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Could a top NHL restricted free agent sit out the start of the season?

As negotiations drag on with top RFAs, the possibility of a stalemate looms.

Boston Bruins v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Back in November of last year, defenseman Jacob Trouba ended his stalemate with the Winnipeg Jets by signing a two-year, $6 million contract. Trouba, a restricted free agent at the time, missed the beginning of the season while pressuring the Jets into more favorable terms. Both sides eventually compromised on a bridge deal.

Restricted free agency can be a tricky situation. In between the team-friendly entry-level contracts and player-friendly unrestricted free agency, there’s the middle ground of restricted free agency. Players are allowed to field offer sheets from other teams, while the original team retains the right to match any deal. In theory, this should give players more leverage, but the lack of offer sheets has cut into that.

So for some players, like Trouba, the only leverage left is to sit out games. Both sides have up until early October to reach an agreement, but if one doesn’t come together, an RFA can always threaten to refuse to sign and sit out.

Is there anyone who could do that this year?

Right now, there are 20 restricted free agents who are still unsigned, per Cap Friendly. At the top are Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl and Boston’s David Pastrnak, two of the best young players in the league.

Here’s the complete list: Draisaitl, Pastrnak, Alexander Wennberg, Bo Horvat, Connor Brown, Damon Severson, Andreas Athanasiou, Josh Anderson, Sam Bennett, Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Anthony Duclair, Nikita Zadorov, Brendan Gaunce, Brett Kulak, Tyler Wotherspoon, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Robbie Russo, and Petteri Lindbohm.

For most of the teams involved here, cap space for the upcoming season isn’t a huge issue. The Oilers still have $16.8 million in space to re-sign Draisaitl, per Cap Friendly. The Bruins, Blue Jackets, and Devils all have at least $10 million. Those teams have the flexibility to get deals done without issue.

But not every team is in such a rosy position. The Red Wings are already nearly $4 million over the cap without Athanasiou and Russo under contract. Placing Johan Franzen on long-term injured reserve will get Detroit near the salary cap, but GM Ken Holland reportedly plans to make other moves before the season in order to get the Red Wings cap compliant for opening day.

Detroit won’t carry nine defensemen on its roster, so you can assume they’ll trade or waive at least one player there. But if Athanasiou wants to play hard ball with the Red Wings, who appear to be aiming for a two-year bridge deal, then it could further complicate an already tricky situation for Holland.

The Flames are another team that still has a lot to sort out. They have just $7.17 million in cap space with Bennett, Kulak, and Wotherspoon as RFAs. The big name there is obviously Bennett, the No. 4 overall pick from the 2014 NHL draft. Bennett hasn’t been amazing over the past two years with 63 points in 158 games, so it’s not like he’s going to command some massive long-term commitment.

But that deal will likely push them much closer to $75 million with the need to add at least two more players to the roster, so the Flames are presumably treading lightly with Bennett’s cap hit.

Outside of the Red Wings, none of these teams will need to make moves just to re-sign RFAs, but we’re getting to that point in the summer where the pressure begins increasing and the staredowns begin.

What if Draisaitl, having seen teammate Connor McDavid get $12 million per year, Ryan Johansen get $8 million per year, and Evgeny Kuznetsov get $7.75 million per year, decides he won’t sign for less than $8 million annually? The Oilers could afford that, but they may hesitate to with so much money already tied to McDavid and others. It’s already being suggested the inflated market for star RFAs is making negotiations more difficult.

What happens then? Does Draisaitl back off his asking price eventually, or do the Oilers cave in knowing they can’t have these issues looming over a potential Stanley Cup season? The pressure will only increase for both sides to get a deal done, and it’ll be interesting to see who blinks first. It’s a similar situation with the Bruins and Pastrnak, who will surely get a big deal sooner than later, and there’s also Jack Eichel’s new deal looming in Buffalo. Presumably everyone is waiting around to see who signs so they can use those new deals as comparables.

Second contracts for NHL stars have skyrocketed over the past few years, but that’s largely because teams recognized players’ primes occur earlier than previously thought. It makes more sense to pay a premium for a player’s best years than underpay him through his 20s, only to brutally overpay him in his 30s, which used to happen a lot more often.

But restricted free agents still don’t have a ton of leverage over teams, even as negotiations drag into the late summer months when most of us just want to be kicking back under the sun. Occasionally, a player will exercise his leverage, either to get traded or to get more money, like Trouba did last year.

There’s nobody among the current RFAs who seems likely to go that route, at least from what we’ve heard in reports. Athanasiou seems like the best candidate, but the Red Wings could make moves to ensure re-signing him isn’t an issue.

So we probably won’t see a Trouba-like contract stalemate again this year, but with 20 players still unsigned, the door is open. It’ll be interesting to see how all these situations get resolved (or not resolved) by the start of the 2017-18 season.