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Where There’s a Will…

Thinking back to the months leading to Tuesday’s announcement the Edmonton Oilers and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had come to terms on a new contract, I didn’t see GM Ken Holland getting a deal for the kind of dollars he’d be comfortable with or for RNH to get the kind of term he might get on the UFA market. I, like many of you, was wrong on both counts.

In the end, Holland got a cap-friendly AAV he could live with at $5.125 million a season and RNH got the term he couldn’t get anywhere else – an eight-year deal with a NMC that’ll see him spend his entire NHL career with the Oilers. Holland was offering more money per year but not as much term in negotiations began with agent Rick Valette opened in January 2020. No deal to be had at that time. Then came COVID and talk of a flat cap. Talks went in stops and starts.

Along the way, in what Holland yesterday called the most unique negotiation in his career as a GM, which is a mouthful when you consider how many contracts he’s done over so many years, RNH maintained his desire to stay in Edmonton. Not necessarily smart bargaining strategy when you’re holding UFA cards and can go to market looking for a home run, but an honest reflection of how he felt. No posturing.

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I’ve seen contract talks go sideways a time or two when teams and players have dug themselves in and played hardball, but that didn’t happen here. In signing for $41 million over eight years, RNH left some AAV, maybe a million bucks a season, on the table to make a deal happen. Holland got his number and offered up three more years than what made sense to a lot of people to get it. If that’s not the dictionary definition of negotiating, I don’t know what is.

 THE ART OF THE DEAL

Mar 27, 2018; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) celebrates a first period goal assisted by forward Connor McDavid (97), his 100th point of the season at Rogers Place.

“Probably the most unique contract I’ve had to deal with,” Holland told Dustin Nielson at TSN 1260 Wednesday. “The most important thing was Nuge’s No. 1 priority was to be an Oiler. He loves being an Oiler. He loves living in Edmonton. He loves the fan base . . . there was tremendous motivation on Ryan’s part to remain an Edmonton Oiler.

“Obviously, for my part, he’s been here for eight or nine years (10 actually). He’s part of the core group, he’s a centre ice man who can play the wing, he’s got chemistry with Leon (Draisaitl), he kills penalties and we’ve got the No. 1 power play the last two years in a row. He, along with Connor (McDavid) and Leon are on the power play every game. He’s a very good player. A very versatile player and it was very important to me to find a solution to keeping him in Edmonton.

“The challenge is, obviously, in a cap world you can’t just pay everybody what they want. From the player’s perspective, you can’t just take a significant decrease in what you might get in the open market just because he wants to live at home . . . this is probably his last significant negotiation, so certainly it’s important to the security of his family. I think everybody that goes to work, whatever job you’re in, you like to be fairly compensated.”

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The money quote, where the will of both sides to get something done made a difference, is this: “To get Ryan to reduce, to go from $6 million to $5.125, I have to give up something. I can’t get my term and my cap number. That’s not a negotiation, you know? Ultimately, the give was the term and the security . . . is there an opportunity to make a lot more money? Yeah, but he decided he wasn’t going to go that route. To get the cap number, I had to give term. That’s what negotiation is all about.”

Negotiations should work this way all the time, but they don’t. You only need to look back at what happened with Ryan Smyth in 2007 to know that. With Smyth approaching UFA status, agent Don Meehan and Oilers’ GM Kevin Lowe couldn’t close the gap on what amounted to a few hundred thousand dollars a year on a new deal. Smyth, making $3.5 million, didn’t want to take a hometown discount after 12 seasons.

Lowe couldn’t or wouldn’t meet the ask by Smyth. When negotiations stalled on trade deadline day, Smyth was dealt to the New York Islanders. That teary departure we all remember. Smyth, by the way, signed a $31.25 million UFA deal with the Colorado Avalanche that summer with a $6.250 AAV. Smyth circled back to end his career here, but he never should have had to leave. That won’t happen with RNH.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Mar 15, 2021; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) skates during the warmup period against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome.

We can reasonably debate how effective RNH will be in the final three years of this contract, which is lighter on the back end, but the first five years begin with McDavid, Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse entering their prime years. These next five years look to me like the best window for the Oilers to get something done. Rather than taking away from the core and having to find a replacement for RNH, Holland can now use available cap space to add to it.

At the bottom line, the Oilers get a good player at a reasonable cap hit who can contribute to getting something done in this window of opportunity. The player gets the security he’s looking for. This kind of win-win should be a no-brainer, but we know it doesn’t always work out that way. This is how you do it.

Previously by Robin Brownlee