At this juncture, it’s difficult to say if Tobias Rieder’s potential flight to the Kontinental Hockey League is genuine or is a leverage move in the RFA’s negotiation with the Arizona Coyotes. It’s a dramatic step for a young forward who has played a major role for his NHL club thus far to take, but contract talks between the two teams have not yielded much in the way of positive news.
With the signings of Michael Stone and Connor Murphy, Rieder remains the last RFA without a deal. So what happens if the two sides fail to reach a deal?
The Immediate Impact
The loss of Rieder would immediately open up a top-six position on Arizona’s depth chart. Arizona Sports’ Craig Morgan summed up the state of the Coyotes’ left side without Rieder:
The Coyotes already have McGinn, Max Domi and Jordan Martinook on the left side, with 2014 first-round pick Brendan Perlini also pushing for a roster spot.
Domi on the top line is perhaps the most obvious solution, while McGinn could play up on the second line if need be, with Martinook floating between the third and fourth lines.
On the right, the Coyotes have Shane Doan and Anthony Duclair. Nick Merkley, Christian Fischer, Conor Garland, and Anton Karlsson are all possibilities on the right side, or the Coyotes might opt to bring in somebody more experienced (like say, Radim Vrbata?)
If Perlini isn’t ready for NHL action, then perhaps Rieder’s departure would make room for the Coyotes to try Christian Dvorak on the wing in his rookie season. A middle six role for Dvorak would strike a decent balance between throwing Dvorak into the deep end of the pool and making sure he gets minutes his talent merits.
The issue is that neither option is ideal. Giving Dvorak more sheltered minutes would mean either exposing Domi to the toughest competition or McGinn to roles he may not be best at. Similarly, Doan thrived in the bottom six with Brad Richardson and Martinook. There’s no clear favorite to replace Rieder’s spot on the right wing either.
But that’s the immediate future; what would the loss of Rieder do to the Coyotes in the long-term?
The Future Impact
One of the upsides of having exceptional depth in the forward position is the Coyotes can afford to miss here and there. In addition to all of the prospects mentioned above, Clayton Keller will likely have to play on one of the wings to stick in the NHL. The league is certainly getting smaller and faster, but the center position remains stocked with plenty of size.
A short-term deal for Rieder does not pose many issues for the Coyotes’ depth, as players like Merkley, Fischer, Garland, and Keller would likely not reach their potential until two or three years from now. At that point, the Coyotes would have a much better sense of what potential they have on the wings.
But by that time, Rieder will have considerably more leverage. He will either be arbitration eligible or just a stone’s throw away from unrestricted free agency. And should all go well, he will have a much better case to cash in than he does now.
Count me among the people who think going over to Europe would be a very poor decision for Rieder. The competition in North America is better, and the reputational damage from an extended holdout could cost Rieder more money in the long-term.
Vladislav Namestnikov has been the player comparable tossed around most recently, both because of his similar stat line (14 G, 21 A, 35 P for Namestnikov vs. 14 G, 23 A, 37 P for Rieder), and because of the two-year, $3.875M deal Namestnikov just signed. They are also roughly four months apart from each other in age.
But there’s a different Tampa player that Rieder should be paying attention to: Jonathan Drouin. Drouin sat out for more than two months and watched his leverage fade away as the Lightning refused to play ball.
Drouin came back, played his way into the Lightning line-up, and became a major part of the team’s postseason run. Rieder has a choice; he can go to Europe and burn a bridge with the Coyotes in the short-term, or accept a little less pay now in the hope that it translates into a bigger deal in the medium to long-term.
Nothing in the league is guaranteed. But Rieder has shown that he’s no fluke. With another couple of strong seasons, he will show just how indispensable to the Coyotes he really is.