Top 40 RFAs to watch in 2016: How’s your contract year going?

Panthers coach Gerard Gallant joins HC at Noon to talk about the teams nine-game winning streak , Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr playing well together and communication on the bench.

Bridge contracts, prove-it deals, arbitration rights, offer sheets… NHL restricted free agency is tricky and compelling business.

The RFA class of 2016 has some beauties: No. 1 picks, players that have already proven their worth, and guys who might need to show a little more growth at the NHL level before they’re deemed worthy of that home-run deal.

With roughly half a season remaining in the 2015-16, only a couple of notable RFAs-to-be—Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon and Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm—have struck early deals, leaving the rest of the crop more time to earn a raise, attract attention from the competition, or devalue their worth.

In no particular order, here are the 40 impending RFAs we’re most interested in watching down the stretch. Your performance in the next 40 games will have a direct effect on your future income, fellas. No pressure.

Whose stock has dropped, whose has raised, and who could be dangled as trade bait?

Nathan MacKinnon
Age on July 1: 20
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $925,000
The stats: Neck and neck with Matt Duchene atop the Avs' scoring leaderboard, MacKinnon sees more ice than any other Colorado forward, has four game-winners, and is rebounding nicely from a sophomore slump.
The situation: Once Erik Johnson got locked up in the summer, the 2013 first-overall pick and 2014 Calder Trophy winner immediately became the Avalanche's No. 1 re-signing priority. We'll be shocked if we don't see a long-term commitment here.

Nazem Kadri
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Centre
2015-16 salary cap hit: $4.1 million
The stats: Although puck luck (5.4 shooting percentage) might prevent Kadri from reaching 20 goals, he leads all Maple Leafs forwards in ice time — an indicator of the faith new coach Mike Babcock has placed in him.
The situation: Every season is a prove-it year for a first-rounder with first-line dreams. Under Babcock, however, the penalty-drawing Corsi favourite is succeeding in the top-line centre role he's been striving for. Playing his best all-around hockey of his career, Kadri is on target to earn a long-term deal with Toronto in the off-season. Lou Lamoriello is a fan. Considering Kadri could approach $5 million a year if he uses his arbitration rights, the Leafs might want to either buy some unrestricted years or cut bait, argues Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos.

"You can't sign Kadri for $6 million, then try to sign Stamkos for $10 million or $10.5 million," Kypreso says. "Decision time is coming."

Justin Schultz
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $3.9 million
The stats: Ranks fourth among Oilers D-men in points and average ice time. His minus-11 rating doesn't help his case.
The situation: The Oilers once bid aggressively for Schultz's services but decided to take the work-in-progress blueliner to arbitration in July. Translation: We think you're overpaid. Schultz has missed 14 games due to injury this season and is still prone to errors. Don't be surprised if Schultz is dangled as trade bait at the Feb. 29 deadline.

Mike Hoffman
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing
2015-16 cap hit: $2 million
The stats: Building on a stellar rookie campaign, Hoffman scored 20 goals in the first half of the season and is the most underpaid Senator.
The situation: "There's a number of players that are restricted going into next year. We're not going to make this a situation where we talk about it very often. If something can happen, at some point, whether it's January or April, we'll do that," GM Bryan Murray told the Ottawa Sun regarding a Hoffman extension. "He's an offensive threat every time he touches the puck in the offensive. We like what Mike Hoffman has gotten to."

Nikita Kucherov
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Right wing
2015-16 cap hit: $711,666
The stats: Leads all Lighting in scoring at the halfway mark of the season.
The situation: Impending UFA Steven Stamkos is, of course, priority one for GM Steve Yzerman, but wingers who score 86 points at age 21 (Kucherov's 2014-15 regular and post seasons combined) don't come along often. Now is not the time to break up the Triplets, but with the Bolts' precarious cap situation, perhaps we see a bridge deal here.

"It's something we'll address at the end of the season," Scott Greenspun, Kucherov's agent, told ESPN's Craig Custance. "That's what he would prefer. He just wants to focus on having a good season and the team doing well."

Petr Mrazek
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Goaltender
2015-16 cap hit: $737,500
The stats: Excellent .930 save percentage and 15-8-3 record, with a pair of shutouts.
The situation: Mrazek heisted the starting role in Detroit from Jimmy Howard last spring and hasn't looked back. Howard's contract — four more years at $5.3 million per — an no-trade clause means the American isn't going anywhere. So expect the Red Wings to keep Mrazek's raise to a minimum. Tough task. The guy should've been named an all-star.

Marcus Johansson
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2015-16 cap hit: $3.75 million
The stats: On pace for career highs in goals, points and plus/minus, the Swedish winger has again played an important role in the Caps' offence.
The situation: Washington and Johansson nearly headed to arbitration last summer before striking a one-year deal, and the forward has maintained the level of play he exhibited in 2014-15's breakout season.

Torey Krug
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $3.4 million
The stats: The top-four defenceman is thriving this season, especially on the power-play, where he has set up 10 goals.
The situation: The Bruins have been leaking blue-liners lately, trading blue-chippers they didn't think they could re-sign (Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton) and dealing with injuries to aging reliables like Dennis Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara. This makes keeping a healthy, young Krug even more important. The player should have plenty of leverage.

"He’s been a good asset for our hockey club, especially when we’ve needed guys that can skate and move the puck," beamed coach Claude Julien.

Tyson Barrie
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $2.6 million
The stats: Ensconced in a top-four role for the Avs, Barrie leads the club's D-men in points (29) and is tied with MacKinnon for tops in game-winners (four).
The situation: Colorado needs to hang on to all the quality defencemen it has, and the emerging Barrie falls into that slim category. Though his name has been volleyed about in trade rumours, Colorado will need to find a comparable replacement if it loses Barrie, who has arbitration rights.

Alex Killorn
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $2.55 million
The stats: The versatile forward is a source of secondary scoring (19 points at the half-season mark) and a contributor to special teams.
The situation: One more complicated piece to the Lightning's cap-puzzling future, the unheralded Harvard grad built on two solid seasons by breaking out for 18 points in the 2015 playoffs, but his negotiations will be buried behind those of Stamkos and Kucherov.

Brayden Schenn
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $2.5 million
The stats: Schenn should post his third consecutive 40-point season for Philly.
The situation: A 20-goal threat again this year, Schenn has been healthy-scratched by new coach Dave Hakstol and watched his brother, Luke, get traded to the Kings. Despite his name popping up in trade rumours, he's still a solid, affordable piece of the Flyers.

Andrew Shaw
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $2 million
The stats: With 20 points and a plus-10 rating, Shaw is rebounding from a down year, production-wise.
The situation: An agitator of the highest degree, Shaw's dirty work (and secondary scoring) are of great value to the Blackhawks. His role, though important, should limit his salary to a price cap-conscious number Chicago can make work. If Shaw demands too much, GM Stan Bowman has a track record of moving on.

Marcus Kruger
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $1.5 million
The stats: Yikes. Though Kruger plays a shutdown role, he had just one point (an assist) and lost more face-offs than he won before being sidelined with a wrist injury. Might not return until the playoffs.
The situation: One of the last RFAs to come to terms in the summer, the belief was that Kruger gave Chicago a cap-friendly, one-year deal on the premise that he'll be rewarded in 2016. His injury arrived at the worst time.

Sami Vatanen
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $1.2625 million
The stats: Should eclipse last year's 36-point showing. Has the most points and best plus/minus of Anaheim's top-four defencemen.
The situation: The Ducks would like to-re-sign Vatenen, but with no deal reached and GM Bob Murray on the hunt for scoring, Anaheim may be willing to trade from strength (young defencemen) in order to get a boost upfront. Anaheim blue-line prospects Brandon Montour and Shea Theodore could become NHL regulars.

Jaden Schwartz
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Left wing
2015-16 cap hit: $2.35 million
The stats: Currently on injured reserve with a broken right ankle, Schwartz has been limited to just seven games and four assists this season.
The situation: One of the most under-hyped forward in the West, Schwartz scored 28 goals and 35 assists in 75 games last year. His injury struck him right as he's entering his prime. The Blues are looking to buy, but it's doubtful Schwartz is going anywhere now.

Chris Kreider
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2015-16 cap hit: $2.475 million
The stats: The 2009 first-rounder showed big promise last season with 21 goals, but his production has dipped significantly.
The situation: Capable of breaking open a game, Kreider's two-year bridge deal ends July 1, but he has under-performed in a season that will directly affect his pocketbook. (Little-known fact: All millionaire athletes carry their money in pocketbooks.)

Frederik Andersen
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Goaltender
2015-16 cap hit: $1.15 million
The stats: Andersen's 5-8-3 record belies a decent .913 save percentage.
The situation: The NHL's lowest-paid No. 1 goalie entering this season lost his starting job to rookie John Gibson, who already got an extension and an All-Star Game invite. Andersen could be used as a trade chip in February if Bob Murray is still looking for offence.

Cody Hodgson
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $1.05 million
The stats: Mustering just three goals in a half-season, Hodgson was waived by Nashville in mid-January.
The situation: Traded by Vancouver and bought out by Buffalo, Hodgson has become Nashville's latest good-value reclamation project. Preds GM David Poile took a gamble on another bought-out forward, but this one didn't pay off, and now Hodgson is AHL-bound, fighting for another chance.

Seth Jones
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $925,000
The stats: A minus player this season, Jones has 11 points — a small step back production-wise form his first two NHL campaigns.
The situation: The Blue Jackets traded star centre Ryan Johansen to Nashville for Jones, so you better believe they'll make him part of their core for the future.

Johnny Gaudreau
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Left wing
2015-16 cap hit: $1 million
The stats: Sixth in overall scoring at the 41-game mark, Gaudreau also ranks second overall with three overtime game-winners. Selected to 2016 All-Star Game.
The situation: Undoubtedly in line for a huge raise, the 2015 Calder finalist continues to wow us. That he's not eligible for arbitration gives GM Brad Treliving leverage here, but it will be interesting to see if they mess around with a bridge deal or go big now.

Sean Monahan
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $925,000
The stats: Might be in tough to hit the 30-goal mark again, but Monahan will take another run at 60 points.
The situation: The kid is a two-way centre who can defend, create plays and scored 31 goals as a sophomore -- and that's not boring. The Flames re-upped with Mark Giordano in the summer for a reasonable rate, and they've long said they're willing to spend to the cap. Despite a number of other impending free agents (Kris Russell, Jiri Hudler), the Flames should take care of both Gaudreau and Monahan. President Brian Burke raves about the guy.

Brandon Pirri
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $925,000
The stats: Hockey's 2015 Cy Young champ sniped 22 goals last season but only had a pair of assists. This year he has more helpers (12) than goals (nine).
The situation: Dale Tallon, GM of the surprisingly hot Panthers, is looking for more scoring, so it doesn't make sense to move Pirri — who's capable of goal streaks. Teammate Aleksander Barkov will take precedence here when it comes to negotiations.

Jacob Trouba
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $894,166
The stats: Like several of his teammates, Trouba is having a down year statistically. He's in single-digits in points while setting a career high in penalties.
The situation: Interesting times in Winnipeg, as captain Andrew Ladd and all-star Dustin Byfuglien -- both UFAs-to-be -- still have not signed extensions. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that Trouba asked for upwards of $56 million over eight years. His play hinders his negotiating power. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reports that the sides will set aside talks until after the season.

Valeri Nichushkin
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Right wing
2015-16 cap hit: $925,000
The stats: That breakout year from Nichushkin still awaits... right? The winger had 15 points at the halfway mark.
The situation: We originally predicted a big raise for the 2013 first-rounder, but Nichushkin will have little sway when he sits down to hash out a new deal with Jim Nill this summer.

Olli Maatta
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $894,166
The stats: Seeing top-four minutes when healthy, Maatta is second to Kris Letang in scoring among Penguins defenders.
The situation: A shoulder injury and a thyroid tumour have conspired to chop Maatta's first two NHL seasons short, but the Finnish first-rounder is still projected to be a star in this league. With the Penguins thin on the blueline, they'll make sure to keep him.

Zemgus Girgensons
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $894,166
The stats: Not quite the all-star he was at this time last season, the Latvian rap muse has mustered just three goals while new guys Jack Eichel, Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly surpass him on the Sabres depth chart.
The situation: Latvia's gift to hockey and all-star vote hog Girgensons should see his production improve as the Sabres' offensive weaponry has now been expanded to include Evander Kane, Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel.

Filip Forsberg
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $894,166
The stats: Though not quite producing at the rate of his stellar rookie campaign, Forsberg should still ring up 20 goals.
The situation: GM David Poile has said he is open to negotiating an extension for Forsberg, who is wrapping up his entry-level deals, during the season. We'd be surprised if things don't go smoothly here, but the term will be worth watching. Interesting that the Preds locked up defenceman Matthias Ekholm, another pending RFA, first.

Morgan Rielly
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $894,166
The stats: The third-year defender is on pace to set career highs in assists and plus/minus.
The situation: One of the few Maple Leafs who did not disappoint in 2014-15 — a.k.a. The Season Everyone Involved Would Rather Forget — Rielly is widely viewed as the Leafs' true untouchable and should catch up to Jake Gardiner with a multi-year extension. A Mike Babcock favourite.

Mark Scheifele
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $863,333
The stats: Were it not for a lower-body injury, Scheifele would surely have set a career highs in goals and points this season.
The situation: The Kitchener, Ont., native has shown steady improvement, and with the Jets blatantly putting trust in their youth, re-signing a 23-year-old centre should be a no-brainer. The Jets have plenty of cap space, but the blurry futures of Ladd, Byfuglien and Trouba cloud the picture a bit here.

Boone Jenner
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $778,333
The stats: While most of the Blue Jackets news is doom and gloom, Jenner has quietly enjoyed a career year, with 14 goals and 23 points through half a season.
The situation: Jenner's sophomore season was jinxed with a broken hand, but the 215-pounder is making his impact felt. The Jackets brass will have its hands full as Seth Jones and Ryan Murray also turn RFA on July 1.

Kyle Palmieri
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Right wing
2015-16 cap hit: $1.6 million
The stats: Palmieri leads all Devils in goals (17) and has been a beast on the power play. Already the best season of his career — and it's January.
The situation: "It might get done before the end of the season and it might not. I'm not too worried about it," Palmieri said, regarding an extension. "I haven't put myself on any kind of a time line as far as that goes." GM Ray Shero, who traded for Palmieri shortly after getting the Devils job, says he's open to re-signing him.

Tomas Hertl
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $925,000
The stats: Tagged a potential star after some ridiculous highlights in his rookie season (2013-14), Hertl appears to be settling into a role of secondary scorer (18 points so far).
The situation: The Czech's age indicates that he has yet to reach his ceiling. Best guess: a bridge deal for the forward to prove he can do better.

Aleksander Barkov
Age on July 1: 20
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $925,000
The stats: A two-way stud centre who's well on his way to a breakout year, statistically. Twenty goals and 50 points will be a cinch if he remains healthy.
The situation: GM Dale Tallon's favourite young gun on a team with plenty of them, Barkov isn't going anywhere. Roberto Luongo gushes about the kid, and the Panthers caught fire after he was healthy again.

Rasmus Ristolainen
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $925,000
The stats: We're halfway through the season, and the Finn already has a career year: 28 points, four penalty minutes, leads Sabres in ice time.
The situation: A breakout year by the young defenceman should get him paid as GM Tim Murray builds for the future. One of the most under-discussed stories of 2015-16.

Danny DeKeyser
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $2.187 million
The stats: Has grown into a top-four presence in Motown. Though he won't meet last season's 31 points (a career high), DeKeyser is playing more responsible hockey.
The situation: A case of a 20-something D-man taking a bridge deal and proving his worth. Now it's up to the Red Wings to commit.

Erik Gudbranson
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $2.5 million
The stats: A top-four blue-liner on one of the East's better defences, Gudbranson has just five points — but that's not why he's here.
The situation: We don't see GM Dale Tallon eager to part with Gudbranson, whose stay-at-home tendencies allow Aaron Ekblad and Brian Campbell to create. The Atlantic-leading Panthers are a deadline buyers, but we figure they'll be more eager to part with prospects and/or picks.

Victor Rask
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre
2015-16 cap hit: $680,833
The stats: An emerging centre whose 26 points at the halfway mark put him on pace for his best season statistically.
The situation: With star forwards Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner the frequent subject of trade rumours and the Hurricanes' only option to build for the future, it would be smart to give Rask a raise and keep him in red.

Ryan Murray
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $894,166
The stats: In 45 games this season, Murray has 13 points in a top-four role.
The situation: Murray and Jones are supposed to be the Blue Jackets' top pairing of the future. Partially due to an injury that cost him to miss 70 games last season, Murray's development lags behind.

Mathew Dumba
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Defence
2015-16 cap hit: $894,166
The stats: Thrust into a prominent role on the Wild blue-line, Dumba has responded well and is on track for a career year, statistically.
The situation: The Wild already committed to defenceman Jared Spurgeon, another impending RFA. Dumba is a fan favourite, but his name has been linked in a reported pitch for Tampa's Jonathan Drouin.

Louis Domingue
Age on July 1: 20
Position: Goaltender
2015-16 cap hit: $605,000
The stats: A sparkling .932 save percentage and 7-2-1 record in relief.
The situation: When Coyotes starter Mike Smith went down long-term to injury, Domingue played his way onto this list. With so much money  ($5.66 million a year through 2019) tied up in Smith, how much more will the Coyotes be willing to spend in net?

Zack Kassian
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Right wing
2015-16 cap hit: $1.75 million
The stats: Just four AHL games and one assist this season. Looks to make his Oilers debut this week.
The situation: Traded in the summer from Vancouver to Montreal. As a passenger involved in a car crash prior to his Habs debut, Kassian broke his nose and left foot. He went through the NHL's substance abuse program and was traded to Edmonton. He agitator faces a make-or-break winter. No chance the Oilers re-sign him if he can't perform down the stretch.

(Contract info via the excellent General Fanager)