NHL Power Rankings: The Biggest RFA Questions Edition

Winnipeg Jets left wing Kyle Connor (81) celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs with teammate Patrik Laine (29) during first period action in Toronto on Saturday, October 27, 2018. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The restricted free agent market has been the buzz of the NHL these days, with William Nylander holding out until the last few minutes of the Dec. 1 deadline and getting a big-money deal anyway. When he starts playing full seasons again, Nylander will come with a $6.9-million cap hit, which is a pretty good deal when you look at it from the angle of per cent of the overall cap.

But if you thought his contract was too much to hand out, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The 2019 RFA class is chock full of big names and players who are already stars in the NHL. With the salary cap also rising to a projected $83 million next season, the entire market is about to reset and we may very well look back on Nylander’s deal in awe of its value.

Every team has an RFA to deal with, and most of them have a significant signing ahead.

Welcome to our NHL Power Rankings: The Biggest RFA Question Edition.

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1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Brayden Point: Steven Stamkos makes $8.5 million against the cap and Nikita Kucherov will start counting for $9.5 million next season — so what do you do with a 22-year-old centre who has nearly as many goals as the two of them combined this season? We all know how valuable a productive top-six centre is, but Point also comes with the upside of being strong on defence. We know he won’t keep scoring on 26.3 per cent of his shots, but playing alongside Kucherov should help Point to his third straight season of improved point totals. And he’s not propped up by special teams production: Point is seventh in even-strength points league wide. You can make the case he is Tampa’s best centre right now.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

Mitch Marner: While Auston Matthews should come out of next summer the highest-paid Maple Leaf, and perhaps highest-paid in the league, Marner’s ultimate value is what will really set the table for the following years. A magician with the puck and preferred linemate of massive UFA pickup John Tavares, the case has been made for Marner to make everything from Nylander-type money ($6.9 million) to upwards of $10 million. His deal could really put the squeeze on Toronto’s cap, but the question has to be asked of this homegrown talent: Would he consider some level of discount?

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3. Nashville Predators

Kevin Fiala: The stars seemed to be aligning for a breakout year from the 11th overall pick of the 2014 draft, but at the 28-game mark Fiala is on pace to struggle to finish with even half of the 23 goals he accumulated last season. Injuries have afforded him an opportunity on the top line and he does have six points in his past six games, so maybe things are turning around.

4. Buffalo Sabres

Nathan Beaulieu: When Sabres GM Jason Botterill acquired a then-24-year-old Beaulieu for a third-round pick ahead of the Vegas expansion draft, it was generally viewed as a good bargain deal for Buffalo. At the time, Beaulieu was coming off a 28-point season and had the kind of puck-moving abilities that all teams need nowadays. But he struggled to just nine points last season and has been a healthy scratch multiple times this season as his average ice time has dropped to just 14 minutes per game. The only plus is that with three goals, Beaulieu has already surpassed his total from all of last season. Arbitration eligible, no Sabres blue-liner plays less often than Beaulieu.

5. Colorado Avalanche

Mikko Rantanen: With Nathan MacKinnon on one of the best value contracts around the NHL, making just $6.3 million for MVP-calibre performances through 2022-23, you wonder where the NHL’s current scoring leader will slide in. For instance, if you think Marner is worth between $9-10 million, how can you make the case a player from the same draft who has outperformed Marner two years running is worth any less?

6. Calgary Flames

Matthew Tkachuk: Big-time payout or short-term bridge deal? It could be fascinating to watch Tkachuk’s negotiation play out. We already knew he is a major disturber with a lot of sandpaper in his game, but his great value there is that he draws more penalties than he takes. On top of that, Tkachuk’s really breaking out on offence this season, with 32 points in 28 games. The Flames love him, and there’s plenty of speculation he’s the future captain of this team — so will he make more than Johnny Gaudreau? The statement may be less egregious than it seems. First, Gaudreau signed his six-year contract ($6.75 million AAV) under a smaller salary cap. Second, the two are close in point production this season, both overall and at even strength. For now, Gaudreau has the highest cap hit among all RFA-aged left wingers. His teammate could very well eclipse that if he signs for the long-term this summer.

7. Winnipeg Jets

Kyle Connor: Much like the Leafs, the Jets have two massive RFAs — one of whom we know will get paid enough to fill Scrooge McDuck’s vault, while the other has potential to throw cap plans out of whack. In Winnipeg’s case, Patrik Laine will get the big money and could very well be the team’s highest-paid player when he signs, but what should Connor go for? A goal scorer at every level, Connor has gotten recent praise from head coach Paul Maurice, who also was confident enough in the player to move him away from Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler in order to help a second line get its production going. Connor is well on his way to back-to-back 30-goal seasons and is interesting to compare to Nylander. Nik Ehlers is already making $6 million so you have to believe Connor goes above that if everything stays on track – but higher than Scheifele’s value deal at $6.125 million? Winnipeg has approximately $23 million in cap space for next season without Jacob Trouba or Laine under contract, and they’ll still need to fill out nine other roster spots beyond those two.

8. Vegas Golden Knights

William Karlsson: One of the more intriguing RFAs this past summer after he broke out with 43 goals on a wholly unrepeatable 23.4 shooting percentage, Karlsson inked a one-year extension that paid $5.25 million with the idea that everyone would have a better sense of his worth after this season. Well, he’s not shooting at the same percentage, but he does have nine goals and 21 points in 29 games, which is about a 25-goal pace. Making it more complicating is that although Karlsson still has arbitration rights, he’ll only be one year away from becoming UFA eligible.

9. Washington Capitals

Andre Burakovsky: On pace for a fourth straight year of declining point totals with seven through 27 games, the 23rd overall pick from 2013 will be hard-pressed to become the goal scorer it looked like he might be when he had 17 tallies in 2015-16. Now playing on the third line, Burakovsky already makes $3 million and needs to be qualified for at least that amount this summer. With fellow pending RFA Jakub Vrana trending up and the Capitals already bumping near the cap, some level of roster turnover will need to happen. Consider, too, that two years from now Nicklas Backstrom will be UFA eligible and due a big pay day at 32 years old.

10. Dallas Stars

Esa Lindell: The Stars have eight players up as RFAs this summer and five UFAs, but none are more important to keep than Lindell. The young defenceman will turn 25 in May and, in John Klingberg’s absence, has been the team’s No. 1 blue-liner, averaging 24:33 per game and leading the back end with five points in the 12 games Klingberg has missed. Currently making $2.2 million, it’s conceivable Lindell becomes the highest-paid defenceman on this team next season with a rising cap and Klingberg on just his second contract.

11. Columbus Blue Jackets

Zach Werenski: The 24th-highest scoring NHL defencemen over the past three years, Werenski best compares in this measure to Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, who signed a five-year, $30-million extension last summer. It’s early, but like Dumba, Werenski is on his best offensive pace yet, though his defensive play to this point in the season has been a bit of a sore spot. Seth Jones makes $5.4 million against the cap, so perhaps Werenski’s more productive and more-used partner caps his salary there, but Columbus may not be facing much of a crunch anyway, with the futures of UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky in the air.

12. Anaheim Ducks

Jake Dotchin: Without any stud RFAs up for contract the Ducks aren’t facing any pressing questions, but after Dotchin was released by the Tampa Bay Lightning in training camp due to poor conditioning it will be interesting to see how his new team handles him. It’s believed the Lightning sent Nikita Gusev to Vegas ahead of the expansion draft to keep the Golden Knights from picking Dotchin (and Slater Koekkoek) so he’s not far removed from being a valued defender. Now on the third line, Dotchin is working his way back up the depth chart.

13. Boston Bruins

Charlie McAvoy: The future top guy on Boston’s back end, McAvoy is injured without a timetable to return. Boston has roughly $13 million in cap space for next season with 18 players under contract, but a few key names who aren’t: on top of McAvoy, UFA Zdeno Chara needs to be extended for a year if he wishes to continue, while fellow big-minute blue-liner Brandon Carlo is an RFA as well.

14. San Jose Sharks

Timo Meier: Starting on Joe Thornton’s top line and getting out to a quick start with nine goals in 12 October games, a breakout season appeared to be on the way for Meier. While it’s hard to imagine he won’t finish with career-best totals across the board, he has slowed considerably with just two goals in his past 11 games. The ninth overall pick from 2015 has a goal scorer’s background with 78 in his last 113 QMJHL games and he’s already just eight shy of tying his total of 21 from a year ago. Fresh off re-signing winger Evander Kane to a $7-million cap hit, and with pending UFAs Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski also seeking big pay days, the Sharks have $24.1 million in projected cap space this summer with just 12 players under contract. Meier doesn’t have arbitration rights, which could make his negotiations interesting to keep an eye on.

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15. Minnesota Wild

Joel Eriksson Ek: With the Wild’s top two centres, Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu, set to be 34 and 36 years old respectively at season’s end, it’s time to start thinking about what the future brings at the position in Minnesota. Now, Eriksson Ek is not yet an offensive force and the jury is out on whether or not he’ll hit a level of production he teased in the AHL last season (eight points in eight games), but he is being used more on the penalty kill than most expected. That should help him with the two-way demands that come with playing centre in the NHL, whether his offence fully comes around or not. Eriksson Ek is the only RFA on the Wild’s roster and since his contract shouldn’t come in too expensive, it’ll help this team maintain its Cup hopes a bit longer.

16. Edmonton Oilers

Jesse Puljujarvi: Just what do they have in this player, picked fourth overall in 2016 with just two goals this season and already demoted to the AHL? Ken Hitchcock wants to work with him, which is what was behind his recall, but he has just one goal in five games under the new coach. This situation seems to have bridge deal written all over it.

17. Arizona Coyotes

Nick Schmaltz: Picked up in a trade from Chicago last week, reports out of the Windy City indicated the cap-strapped team moved him because they were uncomfortable with where his contract negotiations were headed. Prior to the move, Schmaltz looked set to be the productive No. 2 centre the ‘Hawks needed, and in Arizona he’s off to a fast start with five points in four games. Now playing on the Coyotes’ top line, will he become their highest-paid forward already?

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18. Carolina Hurricanes

Sebastian Aho: A second-rounder in 2015, you may not think of Aho’s name along with some of the headliners of the 2019 RFA class, but his impact on the game is right up there. His 5-on-5 goals differential of plus-3 is second among forwards on the ‘Canes, as are his 1.45 primary points per 60 minutes. But with 26 points in 26 games, he’s far and away the primary offence driver and has seen his year-over-year point totals rise from 49 in Year 1 to 65 in Year 2. He could get paid a hefty amount, and if you aren’t familiar with Aho the forward already, get used to him now.

19. Montreal Canadiens

Artturi Lehkonen: If you want to bet on a Canadiens player to improve and recover from a slow start, Lehkonen may be a decent gamble. Not only does he have the motivation that comes with a contract year, but he’s already been an 18-goal player in the NHL before — two years ago as a rookie. That season his shooting percentage was up at 11.4, but he’s been below eight ever since. If he can get back to that acceptable level of efficiency, it’s entirely possible Lehkonen could still hit the 20-goal mark. On top of that, he’s the second-most used forward on the penalty kill, so the team values his two-way presence.

20. Pittsburgh Penguins

Jake Guentzel: With similar goal totals to Nylander over the past two seasons in 41 fewer games played, just what is the winger riding shotgun with Sidney Crosby worth on his own? Looking at just this season, Guentzel is tracking for a career year, which should increase his contract demands further. If the cap rises to $83 million as reported, the Penguins will have $14 million in space with about 10 players to sign. Guentzel should come in over Tanner Pearson’s $3.75 million – the question is how will his final number stack up to Patric Hornqvist’s $5.3 million?

21. Detroit Red Wings

Martin Frk: As far as tough, expensive decisions go, this one will rank near the bottom of the NHL in the summer as the Wings don’t really have any RFA issues right now. Frk plays less than nine minutes a night on average and has only gotten into 13 games. This is a low-cost, low-priority keep.

22. New York Islanders

Anthony Beauvillier: The only RFA up for contract this summer, Beauvillier is still finding his way as a top-six forward on this team, but has eight points in his past eight games after a slow start. The 21-year-old, picked 28th overall in 2015, is on track to surpass his 21 goals from last season, but has just two assists in 2018-19 so far that is slowing his pace. He shouldn’t be a big contract that throws the Islanders’ cap structure off track.

23. Ottawa Senators

Cody Ceci: The worst CF% and worst 5-on-5 shot differential among all Senators blue-liners, Ceci is already making $4.3 million, so where do he and the team go from here? Ceci will be 25 years old next month and the 2019-20 season will be his seventh, making him UFA eligible in the summer of 2020. Ceci plays north of 22 minutes a night so the team needs him, but a bigger defence contract is surely on the way a year from now when Thomas Chabot becomes an RFA.

24. Philadelphia Flyers

Ivan Provorov: A big, solid and puck-moving defenceman picked seventh overall and coming off a 17-goal season? Provorov was tracking towards a monster 2018-19 season. While that still may happen, his two-goal start is a bit of a letdown. But he’s still a high-value defenceman with Norris hopes in his future and the Flyers rely on him to the tune of 24:43 of ice per game, the 14th-most among all NHL defencemen. With Travis Konecny producing on the top line and also an RFA, new GM Chuck Fletcher has some expensive decisions ahead.

25. New York Rangers

Neal Pionk: If you had to guess the member of the Rangers with the most average minutes per game, would Pionk be your first choice? It’s true. Undrafted and coming off a 28-game rookie season, Pionk has quickly ascended under head coach Dan Quinn, who also recently moved on from the NCAA ranks. Pionk is putting up solid offensive numbers with 16 points in 26 games and is heavily used in all situations. Brady Skjei was just given a six-year, $31.5-million extension this past summer, but it appears 23-year-old Pionk has passed him on the depth chart.

26. Florida Panthers

Frank Vatrano: Since being acquired from Boston for a third-rounder a year ago, Vatrano has 13 goals in 41 games, a pretty good pace over a full season. Another good start to this season has him on track for a pay increase, though it won’t be a big one. Still, he’s effectively a second-line winger with Vincent Trocheck on the sidelines and has quietly turned into a pretty productive depth play for Florida who can play on just about any line.

27. New Jersey Devils

Will Butcher: Drafted by Colorado but signed by New Jersey a few years later as a free agent, Butcher got a couple Calder votes last season for his 44-point performance but this year he’s slowed a bit to eight points in 25 games. Still, his average time on ice has risen by nearly two minutes per game and he has the best CF% and 5-on-5 goal differential on the struggling Devils.

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28. St. Louis Blues

Joel Edmundson: Already nearly halfway to his career-high point total, the defensive defenceman is a key part of St. Louis’s collection of young defencemen they’ll surely move into the future with. Edmundson actually leads all Blues blue-liners in primary points per 60 minutes despite not being a power-play asset. His value is as a shutdown defender, he plays more than 20 minutes a night and is a key penalty-killer.

29. Vancouver Canucks

Brock Boeser: Boeser may have won the Calder Trophy had he stayed healthy until the end of last season. An elite goal scorer in the making, Boeser could get to 30 this season if he’s able to stay healthy enough – that would put him in line for a significant pay increase. He’s not on the level of Winnipeg’s Laine, but Boeser is in a tougher situation than most of the other big RFAs this summer and should be considered a candidate for big money.

30. Chicago Blackhawks

Gustav Forsling: Averaging more than 20 minutes a night, Forsling is the kind of guy Chicago needs more of these days – a young, cheap and productive talent. He gets some exposure on the second power-play unit, but has never played more than 41 games in a season.

31. Los Angeles Kings

Alex Iafallo: Here is the main issue with the Kings. Although they sit at the bottom of the standings and our Power Rankings, there aren’t any high-end prospects in need of contracts this year or next. For now, Iafallo is the most interesting because he plays alongside Anze Kopitar on the top line and has 11 points in 28 games.

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