Key RFAs still in search of new deals

Jamie Benn is still in need of a new contract for this season. Jerome Miron/US Presswire

It was six and a half hours of meeting through a mediator on Wednesday between the NHL and NHLPA with little to show for it.

The response of one player involved in the negotiations, who was asked if there was any progress made on Wednesday, pretty much summed it up.

"Not really," he said, on his way home from New Jersey last night.

He wasn't sticking around for the possibility of more meetings, which doesn't leave a lot of optimism about a deal in the immediate future.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said there's currently no offer on the table, although it's quite possible that the league let the mediator know that their last offer was an option if the players were ready to accept.

All we know for sure from Daly's comments is that an entire day was spent together and the two sides were never even in the same room.

It's too bad, because the timing of a deal could have really worked in the favor of a couple players. It still could.

On Wednesday, the Hamburg Freezers announced that Jamie Benn had left the team for personal issues, with Stars beat writer Mike Heika suggesting that it could be as simple as he wants to be home for Christmas. Without a new CBA, he's expected to return to Germany in January.

Earlier this week, colleague Katie Strang reported that Michael Del Zotto returned to New York for treatment on a minor back injury.

With both players in North America, the timing of a CBA couldn't be better because as soon as the lockout is concluded, attention will immediately turn to them and a few others like P.K. Subban, Ryan O'Reilly and Dmitry Kulikov. Unlike many players who were part of the rush to sign before the expiration of the last CBA, they opted to wait. They remain restricted free agents who will have to get a new deal done in the short period of time between the conclusion of CBA talks and the start of a season.

"Our sense is that we would be in touch immediately with the relevant teams and arrange to meet as soon as possible," said Newport's Don Meehan, whose agency represents three of the restricted free agents without a deal in Del Zotto, Subban and O'Reilly. "We have it on our agenda to move quickly ... get an understanding of the new rules and in the meantime, we're not permitted to talk to each other."

There certainly was an element of risk in waiting to sign for Benn, Subban and others since it wasn't clear when unrestricted free agency would kick in under the new deal and there were no contract term limitations in the last CBA. But owners have backed off demands to move free agency beyond 27. Most of those deals made in the final few weeks before the lockout would be allowable under the NHL's last offer, which allows teams to sign their own free agents for up to seven seasons. Taylor Hall signed a seven-year deal to keep him in Edmonton long-term. Evander Kane, John Carlson, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner and Jordan Eberle all signed six-year contracts. Kyle Turris, Kari Lehtonen, Cam Fowler and Kevin Klein signed five-year deals.

These are the players who would be in the comparable pool when it comes to new deals for the most prominent restricted free agents without contracts.

It may have looked like a risk to wait, but those five will now have a clear understanding of the landscape moving forward when they eventually sign their deals. You could argue that they also now have leverage in the short term because teams aren't necessarily going to want to get into a contract dispute with one of their best young players coming off an ugly lockout. Fans can only stomach so much.

While Meehan politely declined to comment on who has the leverage, he said the fact that Newport's three restricted free agents were such important players to their team made it easier to wait and see what the new CBA looked like.

"We're very comfortable with the players involved given their presence in the game and their contributions," Meehan said. "We weren't necessarily worried about the unknown."

Meehan said Newport spent considerable time planning and projecting the Subban contract, starting at the draft. Subban has stated publicly that he'd like to stay in Montreal long-term.

In 160 career NHL games, Subban has 21 goals and 55 assists. A comparable may be Fowler, who has 15 goals and 54 assists in 158 career games. The Ducks signed Fowler to a five-year, $20 million contract in mid-September, a number significantly higher than the two-year deal worth $5.5 million that RDS reported the Canadiens offered Subban in early August.

Fowler is also a good comparable for Del Zotto. Del Zotto is coming off his best season, scoring 10 goals and 31 assists in 77 games, which is almost identical to Fowler's 10-goal, 30-assist standout rookie season.

Del Zotto's back injury is minor tenderness and nothing a few days of rehab this week won't cure. His agent, Mark Guy, expects negotiations to heat up immediately after a CBA deal is reached.

"Obviously they are all very important players to their respective teams," wrote Guy in an e-mail. "We are and have been prepared for these negotiations for quite some time so the reality is getting to work quickly will not be an issue."

The coming transition rules debate between the league and NHLPA may impact the Del Zotto negotiations more than any of the five big RFAs. According to CapGeek.com, the Rangers are at $59 million in cap payroll, which gives them plenty of cap space if there's a temporary $70 million salary cap coming out of the lockout.

But the league has been resistant to the idea of amnesty buyouts and is fighting to count large AHL salaries against the cap, which means the Rangers will have to do something with Wade Redden who still has two more seasons that come with a cap hit of $6.5 million. After this season, both Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh are restricted free agents, and the team can start talking to goalie Henrik Lundqvist about a contract extension on July 1. If the cap drops to $60 million next season, things get tight in New York.

So the moment the ban on negotiations is lifted, Newport and the Rangers need to figure out exactly where Del Zotto fits in.

"They've all been professional and clinical discussions," Meehan said. "We're all going to have to kick into high gear quickly."