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Back in the day, Restricted Free Agents in the NHL would often sit on the sidelines to start the season looking for a bigger payday then what they were offered, but that was in an uncapped world. Since the implementation of the NHL’s hard salary cap, this has now become a lot less common as numbers are not nearly as far apart as they used to be since there is only so much money per team to go around. There is still the odd exception every now and then, like Toronto Maple Leafs right winger William Nylander.
During the 2015/16 season, Nylander, who was drafted 8th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2014, was playing in his first year with the Toronto Marlies under the “European Exception” rule. This means that a player from Europe can play for their minor professional pro team but still use the entry-level contract “slide”, it's like sending a North American player back to Junior to not burn off the first year of the player's entry-level contract. However, for some obscene reason, the Leafs decided in the 2nd half of a meaningless season (where the team finished in last place overall) they decided to call up Nylander for 22 games. All the Leafs had to do was not call him up for as many as 10 games – you know the 9 game rule. We are familiar with this, yes? So for no rhyme or reason, the Leafs had him up on the big club for 13 more meaningless games. Made no sense at the time, makes no sense now. One can not help to wonder who’s decision that was.
Had the Leafs not done this, Nylander would have been in the final year of his entry-level contract making the minimum and none of this would have been an issue. Yes, I know, you would have had to negotiate with all 3 – Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner at the same time at the conclusion of this season. But not necessarily; you could have started with Matthews last summer a year in advance the same way Connor McDavid did in Edmonton as other young superstars have, and then the pecking order of the marketplace for your team would have been established. After all, only Matthews and his agent have been open to signing his extension early, even during the season. This is very uncommon as most players prefer no in-season negotiating.
Restricted Free Agency in the NHL is a very flawed system, always was dating back to the pre-salary cap days; Trying to figure out what a player is worth on a long-term deal upon the expiry of an entry-level contract can be difficult to gauge at times. The biggest problem is that there are very limited arbitration rights for players, as opposed to Major League Baseball. Say what you want about how that sport has an uncapped system, but at least a player in years 4, 5 and 6 has a salary that either he and the team agree upon, or they exchange dollar figure amounts and an independent arbitrator decides the salary. This avoids any type of holdout in the bridge between the players 1st three years and unrestricted free agency. The rules for that in the NHL is 27 years of age or 7 years of accrued service whichever comes first, so short and long-term deals are variable depending on the player and the team he plays for.
The most difficult part of this negotiation is that at 22 years of age we still do not know what William Nylander is. Is he a 20-goal, 60 point player? Or will he blossom into a 30-goal, 70-80 point player? If he is the latter this deal will look like a bargain before it is all said and done. Only time will tell, but unlike Matthews and Marner whom you can see elevating to superstar status, Nylander could blossom into something more but if what we have seen so far he is what he is, $6.9M per year is not a bad deal for his production. When you look at his 2014 draft class, you could argue as the #8 pick the only player drafted higher than him that has turned out better is Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers who has a cap hit of $8.5M per year on an 8-year deal, which is reported what Nylander was initially looking for as a comparable. A better example would be David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, drafted 25th overall that year who makes a cap hit of $6.66M on a 6-year deal and after signing it blossomed into a 35-goal, 80 point player. Both comparables have had back-to-back 70+ point seasons, so it is safe to say playing on the top line with Matthews and Patrick Marleau he should hit another level within time.
Speculation has it that this is just a deal that inevitably makes Willy trade bait. Now the fact that there isn't a “no-trade clause” in the contract will lead to speculation of whether Dubas will trade or keep him, but management has made it very clear that he is part of the core of this team hence the fact both sides preferred a long-term deal, which is exactly what was signed. A short-term “bridge” deal might have been more ideal under the circumstances especially how close it got to the December 1st 5:00 PM deadline, but with this signing, it is clear where Nylander fits onto this team.
No matter how many points William Nylander gets this season, and no matter how long it takes for him to get into NHL game-ready form, it is obvious that despite already having the 3rd-best record in the league they are still a better team with him than without him. Especially for the playoffs, where you can never have enough depth with highly-skilled players. There may not be many out there who believe this going to be a good deal, but over the next 6 years, this will prove to be a good deal for Nylander and the Leafs.