There Could Be More Short-Term NHL Contract Signings This Summer

by | Jun 11, 2023 | Soapbox

For the first time since 2019, the NHL’s annual free-agent period will open on July 1.

Apart from spoiling the Canada Day holiday for pundits, bloggers and freelancers (like me), it represents another return to normalcy for a league that – like everyone and everything else in the world – saw its normal calendar upset by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s usually a time when restricted and unrestricted free agents sign lucrative long-term contracts. Some players and teams are wasting little time getting the jump on things.

On June 5, the Montreal Canadiens re-signed RFA winger Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8-million deal. Four days later, the Columbus Blue Jackets acquired pending UFA defenseman Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils and signed him to an eight-year, $50-million contract.

Those deals seem to signal that it could be business as usual in this year’s free-agent market. However, sandwiched between the Caufield and Severson signings was Vladislav Gavrikov’s two-year, $11.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings.

Acquired before the March trade deadline from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Gavrikov quickly established himself as a key member of the Kings’ defense corps.

The 6’3”, 217-pound blueliner played so well for the Kings that they offered him a long-term contract. However, his agent reportedly pushed for the shorter term in order for Gavrikov to reenter the UFA market when the salary cap is expected to be significantly higher.

The salary cap for 2023-24 is projected to remain flattened, rising only by $1 million to $83.5 million as per the terms of the 2020 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Meanwhile, Cap Friendly indicates 16 clubs carry less than $10 million in cap space while another five teams have less than $15 million. That’s 21 out of 32 NHL teams facing a difficult offseason bidding for UFA talent or re-signing key talent.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently explained the reason behind that ongoing flattened cap for next season is the players still have outstanding escrow payments owed to the NHL team owners due to the imbalance in hockey-related revenue during the COVID-shortened seasons of 2019-20 and 2020-21.

That outstanding balance will be paid off by the end of 2023-24, after which the cap is projected to rise by at least $4 million in 2024-25 and another $4 million in 2025-26. Some speculate those increases could be even higher.

For Gavrikov, this means he’ll become a UFA in the summer of 2025 when he’ll be 29. If he continues playing well for the Kings, he could be in line for a longer-term contract with an average annual value worth much more than the $5.875 million AAV of his upcoming deal.

Not every player will follow Gavrikov’s example, preferring the security of a long-term deal. Others, however, could see this as an opportunity to get a good raise now on a shorter term while betting on themselves to receive much bigger paydays in two or three years’ time.