Top 20 RFAs of 2017: Latest on big contract years

The Hockey Central panel look at how important Alex Galchenyuk is to the Montreal Canadiens and how when he is playing well, the Habs are usually winning.

Arguably the most dangerous RFA-in-waiting, 2016 Calder winner Artemi Panarin got the jump on his classmates by inking a two-year, $12-million extension in late December.

But, somewhat surprisingly, when it comes to locking down young talent on expiring deals, things have been relatively quiet, both in terms of negotiation reports and finalized extensions.

With a looming expansion draft to prepare for and plenty of potential for trade action at the draft, business with pending restricted free agents has taken a back seat… for now.

Still, summer 2017 is rife with big-ticket restricted free agents, and the list is heavy on skilled forwards hoping to land that Vladimir Tarasenko or Mark Scheifele payday.

Here's a look at the top 20 RFAs-in-waiting whose contract negotiations we're most intrigued to see play out based on their big seasons.

Mikael Granlund
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3 million
Bargaining chips: No 2017 RFA has more points than Granlund. Skates nearly 19 minutes a night and is versatile enough to switch from centre to wing. The Wild's leading scorer, easy.
What the future holds: With the two-year bridge deal over, it's time for Granlund to strike it really rich. Consider Minnesota's other centres: Martin Hanzal is likely just a rental, and despite their importance, Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal are only getting older. Granlund is the No. 1 pivot of this club's foreseeable future, and he's producing at an elite level.

David Pastrnak
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: One of the NHL's best bargains and most under-celebrated young stars. Already a 30-goal man.
What the future holds: Cash. Slightly overshadowed by teammate Brad Marchand's Hart-conversation campaign, Pastrnak is due a massive raise from this breakout season at age 20. The guy is roughly on a point-per-game pace and sniped his 30th goal with more than 10 games left in the season. The question is, how bad does GM Don Sweeney want to ink another large-money contract considering he already has four forwards making at least $6 million a year, two defencemen making more than $4 million a year and a $7-million goaltender?

Ryan Johansen
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: On pace for his fourth consecutive season in which he's scored a minimum of 60 points. GM David Poile traded away a high-rated defensive prospect in Seth Jones to land Johansen with the intention of him becoming the Preds' No. 1 stud pivot.
The latest: Poile challenged Johansen to step up his conditioning in the off-season. "He needs to be our leading scorer and put up some big numbers," Poile said in September. The pivot has responded by topping all Preds in assists and points. He's winning 54.5 per cent of his draws. A low shooting percentage (8.7 per cent) is partially to blame for his goal total (12), but when plopped between Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, he centres one of the best lines in hockey. Nashville will have to extend a qualifying offer worth $6 million (his 2016-17 salary) come spring in order to maintain Johansen's rights. That's a big number, and negotiations go up from there. This should be Johansen's home run.

Leon Draisaitl
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: Third-overall pick. Big body for his age. Registered 0.71 points per game in his first full season in Edmonton. Great in World Cup. Even better on Connor McDavid's wing. Plays 18 minutes a night.
What the future holds: An important extension. In a perfect world for the Oilers, Draisaitl — 24 goals, 64 points and counting — signs a Kucherov deal, but like Kucherov, he's worth more than that. Not only can he centre a line by himself, he's slid in as a lovely complement on McDavid's right side. A bridge deal could run to $5 million per. Does Peter Chiarelli aim long or short knowing that McDavid's next contract — the big one looms as early as July 1 — will tighten up Edmonton's cap.

Bo Horvat
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $894,167
Bargaining chips: The Canucks' 2017 All-Star Game rep. Vancouver gave up a No. 1 goalie (Cory Schneider) to draft Horvat ninth overall in 2013. Taking the No. 1 centre baton from one-time league MVP Henrik Sedin.
What the future holds: "We're going to get something done. Bo will be a part of this organization for a long time," Canucks president Trevor Linden told a Vancouver radio station earlier this month. The sides agreed to wait until season's end to open negotiations on an extension. We go into detail on Horvat's next contract here.

Justin Schultz
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $1.4 million
Bargaining chips: Stanley Cup champion putting up eye-popping career highs in every category. Makes Oilers fans wonder what could have been.
What the future holds: A pay day. Schultz has never had security in the game, and truth is, his game has never been at a level to demand it. He took a one-year, prove-it deal as an unrestricted free agent with Pittsburgh last summer and has since become one of the NHL's greatest steals. No other RFA D-man has as many goals, assists or is a bigger plus. The Pittsburgh Gazette took an in-depth look at the size of cheque Schultz could be looking at.

Evgeny Kuznetsov
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3 million
Bargaining chips: Coming off breakout 20-goal season. First-round pick. Washington loves talented Russian forwards with a nose for the net. Invited to 2016 All-Star Game. Made Russian national team. Lovely sense of humour.
What the future holds: A sweet payday, probably. Although Washington is a cap team now, the 2017 off-season should see significant roster juggling, especially among the forward group. Kuznetsov, who put 0.94 points per game last season (14th best league-wide), is the one most worth keeping. His 2016 playoff dry spell raised concern, but he has 53 points this season.

Kuznetsov did make an interesting comment on Nikita Kucherov's prolonged contract negotiations last fall.

"If I would be in his position, I would be signed in the KHL for sure... I would sign and say bye,” said Kuznetsov at the World Cup. “That’s me. I would buy a beach house and a couple Rolls-Royces."

Alex Galchenyuk
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.8 million
Bargaining chips: Twenty-goal scorer in 2014-15 jumps to 30-goal scorer in 2015-16. Montreal needs a top-tier centre almost as much as it needs an MVP goalie.
What the future holds: Scrutiny. Yes, the young American came on strong towards the end of 2016, when the Habs had fallen out of the playoff race, but Galchenyuk has been streaky this year and dealt with a knee injury. Expectations for a 60-point-plus breakout season have been modified for a 40-something-point campaign. How GM Marc Bergevin handles the Galchenyuk deal and fills the 1C role this off-season will be integral to his perception in Montreal.

Jonathan Drouin
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: Third overall pick. Exploded in run to 2016 Eastern Conference championship by registering 14 points in 17 playoff games. Rescinded his trade request and has become a game breaker.
What the future holds: More intrigue. The shaky relationship between Drouin and the franchise made headlines last season, but the player responded the best way possible and has been entrenched in the top six. Problem is, Tampa still has cap issues, and head coach Jon Cooper's loyalty — at least on the surface — appears to rest with Palat and Johnson. Drouin is having his breakout regular season with 17 goals and 44 points through 62 games.

Colton Parayko
Age on July 1:
24
Position:
Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit:
$858,750
Bargaining chips:
Incredible 2016 rookie campaign that saw the Alberta kid log big, important minutes and put up 40 points (including playoffs). One of the best D-men on Team North America at the World Cup. Skates 21 minutes a night.
What the future holds:
A long-term commitment from the Blues, who had little choice but to trade UFA defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk. GM Doug Armstrong shouldn't mess around with a bridge deal here. Already a fixture in the top four, Parayko will continue St. Louis's tradition of excellent D-men.

Ondrej Palat
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.33 million
Bargaining chips: One of the better two-way forwards in hockey. Underrated at both ends of the ice. Capable of 60 points if he can stay healthy all season.
What the future holds: A nice raise. Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman will arguably face an even tougher set of decisions in 2017 than he did in 2016, a.k.a. The Year of the Stamkos. You'll notice that three of the league's best RFAs-in-waiting— Johnson, Palat and Jonathan Drouin — wear blue and white. That Palat brings a defensive element to his game might make him harder to part with than Drouin or Johnson if/when Yzerman is forced to make a tough choice.

Tomas Tatar
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.75 million
Bargaining chips: Averaged more than 20 goals over three seasons in Detroit. Most believe he still hasn't reached his ceiling. Looked fantastic for runner-up Team Europe at the World Cup.
What the future holds: Mon-ay. With Henrik Zetterberg on the sad side of 35, the Wings need to pay men in their 20s to put the puck in the net. Gustav Nyquist makes $4.75 million a year. Tatar is younger and better. He can play either wing and has quietly had a 20-goal campaign for a bad Red Wings club.

Tyler Johnson
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.33 million
Bargaining chips: Led all players in 2015 playoff scoring, putting up 13 goals and 10 assists in 26 games for the Cup finalists. Point per game (17 in 17) in 2016 post-season. Longtime relationship with head coach Jon Cooper. From undrafted to blowing up for 72 points as an NHL sophomore in 2014-15. Bounced back from a disappointing 2015-16 and should finish with 20 goals this year. Kills penalties.
What the future holds: A modest raise or a trade. When UFA-bound captain Steven Stamkos agreed to return for $8.5 million a year in the summer, that signaled the rest to fall in line financially. Considering Nikita Kucherov signed for three years at $4.76 million per season in the fall, Johnson must aim lower. We predict the Bolts will prioritize signing fellow RFA forwards Palat and Drouin.

Alexander Wennberg
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: Career highs in goals, assists, points and plus/minus coinciding with the best regular season in Blue Jackets' history.
What the future holds: Wennberg's perfectly timed breakout season will make him a priority re-signing, but the cap-tight Blue Jackets will also have to make decisions on UFAs like Sam Gagner (due a raise) and deadline rentals Lauri Korpikoski and Kyle Quincey, plus hand a raise to one of their young, developing goalies.

Viktor Arvidsson
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $631,667
Bargaining chips: Grown into a ridiculously cheap point producer. Skates like the wind. Having a career year and deserving of top-line promotion.
What the future holds: After exploding for an out-of-nowhere breakout season —26 goals and 26 assists through 59 games — the fourth-rounder will put some pressure on GM David Poile to keep he and fellow RFA Ryan Johansen together. The question becomes this: How deep (dollars and years) do you commit to a forward after one season of elite production?

Conor Sheary
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $667,500
Bargaining chips: Putting up nearly a point per game in his first full NHL campaign. Plays nice with Sidney.
What the future holds: A relative windfall. To think: the undrafted Sheary was on an AHL-only deal until 2015-16. Now he has a Cup ring and has slid in lovely to the left of the world's greatest player. Keeping Sheary in the fold will ease the pain of losing some UFA forwards. Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen are all on expiring deals.

Shayne Gostisbehere
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: A 2016 rookie phenomenon who went off for 46 points 64 games. Named to World Cup's Team North America. Great power-play man.
What the future holds: A tricky negotiation. Though poised to be the offensive back-end engine the Flyers need for the future, the Ghost has suffered a sophomore slump. A frequent healthy scratch, the young D-man has tumbled from a plus-8 to a minus-25 and won't sniff last season's total of 17 goals. The fall-off in production will give Ron Hextall an edge at the negotiating table and makes a bridge deal possible.

Mika Zibanejad
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.625 million
Bargaining chips: Sixth overall pick. Back-to-back 20-goal campaigns. Has increased his point total every season before getting hampered by injury this year. The Rangers gave Ottawa a No. 1 centre in order to land Zibanejad, so they're already half committed.
What the future holds: A more permanent role in New York and a nice, if not mind-blowing, raise. The Rangers are getting older. It's imperative that young, reasonably priced forwards like Zibanejad take the baton. Forwards Brandon Pirri, Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg and Josh Jooris all turn RFA this summer, too, so GM Jeff Gorton has plenty to figure out (such as: How aggressively do I pursue UFA Kevin Shattenkirk?). Captain Ryan McDonagh raves about Zibanejad's all-around game, and he's been a good fit. Room to take another step.

Robin Lehner
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Goaltender
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.25 million
Bargaining chips: The best goalie the Sabres have. Two straight seasons with a save percentage of .921 or better for a lottery team.
What the future holds: An interesting negotiation. The emotional Lehner has provided excellent netminding behind a bad Buffalo team and he's wrapping up a three-year contract. Do the sides want to make a long-term commitment here? Our guess is a two- or three-year pact. On a good team — something Buffalo might become in a couple years — Lehner could be a star.

Nino Niederreiter
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.67 million
Bargaining chips: Set career highs in assists, points and plus/minus this season. Big boy (6-foot-2, 211 pounds). Point per game in the 2016 post-season.
What the future holds: Double the money, more or less. The Swiss forward has shown wonderful consistency throughout his three-year bridge deal — three straight 20-goal seasons — so it's time for GM Chuck Fletcher to make a long-term commitment here.

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More intriguing RFAs: Tyler Toffoli, Sam Bennett, Richard Panik, Teuvo Teravainen, Curtis Lazar, Radek Faksa, Ryan Spooner, Anthony Duclair, Connor Hellebuyck, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Orlov, Tanner Pearson, Nikita Zaitsev, Damon Severson, Ryan Dzingel, Connor Brown, Esa Lindell, Brian Doumoulin, Nathan Beaulieu, Zach Hyman

(cap info via the excellent CapFreindly.com)