Young NHL depth players like Jacob Trouba asking for more -- right now
Defenceman Jacob Trouba is asking the Jets to trade him. (Kevin King/Winnipeg Sun/Files)
If nothing else, the first week of the NHL belonged to the kids.
After scoring three goals and six points in three games, 19-year-old Connor McDavid was named the NHL’s first star. Auston Matthews, who is also 19, was named the second star after scoring four goals in his first game.
But while two of the NHL’s brightest young players were showcasing their skill, two others — Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba and Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm — spent the first week of the regular season sitting at home without a contract.
Their situations might be different, but Trouba and Lindholm, who are both 22, find themselves at a similar crossroad: at the end of the day, the two restricted free agents want more, whether it’s more money or more opportunity, to show they are stars. And the success of McDavid and Matthews has a lot to do with it.
“I think we all know that we wouldn’t be in this situation right now if it wasn’t a young man’s game,” said Kurt Overhardt, who represents Trouba. “Part of it is systemic. But the other part is the skill level of players coming out of junior and college and Europe is pretty incredible.
“We’ve got 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds playing huge roles on teams. And at 22-years-old, a player doesn’t want to stay around waiting if he thinks his ability is greater than the opportunity he’s been given, because there’s really great players in front of him.”
Trouba requested a trade out of Winnipeg in May because as a right-shot defenceman he didn't want to be stuck playing behind Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers, where his ice time and opportunity would be limited. Lindholm’s ask is simpler, if not more expensive, in that he wants to be paid as the No. 1 defenceman that he showed he could be with the Ducks last season.
As Group 2 restricted free agents, neither Trouba nor Lindholm has much in the way of negotiating leverage. So they sit and wait, while hoping their absence forces their respective teams — Winnipeg is 1-1-0 and Anaheim is 0-2-1 — into making a deal.
“The season is more than three games,” said player agent Claude Lemieux, who represents Lindholm. “Trying to get a long-term deal is more than just the performance of the team during a short period of time. There’s definitely motivation from both sides to try and get a deal done.”
If these cases look familiar, it is because more and more of them keep popping up. They are all slightly different, but more or less all revolve around the fact that young players want more — and they want it now.
“You have a younger player and you can’t keep him down forever,” said Lemieux. “Now there’s a motivation for these blue chip young players who have proven themselves for two, three years, that they can play a major role.”
Last year it was Jonathan Drouin who sat out and requested a trade out of Tampa Bay because he was tired of being sent down to the minors (the team refused and he ended up finishing the year with the Lightning). Five years ago, Ottawa’s Kyle Turris — another Overhardt client — wanted out of Arizona because he wanted a “fresh start” where he could be a top-2 centre.
It took last-minute negotiations for Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen to get new contracts, while Anaheim forward Rickard Rakell missed the first game of the season before signing a six-year deal worth US$22.8-million.
“There’s a lot of pressure on these teams to play their young players,” said Overhardt. “If you look at the league average in age today to where it was 10 years ago, you’re seeing a dramatic decrease. I just think every team handles the age of their players and their skillset and the pieces they have differently. And they’re entitled to.”
As Team North America showed us at the World Cup of Hockey, the kids are taking over the NHL. McDavid was named the youngest captain in league history, while Gaudreau tied for sixth in scoring last season at the age of 22. In Toronto, defenceman Morgan Rielly (22) leads the team in ice time, while rookies Matthews and Mitch Marner (both 19) are in the top-3 amongst Leafs forwards in minutes played.
Players are not only developing and being thrust into impact roles on their teams earlier than before, but they also are being pushed out of jobs sooner. As such, they want to be paid now.
“That limited window is key,” said Overhardt. “Before the 2005 lockout, players didn’t hit free agency and didn’t hit the big money until they were 29-30 years. Now we’re seeing 21-22 year-olds signing these long-term deals. That’s a dramatic change.”