Somewhat the same, but different somehow. The best way to describe the contractual situations of three of the top choices in the NHL’s 2005 entry draft.

All three are in their first “restricted free agent” year, unsigned and looking for major contract increases.. Bobby Ryan of the Anaheim Ducks and Marc Staal of the New York Rangers have proven themselves. Although Carey Price has shown flashes of brilliance, despite being handed the keys to the Canadiens number one goaltending job, he has yet to realize full potential. In each case, this is the one year in the players career where their team can maintain full negotiating control. Next year, if they’re not signed to longer term deals, the players will have the benefit of the salary arbitration process.

Bobby Ryan was drafted second overall in 2005 (behind Sidney Crosby). Price was the 5th choice (after Jack Johnson-3rd and Benoit Pouliot-4th). Marc Staal was taken 11th  by the Rangers.

After back-to-back seasons of thirty-plus goals, Ryan is looking for something in the neightbourhood of an annual five million dollars in a contract of no more than three years duration. The Ducks have reportedly offered a five year contract at five million a season or four years at a 4.65 million dollar average. With his bonus money, Ryan earned just under two-million dollars last season. The two sides remain stalemated.

In Staal’s case, we’re dealing with a hard-headed cap-strapped general manager in Glen Sather and Staal’s agent Bobby Orr who is fully aware of just how good his client is. Staal is one of the NHL’s best shutdown defensemen. He led the Rangers defence in ice time last season and was plus-11 with a team that didn’t make the playoffs. Staal had no bonus money in last year’s contract, earning 765-thousand dollars. He’s looking for four million on a short-term deal. The Rangers are thinking more in the 2.5 million area. Sather calls the gap in the two side’s thinking “a chasm”.  And Sather can be stubborn.  Last year he wouldn’t budge when Brandon Dubinsky held out until the 8th day of training camp before he was forced to sign a two-year 3.7 million dollar contract.

And that brings us to Price. There are all kinds of things at play here. He finished the season as the Canadiens backup goaltender. The Canadiens annointed him number one by trading away Jaroslav Halak and I’m sure Price’s agent is exploiting that situation. But, on the other side Price and his agent are negotiating in a current climate that has not been kind to goaltenders.  His statistics, although not the be-all and end-all, aren’t great. He was 21st among the league’s goaltenders in save-percentage and 31st in goals against average. And he wasn’t a winning goaltender, a fact that is constantly repeated.  Like the Ryan and Staal camps, Price’s agent is looking for a short-term,one year or two year deal, that won’t eat into the year’s when hel qualifies as an unrestricted free-agent. The Canadiens, despite Price’s unrealized potential, are probably thinking more long-term. History tells us the logical end to this is two years at 2.5 million dollars or so.

The problem all three players face is bargaining power. As restricted free-agents other teams are free to make an offer. The Rangers and Ducks have said they’ll exercise their right to match anything that comes along. The Canadiens would probably do the same thing. Blackhawks defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson, a late draft pick in 2005, is the only restricted free agent to be tendered an outside offer. San Jose offered him a four-year 14-million dollar contract. The Hawks promptly matched it. At this point in time most teams are locked into their salary caps and are unlikely to be making any outside offers.  Players do have the right to hold out. But if the hold-out goes beyond December he would be forced to sit out the rest of the season.  

There are other unsigned UFA’s out there including Oilers forwards Sam Gagne and Andrew Cogliano, plus Colorado’s Peter Mueller and Chris Stewart, James Neal of Dallas and Niclas Bergfors of Atlanta. The Edmonton Gagner-Cogliano situation is being held up by the team’s need to unload Sheldon Souray’s contract. Mueller’s value is clouded by the severe concussion that ended his 2009-2010 season. The others are simply the same debate as Price/Ryan/Staal. Two sides looking for the right fit.