In July, the Calgary Flames offered eight of their restricted free agents a qualifying offer. Of the eight, five have signed with the Flames: Andrew Mangiapane, Oliver Kylington, Matthew Phillips, Martin Pospisil, and Colton Poolman. Matthew Tkachuk was signed by the Flames and then traded to the Florida Panthers in the NHL’s first-ever sign-and-trade. Eetu Tuulola meanwhile has signed a contract in Finland with Ilves.
The only Flames player offered a qualifying offer that has not been signed is Adam Ruzicka, who is the sole holdout going into this season so far. The Slovakian forward made the jump to the NHL after putting up 20 points in 16 AHL games as a centre. In the big league, he had 10 points in 28 games, making the whole bottom line look better than with anyone else.
This holdout is very interesting as it likely points to a contract and role issue rather than an actual dollars one.
Ruzicka’s contract structure
NHL contracts are structured as either one-way or two-way deals. Most NHL players are on one-way contracts as they likely are only going to play in that league that season. If players on a one-way deal are sent down to the AHL, they are paid the same amount of money as they would make in the NHL.
Two-way deals meanwhile, have a set amount to be paid at the NHL level with a different, much lower amount, to be paid when the player is in the AHL. The amount is pro-rated for the days the player is in the NHL and AHL. For instance, Matthew Phillips signed a one-year two-way contract this season which pays him $750,000 as his salary in the NHL, but just $140,000 in the AHL. The difference is enormous.
Ruzicka meanwhile is coming off a season where he earned a base salary of $750,000 plus bonuses in NHL but just $70,000 in the AHL. For Ruzicka, he almost certainly believes he’s an NHLer. He’d be foolish to believe anything else having spent more of the season in the league than in the AHL and having the impact that he did this year. If he believes this, he likely feels he deserves of a one-way NHL deal earning NHL money.
Ruzicka’s spot in the lineup
For the Flames, there could be two problems. The first is that they likely aren’t convinced Ruzicka is a full-time NHLer yet. With fewer than 30 games under his belt, it’s hard to know definitively that he is an NHLer or was just very good in the role he was in last season. There is no point paying NHL dollars to a non-NHL player.
The second problem is that they likely don’t know if Ruzicka slots into their system. With their top-nine centers locked in with Elias Lindholm, Nazem Kadri, and Mikael Backlund, the only spot available is to beat out Kevin Rooney and his $1.3M salary on the fourth line. That isn’t a realistic option, though.
Last season, Darryl Sutter spoke about how he didn’t want to play Ruzicka in a fourth line role because that wasn’t the best thing for his development. If Ruzicka is going be on the team, he needs to play higher in the rotation. With the centre depth on the team right now, Ruzicka would have to slot in on the wing to play higher than the fourth line.
As well, if the Flames acquire a player like Evan Rodrigues, there may not be a regular spot for him at this point at all. This would put Ruzicka in the AHL, and again, would be a tough ask to pay him big dollars to play on the farm team.
While the first problem is a point of contention between the two sides, the second is likely an issue both Ruzicka’s camp and the Flames’ camp agree on.
What happens next with Ruzicka?
Both sides are likely quibbling over the actual NHL salary, but the big bone of contention is almost certainly his contract type and role. Now 23 years old, the prospect of being behind pencilled into the AHL is not appealing for Ruzicka as it wastes a year where he could be in the NHL somewhere else, but he has not been around the league long enough to have arbitration rights or the ability to move elsewhere. He can ask for a trade, but the most likely option is that the Flames just hold him to the number they offer until he signs lest he wastes a season.
This is less than ideal for Ruzicka who likely wants to earn much more than $70K in the AHL, and given the contract that they signed with Phillips, they have almost certainly offered to raise his minors salary to a much higher number. But for a player who would be hoping to be paid like an NHLer, the real goal is to earn a one-way deal, and the Flames are going to fight to avoid that. With the Flames holding all the power here, expect him to begrudgingly sign another two-way deal soon.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire