I was called away on pleasure this weekend, so my big primer on the RFA rules will be slightly smaller and likely more error-filled than planned. Just the way everyone likes it.
According to the current NHL CBA, a player become eligible for unrestricted free agency when they hit the age of 27 (on June 30th) or accrue 7 season in the NHL. While there are some exceptions, like Group VI free agency, most of the players whose entry-level deal has expired and have not reached that milestone fall into the group II category - Restricted Free Agents (RFAs).
Teams have until 5pm on the first Monday after the NHL draft (this year, we're talking June 28th) to submit a qualifying offer (QO) to a RFA with an expired contract. Any RFA that is not tendered a QO becomes an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with anyone after July 1st (they may still end up with their old club, as Tyler Weiman did last season). Player who receive a QO have a couple of options: sign it, go to arbitration (if they are eligible to do so), find another league to play in, hold out for a better deal, or hope another team signs them to an offer sheet. Generally, the first two or three are what happens in the majority of cases. Players have little leverage to make a hold out work and teams who sign restricted free agents to an offer sheet have to compensate the other team with a bevy of draft picks (the original team may also choose to match the offer and retain the player).
There's your two paragraph primer. There will be no test. Instead, let's dive into the Avs' RFA situation this offseason. I used NHLNumbers, CapGeek and AvalancheDB to come up with these numbers. Any mistakes, blame them.
By my count, the Avalanche have 11 players, and I'll go through each one. The Avalanche currently have just $28 million committed to payroll next season - only one team (the Blues) is lower. Money isn't a huge consideration right now, but that doesn't mean the Avalanche will qualify each of these players.
F Chris Stewart. QO required: $892,500. Stewart is 2 years away from arbitration and 5 years away from unrestricted free agency. However, with 28 goals scored last year, he's going to attract some attention if he is available on the RFA market this summer. The last thing the Avalanche want is to have to match a glitzy offer sheet for Stewart. I suspect the Avs and Stewart will come to terms on a deal before the June 28th deadline. How much? In 2005, the Kings signed 23-year old former 1st-round pick Alexander Frolov to a 5-year deal at $2.9 million per season that locked him up through his first year of UFA eligibility. Frolov had 2 seasons under his belt and was coming of a 24-goal season. In 2007, the Devils 23-year old Zack Parise to a 4-year deal at $3.125 million - a deal that ends 1 year before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Parise was coming off his 2nd season in New Jersey - a season when he scored 31 goals and 61 points. I think Stewart will be in that ballpark - either a 4 or 5 year deal paying him between $3 and $3.5 million per year.
D Kyle Quincey. QO $605,000. Here's where I get confused. I thought I'd read somewhere that Quincey is arbitration eligible this year, but I'm not sure why that would be. Quincey signed his first NHL contract in July of 2005. He was 19 at the time, but for arbitration purposes he was 20 (he turned 20 by September 15th of that year). Players signing their first contract at age 20 become arbitration eligible after 4 NHL seasons of 10 games or more. Quincey just finished his second. By my math, he won't be arbitration for 2 more years (when he'll be 1 year away from UFA status). If I'm missing something and he is eligible, I don't think he'd have much trouble convincing an arbitrator that he's worth at least James Wisniewski money ($2.75 million). Without arbitration, his contract value is a bit more difficult to determine. While it's true that Quincey is a good young defenseman, I've stated here before that his most valuable asset is his tiny contract. A team signing Quincey to a $2 million offer sheet would be subject to handing the Avs a 1st and 3rd round pick - a deal Avalanche GM Greg Sherman would agree to in a heartbeat. With all the young defensemen on the horizon, what do the Avalanche do with Quincey? Frankly, I don't have a clue. I could see them trading him this summer while his value is still high (I hear he could net Ryan Smyth in a trade).
F Brandon Yip. QO $632,500. With only 32 NHL games to date, Yip is a tough case to evaluate. Since he was 24 when he signed his first NHL contract, he's eligible for arbitration this year, but he doesn't have enough on his resume to convince an arbitrator he is worth much more than what he'll be offered. Yip has 2 more years before becoming eligible for UFA. You may see the Avs sign him to a 2-year deal that pays him something in the $1 to $1.5 million range per year, but I think it's just as likely that they will tender him for the minimum and then work on an extension next summer if he continues to develop.
F Peter Mueller, QO $892,500. Along with Quincey, Mueller is one of the most interesting cases this summer. At 22, he's a year away from arbitration and 4 years away from UFA. For this year, how do you figure his value? As an unhappy 4th liner in Phoenix with 17 points in 54 games? Or the guy who scored 20 points in 15 games with the Avalanche? The Avalanche clearly have confidence in Mueller, as they traded away Wojtek Wolski to get him. But how much will he garner? Last summer, the Rangers signed 24-year old RFA Ryan Callahan to a 2-year deal paying $2.3 million. Callahan had average .4 points per game in his career to that point. Mueller is at .57. Two summers ago, the Sharks signed 24-year old Milan Michalek to a 6 year, $4.33 million deal. Michalek's PPG was .65 at the time. I think I like Callahan better as a barometer. Let's say 3 years at $2.75 million per season. Honestly, I thought I'd find his value to be lower, but I guess he could use that cash for the new kidney.
F Kevin Porter, QO $892,500. We're only 4 players in, and we've already reached the point where it's basically either offer the minimum QO or let the player hit the UFA market. Everyone from here on down would be getting a 2-way qualifying offer (meaning they would make considerably less than their QO amounts in the minors). Porter is probably someone the Avalanche would keep, considering that the Avalanche just traded for him and he played pretty well for them. But that's a hefty cap number for a guy with 13 points in 54 NHL games and who figures to be a 4th liner for the Avalanche. I think it's possible the Avalanche will not tender Porter, but will still try to sign him this summer to a more cap-friendly deal.
F T.J. Hensick, QO $892,500. Hensick had 70 points with the Monsters last year (15th in the league) and he's still just 24 years old. He could turn it around and end up with a job in the NHL. I think he's done with the Avalanche though. I think there's almost no chance the Avalanche will tender him and there's no way Hensick re-signs with the club as a UFA.
F Codey Burki, QO $666,750. Burki was one of the picks acquired for Alex Tanguay back in 2006, but hasn't panned out. At all. Last year, he started with Lake Erie before being reassigned to the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL. Like Hensick, he'll be looking for a fresh start with another organization next year.
D Derek Peltier, QO $577,500 Peltier will probably be a victim of the numbers game, much like Michael Vernace last year. The Avalanche have signed defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Colby Cohen, Joel Chouinard and Jonas Holøs this summer and the Avs already have Cameron Gaunce, Kevin Montgomery and Tom Preissing under contract next year, all of whom figure to be on the Lake Erie roster in the fall. There just isn't room for Peltier or for...
D Ray Macias, QO $577,500 or even...
D Wes O'Neill, QO $656, 250.
G Tyler Weiman, QO $550,000. The Avalanche did not tender Weiman last year, but still ended up signing him to maintain stability between the pipes in Cleveland. While it's clear Weiman doesn't figure into the franchise's long-term plans, he still put up better numbers than Billy Saur and Trevor Cann did with the Monsters last year. Even if Peter Delmas gets added to the mix, the 26-year old Weiman may be the best bet for a Monsters team that has a) lots of young defensemen and b) is still looking for its first postseason berth.
In the end, there's a lot of names on the upcoming RFA list, but I feel that the majority of them won't be tendered by the Avalanche. We won't know for sure until June 28th, the deadline for teams to tender qualifying offers. The Avalanche won't be formally announcing who they've tendered, but hopefully we'll be able to find out relatively soon after who has and hasn't received an offer. Surprises or not, that deadline is when the free agency season really starts. The unrestricted free agency period starts just 4 days later.
Next week, I'll look at the Avs upcoming UFAs. After that, I'll take a look at who the Avalanche could be targeting on the free agent market this summer.