Top 18 RFAs of 2018: Latest on big contract years

The Hockey Night panel takes a look at the biggest stories from around the league, with the New York Islanders deciding what to do with John Tavares and how the Maple Leafs might not mind William Nylander being mired in a scoring slump.

Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel would have topped our list of 2018’s NHL restricted free agents had they not signed for the astronomical sums of $100 million and $80 million, respectively, this summer.

Those gigantic commitments, after less than two full seasons’ worth of work, may have changed the way front offices approach young star talent. That McDavid and Eichel’s teams now appear bound for the lottery may also have an effect on a GM’s mindset.

Here’s a look at our top 18 RFAs-in-waiting, whose contract negotiations we’re most intrigued to see play out based on their 2017-18 performance.

This summer’s class will have an especially significant impact on the salary cap pictures in Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Detroit, New York, Minnesota, and Carolina.

Mark Stone
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.5 million
Bargaining chips: On pace to be a 20-goal, 30-assist scorer for the fourth consecutive year. The most productive RFA of his class. Takeaway artist. Plus-13 rating for a tumbling team.
The latest: Stone signed off on a relatively team-friendly bridge deal when he first became a restricted free agent three years ago, and now it’s time for Ottawa to pay. Stone is off to an incredible start, leading all Sens with 24 points. Unfortunately for GM Pierre Dorion, who must operate within a budget, Stone’s free agency aligns with that of Cody Ceci and the summer he must re-sign Erik Karlsson regardless of price.

William Nylander
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Right wing / Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $832,500
Bargaining chips: 61-point rookie campaign. Finished top-six in Calder voting. MVP of 2017 IIHF World Championship. One of the scariest young shooters in the game. Handsomeness rating off the charts.
The latest: While we predicted a monster sophomore season for Slick Willie, who opened as a fixture on the Auston Matthews line and looked to be a prime candidate to cash in on the heels of the Leon Draisaitl contract, Nylander’s production (four goals) has yet to meet expectations. Since taking a few shifts off defensively, Nylander has spent time down the lineup as coach Mike Babcock tries to get him rolling. A fall-off in numbers and a decreased shooting percentage could save the Leafs a few bucks come June.

Dylan Larkin
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: Stunning rookie season in which he led Detroit in goals, plus/minus, shots, game-winners. Fastest skater at 2016 NHL All-Star Game. Has bounced back from a soft sophomore season to again lead the Red Wings’ offence. Improved defensive game. Successful development from wing to centre.
The latest: Red Wings GM Ken Holland recently told The Athletic‘s Craig Custance that he was “probably not” ready to talk about a long-term contract with Larkin at this point, but qualified that, even if we was, the media would be the last to know. Larkin’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, is keeping mum.

“I like to do deals that are good for the player and good for the team,” Holland told Custance.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but Detroit already has a ton of money tied up in contracts for 2018-19 and will find it difficult to hand out deserved raises to RFA forwards Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Martin Frk and Anthony Mantha. This is why we believe UFA defenceman Mike Green must go elsewhere.

As a franchise No. 1 centre, Larkin must be retained, but when you look at the windfalls reaped by Leon Draisaitl and Jack Eichel, he shouldn’t come cheap.

William Karlsson
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $1 million
Bargaining chips: Highest-scoring Karlsson in 2017-18, amazingly. Top-line centre. Already set a career high with 13 goals and could double his career best in points. Sorely underpaid and over-delivering.
The latest: Already on his third NHL team, Karlsson has been a revelation for the expansion Knights as we’ve witnessed what he can do when handed an offensive role and talented linemates. In retrospect, Columbus looks a bit foolish for not protecting Karlsson in the expansion draft. The forward, who does hold arbitration rights, could be used as a valuable trade chip but more likely will be retained as a building block for Vegas’s future.

Jacob Trouba
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $2.81 million
Bargaining chips: Young, top-four, right-shot defenceman who has already taken his bridge deal. Plus player in all five NHL seasons. Good for 25 to 30 points, easy. Top-10 draft pick.
The latest: The Michigan native was the subject of rampant trade rumours the last time his deal came up. With extension negotiations at a stalemate, Trouba did not join the Jets until November of the 2016-17 season. Now that he holds arbitration rights, he’ll be looking for a hefty raise. Tobias Enstrom comes off the books this summer, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has acknowledged he has a lot of decisions to make with RFAs Trouba, Adam Lowry, Joshua Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck. (By the way, Patrik Laine, who turns RFA in 2019, is eligible to re-sign for as long as eight years on July 1.)

Anthony Mantha
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $832,500
Bargaining chips: Dynamic young goal scorer. Chemistry with Larkin. First-round pick. Championship blood (Mantha’s paternal grandfather, Andre Pronovost, won four Stanley Cups). Leading scorer for Canada at 2014 world juniors.
The latest: Mantha’s next contract will likely take a back seat to Larkin’s, and considering the power winger is not eligible for arbitration, he won’t have much leverage at the table. Despite the Quebec native’s hot start (20 points through 25 games), he has been singled out by his coach on a night he didn’t deliver maximum effort. Columbus’s Alexander Wennberg, who signed a six-year, $29.4-million deal this summer as an RFA, may be a comparable Mantha’s camp looks toward.

J.T. Miller
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing / Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $2.75 million
Bargaining chips: Two-time 20-goal man. On pace to eclipse career high of 56 points. Rangers’ first-round pick. New York cannot afford to lose young, healthy scorers. Doesn’t miss games due to injury.
The latest: Miller has delivered consistent production in both seasons of his bridge deal and now holds an arbitration hammer this summer, when he should expect a nice pay bump. The forward can play both centre and wing, but prefers to flex his offensive muscle a little more on the flank.

“With our makeup right now, in my estimation, we’re a better team with J.T. playing centre,” coach Alain Vigneault told Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “He’s a very important player for us. In order for our team to be successful, he has to play well. He is a big part of our team wherever he plays.

“He’s always been a player who wants to make a difference and there’s a great upside to that. But sometimes with the risk/reward element, he might have gotten us into trouble a little too often.”

Brandon Montour
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: Skates more than 20 minutes a night. Leads all Ducks defencemen in points. Looked excellent in Anaheim’s 17-game playoff run to the conference final last spring.
The latest: A big, young, right-shot defenceman who can log minutes and contribute offence? Yeah, probably the type of player you want to lock up. The cap-tight Ducks have already committed a hefty $21.6 million to their D core in 2018-19, and Montour is eligible for arbitration, so this one will be interesting to watch. GM Bob Murray’s saving grace is the $4 million worth of Kevin Bieksa coming off the books.

Jason Zucker
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $2 million
Bargaining chips: On track for his best NHL season offensively. Loyal track record of re-upping for fair, short-term deals. Versatile winger.
The latest: Some hot hands have Zucker well on pace for his second straight 20-goal season. The Wild as a whole, however, have stumbled out of the gate. Zucker will be looking for a raise in the same summer as teammates Chris Stewart, Matt Dumba and Ryan Murphy, so we expect GM Chuck Fletcher to let this play out before making any big decisions.

Max Domi
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre / Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $832,500
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Head-turning, 52-point rookie campaign. Believed to be a cornerstone piece of a Coyotes team that needs as many of those as it can get. 2015 world juniors champion. 2016 world championships champion.
The latest: Compared to some of his fellow Coyotes forwards, Domi has stuck in the NHL quicker than Dylan Strome and didn’t experience the sophomore slide of Anthony Duclair (although he did learn a painful lesson about when to pick a fight). Cap space isn’t an issue in the desert. Domi’s deal expires at a time when the contracts of Tobias Rieder, Brad Richardson, Zac Rinaldo and Duclair are also due. He should be retained. The question will be whether to give him a bridge deal or go long-term early.

Noah Hanifin
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: Top-five pick in 2015. Regularly represents Team USA internationally. Will be a 21-year-old defenceman with three full years of NHL experience this summer — those are rare. Should break the 30-point barrier this season. Valued member of Carolina’s top four. Defenisvely sound, and plenty of time to improve.
The latest: Hanifin has been given less ice time this season than fellow developing Carolina blueliners Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce and, thus, has found his name tossed out in trade speculation from time to time. The trick for Carolina is trying to find enough offence to end its playoff drought without sacrificing a member of its promising D core.

As of mid-August, there were no serious talks here. “I’ve had discussions with his agent, and I told them we were open to doing an extension,” Hurricanes GM Ron Francis told The News & Observer.

Sven Baertschi
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $1.85 million
Bargaining chips: Finding chemistry on Canucks’ top line with Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser. Should improve his production for the third straight year. On track to be a 20-goal, 50-point forward for the first time in career.
The latest: As of Nov. 22, discussions on Baertschi’s contract extension reportedly had yet to open up. There appears no rush for either side, as the winger has excelled on the Canucks’ new, legitimate top line.

Vladislav Namestnikov
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $1.975 million
Bargaining chips: Plays on first-place Tampa’s top line. Easily on pace for career-best numbers in goals, assists, points and plus/minus. Quiet breakout.
The latest: Namestnikov was a Steve Yzerman bargain signing two summers ago on a bridge deal. He has the ability to play centre but has slotted nicely opposite Nikita Kucherov on the red-hot Steven Stamkos line. He’ll be priority No. 1 in Tampa’s easiest off-season in years and is due compensation for over-delivering on his cheap, two-year pact.

Connor Hellebuyck
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Goaltender
2017-18 salary cap hit: $2.25 million
Bargaining chips: Makes considerably less than Steve Mason, whose starter’s job he took—and fast. Young goaltender who appears to have his best years ahead of him. Already took a one-year, prove-it deal.
The latest: The biggest difference why Winnipeg failed to make the playoffs in 2017 and looks on track to get into the dance in 2018 is goaltending, which is to say the play of Hellebuyck. Veteran Mason was brought in for stability, but perhaps the internal competition helped push the 24-year-old to take the step Manitoba has been patiently waiting for. The fifth-rounder’s stat line — .927 save percentage, 13-2-2 record — makes him the biggest bargain among No. 1 NHL goalies. Get the Jets into the playoffs, and he’ll have great leverage for a sweet raise.

Brady Skjei
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Regularly selected to the U.S. national team. Broke out with 39-point rookie campaign and scored four goals in Rangers’ 2017 playoff run. Skates 20: 27 per night, third most among all Rangers. Lampooned in excellent Saturday Night Live hockey sketch.
The latest: The Rangers have a tradition of dealing in bridge contracts after a bright young player’s entry-level deal expires. As the only Rangers defender under the age of 28, locking up Skjei should be a no-brainer. Afer buying out Dan Girardi last summer and staring at three more years of Marc Staal at $5.7 million per, the Blueshirts should learn it’s better to commit to young players than old ones.

Elias Lindholm
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre / Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $2.7 million
Bargaining chips: Opportunity to be a top-six fixture in Carolina for years. Twenty-goal potential (but not there yet). Go-to pick for Team Sweden. 2017 IIHF world champion. Skates nearly 19 minutes per game.
The latest: Carolina is banking hard on breakout seasons from forwards Victor Rask, Sebastian Aho and Lindholm this season as it seeks to snap an eight-season playoff drought. Lindholm is wrapping his two-year bridge deal and will have arbitration rights this summer after making $2.9 million in real money. The winger is on pace for a new career high in goals but his assist totals have dropped from 2016-17’s 34. Carolina must also re-up with Hanifin, but we should expect Francis to work something out for Lindholm, whose ceiling remains a mystery.

Codi Ceci
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $2.8 million
Bargaining chips: Top-15 draft pick. 2016 world championship gold medallist with Team Canada. Helped Sens reach 2017 conference finals despite playing with a broken finger. Only Erik Karlsson logs more ice time for Ottawa than Ceci. Young, right-shot stay-at-home defenceman. Doesn’t take penalties. Should be a top-four fixture for years. Deemed too valuable to expose during expansion draft or offered in trade.
The latest: Ceci quietly plays a defensive role in Ottawa and allows Karlsson and Dion Phaneuf to use their speed and shot, respectively. As mentioned above, Ceci’s contract expiry arrives at a tricky time as GM Pierre Dorion needs to re-sign Karlsson and Stone.

Robin Lehner
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Goaltender
2017-18 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: Sabres’ best goalie. Buffalo does not have an NHL goaltender under contract for 2018-19. Strong save percentage in three seasons behind one of the league’s thinnest defences. Big boy (Six-foot-four, 245 pounds).
The latest: Much like the Hellebuyck situation in Winnipeg, Lehner signed a one-year, show-me contract and narrowly avoided salary arbitration with his team this summer. The Sabres have been nothing short of atrocious through the season’s first quarter. Lehner has been fine but not spectacular, though he shouldn’t be blamed for this disaster. If Buffalo isn’t ready to commit to Lehner into his 30s, GM Jason Botterill must seriously consider trading him since his club is bound for the lottery anyway.

Other notable RFAs in 2018: Brock Nelson, Mat Dumba, Petr Mrazek, Tomas Hertl, Ryan Strome, Boone Jenner, Ryan Murray, Kevin Hayes, Tobias Rieder, Tom Wilson, Stephen Johns, Bryan Rust, Philipp Grubauer, Andreas Athanasiou, Joel Edmundson, Anthony Duclair, Colin Miller, Markus Granlund, Darnell Nurse, Shea Theodore

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.