NHL’s top 12 unsigned RFAs: Latest rumours, reports

Watch as Mathew Barzal dances his way through the circle before firing a laser past Carter Hart.

Arbitration season is over, offer sheets feel more and more like a myth, and a couple of critical restricted free agents — Boston’s Jake DeBrusk and Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev — signed their bridge deals as the league gears up for a January restart.

Yet a dozen important NHL RFAs remain jobless.

The next true deadline won’t roll around until a training camp opening date is set, and that should spur some action.

Here is a rundown of the top unsigned RFAs of 2020 and the latest reports surrounding their future.

1. Mathew Barzal
Age: 23
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $863,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Franchise player. More points (60) and points per game (0.88) than any other impending RFA, despite playing in a system that accentuates defence. Skates more than 20 minutes a night. Three consecutive 60-point seasons and three seasons as the Isles’ top scorer. Racked up 85 points in his rookie season. Pivots faster than a politician. Gutsy playoff performance through four rounds.

The latest: On March 21, GM Lou Lamoriello sent a message to any GM thinking of floating an offer sheet Barzal’s way. Lamoriello was asked by a fan if he’d match any competitive contract offer for his top centreman.

“It is our intention to not allow it to get to that point, but should that happen, the answer is yes,” Lamoriello replied.

The slick skater raised eyebrows in September when he told Arthur Staple of The Athletic that he’d be interested in seeing an offer sheet signed by a member of 2019’s loaded RFA class.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone shake up the league a little bit. That would be fun. Maybe see an offer sheet tossed around,” Barzal mused.

Barzal and the Islanders have been in no great rush to settle his next deal, which should be a juicy one.

Lamoriello is in the thick of a tricky off-season.

He’d love to bring in an elite winger to finish off Barzal’s passes, but after extending RFA defenceman Ryan Pulock, there was not much room to wiggle.

Until expensive defenceman Johnny Boychuk announced the end of his NHL career on Nov. 25.

In order to free cap space (and guard against offer sheets) earlier this off-season, Lamoriello was prompted to trade unsigned RFA Devon Toews to Colorado for a pair of picks.

“Whenever we’re ready to sit down and get it done, I’d love for that to happen,” Barzal said of his next contract. “At the same time, I’m not a person that’s just going to rush this thing or get nervous about it or whatever. I’m just going about my day, and it’ll happen when it happens.”

Per Empire Sports, Lamoriello is looking to lock up Barzal in the ballpark of $7.5 million per season. Barzal’s camp, naturally, would prefer a higher figure — but a recent report by Andrew Gross suggests Barzal, like Pulock, is considering a team-friendly deal to keep the band together.

If Barzal were to sign an offer sheet worth $10.9 million or more per season, the compensation to the Islanders would be four first-round picks. That feels highly unlikely.

2. Anthony Cirelli
Age: 23
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $728,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Logs significant ice time (18:28), mostly against tough opponents. Ranks top-five among all NHL forwards in penalty-killing time (2:49 per game). Fourth place in 2020 Selke Trophy voting for his two-way game. Points per game and plus/minus has increased every season. He was on pace for 50 points. Stanley Cup champ.

The latest: Cirelli had a front-row seat to RFA negotiations last summer, watching his good buddy, Brayden Point, wait until late September to put pen to paper. While Cirelli doesn’t have Point’s offensive numbers, he’s improved each year in the league and has become integral to the Bolts’ future.

GM Julien BriseBois declared, accurately, last fall that the 2020 off-season will be Tampa’s most difficult cap-wise — and that was before a flat cap and championship raises. That Cirelli is one of multiple Lightning RFAs in need of a raise has hastened the need to trade a veteran forward or two: Alex Killorn and/or Tyler Johnson and/or and/or Ondrej Palat and/or (gasp) Steven Stamkos.

Johnson clearing waivers unclaimed in October illustrated how difficult it is to dump salary in this climate.

I asked Tampa executive Dave Andreychuk about Cirelli’s future in April.

“He’s come a long way. He’s a big part of this team. He’s going to be here for a while,” Andreychuk said. “They’re going to try to lock him up as best they can, because this kid is the real deal — and he’s only going to get better.”

When Point went down to injury in the Eastern Conference Final, Cirelli was promoted to Tampa’s temporary top-line pivot. Now that Mikhail Sergachev is taken care of, re-signing Cirelli is top priority.

That said, Pierre LeBrun reported on Nov. 25 that there has not been much headway on the centre’s extension.

“Nothing new to report,” Cirelli’s agent, Pat Morris, told LeBrun.

3. Pierre-Luc Dubois
Age: 22
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Was on pace for his third-straight 20-goal season. Leads all Blue Jackets in assists (31) and points (49). Raised game in playoffs, with eight points through his first eight games. Cap space is not an issue in Columbus.

The latest: Generally, if you’re lucky enough to draft and develop a 22-year-old No. 1 centreman, you pay the man when his contract comes due.

Dubois exploded for a 61-point campaign skating mostly alongside the all-world Artemi Panarin, but even in the Bread Man’s absence, the big-bodied Quebecer has driven offence for an organization that needs all it can get.

“If he wants to be a difference-maker, a game-changer, one of the best players in the league, he has all the capabilities, all the tools,” says winger Cam Atkinson.

Jarmo Kekalainen has cap space but some work to do with Dubois. Columbus’s GM indicated to the Columbus Dispatch in late October that extnesion talks with Dubois’ agent, Pat Brisson, had stalled.

“It’s funny how everyone’s worried about RFAs, because I’m not worried at all,” Kekalainen said. “They get done when they get done.”

The GM said the two sides have not spoken “in a while.”

“The (Zach) Werenski contract got done right before training camp last year,” Kekalainen reminded. “Why should there be any worry? I’m not worried.”

4. MacKenzie Blackwood
Age: 23
Position: Goaltender
2019-20 salary cap hit: $697,500
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Winning record on a bad team (32-24-8). One of the NHL’s hottest goalies since Christmas. Silver medallist at 2019 world championships. Arguably should’ve been a Calder Trophy finalist.

The latest: The Devils would be wise to rebuild from the net out, and few young goalies are as exciting as Blackwood, whose excellence helped ease the discomfort of Cory Schneider’s decline.

Few teams have more salary cap space than New Jersey, so even with other RFAs on deck (most notably Jesper Bratt), fitting in Blackwood’s raise won’t be an issue. Young goalies rarely get a long-term deal straight out of their entry-level deals, however.

We’d expect a bridge contract for this potential long-term franchise starter. That’s the route taken in recent summers by Jordan Binnington, Connor Hellebuyck, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the like.

Talks are expected to pick up shortly, with the Devils buying out Schneider and signing a suitable goalie mentor in Corey Crawford.

“I was really surprised at Blackwood and how great a young goaltender he is,” Crawford said.

Blackwood may wish to use Merzlikins’ two-year, $8-million bridge contract as a starting point.

5. Vince Dunn
Age: 23
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $722,500
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Gamer. Stanley Cup champion. Plus-30 defenceman over his career. Hit 35 points as a sophomore. Blues defensive depth took a hit with Alex Pietrangelo walking. Offensive flair. Positive possession metrics.

The latest: Despite letting their captain seek his money elsewhere, the Blues are still hard up against the cap with Dunn unsigned.

The landscape isn’t financially benefitting third-pairing defencemen these days, even ones with as much potential as Dunn, who is coming off a down year statistically and has been given the benefit of starting most shifts in the O-zone.

Coach Craig Berube has felt safer trusting his more experienced defencemen, and GM Doug Armstrong should draw a hard line in negotiations with a player who lacks arbitration rights.

This has short-term bridge written all over it.

Armstrong informed the St. Louis Dispatch that both sides are content to wait until closer to training camp to finalize an extension. Placing Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Steen on long-term injured reserve will help free the cap space necessary to ink Dunn.

6. Jesper Bratt
Age: 22
Position: Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $749,167
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Member of Sweden’s senior national team. Career-high 16 goals in shortened 2019-20. Three seasons of 30-plus points despite never appearing in more than 74 games. Adds offensive punch to a lineup in great need of it.

The latest: The Devils have no cap concerns, so finding the money for suitable raises for goalie MacKenzie Blackwood and a young, emerging forward like Bratt should be of little concern.

Although New Jersey isn’t expected to spend to the cap, there is some leeway here, depending on GM Tom Fitzgerald’s preference, to work out either a long-term or short-term extension here.

Bratt is still a year away from arbitration eligibility and projects to be an important piece of the Devils’ top six in 2021.

7. Ethan Bear
Age: 23
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $720,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Among all unsigned RFAs, only Pulock averaged more time on ice than Bear (21:58). Established himself with a fine five-goal, 21-point rookie campaign. Oilers need all the reliable D-men they can get, with Oscar Klefbom’s health in doubt.

The latest: When the Oilers recently re-signed veteran Kris Russell to a modest one-year extension through 2021-22, wisdom dictates it was Ken Holland’s way of establishing some expansion-draft protection for emerging D-men like Bear.

Bear and depth D-man William Lagesson remain the only unsigned Oilers, and Edmonton has a scant $732,509 in cap space to work with here.

Short-term seems the way to go, with Bear holding next to no leverage and Holland’s cap picture opening up significantly in 2021.

8. Philippe Myers
Age: 23
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $678,889
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: World juniors silver medallist. World championships silver medallist. Coming off breakout 2019-20 campaign in which he put up 16 points in 50 games and scored thrice in 16 playoff contests. Young, stud right-shot defender with positive underlying metrics, great plus/minus (+17) and ability to log 17-plus minutes a night.

The latest: The surprise retirement of right-shooting Matt Niskanen further opens opportunity for Myers to establish himself as a top-four defencemen on one of the best clubs in the Metropolitan Division.

That Myers is still one year away from attaining arbitration rights gives management the upper hand in negotiations. GM Chuck Fletcher has nearly $5 million in cap space and — barring a late UFA addition — only Myers left to sign.

While the expectation is that Myers will receive a short-term offer — like the one-year, $874,125 deal RFA Nolan Patrick signed on Oct. 16 — there may be some benefit for club to lock up Myers for a longer term.

We can only see his price going up from here.

9. Dylan Strome
Age: 23
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $863,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Put up 0.66 points per game. Back-to-back seasons with a minimum of 38 points. Averaged nearly 16 minutes per night. Belief that his most productive seasons are still ahead. Chicago has plenty of cap space, realtively speaking.

The latest: With the Blackhawks broadcasting that they’re firmly in rebuild mode, keeping a young centreman with offensive upside in the fold is probalby a wise idea.

The jury is still out, however, regarding the heights Strome can climb. Is he a top-six piece of the future?

With arbitation rights still a year away, Strome has little leverage on a long-term deal, so a bridge would be the prudent move for both sides.

“The contract for Dylan is not finalized yet,” Bowman said on Oct. 21. “We’ve had discussions probably in the early going, but I think I would anticipate we’re going to get that done.”

10. Luke Kunin
Age: 22
Position: Centre / Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Top-six expectations. Set career highs in games played (63), goals (15) and assists (16) in 2019-20. Scored twice in four playoff games. Nashville traded fan favourite Nick Bonino to Minnesota to acquire his rights.

The latest: Nashville GM David Poile has high hopes for the recently acquired Kunin and will place him in an offensive role.

“He’s going to play on the power play, he’s going to kill penalties, and he can play up and down your lineup at centre ice or on the wing,” Poile told 102.5 FM after trading respected veteran Bonino for the young forward.

“[Kunin] is 10 years younger, and for a team that was a little bit older, I think it’s a really good change. I think he’s equally, if not a better fit, than what we had.”

Kunin has yet to ink an extension with his new club but sounds upbeat about his opportunity.

“I definitely think I have the talent to play with some very skilled players like they have and help them have success offensively,” he said.

11. Jack Roslovic
Age: 23
Position: Centre / Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Multiple gold medallist as star for Team USA on the international stage as a teenager. Posted career bests in goals (12), assists (17) and ppints (29) in 2019-20 despite seeing primarily bottom-six usage. Top-six potential.

The latest: The Jets currently have a projected cap space of zero dollars with which to sign their final restricted free agent. (That said, Bryan Little may be moved to Winnipeg’s long-term injured reserve list and thus provide some relief.)

Kevin Cheveldayoff’s lack of financial wiggle room has sparked a cottage industry of trade rumours around before-their-prime players like Roslovic, the recently re-upped Sami Niku, and superstar Patrik Laine (RFA 2021).

In November, the Winnipeg Sun ran a poll to guage fans’ preferred trade piece, and 60 per cent of participants were open to cutting bait with Roslovic. The RFA has put up a respectable 26 goals and 67 points in 180 NHL games while sledom seeing top-six action.

The Jets have reportedly shopped Roslovic this off-season, targeting a top-four, left-side defenceman in return.

12. Erik Cernak
Age: 23
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $697,500
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Stanley Cup champion. Right shot. Big body (6-foot-3, 225 pounds). Played 25 games during the Bolts’ 2020 title run, contributing four assists.

The latest: With the salary cap flat, BriseBois is still facing the type of roster crunch that necessitates a trade or two off the roster.

Upon re-signing RFA Mikhail Sergachev on Nov. 25, Tampa is roughly $1.9 million over the cap limit.

The GM’s plan is to move veteran salary off his books in order to further invest in young players like Cernak and Cirelli.

Other unsigned RFAs: Dmytro Timashov, Casey Mittelstadt, Vladislav Kamenev, Oliver Kylington, Mathieu Joseph, Kevin Stenlund, Charles Hudon, Mikhail Vorobyov, Jonathan Dahlen, Oliwer Kaski, Lawrence Pilut, Henrik Borgstrom, Samuel Montembeault, Aleksi Saarela, Alexander Volkov, Pontus Aberg, Peter Cehlarik, Justin Bailey

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