As training camps begin around the NHL this weekend, two of the Blackhawks’ most intimidating division rivals are missing star players indefinitely.
The Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen and the Jets’ Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are among a sizable bunch of restricted free agents continuing their contract holdouts into the preseason.
Their absences, especially if they last into October and past opening day, will be hugely beneficial for the Hawks, who have a rocky climb into a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Central -Division.
Rantanen — one-third of the Avalanche’s killer top line (Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, to be fair, are still around) — is coming off back-to-back 80-point seasons at age 22. The Finnish forward is projected to receive a whopping $10 million per year when he does sign, according to the hockey website Evolving Wild, but Rantanen recently said he can’t “say an exact timetable” for when that might happen.
The Jets are even more short-handed with Connor (66 points in 2018-19) and Laine (50) holding out, adding another headache to a disastrous offseason in which the franchise also lost Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Kevin Hayes, Brandon Tanev and Ben Chiarot. Evolving Wild projects that Connor and Laine will earn around $7 million on their eventual deals.
Other franchises around the league also are in trouble, including the Flames (Matthew Tkachuk, coming off a 77-point year, and Andrew Mangiapane are holdouts) and Canucks (Brock Boeser has yet to re-sign after a 56-point campaign), as well as the Maple Leafs (much-discussed Mitch Marner) and Lightning (Brayden Point).
Now that Brendan Perlini has re-signed, the Hawks no longer have any boats caught in the storm, so they’ll root for the RFA gang to hold strong as long as possible.
Besides disrupting those teams’ training camps and roster chemistry, there might be some direct benefits. The Jets, for example, visit the United Center on Oct. 12, the third game of the season.
But the cyclone could arrive in equal, if not stronger, force in Chicago next summer.
As Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome hit the Fifth Third Arena ice for the start of camp Friday, they enter the crucial final year of their entry-level deals. Making less than $1 million each, both will be due for megamillion-dollar contracts in a year’s time.
Furthermore, the leaguewide RFA class will be loaded again. Matt Murray, Mathew Barzal, Nico Hischier and Max Domi will join DeBrincat and Strome.
So as 2019 marks a new era of free-agent stubbornness, with young stars willing to trade practice time for extra cash more readily than ever before, 2020 could prove much of the same.
This obviously is not news to Hawks general manager Stan Bowman, who has been anticipating it throughout the summer.
“For [this coming] season, we’re in a better place than most teams,” he said at the draft in June. “After that it’s hard to say because we don’t know what the cap will be a year from now and we’ve got a couple players that are going to graduate to new contracts.”
That awareness, however, doesn’t necessarily mean Bowman will be able to prevent the crisis. Marner and Laine’s next contracts were discussed regularly in summer 2018, with the former already negotiating with Leafs GM Kyle Dubas at the time. Yet things still are where they are today.
For now, however, the Hawks are profiteers. Any slight edge in the Central this season will be much needed and much appreciated.
Just don’t laugh too loudly at the Avs’ and Jets’ plights.