The names Cody Franson and Nazem Kadri may inspire panic in certain parts of Leafs Nation, but there are no signs of any Toronto Maple Leafs executives running about as if their hair is on fire.
Both players are restricted free agents and neither is close to signing a new contract, hence the panic. Leafs general manager David Nonis politely declined to discuss the matter in detail Wednesday, but he did give a strong impression he is managing to sleep well.
This is not to say getting both players signed with only $4.9-million (U.S.) left under next season's salary cap of $64.3-million will be a piece of cake. But Nonis has options, which include starting the 2013-14 NHL season one or even two players under the 23-man roster limit. Plus, training camp is almost a month away, with the deadline for getting to the payroll limit even farther out.
The key player in this poker game is Kadri. He is younger than Franson (22, compared to 26) and has much-less NHL experience at 99 career games, compared to four full seasons for the defenceman. Both blossomed last season, with Kadri running up 44 points in 48 games as the No. 2 centre, while Franson led Leafs' blueliners in points (29).
Kadri is coming off his entry-level contract, which was a hit of $1.72-million on the salary cap last season, compared to Franson's $1.2-million.
By all accounts, Kadri wants a big raise and a long-term contract, one that reflects the star quality he has showed from time-to-time. In 99 NHL games, Kadri has 26 goals and 37 assists, respectable numbers but hardly ones that merit an immediate bump to, say, $4-million a year.
At this point, Nonis can produce a little more than $6-million in cap space by keeping only one of Paul Ranger or Korbinian Holzer as a spare defenceman and going with no extra forwards. But the majority of that cap space is ticketed for Franson.
He played his way into head coach Randy Carlyle's heart last season, going from a spare part to one of the top-three defencemen by the end of the playoffs.
Carlyle has a big say in his roster and as the older, more experienced and, in the coach's eyes, more valuable player, Franson will probably be awarded the bigger raise. Right now, the problem is getting his salary demands lower so Kadri can also be accommodated with a minimum of hurt feelings. (Franson's last salary demand was not in the range Nonis needs, and they have not talked for a couple of weeks.)
The obvious solution is the same one the Montreal Canadiens used for defenceman P.K. Subban – a bridge contract. He signed a two-year deal for cap hit of $2.87-million, then won the James Norris Memorial Trophy last season, which guarantees a rich payoff in a long-term deal in 2015.
By signing a bridge contract, Kadri could still get a decent raise and be in position to cash in when the salary cap rises to an expected level of at least $70-million for 2014-15. However, getting Kadri to take a short-term deal for something around $2-million to $2.5-million a year may take some convincing.
At this point, Kadri and Nonis have exchanged contract numbers. While Kadri's latest demand is a little more reasonable than his previous one, a significant gap remains. (When it comes to assessing his worth as a player, let's just say there are no self-esteem problems in the Nazem Kadri household.)
Nonis may be thinking of $2-million in the short-term, while Kadri is probably looking at someone like Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane, who had 11 fewer points last season but signed a six-year deal for an average of $5.25-million a year. Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche, who had 43 points last season, has a bridge contract for a $3.5-million average.
Still, there is no reason to think this cannot be done. It's just that no one should expect it to be finished before training camp starts.