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With so many high profile unsigned RFAs, the Penguins locking up Jake Guentzel early was a stroke of genius

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The Pens get piled on a lot lately by fans, but their decision to extend Jake Guentzel’s contract early last season was a very, very smart move

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

A contract ask is a long way from a contract signed, but seeing the headline with some detail about the Brock Boeser and Vancouver Canucks’ negotiation sure stood out from a Penguins’ perspective. From TSN:

According to Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver Province, Brock Boeser’s agent Ben Hankinson ”has an appetite for a four-year extension at $7 million annually” for his client this summer.

A four-year, $28 million contract for Boeser would top that of San Jose Sharks forward Timo Meier, who signed a four-year, $24 million deal in July and was noted to be a comparable to Boeser by Canucks general manager Jim Benning on Monday.

“Those are some of the names we’ve used,” Benning said of Meier and currently unsigned Winnipeg Jets restricted free agent Kyle Connor. “They (Boeser’s camp) have been reasonable and we’re continuing to talk to get to some common ground. I’m hopeful to get something done before camp, but we’re not there yet.”

Boeser had 26 goals and 56 points in 69 games last season, but as Kuzma notes, on pro-rated basis to 82 games, the 22-year-old would have had 66 points, equal to both Meier and Connor.

This is another good reminder why it is always a smart idea to lock up young players as early as possible when you know they are very good and also in a position to put up big points. Worst case, you might end up with an Olli Maatta type that perhaps is a bit over-paid, but that’s still a good bet to make. Best case you end up getting the prime years of players like Brian Dumoulin and Jake Guentzel.

Guentzel is what instantly jumped to mind in seeing the Boeser and Kyle Connor talk. It’s been tough sledding for NHL teams to get young players signed to second contracts. Guentzel was scheduled to be an RFA with them, had the Pens not jumped on it last December and locked him up early.

Now Guentzel is all tightened up, for the next five years at a $6.0 million annual rate, no drama here. Meanwhile the Jets and Canucks are still locked in and sweating a negotiation with their star wingers with camp now inching ever closer.

It’s no surprise the other agents are looking at Timo Meier (who only signed for four years and will be a UFA when completed) as their comparison and not Guentzel (who signed for an additional fifth year, another advantage Pittsburgh).

There’s also a statistical reason. RFA’s get paid on boxcars. Let’s look at the 2018-19 season for all involved:

  • Guentzel: 82 games, 40 goals, 36 assists, 76 points ($6.0m for five years)
  • Meier: 78gp, 30g, 36a, 66p ($6.0m for four years)
  • Connor: 82gp, 34g, 32a, 66p (RFA)
  • Boeser: 69gp, 26g, 30a, 56p (RFA)

With the stats and terms laid out, it’s clear why Boeser and Connor’s agents are pointing straight to Timo Meier’s deal and not Guentzel’s when it comes to negotiating for their clients. Guentzel did more and signed longer, which would bring their comparison down.

Beyond just this direct example, there has been a very weird and unexpected development across the league that so many RFAs remain unsigned this deep into the summer. It’s typically been the power and leverage of the teams after entry level contracts — and before players have arbitration rights, let alone hit the unrestricted market — to be able and suppress player salary.

After all, you don’t have to go back too far to the 2016 off-season that saw Nikita Kucherov sign a three year bridge with Tampa worth $4.76 million annually — even though Kucherov was also coming off a 66-point season. Ironically, and fittingly, that’s the exact same point total as Meier, Connor and Boeser* (*his pace at least), all had in their contract years a few seasons later. This was more the norm back then with the teams at least keeping bridge deals relatively low.

That has all changed, the RFA market shifting in a major way with leverage and comparables giving power from the team to the players.

Edmonton paid Connor McDavid $12.5 million annually in 2017, but he’s Connor McDavid, that doesn’t move the sticks too much across the league, even if it did set a ceiling that no one will surpass. The deal seen as the first major recent tipping point was made by the Oilers though, but it was when they were very generous and re-upped Leon Draisaitl also in 2017 for $8.5 million annually. That gave the next wave across the league a big comparison to point towards for their own negotiations.

Soon after, Jack Eichel struck with a $10.0 million annual long-term deal. Then last year Auston Matthews continued the trend and raised the bar further, pulling $11.634 million from Toronto on his second contract, and only for five years too. Toronto paid a premium and only bought one year of unrestricted free agency.

All of these contracts has led to the current climate, where RFA’s have wrestled the leverage away from the teams. This summer it starts at the very top of the food chain with Mitch Marner being stubborn and reportedly seeking $10-11 million annually from Toronto. Matthew Tkachuk in Calgary is seeking not much less than that. Brayden Point, Patrik Laine and Mikko Rantanen as well are in-line for huge paydays, with the players or teams seemingly waiting for Marner to set this summer’s bar. Same too a notch down the ladder with guys like Boeser, Conner and Travis Konecny.

Defensemen are in the mix too with elite youngsters in Ivan Provorov, Charlie McAvoy and Zach Werenski all sitting unsigned; all playing a waiting game. The Pens’ Marcus Pettersson is a RFA still too, but his isn’t the result of posturing for money like the others, it’s more his team’s salary cap situation.

In the past these marquee players would have signed relatively quickly and with little drama. Now? Not so much. In fact, with time ticking on, Laine has been non-committal about his future. Rantanen has made preparations to start practicing with a team in Norway. Marner’s camp has leaked to the media that he could talk to Zurich about playing there if his NHL standoff lasts. More type of talk like this, even if posturing, is certain to come out as training camp approaches and the players force the teams to imagine starting the year without them. Toronto’s William Nylander did this as well and eventually secured close to what he was looking for with a $7.0m commitment last season.

Bottom line? For as much grief (most of it well-earned) that the Pens get for their curious and outright poor contracts, even the most hardened has to give them some major props for avoiding this kind of storm with Guentzel. Maybe the Pens never even saw this climate coming, like so many others didn’t, but that’s a perk of taking care of business early — you don’t have to worry about negative repercussions once the pen hits the paper.

An NHL team will tend not to regret it when it comes to dealing with high profile players in this manner. Lock them up as soon as you can, for as reasonable as possible, for as long as possible. The Pens did exactly that with Jake Guentzel, and they look like absolute geniuses now in that regard as so many of his young top-line peers are playing hard ball with their teams a few months later.

All this RFA turmoil has been largely an afterthought in Pittsburgh, and that’s certainly a pleasant turn of events. It’s even better that the contract the Pens gave Guentzel has turned out to be a relative steal, before it has even technically started.