NHL GMs were busy this week dishing out a ton of money in extensions. I’ll look into four of the most impactful deals and why one of them could open the floodgates for the many unsigned RFAs.
1. Kronwall Hangs ‘Em Up
I wanted to start my column with my reaction to Nicklas Kronwall’s retirement. Kronwall was one of the better defensemen I had the opportunity to watch throughout my youth. He was good offensively and was known for his big hits.
It was those big hits that made him iconic in Detroit. Every store in the city sold pictures of open-ice hit against the Chicago Blackhawks. When Kronwall laid one of these big hits, they became, the player was said to have been “Kronwalled.” A verb all his own.
He was a staple on the Red Wings’ blueline since 2003 and wore the winged wheel for my entire Red Wings fandom. He was a classy player off the ice and a true warrior on it. He will be missed by the fans of Detroit.
Kronwall wasn’t the flashiest player that suited up for the Red Wings over the years, but he did accomplish quite a lot. Not only did he win multiple Olympic and World Championship medals, but he is also one of the few players that can claim membership to the elusive Triple Gold Club, having won an Olympic Gold Medal, World Championship Gold Medal, and a Stanley Cup.
2. Keller Signs a Big Ticket
After the madness of unrestricted free agency that dominated the headlines this summer, the Arizona Coyotes decided they wanted no part in it next summer. The Coyotes and forward Clayton Keller agreed to an eight-year $57.2 million extension with a $7.15 AAV. Keller has been a solid player for the Coyotes throughout his first three seasons for the club, having scored 37 goals and adding 77 assists in 137 games which is good for a 0.68 PPG. Keller is only 21 years old.
This is a fair risk for the Coyotes to take. They lack star power other than captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the recently acquired Phil Kessel. Keller has a real shot to raise his game as he develops alongside Kessel. I’m not saying Keller is going to be a superstar, but I think he becomes a guy worthy of $7.15 million a year, even if it’s not next year. The Coyotes also benefit from this deal because if Keller does become an All-Star-caliber player, this contract will be a bargain. They are locking up Keller through his prime for a fair price. They couldn’t risk signing him to a bridge deal only for him to raise his value even more. This isn’t an A+ deal, but I would grade it a B for now.
3. Kempe Signs Extension
The Kings announced that they signed 22-year-old, Swedish forward, Adrian Kempe to a three-year deal with an AAV of $2 million. Kempe was an RFA and is entering his fourth year in the league. He has played his entire career with the Kings. Kempe finished last year with 12 goals and 16 assists which was good for 28 points. His best season was the 2017-18 season, when he finished with career highs in goals, assists, and points with 16, 21, and 37 respectively.
The more I think about this deal, the more I like it for the Kings. L.A. is obviously in the nightmare zone with many aging, expensive players on bad contracts. So, they need to do everything they can to sign high-end talent for the right price. If Kempe can develop into a second-line player and score in the 50-to-60-point neighborhood for the duration of his contract, than the Kings hit a home run with this deal. There is a lot of work to be done on Kempe’s side for that to happen, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The only downside for the Kings is if Kempe exceeds expectations as he will be a UFA when his contract expires.
4. Werenski Signs, the First RFA Bomb to Drop
Zach Werenski and the Blue Jackets were able to come to terms on a contract extension, making him the first of the few high-profile RFAs to agree to a new contract. The deal is for three years and is worth $15 million. This offseason will be remembered as the summer that all of the high-profile RFAs waited until the bitter end to sign new deals. After William Nylander held out into the middle of last season, it seems as many of his fellow union members are going to follow suit. Mitch Marner, Kyle Connor, Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, and many others still haven’t signed their new contracts yet. Werenski is the first as of today.
To be blunt, Werenski got shafted with this deal. The 22-year-old defenseman has scored 128 points in 237 career games, good for 0.54 PPG. The Blue Jackets had $15 million in cap space this summer after letting Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene walk for nothing in free agency. Werenski is a future star on the blueline and had all the leverage necessary to cash in big. He has already proven he’s top-tier player and didn’t need to sign a bridge deal if he didn’t want to. If he were to hit the open market, he could fetch a seven-year deal in the neighborhood of $6.5-$7 million. I’m not saying a $5 million AAV isn’t fair price right now, especially considering his superior teammate, Seth Jones, only has a $5.4 million AAV.
This is not a good sign for the other players holding out. I think Werenski got spooked about missing training camp and caved. I’m sure other GMs around the league will start to apply pressure on their RFAs and their agents to get them to sign for less than their worth. As a fan, I’m hoping all of those guys sign, so they don’t miss any games this season. I do hope they get what their worth and sign big deals when these bridge deals expire.
5. Prospect Tournament Spotlight: Eeli Tolvanen
One of the few interesting times of the NHL offseason is when each team’s prospects report to development camp. This is where each team’s top prospects face off for a few scrimmages throughout the week. It does provide reporters the opportunity to see the prospects up close and generates some great storylines.
This year, one of the top stories of development camp is Predators’ prospect, Eeli Tolvanen. Tolvanen has been an enigma since he crossed the Atlantic and signed with the Predators. Originally drafted in 30th overall in 2017, Tolvanen dominated the 2018 Olympics for his native Finland, scoring 9 points in 5 games. He named to both the Olympic and KHL All-Star team that year. Since then, he has only been able to muster seven games in the NHL and has recorded one goal and one assist. Many have questioned whether his ability would transfer to a North American rink.
This summer, Tolvanen has already potted a few goals in development camp and has impressed Predators’ brass. I’ve been super high on this kid ever since I saw him play in the Olympics. One of my favorite parts of international tournaments is seeing players dominate before they come to the NHL Nikita Gusev was one of those guys when he tore up the Olympics and he will debut this year with the Devils. I hope Tolvanen tears it up this year so North America can see what we all saw back in 2018. ■
Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.