Contract negotiations for Columbus Blue Jackets RFAs Pierre-Luc Dubois and Vladislav Gavrikov "appear to have stalled", according to a report from The Athletic's Aaron Portzline.
The Blue Jackets own the rights to both players, so, as GM Jarmo Kekalainen told Portzline, "if they want to play in the NHL, we have to agree on a contract.”
And while this is technically a true statement, with the caveat that Dubois could negotiate and sign an offer sheet with any of the other 30 (active) NHL franchises, it doesn't exactly put the Blue Jackets in a positive light (Note: Gavrikov has not accrued the necessary amount of professional seasons, and is therefore ineligible for an offer sheet, per CapFriendly.com).
Kekalainen and the front office have cited their leverage in virtually every moderately high-profile RFA case since he became GM in 2013. This front office is so fond of using the hammer in negotiations that we may start calling Kekalainen The Carpenter™. Here's a quick recap of a few high-profile RFA contract negotations:
- 2014: Ryan Johansen sat out for all of training camp, eventually signing a 3-year, $12M contract three days before the start of the regular season. He was traded halfway through the contract to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Seth Jones.
- 2017: Josh Anderson followed in Johansen's footsteps, signing a deal just four days before the start of the season. His contract paid him a meager (relatively) $1.85M over three seasons. That contract expired this offseason, and, you guessed it, the two parties couldn't agree on a contract. Ultimately he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Max Domi (Note: to give credit where credit is due, Domi was an RFA and signed with little fanfare).
- 2019: Zach Werenski signed a 3-year, $15M contract just days before the Blue Jackets opened up training camp. And while this negotiation lacked the same tension as Johansen and Anderson (x2), the point remains that a deadline (in this case, training camp) was ultimately the catalyst for agreeing on a new contract.
I completely understand where Kekalainen and the front office are coming from in utilizing their advantageous position. I've commended this front office for creating a situation where the club has cap flexibility, and that's largely because they've been judicious in handing out team-friendly (as opposed to player-friendly) contracts. By this definition, they've done a masterful job.
On the other hand, part of running a professional franchise is recruiting, or at least, retaining, top-end players. And I'm not exactly breaking news that the franchise has historically had a difficult time attracting top-end players to this marketplace. Is it because of the city? Perhaps, but my larger point is that the reputation around the league is that the front office squeezes players on contracts.
It's worth noting that there are other notable RFAs outside of Columbus who are still unsigned. Mat Barzal headlines the list, but others, like Mikhail Sergavhev, Ryan Strome, Anthony Cirelli, Anthony Mantha, Dylan Strome, and Jake Debrusk are still without contracts.
There isn't any doom and gloom to report - yet. But the longer Dubois and Gavrikov go without contracts, the more contentious the relationships could become. And for a club that desperately needs to keep its current (and future) key RFAs, like Dubois, Werenski, Gavrikov, and Oliver Bjorkstrand, continuing the trend of cantankerous contract negotiations could prove a losing recipe in the long run.