Finding a way to bring back Rickard Rakell is one of many large challenges facing Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall this summer.
And it might have become even more difficult recently.
Rakell’s importance to the Penguins is obvious: He’s the productive second-line right winger for a team that doesn’t have a qualified replacement on its organizational depth chart.
But putting a value on his services — and doing it within constraints imposed by the Penguins’ salary-cap issues — won’t be easy, and Rakell’s decision to switch agents might complicate the situation.
Rakell, an unrestricted free agent whose expiring contract had a cap hit of $3,789,444, is being represented by Claude Lemieux, one of the NHL’s most reviled figures during his playing days. His previous agent was Peter Wallen.
Whether Lemieux is as ferocious at the negotiating table as he was on the ice is hard to say — to date, there have been no reports of him going after a GM the way he did, say, Kris Draper at the height of the Colorado- Detroit rivalry — but Wallen showed a willingness to adapt his client’s contract requirements to a team’s particular cap situation a few years ago.
In 2019, with the Penguins doing the professional equivalent of searching their couch cushions for any cap space that had happened to fall out, Wallen agreed to have his client, Marcus Pettersson, accept a one-year deal for $874,125, which was well below market value.
Pettersson and Wallen didn’t accept that proposal without getting a major concession in return — then-GM Jim Rutherford promised to make up the shortfall in Pettersson’s next deal — but their willingness to make a short-term sacrifice to help the team is not the norm in today’s NHL.
Whether Rutherford was unduly generous with Pettersson’s next contract — five years, with a cap hit of $4,025,175 — is reasonable fodder for debate, but never would have become an issue if Pettersson hadn’t taken a team-friendly deal a year earlier.
Of course, every situation is different — Rickard Rakell is in his prime earning years, while Pettersson was younger and coming off his entry-level contract — and it’s neither reasonable nor realistic to expect a player to readily accept a contract that doesn’t reflect his true value to the team that’s proposing it.
Especially when that player’s ties to the club are only a few months old, as is the case with Rakell.
Precisely what Lemieux, who also represents former Penguins Oskar Sundqvist and Juuso Riikola, will seek in Rakell’s next contract isn’t known — Hextall has made agents aware that sharing information about ongoing negotiations is not something he appreciates — but his playing history suggests no one should be surprised if he takes a win-at-all-costs approach, which is hardly unusual among agents.
And that would do nothing to enhance the chances of Rakell still being on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster this fall.