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The Nugent-Hopkins Number

It’s not the fault of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that the NHL is looking at a flat salary cap of $81.5 million for the next two, three or even four years because of the economic impact of COVID-19, but as a pending free agent, it most certainly is his problem.

Nugent-Hopkins, who turns 28 in April, is 622 games and a decade into his career with the Edmonton Oilers. RNH has been a very good player. He’s been a productive player and he is proving to be a versatile player, as we’ve seen with his move from centre to left wing alongside Connor McDavid. On top of all that, RNH has said he wants to stay, despite more losing than winning here. Frankly, you’ve got to look pretty hard to find something not to like.

Under normal circumstances, the expectation by agent Rick Valette and RNH that a salary bump from the $6-million AAV he’s been at in his expiring seven-year deal worth $42 million to an AAV of $7 million or maybe even more in a new deal, isn’t unreasonable. The problem is, these aren’t normal circumstances. Fair market value isn’t what it was even 12 months ago before COVID turned things upside down. That sucks for Nugent-Hopkins, but that’s the reality.

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After opening negotiations on a new contract before the season began, discussions between Oilers’ GM Ken Holland and the RNH camp have gone cold to the point the sides aren’t even talking, according to all reports. The debate isn’t whether RNH is a player worth keeping, but rather what number makes sense for both sides with the $81.5 million flat cap looming. What’s fair? What’s realistic? What’s the number?

HOT TAKES

Jan 9, 2020; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) reacts with teammates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the third period at the Bell Centre.

Checking in on social media and local sports call-in shows these days, the range is #keepnugeforever money to low-ball go-away money – with neither end of the spectrum deserving any oxygen. One caller to the Dustin Nielson Show on TSN 1260 today said his top end for an RNH deal was three years at $4.25 million a season. Sure. Another said he’d pay whatever it takes, as much as $9 million a season. I thought I heard Frank barking in the background.

The number, obviously, sits somewhere in the middle. I’ve got mine and you’ve got yours. Given the circumstances and the flat cap, I’ve said more than once my offer would be five years for $30 million, or the same $6 million AAV Nugent-Hopkins is at now. Like I said earlier, if Holland had normal cap growth to work with, I’d be OK with a $7-million AAV. That’s not the case. It’s a crappy time to be looking for a deal in the UFA market.

For me, a five-year term makes sense because history shows that most players begin to decline in terms of offensive production once they get much past age 30. There are exceptions to be sure, but I don’t see Nugent-Hopkins being more productive at age 34 or 35 than the .74 PPG he’s produced to this point in his career despite the .84 and .94 PPG he’s put up in the two previous seasons (he’s at .83 PPG this season).

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I think RNH probably has three or four prime seasons left in him, but not six, seven or eight. Beyond five seasons, I’d be willing to play along with the #keepnugeforever hashtag by looking at another contract with the kind of numbers that reflect where he’s at then. If he wants to stay, I want him here, just not at any cost.

The risk with the contract numbers I’m talking about is there’s a chance, even with a flat cap, RNH might get more money or more term elsewhere if he tests the UFA market. Fair enough, but if I’m Holland, I’m not hamstringing myself to keep him – and citing examples of stupid money being thrown at other players in the past isn’t a good reason to do it again.

THE WAY I SEE IT

Mar 5, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) scores against Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford (50) during the second period at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

His offensive numbers aside, RNH brings a lot to the table. As noted, he can play centre or wing. He can work the penalty kill and the power play. McDavid wants him here, and that’s not a small consideration – especially if you let RNH get away and can’t find somebody to take his place. Ryan Rishaug of TSN talked about that with Nielson today.

“There are two important conversations to have,” Rishaug said. “The first one is market value. Where’s his market value? Compare him to other players. Look at previous signings. You do all that research and you compare all those numbers. That’s all well and good. Go ahead and do that, and then you apply the flat-cap reality to that part of the conversation.

“But my next question will be, and the next conversation you need to have is, OK, well if it’s not him, who are you getting? Who is it going to be then? Who are you spending that money on? The one thing I’ll say is this, if Connor McDavid is losing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins off his wing, they better be standing there going, ‘Yeah, but look who we got for you . . .”

It’s a tough time to negotiate a deal with a player who is worth keeping. I don’t want to lose RNH over a few hundred thousand dollars a season, so if there’s a way for Holland to find more money within that $81.5 million cap to keep him without tying his own hands in terms of the rest of the roster, have at it.

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Previously by Robin Brownlee