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.

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev hit pay dirt with the seven-year, $31.5-million pact he signed Tuesday, no doubt raising the financial hopes of fellow D-men Colton Parayko, Justin Schultz and Dmitry Orlov.

So, will we finally start to see more impending restricted free agents finalize contracts for 2017-18?

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 the Bread Man was the exception, not the rule, this season.

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 2016-17 performance.

Mikael Granlund
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3 million
Bargaining chips: 2017 Lady Byng finalist. Top four in goals, assists, points and plus/minus among 2017 RFA class. Skates nearly 19 minutes a night and is versatile enough to switch from centre to wing. The Wild's leading scorer, easy. Played post-season with broken hand.
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.

"He played a lot of minutes this year, starting in World Cup, but he competed right to the end," GM Chuck Fletcher said. "He'll have to learn ways to create more time and space for himself. I just think he's such a competitive and such a smart player, he'll learn."

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. A 34-goal and 70-point man already. Added two goals and two assists in six playoff games.
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 performed just under 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?

“We want David, and David certainly reiterated a number of times that he wants to play here and stay here,” Boston president Cam Neely told reporters on May 2. “He loves it here. So I feel confident we can get something done with him.”

Ryan Johansen
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: Four consecutive 60-point NHL seasons. 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. Seven points through first eight playoff contests.
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 won 54.6 per cent of his draws. A low shooting percentage (9.1 per cent) is partially to blame for his goal total (14), 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 nearly 19 minutes a night and produces come playoff time.
What the future holds: An important extension. In a perfect world for the Oilers, Draisaitl — 29 goals, 77 points — signs a Kucherov deal, but like Kucherov, he's worth more than that. Not only can he centre a line by himself, he can slide 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. In the process of taking the No. 1 centre baton from one-time league MVP Henrik Sedin. Career-high 20 goals and 52 points.
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.

GM Jim Benning said on April 20 the sides have already touched base, but "these things take time."

"It's a priority for us, for sure. I'm not gonna set a timeline," Benning said. "It might be something we end up talking about and working on all summer."

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. A plus-27 player this year.
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 had as many goals (12) or assists (39) this season. 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: Breakout 20-goal season in 2015-16 followed by 19 goals this 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. 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 had 59 points this season and was trusted enough by his coach to go head-to-head with Evgeni Malkin in the playoffs.

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. A trade? A tough negotiation? Yes, the young American came on strong towards the end of 2016, when the Habs had fallen out of the playoff race, but Galchenyuk was streaky this season and dealt with a knee injury. Expectations for a 60-point-plus breakout were tempered by a 44-point showing.

How GM Marc Bergevin handles the Galchenyuk deal and fills the 1C role this off-season will be integral to his perception in Montreal. Galchenyuk doesn't want to talk about it, and now two head coaches believe he's not ready to be a top-line centre.

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: 21 goals, 53 points.
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 was 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.

Larry Brooks of the New York Post cites "several well-connected sources" when he reports that Yzerman will use Drouin as trade bait to attract a top-four defenceman, "with Anaheim shaping up as the most likely trade partner."

We see both a trade or a nice extension as possible. And, hey, look, there's even one suggestion that goal-starved Montreal should look at an offer sheet.

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. Tough as nails.
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.
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. He's on record wanting to sign a new deal ASAP.

Tomas Tatar
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.75 million
Bargaining chips: Three straight 20-goal seasons in Detroit. Led all Wings with 25 goals this year. 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.

Tatar had shoulder surgery in April and addressed his contract situation with the Detroit Free Press.

“We started talking for a little and so far he haven’t talked about much,” Tatar said. “But I don’t see a problem.

“[Detroit] feels like home to me, but I’m not afraid of change,” he added, knowing a trade is possible. “I know it’s a business and if Ken [Holland] would like some deal and he thinks he can help the team this way, it obviously can happen. Like I said, I would just respect it.”

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 finished with 19 goals and 45 points in 66 games. 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, but Johnson wants to stay.

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.

Wennberg hired a new agent, Pat Brisson, and told the Columbus Dispatch he’s had preliminary discussions about an extension.

“We’ll see,” he said. “Nothing is done right now. There’s no rush, either. Take it when it comes.”

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 his top-line promotion.
What the future holds: After exploding for an out-of-nowhere breakout season —31 goals and 30 assists — the fourth-rounder will put 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?

Rough estimate? A five- or six-year deal at $4.2 million per season.

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: 23 goals and 53 points.
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.

Of concern: Sheary was dropped to the Penguins' third line during the playoffs and suffered a concussion against the Washington Capitals.

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 suffered the dreaded sophomore slump. A frequent healthy scratch, the young D-man tumbled from a plus-8 to a minus-21 (worst among Flyers defencemen) and didn'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.

"Free agency, I can't answer that question right now," GM Ron Hextall said in April. "We've got the expansion draft, we've got preparation, we've got to sign a goalie, we've got Ghost to sign."

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 and Oscar Lindberg 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 under control. Two straight seasons with a save percentage of .920 or better for a lottery team.
What the future holds: An interesting negotiation with an unnamed general manager. 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.

For what it's worth, former GM Tim Murray had yet to open negotiations with Lehner before ownership cleaned house this off-season.

Nino Niederreiter
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.67 million
Bargaining chips: Set career highs in goals (25), assists (32), points (57) and plus/minus (+17) this season. Big boy (6-foot-2, 211 pounds). Point per game in the 2016 post-season.
What the future holds: Could nearly double his money. The Swiss forward has shown wonderful consistency throughout his three-year bridge deal — three straight 20-goal seasons — so it should be time for GM Chuck Fletcher to make a long-term commitment here.

But like many Wild players, Niederreiter failed to score against Jake Allen in Minnesota's Round 1 playoff exit to the Blues.

"He's been streaky before. He'll be streaky again. He gets hot. He gets cold," Fletcher said. "I don't know that he's that much different than a lot of goal-scorers. He certainly made a lot of big plays in Game 5."

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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, Damon Severson, Ryan Dzingel, Connor Brown, Esa Lindell, Brian Doumoulin, Nathan Beaulieu, Zach Hyman, Calvin De Haan, Nikita Zadorov, Andrea Athanasiou, Jean-Gabriel Pageau

(cap info via the excellent CapFreindly.com)