TORONTO — Every day over the summer, Johnny Gaudreau thought about not having a contract.
Gaudreau worried about it and obsessed over it but he wasn’t going to let stalled negotiations with the Calgary Flames keep him from playing in the World Cup of Hockey.
“You don’t get many chances to play in the World Cup,” Gaudreau said. “So I was like, ‘Let’s get some insurance and I really want to play in this tournament.’”
Gaudreau is one of 13 NHL players who go into the World Cup without a contract for this season, assuming a certain amount of risk in case they are injured. “Johnny Hockey” and Team North America teammate Jacob Trouba bought extra insurance beyond what the NHL Players Association provided — just in case.
“Honestly, I’m not very worried about it,” the 23-year-old Gaudreau said. “Hopefully I don’t get too serious of an injury, but I have insurance that protects me, so I think I’m all right.”
Gaudreau, Trouba, Russia’s Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov and Dmitry Orlov, Sweden’s Hampus Lindholm, Finland’s Rasmus Ristolainen and Europe’s Tobias Rieder are all restricted free agents whose NHL teams own their rights. Europe’s Dennis Seidenberg and Christian Ehrhoff, the Czech Republic’s Jakub Nakladal and Michal Jordan, and Finland’s Lauri Korpikoski are unrestricted free agents and will be on scouts’ radars at the World Cup.
After putting up 78 points in 79 games last season, the Flames know what the dynamic Gaudreau can do.
The same can be said of the Tampa Bay Lightning with Kucherov, Winnipeg with Trouba and Buffalo with Ristolainen. Gaudreau doesn’t think a handful of international games, no matter how big the stage, will affect what his next contract looks like.
It’s entirely different for the unrestricted players.
Ehrhoff said he needs to prove he can still play in the NHL at age 34, and Seidenberg may have to do the same at 35 after being bought out by the Boston Bruins.
“I’ve played quite a bit,” Seidenberg said. “People should know what I can do and can’t do by now, but nonetheless this is an important tournament for me.”
It’s an important tournament for Gaudreau and Trouba, too, because it’s an opportunity to take their minds off their contract situations. After what Gaudreau called a “painful” summer, this is a welcome respite.
“It’s actually been kind of nice to be on a team and to be in a locker room again and start playing hockey,” Trouba said. “It sort of goes back to normal when you’re playing hockey.”
Not having a contract by this time of year isn’t normal for top, young players like Gaudreau, and the World Cup adds a layer of uncertainty. But the players without deals have, at least temporarily, made peace with their situations.
“In the summertime I worry a lot about that, but right now I kind of try to ... not think about it, try to focus on camp and something to do,” said Orlov, a defenseman for the Washington Capitals. “It’s going to be for sure I will sign — not now, but maybe later. I feel fine about that and can focus on tournament because it’s always fun and nice to play for your country when you get a chance.”
Trouba and Gaudreau aren’t playing for the United States but rather Team North America, which mixes U.S. and Canadian players under the age of 23. Neither player would listen if his agent advised not playing in the World Cup.
“I mean, it was my decision at the end of the day,” Trouba said. “We figured out all the insurance and all that stuff beforehand and planned for it. This is something I really wanted to do, and I was going to do it either way.”
The unrestricted free agents face the same injury risk, but for them this is a showcase event with the hockey world watching closely. Nakladal acknowledged the scope and quality should help him get some visibility, and Korpikoski hopes his Finnish teammates vouch for him.
“We’ll see how much pull these guys have,” he said. “It probably doesn’t hurt to have a good tournament, personally, too.”