Connor McDavid deal could forever alter free-agent market

NHL News

This summer, Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid and Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel have a chance to change the marketplace for young restricted free agents.

Though their entry-level contracts won’t expire until after the 2017-18 season, they can agree to extensions starting on Saturday. By all indications both players — McDavid especially — will be offered massive raises off their ELCs to a level that hasn’t been seen in the current collective bargaining agreement.

“If you’re just doing a pure marketplace analysis, you’d have to say (McDavid) should be slotted with the highest paid players in the game,” a player agent said. “McDavid and Eichel and (Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews) are generational players. It’s not hype.”

The fact that both McDavid and Eichel will make a lot of money in their next deals isn’t up for much debate. But how they go about those contracts and how they could influence potential future RFAs is a major storyline going into this offseason — provided both players opt to sign extensions this summer.

Wednesday, it was reported by Sportsnet that McDavid had agreed to an eight-year contract around $13.25 million per year, though nothing official can be announced until Saturday.

“(Their contracts) might have a bigger impact than people think,” an Eastern Conference executive said.

According to the agent, the only “comparables” coming off entry-level deals are for St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko and Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad.

Tarasenko received an eight-year, $60 million contract off his ELC from St. Louis after he scored 37 goals and notched 73 points in 77 games in 2014-15. Ekblad’s eight-year, $60 million contract extension from Florida came on July 1 of last year and won’t kick in until next season. He had 15 goals and 36 points while averaging 21:41 minutes per game in 2015-16 before he signed his extension. This past year was the last of his entry-level deal.

“Well, the baseline, and I’m not saying it’s even close, is Tarasenko and Ekblad,” the agent said. “You take those contracts and go up from there.”

Such contract length is team friendly and would give each player security, but it would cut into their unrestricted free-agent years. The 20-year-old McDavid led the NHL in scoring last season with 100 points and won the Hart Trophy. The 20-year-old Eichel missed 21 games with an ankle injury, but still finished with 24 goals and 57 points in 61 games.

Shorter contracts could give a greater chance at a more lucrative payday for the players, provided they continue to produce.

Provided McDavid does sign for eight years, he will be 29 at the end of his next contract and could still demand a nice payday, though he will lose several UFA years.

“I think they’re timing it to say, ‘I want two huge paydays and I want my next payday (after this contract) to be a max deal in my prime in a rising cap,'” the executive said.

A wrinkle in how both get paid could involve the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA is scheduled to end after the 2021-22 season, and it’s unclear if there will be certain levers introduced in the next CBA that could knock down both players’ earning potential if/when they sign a deal under that structure.

Because of this, it would make sense if McDavid’s contract, provided it’s eight years, ends up being front-loaded so he can make his money before any systemic change to the CBA.

It’s unlikely that the Sabres would walk Eichel to unrestricted free agency with a four-year deal, but if he signs for three years he could then get another contract in this CBA that would take him further into the next one, giving him a possible 11 extra years total under the current system.

“The (potential) lockout is so soon that if you sign a really short deal, you’re not locking in a tremendous amount of money and you’re only getting a limited amount of money,” the agent said. “But it’s a possibility to sign a short-term deal going into the lockout and re-sign right before the lockout starts so that you sign an eight-year deal, because it probably won’t be eight-year deals under the next CBA.”

Also in Eichel’s case, agreeing to a deal this summer may make less sense since the Sabres struggled last season, and he didn’t play a full year. His earning potential could be greater either during the upcoming season or next summer.

“If you look at the body of work right now, as good as Eichel’s is, he missed a lot of time and he didn’t win a Hart. It’s not quite the same thing,” the agent said.

Another issue with both involves whether rich new deals could hamper their teams’ ability to put together a winning group.

Both players are certainly worth a lot, but such contracts won’t help the competitiveness of Buffalo or Edmonton if the cap continues to rise marginally. This offseason it only went up a total of $2 million to $75 million for next season. The Oilers also need to re-sign forward Leon Draisaitl — another star player who will command a large amount of money this summer. The 21-year-old Draisaitl notched 77 points last season and led the Oilers with 16 points in the postseason.

If Draisaitl’s starting point is Tarasenko, then it’s likely the Oilers could have over $21 million committed to two players starting in 2018-19 — provided McDavid makes north of $13 million.

“You have to try to sign Draisaitl and there are other expensive players. They just got rid of (Jordan) Eberle, which of course was a cash dump to sign Draisaitl and maybe McDavid to an extension,” the agent said. “But it’s not as simple as saying, ‘This is what the market is worth.’ It’s also a question of how does a player want to deal with an impact to the team. Some players can say ‘I don’t care, I want as much money as I’m supposed to get.’ My guess is that McDavid’s not going to take that approach, but he’s still going to want a fortune.”

No matter when they sign, their deals will have far-reaching impact for young players in the league. For one, they could give a major boost to what Matthews and Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine will receive from their teams when they’re in the same spot next offseason and provide a blueprint for their strategies.

They could also bring up what other players coming off ELCs will command. Though those players may not be elite and lack arbitration eligibility, increasing the top entry-level contracts should push the entire group forward.

Said the agent, “If they set new records for contracts coming out of EL system, then there’s always an upward drag.”

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