Ranking the NHL's 6 Toughest Contract Decisions This Summer

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2022

Ranking the NHL's 6 Toughest Contract Decisions This Summer

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    Gerry Thomas/Getty Images

    The focus of NHL fans and pundits is on the 2022 playoffs. Once the Stanley Cup champion is crowned in late June, attention will turn toward offseason moves.

    Teams that fall by the wayside or those that failed to qualify for the playoffs will begin contract negotiations with their free agents. They'll have exclusive negotiating rights with their unrestricted free agents until noon ET on July 13, after which those players can sign with any club. Restricted free agents can receive offer sheets from other franchises at that time.

    Most contract negotiations end with a player reaching an agreement with their team. However, complications might exist. A team's limited salary-cap space, a player's role or his age are among the issues that can derail negotiations.

    A restricted free agent who carries arbitration rights, such as the Minnesota Wild's Kevin Fiala, could attempt to use that as leverage in contract discussions. Meanwhile, an impending unrestricted free agent such as the Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau could use his July 13 eligibility date as a means of pressuring management into offering more favorable contract terms.

    Here's a look at this summer's six toughest NHL contract decisions. Feel free to express your views on this topic in the comments section below.

6. Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Since his acquisition from the Toronto Maple Leafs in July 2019, Nazem Kadri has provided the Colorado Avalanche with a reliable, physical two-way presence as their second-line center. He played a significant role in the club's rise to among the league's dominant teams over the last two years as it won the Presidents' Trophy in 2020-21 and finished atop the Western Conference this season.

    Slated for unrestricted free-agent status, the 31-year-old is completing a six-year contract worth an average annual value of $4.5 million. Ensuring Kadri remains part of the Avalanche's future could be an expensive undertaking for general manager Joe Sakic. Losing him to free agency, however, will leave a big hole at center on their second line.

    Making Sakic's task more difficult is Kadri's performance this season. Having previously reached a career high of 61 points in 2016-17 with the Maple Leafs, the gritty center tallied 87 points in 2021-22 to finish third among Avalanche scorers. If not for a late-season upper-body injury, he might have reached 100 points.

    Kadri likely would've been in line for a raise to $6 million annually before this season. He could now receive close to $8 million annually on a five-year contract on the open market.

    The Avalanche have $57.8 million invested in 15 players for 2022-23. Re-signing Kadri could make it difficult to sign other impending UFAs such as Darcy Kuemper, Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin. Sakic could attempt to convince the Kadri camp to accept less than market value to stick with a Cup contender instead of pursuing bigger bucks elsewhere.

5. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    This was a difficult season for Brock Boeser. After netting 45 and 49 points in two COVID-shortened campaigns, the 25-year-old winger managed 46 points in 71 games in 2021-22 to finish sixth among Vancouver Canucks scorers. Time in the COVID-19 protocol and an arm injury cost him 11 games. On May 1, Boeser told reporters his father's dementia weighed on his mind and affected his performance.

    Boeser is a restricted free agent, has arbitration rights and is coming off a three-year deal worth an average annual value of $5.88 million but carries a salary of $7.5 million for this season. On Nov. 24, The Athletic's Thomas Drance explained that the Canucks must make him a qualifying offer for that amount to retain his rights unless the sides can agree to a new contract with a lower salary.

    The decline in Boeser's play and the high cost of qualifying his rights made him a hot topic for trade speculation during this season. His father's condition is an understandable explanation for his struggles. Still, it could be difficult to re-sign him if he's unwilling to accept a cap hit below this season's actual salary.

    With $69.5 million committed to 13 players for next season, the Canucks can barely afford such a hefty raise for Boeser. They could get $3.5 million in cap relief if sidelined winger Micheal Ferland remains on long-term injury reserve for next season. Nevertheless, it still won't leave much room to fill out the rest of the roster after paying Boeser.

    The Canucks or Boeser could file for arbitration if they appear headed toward an impasse. If it comes down to an arbitrator's decision, the most Boeser will receive is a two-year contract. That could lead to his departure as a UFA once that contract is completed.

4. Kevin Fiala, Minnesota Wild

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    This was a significant breakout season for Kevin Fiala, as the 25-year-old left winger netted a career-high 85 points in 82 games. However, the Minnesota Wild's limited salary-cap space could make it difficult for the sides to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

    Fiala is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights and is coming off a one-year contract worth $5.1 million. His production made him an invaluable member of the Wild's offense, sitting third with 33 goals and second in points with 85. That could put him in line for a significant raise on a long-term extension worth between $7.5 million and $8.5 million.

    The Wild, however, have $75.1 million invested in 18 players for 2022-23, with $12.7 million as part of their buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer. General manager Bill Guerin will have to shed salary if he hopes to get Fiala under contract for next season.

    Fiala also managed just three assists in six games during the Wild's first-round series against the St. Louis Blues. Guerin could use that to justify offering a shorter-term deal for something closer to $6.5 million per season.

    Either side could file for arbitration if contract negotiations stall. That will set a deadline of the arbitration hearing date to hammer out an agreement. Otherwise, it'll be up to an arbitrator to decide Fiala's new contract. If it's more than the Wild can comfortably afford, Guerin would have the option of rejecting the arbiter's decision, making Fiala an unrestricted free agent.

3. and 2. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang—alongside Sidney Crosby—formed the core of the Pittsburgh Penguins' 16 consecutive postseason appearances and three Stanley Cup championships. Slated to become unrestricted free agents on July 13, one or both could end up skating with a new club next season.

    Both players remain productive. Letang finished third among Penguins scorers with 68 points in 78 games. Meanwhile, Malkin missed the first half of the season because of offseason knee surgery but still finished with 42 points in 41 contests.

    Malkin, who will turn 36 on July 31, is completing an eight-year contract that carries an average annual value of $9.5 million. The 35-year-old Letang is also coming off an eight-year deal, which had an annual cap hit of $7.25 million. Given their ages, they won't get overly lengthy pacts. 

    On May 17, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Seth Rorabaugh reported Crosby, Malkin and Letang hope to stay together a little longer. Crosby is signed through 2024-25. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported Malkin and the Penguins discussed a three-year deal, while Letang received a four-year offer for a little less than his current cap hit.

    The Penguins have $53.4 million invested in 14 players for next season. They must also re-sign or replace impending UFAs in forwards Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell and backup goalie Casey DeSmith. Negotiating suitable deals for aging stars such as Malkin and Letang while ensuring sufficient cap space for other signings or additions will be challenging for Penguins management.

1. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Johnny Gaudreau enjoyed a career-high performance in his contract year. The 28-year-old Calgary Flames left winger tallied 40 goals and led his club with 75 assists for 115 points, finishing tied for second among the NHL points leaders with Florida Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau.

    Completing a six-year contract that carried an annual salary-cap hit of $6.75 million, Gaudreau was in line for a substantial raise on his next deal prior to this season. From his rookie campaign in 2014-15 to last season's COVID-shortened schedule, he'd been the Flames' top scorer, totaling 324 assists and 493 points over that period.

    Gaudreau's outstanding effort in 2021-22, however, could push the value of his next contract much higher. Before this season, he might have gotten around $8.5 million annually. That 115-point production, however, could put him in the neighborhood of $10 million per season.

    The Flames have $55.4 million committed to 12 active players for next season. It will cost them $9 million to qualify the rights of winger Matthew Tkachuk based on his actual salary for this season. Like Tkachuk, 35-goal scorer Andrew Mangiapane is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights who's also in line for a big raise.

    Flames general manager Brad Treliving could try to tempt Gaudreau into accepting close to $9 million by offering an eight-year deal. If he tests the open market, the most he'll get is seven years. Nevertheless, the cost of keeping Gaudreau in Calgary will put a big dent in the Flames' cap space for next season. It could also complicate efforts to sign Tkachuk and Mangiapane.

            

    Stats via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly.

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