As the season nears, NHL restricted free agent market remains frozen

Brayden Point doesn’t have a contract yet, but he’s far from the only one.
Lightning center Brayden Point remains without a contract for next season. Shadd, Dirk  |  Tampa Bay Times
Lightning center Brayden Point remains without a contract for next season. Shadd, Dirk | Tampa Bay Times
Published August 23

TAMPA — As September and the start of the Lightning’s rookie camp creeps loser, Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point, the team’s third leading scorer in 2018-19, remains unsigned.

He’s not the only one, though. Almost none of the big names have signed: Toronto left wing Mitch Marner, Colorado right wing Mikko Rantanen, Winnipeg right wing Patrik Laine, Boston defenseman Charlie McAvoy and Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski.

There are often a couple late-signers, but rarely, if ever, so many.

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“It’s a unique marketplace,” said agent Gerry Johannson, who counts Point among his clients. “Everyone is waiting for some clarity.”

Last year, Toronto’s William Nylander held out until December waiting for terms he liked better (finally signing a six-year, $45-million contract). But this isn’t the NHL when training camps open with a list of players holding out.

It would be surprising for Point to miss meaningful regular-season games but no one can be shocked when any player holds out in today’s sports world.

Only two of the big names have signed, but neither under normal circumstances. Jacob Trouba declined to resign in Winnipeg, citing his fiancé’s desire to study medicine in the States, and the Jets traded him to the Rangers, where he signed. Montreal signed Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet, which Carolina matched to keep him.

That clarity Johannson referred to means someone re-signing with the same team.

No one has done that yet, and the water is heating up.

Players are starting to speak out a bit more. Point, who had 41 goals and 51 assists last season, has not been heard from, but Laine had some interesting comments for Sportsnet.

“You never know where you’re going to play next year so I’m just prepared for anything,” he said.

Laine followed up that he has nothing bad to say about Winnipeg. The Finnish native plans to remain in Europe until he has a contract.

Rantanen told reporters at the Finnish All-Star Game he’s neither stressed nor bothered about his contract situation. Avalanche executive vice president Joe Sakic told the Denver Post he wants to have Rantanen signed before training camp. Sakic said the Avalanche and Rantanen both want a long-term deal.

The Lightning has previously trended toward shorter bridge contracts. Point, however, has established his skill level so there’s not much to discover with a short term. He could have the standing to demand a long-term deal, which is the standard set by elite RFAs like Leon Draisaitl (eight years, $8.5 million average annual value) and Jack Eichel (eight years, $10 million average annual value).

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   TimesTampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) works the puck through the Detroit zone during the second period of Saturday's (3/9/19) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Douglas R. Clifford  |  Tampa Bay Times
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TimesTampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) works the puck through the Detroit zone during the second period of Saturday's (3/9/19) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times

Neither Johannson nor Julien BriseBois has specified a timeline nor any specifics on the negotiations. The general manager repeatedly expresses confidence in making a deal.

Johannson thinks we’ll start to see moves being made in the market. After all, the countdown to training camp is now measured in weeks, not months.

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UFA’s left standing

The RFAs are the ones holding up the market, so to speak, but some unrestricted free agents surprisingly remain on the board.

Joe Thornton remains without a contract after 14 years with the Sharks. He told reporters at the NHL Awards in June that he wanted to play a 22nd season. Timo Meier expects him to be back on the Sharks, according to nhl.com. But he doesn’t have a contract yet.

San Jose could send an interesting message if it lets captain Joe Pavelski walk and then doesn’t bring back Thornton.

Jake Gardiner ranked among the top five available defensemen when free agency opened, but remains without a contract. The former Maple Leaf had some defensive errors and injury issues last season, but can drive offense and make an impact even if not in a top pairing.

Justin Williams, 38, belied his age by helping propel Carolina into the playoffs and then to the Eastern Conference Final. Williams had a productive season with 23 goals and 30 assists.

From the Lightning, Dan Girardi stands the only UFA without a deal for next year. The 35-year-old defenseman missed 20 games last year, due to injury and the team’s defensemen rotation.

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