The Golden Knights are already in salary cap hell. Currently sitting $200,000 short of the league’s upper limit, Vegas has just 19 players under contract making up a roster valued at $82.3 million.
That’s without UFA’s Reilly Smith and Mattias Janmark, without RFA’s Nic Roy, Keegan Kolesar, Brett Howden, and Nic Hague, and with just four players that can be buried in the AHL without any salary leftover.
No matter how you slice it, the Golden Knights are in quite a pinch for cash, and there are a lot of difficult decisions coming up.
One such decision the VGK front office is probably hoping comes and goes without much of a headache. That’s the next contract for 23-year-old former 2nd round pick Nic Hague.
The gigantic defenseman has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt he’s an NHL caliber blue-liner and despite an injury-riddled season that saw him miss 30 games, Hague still managed to post four goals, 10 assists, 80 blocks, and account for a decent 2.9 point shares.
Hague’s season left a lot to be desired due to the recurring injury that the team admitted they rushed him back from, but he’s clearly shown enough to become the type of asset coveted by every team in the league. That being a young defenseman with the ability to score, defensively responsible, and with room for tons of growth still having yet to hit the 150-game mark in the NHL.
Simply put, Nic Hague is due for a fairly significant raise from the $863,333 he made from his entry-level contract.
Here’s the problem for Hague. Due to his age and level of NHL experience, he’s not yet eligible for salary arbitration. Because he signed his contract at the age of 19 he must complete four seasons as a professional before he is granted arbitration rights. Hague’s last season was just his third. So, by the letter of the law in the CBA, he is only in line to be offered a one-year two-way contract worth $874,125, and he doesn’t have much of a choice but to sign it.
I went through some comparable players who have recently signed contracts (you can see them listed below with a short description of how similar they are to Hague) and it would be reasonable for Hague to command somewhere between $2.5 and $4 million next season. Plus, based on the comps, he’d probably be looking at about a three or four-year deal. Yet, the Golden Knights are going to offer him a one-year contract worth less than $900,000.
In other words, Hague is going to be forced to wait one more season to collect about the $15 million he’s already demonstrated he deserves.
That is unless he decides to force the hand of the Golden Knights.
Unsurprisingly, Hague is not the first player in the NHL to have ever found themselves in this situation. In fact, he’s not even the first VGK left-handed defenseman to be in it.
The only course of action a player in this spot can take is to refuse the qualifying offer and hold out of training camp (and potentially even regular season games) to force the team to negotiate a longer-term deal.
It’s a risky move on multiple fronts. First, it’s never ideal for a 23-year-old to be missing valuable time on the ice with his teammates in training camp. That is amplified even further on a team that will be naming a new head coach sometime this summer. But the bigger piece is there’s a deadline, a hard deadline, that can force a player to sit out an entire season if a deal is not reached. And, if we reach that deadline and the player and team remain at a stalemate, the player does not earn the all-important fourth year of NHL service and thus will be in the exact same situation next year as well.
You might remember that other left-handed defenseman I referenced earlier. His name is Shea Theodore and in the summer of 2018 (in between season 1 and 2 for VGK), Theodore refused to sign his qualifying offer, which was almost exactly what will be offered to Hague this summer. He missed nearly the entire training camp. Didn’t suit up in any of the Golden Knights’ first five preseason games, and even had a giant poster of him removed from City National Arena due to the contract stalemate.
Theodore’s history in the NHL at that point was actually closer to Hague’s than you might expect. Theodore played just 53 games in his first two seasons in the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks. However, he was a key piece in a couple of Ducks playoff campaigns playing in 20 postseason games. Then, after being acquired by the Golden Knights through an Expansion Draft trade, he started the season off in the AHL before playing 61 regular season games and 20 playoff games for Vegas in their run to the Cup final.
He amassed 29 points in 61 games in the regular season and then added 10 more in the playoffs. Here are Hague and Theodore’s numbers side-by-side for comparison sake.
Hague – 38 games, 1 goal, 11 points (left off playoff roster)
Theodore – 19 games, 3 goals, 8 points (0 points in 6 playoff games)
Hague – 52 games, 5 goals, 17 points (2 points in 10 playoff games)
Theodore – 34 games, 2 goals, 9 points (8 points in 14 playoff games)
Hague – 52 games, 4 goals, 14 points (missed playoffs)
Theodore – 61 games, 6 goals, 29 points (10 points in 20 playoff games)
Hague – 142 games, 10 goals, 42 points (2 points in 10 playoff games)
Theodore – 114 games, 11 goals, 46 points (18 points in 40 playoff games)
Hague has every right, just as Theodore did four years ago, to hold out and attempt to force the Golden Knights to pay him his market value. But, the Golden Knights might be so deep in cap trouble that they’ll have to call Hague’s bluff every step of the way.
The deadline is December 1st, which will be about 25-30 games into the season. If Hague holds out, can VGK afford to play without him for that long? And even then, will they ever have the cap space before then to pay him the $3ish million he’s probably worth?
It’s a tricky situation for both sides and that’s before we even get into the possibility of an offer sheer from another team.
Hague and his agent know what he’s worth and playing a full season without getting it (after fighting through an injury-plagued year the season before) is risky in its own right. Would you be willing to wait an extra year to get the $15 million you’ve already shown you deserve?
The Golden Knights have the CBA on their side. Why crack and offer even a penny more than they have to when they are this tight against the cap? Does the season’s success rely on Hague playing the first 25 games… or even at all?
Buckle up, this one could get messy.
Nic Hague salary comps
Matt Roy – Signed for $3.15m AAV as an RFA at the age of 26
Roy had a slightly different career trajectory than Hauge, but the production is similar between the two players. The year before he signed his contract he played in 44 of the team’s 56 games scoring two goals and adding eight assists. Hague’s 42 points in 142 games are similar to Roy’s 34 in 139. Plus, Roy showed a bit more defensively.
Neal Pionk – Signed for $5.875m AAV as an RFA at the age of 26
Here’s a player that was a bit more decorated than Hague has been at this point in his career, but not by much. Hague posted a 4.0 point share number in 52 games in 2020-21, which is just one point below Pionk’s 5.2 in 54 games before he signed this massive deal. Pionk was on a $3 million deal that he signed after two seasons posting 2.1 and 3.4 point shares. This player, while slightly better than Hague, shows the price of the bridge deal (a short deal that will keep him as an RFA at expiry), followed by an even bigger one without a massive leap in production.
Philippe Myers – Signed for $2.55m AAV as an RFA at the age of 23
This is another bridge deal that will expire at the end of the 22-23 season and Myers will remain an RFA. He was coming off a season where he scored four goals and tallied 16 points in 50 games and then added three goals in 16 playoff games. Like Hague, he’s a massive body that skates well enough to play at the NHL level. This is a very close comparison to the situation Hague finds himself in this summer as he signed this contract without arbitration rights.
Filip Hronek – Signed for $4.4m AAV as an RFA at the age of 23
Hronek’s production is undoubtedly higher than Hague’s, but he posted -38 and -18 ratings the two years before his deal and had significantly worse defensive point share numbers than Hague has in each of his first three seasons. Helping in the stat department, Hronek was asked to play nearly 24 minutes a night where Hague was seeing just about 19. They are both 2nd round picks without arbitration rights to help sign their second contracts.
Marcus Pettersson – Signed for $4.025m AAV as an RFA at the age of 24
Pettersson is a similar player both in stature and production to Hague. Following his first full season in the NHL (in which he was traded to Pittsburgh), Pettersson signed a qualifying offer of just $874k. This is after a year in which he played 84 games (yeah, he got traded and played more than 82) and tallied 25 points. He posted a similar season the next year with the Penguins and then signed the five-year deal with bought off two years of unrestricted free agency.