that those current youngsters don’t get squashed by pressure and expectations along the way.

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Quick question: what the heck are the Avalanche doing with Ryan O’Reilly?

Adam Proteau
Ryan O'Reilly (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Colorado Avalanche are coming off a season that gave their fans legitimate hope the team could return to its heyday as one of the NHL’s powerhouse franchises. But their bizarre treatment of center Ryan O’Reilly is casting a shadow over some of that success. Indeed, their ongoing dealings with O’Reilly are quickly becoming a textbook case of how to alienate young talent and ensure they depart at their first opportunity.

The details of the arbitration case between the Avs and O’Reilly – first reported Monday by THN’s Ken Campbell – are troubling: O’Reilly is asking for $6.75 million on a one-year contract, but the team is offering a $5.525 million salary. That’s right, the Avs’ leading goal-scorer last season (who set personal bests on offense with 28 goals and 64 points in 80 games) and one of the NHL’s more highly-regarded young two-way players is being asked to take a 15 percent pay cut (the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement) at a time when the salary cap continues to rise and when Colorado has already lost one of its other talented centers (Paul Stastny) for nothing.

Of course, in every arbitration case, the team comes in with a lower number than they’re likely willing to settle for, and the player does the same on the higher end. The Avalanche would argue O’Reilly’s last contract had an average annual value of $5 million per season, meaning their proposal would be a raise of sorts. But that’s spin. The reality is, when the Avs matched the offer sheet the 23-year-old signed (for two years and $10-million) with the Calgary Flames after the 2012-13 lockout ended, O’Reilly became a $6.5-million-per-season player for them in the final year of that deal. The Avalanche might not have liked it – and clearly, they don’t value O’Reilly’s skills the way Calgary did – but by retaining the asset, they had to know what it would mean to now ask O’Reilly to take a haircut down the line, especially when he’s come as advertised and continued to improve. Ostensibly, you’re telling him that, no matter what he did last season, or what he’ll continue to do for them in the years to come, they see him at a certain financial slot. Read more

Ryan Johansen’s stare-down with Blue Jackets could have negative effect

Johansen

News and views from the meager scraps left by the hockey world in a very slow middle of July:

News: Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson says the organization is trying to figure out, “the right thing to do,” when it comes to restricted free agent Ryan Johansen.

Views: After scoring 33 goals in the regular season and being a force for the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, Johansen has earned the right to demand a long-term contract for as much money as he wants. But the fact remains that he would have earned that right even if he had been half as good as he was last season. It’s free agency and any player can ask for whatever he thinks he’s worth. Read more