NHL’s Top 16 RFAs of 2020: Latest rumours, reports

Islanders superstar Mathew Barzal remembers the amazing atmosphere and rivalry at MSG, when he scored his first career NHL goal.

The restricted free agent dominated hockey conversation in the summer of 2019, as a loaded class of emerging stars took greater slices of their respective teams’ salary pie, pushed negotiations into training camp, and signed an array of short-, long- and mid-term extensions that expanded the boundaries of contractual possibilities for talented twenthysomethings.

(Hey, we even saw our first signed offer sheet in more than six years.)

While several key members of the 2020 RFA class — Thomas Chabot, Nico Hischier, Clayton Keller, Alex DeBrincat, and Darnell Nurse — took the secure route and re-upped early, there are plenty of sure-fire and breakout stars still eyeing big raises heading into next season.

Those expectations may need to be tempered with a likely flattened salary cap, and it will be fascinating to see how negotiations play out under a new economic landscape.

More bridge deals, perhaps? Yes, if we are to judge by the only RFAs to sign contracts in a pandemic — Columbus goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo.

Here is an early preview of the top 16 impending RFAs of 2020 and the latest reports surrounding their future.

1. Mathew Barzal
Age on July 1: 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 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 rookie season. Pivots faster than a politician.

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.

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

“We want to make the playoffs, take a run at the Stanley Cup, and after that we’ll figure it out,” Barzal said during all-star weekend in January.

Lamoriello will face a tricky off-season. He’d love to bring in an elite winger to finish off Barzal’s passes, and he must also extend RFAs Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews on the back end.

“To be honest with you guys, I don’t think there’s been too much communication, and not because there’s anything negative or anything, it’s just [Lamoriello is] getting ready for a playoff run right now, and I’m still worried about this season as well,” Barzal said in April. “I’m not too too worried about it, just because I don’t think the season is over yet. I think we’re still going to be playing.

“Whenever we’re ready to sit down and get it done, I’d love for that to happen. 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.”

2. Anthony Cirelli
Age on July 1: 22
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). Earning some Selke Trophy buzz for his two-way game. Points per game and plus/minus has increased every season. Was on pace for 50 points.

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 in September that the 2020 off-season will be Tampa’s most difficult cap-wise — and that was before a rising ceiling looked unlikely. That Cirelli is one of multiple Lightning RFAs in need of a raise has led to speculation that an older forward under contract, like Alex Killorn or Tyler Johnson, may need to be traded.

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.”

3. Anthony Deangelo
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Breakout season in which he’s put up the fourth-most goals (15) and points (53) among all NHL D-men. Right shot. Has severely chopped down his penalties taken. Excellent passer and skater with fantastic vision. Already took a one-year, prove-it deal last summer — and knocked it out of the park.

The latest: The Rangers are one of the rare squads loaded with young, talented, right-shot defencemen. DeAngleo is joined by Jacob Trouba, 26, and rookie Adam Fox, 22, in that category.

With New York shaping into a team that’s ready to run back into playoff contention in 2020-21, GM Jeff Gorton is facing raises (or trades) at every position, with intriguing RFAs coming up at forward (Strome, Brendan Lemieux) and in net (Alexandar Georgiev) as well.

Gorton’s deadline deal of Brady Skjei to Carolina has cleared the cap and roster space necessary to re-up with DeAngelo, who’s earned the right to take this one to arbitration. Term will be tricky here.

Don’t forget: DeAngelo pushed 2019’s contract negotiation past the opening of training camp. He’ll want maximum value.

4. Pierre-Luc Dubois
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Tracking his third straight 20-goal season. Leads all Blue Jackets in assists (31) and points (49). 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 Quebecker has driven offence for an organization that needs all it can get.

“Luc is a beast, and he plays like a beast. There’s not a lot of guys who can play in the league against him,” captain Nick Foligno said.

Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen got a jump on off-season business by re-signing his two RFA goalies, but he’s far from done. Negotiations with the injured Josh Anderson should be especially interesting.

5. Sam Reinhart
Age: 24
Position: Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $3.65 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Three straight 20-goal, 50-point seasons. Second-overall pick. World junior and world championships gold medallist. Sabres in no position to let young offensive talent walk. Plays more than 20 minutes a night. Besties with Jack Eichel.

The latest: Reinhart delivered on his two-year bridge deal and had a shot at back-to-back 60-point campaigns until the pause. And amidst another disappointing season in Western New York, Reinhart displayed flashes of leadership.

“It’s all coming down to the players at this point,” Reinhart told reporters in February. “The systems and the game plans that are set out for us give us an opportunity to have success. I think it goes back to what I’m trying to preach here. Guys need to demand more out of themselves, and a lot of guys need to step the hell up.”

Frustration is mounting in Buffalo – to the point we can’t be certain GM Jason Botterill will be the one inking Reinhart’s next deal. There is potential for roster upheaval, as the Sabres have 15 roster players headed toward restricted or unrestricted free agency.

We’d expect Reinhart to get the biggest chunk of the pie, but decisions must be made on Victor Olofsson, Dominik Kahun, Brandon Montour, Linus Ullmark and others. Who’s essential to the core?

6. Matt Murray
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Goaltender
2019-20 salary cap hit: $3.75 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Two Stanley Cup rings. World championships silver medallist. NHL All-Rookie Team, 2017. Career 117-53-19 record. 48 playoff games by age 25.

The latest: Despite backstopping Pittsburgh to consecutive championships, Murray has not been given the monstrous, long-term deal associated with winning franchise goalies. Further, he’s seen his No. 1 status in town threatened by fellow RFA Tristan Jarry.

Murray’s save percentage took a dive in 2019-20 (.899, easily a career worst) yet he still battled to his fourth straight 20-win season. This despite playing just 38 games.

Because Jarry’s extension should come easier (he doesn’t have arbitration rights) and because cap-strapped Pittsburgh also has an NHL-calibre goalie under contract, AHLer Casey DeSmith, there has been speculation Murray could be the odd man out.

7. Max Domi
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Centre / Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $3.15 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Established career highs in goals (28), assists (44), points (72) and plus/minus (+20) in 2018-19. Reliable source of offence on a roster that needs it. World junior gold medallist. Embraces the spotlight. Montreal has plenty of cap space.

The latest: With Domi crushing the first season of his bridge deal, the Canadiens and the player’s camp did start preliminary extension discussions in the summer of 2019.

But talks quieted amidst Domi’s drop in productivity (44 points in 2019-20) — which aligns with a drop in shooting percentage. Surely, recent numbers have lessened his leverage slightly.

Domi is now eligible for arbitration, and with just one other key RFA (Victor Mete) to please, Montreal has the means to compensate him nicely. The player could push for an AAV in the $7-million range, while Marc Bergevin will probably try to get that figure closer to $6 million.

“There have been some games where I’ve looked at myself and know I can do better,” Domi told Sportsnet’s Eric Engels in February.

“But there have also been a lot of them where I’ve played really well. All I want is to continue to get better and be a guy who’s consistently trusted to play against top guys every night.”

8. Mikhail Sergachev
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Top-10 draft pick. Logs more than 20 minutes nightly. Putting up a career-best stat line of 10 goals, 34 points and plus-15. A top-four defenceman by 21 who hasn’t neared his ceiling. Fantastic skater with superior vision and instincts.

The latest: The impending raise for Sergachev — a must-keep — is a big reason why the cap-tight Lightning may have to cut into its core in order to financially satisfy its young stars.

Tampa has been patient with its horse on the back end, and when the injury bug took down veterans for spells of this season, he rose to the occasion. Fearless, the kid even dropped the gloves with Shea Weber in March.

Pressure will be on BriseBois to lock him up before his stock rises even higher.

9. Ryan Pulock
Age: 25
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $2 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Overachieved through bridge deal. Excellent two-way game. Right shot. Slapshot makes you think better of getting in his lane. Was on pace to set career highs in goals (10) and points (35).

The latest: Deserving of more attention outside the Island than he receives, Pulock could be looking for an extension in the ballpark of Charlie McAvoy or Zach Werenski’s. A $5 million AAV would be the upper end, for sure, but anything below $4.5 million will feel like a bargain. His 22:24 average time on ice is more than any other pending RFA.

Lamoriello is on record saying he intends to re-sign Pulock. No brainer.

10. MacKenzie Blackwood
Age on July 1: 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. Calder Trophy candidate.

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

No team has more salary cap space than New Jersey, so even with other RFAs coming up (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.

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

11. Tyler Bertuzzi
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $1.4 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Made first All-Star Game appearance. Back-to-back 21-goal, 47-point seasons. Skates nearly 20 minutes a night. Organization has invested seven years developing him into a first-line threat.

The latest: One of the few bright spots on a sad-sack Red Wings, Bertuzzi has over-delivered on 2018’s two-year, $2.8-million bridge pact and deserves a nice pay bump.

Of the seven(!) pending RFA forwards GM Steve Yzerman must make decisions on, Bertuzzi is the most essential. Yzerman began clearing space by trading away another pending RFA, Andreas Athanasiou, at the deadline to Edmonton.

12. Jake DeBrusk
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $863,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Was on track for his second-consecutive 20-goal season and three straight 40-point seasons. Playoff performer. First-round pick. Plays with an edge befitting of Bruins’ identity.

The latest: DeBrusk got off to a slow start in his platform year and could finish with a career-low 35 points. The Bruins opted for bridge deals last summer with RFAs Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, and it makes a ton of sense for both sides to take that route again here.

“It’s one of those where you ask questions on the business side of it. Things change and different stuff happens with talks, but at the same time I mostly just try to stay out of it,” DeBrusk told NBC Sports about his contract year. “I guess when that time comes, though, I’ll be more aware of what to expect.”

As a second-line player, DeBrusk’s future will take a back seat to the Bruins’s most significant decision: At what price do they want to keep UFA defenceman Torey Krug in the fold?

13. Ryan Strome
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Centre / Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $3.1 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Crushed career highs in goals (18) and points (59) and was about to register his first 20-goal, 60-point season. Logs nearly 20 minutes a night. Plus-21 on a non-playoff team. Top-five pick. Found quick chemistry alongside Artemi Panarin (but who doesn’t?).

The latest: Strome is a perplexing case. The most senior guy on this list, he had mustered just one goal and one assist in 18 games with Edmonton in 2018-19 but has absolutely taken off since being traded back to New York City, proving more than capable of a top-six role.

If you’re the Rangers, how much term do you give a forward whose numbers have fluctuated so wildly over the course of a career that’s toured through three franchises.

“It’s definitely special to be a Ranger right now, and I’m really happy with where I’m at,” Strome told Sportsnet’s Gene Principe during the pause.

Rangers insider Larry Brooks of the New York Post analyzed the Strome situation in April.

“I’d expect the Blueshirts to keep Strome on a one-year deal, preferably without having to go through an unhelpful arbitration hearing,” Brooks writes. “It would give management more time in which to assess Strome’s value and to ruminate over the wisdom of signing him to a long-term deal. In the alternative, he would likely become a prime rental property heading into next year’s deadline.”

14. Dominik Kubalik
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Plenty of big-game international experience starring at the senior level with Czech men’s team. 2018 Olympian. 30-goal rookie campaign caught many by surprise and tops all impending RFAs. Should appear on many 2020 Calder ballots.

The latest: Kubalik — a seventh-round gem — made a seamless transition from the Swiss league to the North American game this season, exploding for 30 goals and 46 points.

On Feb. 28, The Athletic’s Scott Powers reported that discussion on Kubalik’s next contract had begun with GM Stan Bowman. Despite a grand total of 68 NHL games played, Kubalik does hold arbitration rights, which will make for an interesting case.

“Maybe William Karlsson in Vegas becomes the new comp,” a source told Powers. “Slightly higher AAV, but on a one-year, see-if-you-can-do-it-again deal.”

Yep. We’d expect Chicago to push for a short-term extension. Kubalik is firing at a 19.1 shooting percentage, and that rate is virtually unsustainable. As they integrate more youth into their lineup, the Blackhawks also have to work out the futures of Dylan Strome, Slater Koekkoek, Drake Caggiula and Matthew Highmore.

15. Tristan Jarry
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Goaltender
2019-20 salary cap hit: $675,000
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: One of the greatest bargains in hockey. Posted career highs in wins (20), GAA (2.43) and save percentage (.921). Made first All-Star Game appearance in January.

The latest: Jarry outperformed fellow RFA Murray this season in a 1A/1B rotation and has made a compelling case that he should be the Penguins’ undisputed starter in 2020-21.

Jim Rutherford, as always, will be up against the cap as he tries to keep the Crosby-Malkin championship window open for as long as possible. The GM had been blessed with one of the cheapest goalie tandems in 2019-20 (Murray and Jarry combined for a $4.425 million cap hit), but both are due significant raises. Meanwhile, AHLer Casey DeSmith is ready and eager for another NHL look, and he’s getting $1.25 million per season through 2020-21 regardless of where he plays.

Serious trade potential in Pittsburgh this off-season.

“I haven’t been doing any negotiations with our NHL players because we don’t know what the cap is going to be,” GM Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review during the pause.

“It can just take one or two contracts that put a team in a tough spot. Until we know what the cap is going to be for next year, I don’t think there will be a lot of negotiations going on.”

From quarantine, Jarry says his focus remains on staying in shape to win a Stanley Cup. Also: weeding. He’s doing a lot of weeding.

16. Anthony Mantha
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $3.3 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Put up the same points per game (0.88) as Barzal. Plays nearly 19 minutes a night. Managed 38 points in 2019-20 despite being hampered with injuries. Consecutive 24-goal, 48-point efforts in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

The latest: When healthy, Mantha is a beastly winger and dependable contributor to Detroit’s top six. The drawback here is an injury history that has prevented Mantha from playing more than 70 games in all but one of his five pro years.

“It will be complicated, I think,” Mantha told The Detroit News of his upcoming negotiation with Yzerman. “But it’s not in my power. My power is to play hockey. My agent and Stevie are going to talk. Maybe they’ve started. I don’t even know.

“It’s hard to base right now. I played 40 games this year. I missed so many games, so it’s hard to go for the extension before the end of the year. We’ll see in the off-season.

“Hopefully it goes quick and I’ll be here for a long time.”

Mantha provided an update on April 29 to MLive.com.

“I talked to my agent a couple of weeks ago, and he told me nothing is moving forward yet,” Mantha said. “We’re trying to put our focus, and the [general managers] are focusing on trying to get hockey back before re-signing players.”

More notable RFAs on deck: Anthony Duclair, Andre Burakovsky, Connor Brown, Josh Anderson, Victor Olofsson, Roope Hintz, Kevin Labanc, Jesper Bratt, Dylan Strome, Chris Tierney, Jake Virtanen, Adam Gaudette, Jared McCann, Robby Fabbri, Andrew Mangiapane, Denis Gurianov, Valeri Nichushkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Ryan Graves, Ilya Mikheyev, Vince Dunn, Ethan Bear, Devon Toews, Brandon Montour, Linus Ullmark, Alexandar Georgiev, Nolan Patrick, Erik Cernak, Travis Dermott, Victor Mete

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