“We’ll have to see what they’re looking for. The cap’s been a flat cap. They might look at it, their representatives might look at it different that the cap’s going to go up. Is it going to jump another 6, 7, 8% over the next four or five years? Are they better to go short term? Those are things that we’re going to have to walk through to see what works.”
Nill’s comments appear to suggest that on one hand, if the players’ representatives see the current flat salary cap as something that won’t go up reliably, they could take a safe approach, resulting in a long-term contract. On the other hand, if either player sees the salary cap rising significantly or reliably coming out of the flat cap, then a bridge-deal leaving them with UFA status as the cap begins to expand could be another smart option.
A long-term deal at a reasonably higher AAV could be an option either way, as it would guarantee something both sides want regardless of the cap situation. If that were the case, it could put Dallas in a tricky cap situation during the flat-cap years, but could be a favorable deal thereafter, and regardless, it locks up a franchise cornerstone player for the long haul. For the player, if the salary cap did expand, they would still have the benefit of a guaranteed long-term contract which could pay them, based on the result of the negotiation, more than they may have made during their RFA seasons.
To state the obvious, Robertson and Oettinger are not everyday RFAs for Dallas. A first-round pick in 2017, Oettinger made an immediate impact for Dallas in his debut for the Stars last season, following it up with another standout performance in 2021-22. The 2022 playoffs were Oettinger’s true introduction to the NHL though, as he almost single-handedly eliminated the Calgary Flames in the first round, playing to an incredible 1.81 goals-against average and .954 save-percentage in seven games. The start to Oettinger’s career sounds remarkably similar to that of Matt Murray, who had a strong, but quiet debut for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015-16 before bursting onto the scene in the 2016 playoffs, dominating for the Penguins en route to a Stanley Cup. Murray would follow it up with a strong showing in his first full season in the 2016-17 regular season and playoffs before signing a three-year, $11.25MM contract with Pittsburgh. If Oettinger were to take a bridge deal while waiting out the flat cap, one could expect it to look similar to this. Best yet for Oettinger is after Murray failed to replicate his early success during the life of that contract, he still was able to sign a four-year, $25MM deal after being dealt to the Ottawa Senators, signing before the 2020-21 season.
Impressive as Oettinger’s breakout was, Jason Robertson arguably stole the show. Dallas’ second-round pick in 2017, Robertson debuted for three games in 2019-20 before a strong rookie season in 2020-21, where he tallied 17 goals and 28 assists in 51 games. Already established as a key piece for Dallas, Robertson became a superstar in 2021-22, scoring 41 goals to go with 38 assists in just 74 games, adding another four points in seven playoff contests before hitting the RFA market. Like Oettinger, Robertson has put himself in a strong position going forward, but must decide how to approach the negotiations, considering the state of the salary cap.
As the above-mentioned article suggests, Robertson could go for the shorter bridge deal, potentially leading to a cap hit of $7MM, but could find himself with a cap hit as high as $9MM should he agree to a long-term deal. New York Islanders’ forward Mat Barzal signed a three-year bridge deal worth $7MM prior to the 2020-21 season. Though Robertson’s 2021-22 season was stronger than Barzal’s 2019-20, Barzal did have three years of success, including an 85-point rookie season, as well as significant playoff experience, as compared to Robertson’s two full seasons of overall similar quality to Barzal.
Looking at a long-term contract, there isn’t much precedent for a contract in the $9MM AAV range for players coming off of their entry-level contract. Kyle Connor signed a seven-year contract with an AAV just shy of $7.15MM after back-to-back 57 and 66 point seasons and Nick Suzuki signed an eight-year contract with an AAV of $7.875MM after 41 points in 71 games in his rookie season and another 41 points in a lesser 56 games in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season. Notably, Suzuki also produced an outstanding 23 points in 32 playoff games over those two seasons. Going the other way, Mitch Marner signed for six-years at just over $10.9MM per season after 94 points in 82 games the season prior; this season, Robertson was on pace for 87 points over 82 games. Unlike Robertson, Marner began his career with 61 and 69 point seasons. With no perfect comparison to Robertson, taking the history of these three comparable players shows that a long-term deal for Robertson in the $9MM AAV range is certainly within reason.
After an impressive playoff performance, Nill will have plenty on his plate this offseason to help a Stars organization complete with a mix of veteran and young talent take the next step and ultimately transition it from the veteran core to the young core. The first of these steps will be a big one, necessitated by these two big RFA contracts.