NHL’s Top 15 RFAs of 2019: Latest rumours, reports

HC analyst Brian Burke weighs in on latest surrounding the Maple Leafs contract battle with Mitch Marner, including him turning down a significant 8-year offer from the club and why he thinks Marner's camp is handling it the right way so far.

Blame the centre of the hockey universe.

Over the past eight months, Toronto Maple Leafs restricted free agents William Nylander and Auston Matthews each played a role in rewriting the rules for stars coming out of their entry-level deals.

One pushed his rookie general manager to the final five minutes of the signing deadline and reaped a generous financial reward as a result. The other inked a massive bridge/commitment hybrid deal that will walk him to unrestricted free agency at the age of 26.

Carolina’s star RFA centre, Sebastian Aho, signed a July 1 offer sheet with Montreal. The Hurricanes matched, walking another explosive talent to UFA status at 26.

San Jose’s excellent RFA forwards, Timo Meier (four years) and Kevin Labanc (one year), also opted for shorter term.

The negotiating leverage has nudged toward the young stars ruling a faster, more skilled league. That’s evident by the number of emerging stars who turned down in-season offers, opting instead to put up pinball numbers and cash in on the bets they made on themselves.

Here’s a look at our top 15 RFAs, whose sluggish contract negotiations we’re most intrigued to see play out based on their 2018-19 performance.

This summer’s class — loaded with Canadian-team stars — will have an especially significant impact on the salary cap pictures in Toronto, Winnipeg, Tampa and Calgary.

Several of these restricted free agents have had the option of discussing offer sheets with opposing clubs since late June. Some have filed for arbitration, which will expedite the process.

For others? Well, the next true pressure point won’t arrive until the first day of training camp.

1. Brayden Point
Age: 23
Position: Centre / Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $686,667
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Established as one of the NHL’s premier two-way centremen and earned some Selke votes. Can check top lines. Put up 41 goals and 92 points. NHL-best 20 power-play goals. Ranked top-10 in plus/minus (+27).

The latest: Point’s agent, Gerry Johannson, had a plan to let his client’s fabulous platform year play out before opening serious extension talks. In light of Tampa’s impending cap crunch, The Athletic‘s Joe Smith reports that Point is open to wide range of term, anything from a two-year bridge deal to a five-year Auston Matthews–type deal to an eight-year lockup.

“He loves it in Tampa,” Johannson told Smith.

Point’s loyalty to Tampa reportedly factored into Montreal GM Marc Bergevin’s decision to target Carolina’s RFA centreman, Sebastian Aho, with his July 1 offer sheet (quickly matched).

Lightning GM Julien BriseBois maintains extending Point is top priority while also needing to find space for RFA Adam Erne and considering long-term extensions for goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenceman Mikhail Sergachev and centre Anthony Cirelli — all of whom will need significant raises next summer.

To that end, BriseBois freed up funds by trading winger J.T. Miller to Vancouver for futures and placing alternate captain Ryan Callahan on long-term injured reserve.

With the salary ceiling set at $81.5 million, the Lightning have just $5.6 million to take care of Point and Erne.

That’s, uh, not quite enough.

2. Mitchell Marner
Age: 22
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $894,167
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Maple Leafs scoring leader in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Quarterbacks power play. Kills penalties. Established wonderful chemistry with top centre John Tavares and improved as a shutdown winger. Put up career highs in goals (26), assists (68), points (94) while trimming his penalties to a career low (22). Local kid and fan favourite.

The latest: As the Maple Leafs split for the summer, Marner reiterated his desire to remain in blue and white for the foreseeable future and GM Kyle Dubas, facing one heck of a cap dilemma, said his top priority was locking up Marner prior to July 1, when he’d be eligible to sign an offer sheet.

Speculation has the Marner camp, led by agent Darren Ferris, looking for a contract comparable to Auston Matthews’ five years at an $11.6-million cap hit. The NHL’s highest-paid winger is the newest New York Ranger, Artemi Panarin, at $11.64 million a season.

Dubas, of course, would love to keep Marner’s AAV to seven digits and sign his top scorer for term.

Originally vowing to match an offer sheet should these prickly negotiations reach that point, Dubas changed his tone at the draft, saying there’s no guarantee he’d match.

“Without an answer on Mitch, we’re going to be in a stalemate,” Dubas said. “It is a top priority because we’re not going to jump around and chew up our cap space we are going to need for Mitch… It’s important. We just have to get right on it and get it done.”

Dubas helped his own cause by trading away Patrick Marleau’s hefty $6.25-million cap hit to Carolina and Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev to Ottawa, as well as getting Colorado to take care of half of Tyson Barrie’s salary.

The Marner camp appears to have dug in its heels.

“My understanding is that a very significant offer was made [by Dubas], a full eight-year term and $10 million a year,” Sportsnet’s Brian Burke said on-air. “Now the issue is they don’t want an eight-year term.”

After signing new acquisitions Cody Ceci and Alexander Kerfoot, the Leafs have just $3.8 million in projected cap space.

Rumours of a potential Marner offer sheet coming from Lou Lamoriello or Jarmo Kekalainen have circulated, but nothing has come to fruition.

The standoff continues. Wheee!

3. Mikko Rantanen
Age: 22
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $894,167
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Led club in playoff scoring (14 points) and is a career point-per-game performer in the post-season (18 in 18). Second only to Nathan MacKinnon in team assists (56) and points (87), despite playing just 74 games. Back-to-back 80-point seasons. Play-maker on the most dangerous line in the West. Invited to first All-Star Game. A big boy (six-foot-four, 215 pounds). Career-high plus-13.

The latest: Prior to opening night, Rantanen smartly chose to let the season play out in full before negotiating. Then he went out and had a career season on one of the best lines in hockey.

Colorado’s highest-paid player, MacKinnon, carries a $6.3-million cap hit. Rantanen has enough leverage to blow his centreman out of the water.

“It’s not something we’re worried about,” GM Joe Sakic said of Rantanen’s next deal. Cap space isn’t an issue in Colorado. “He’s going to be here a long time.”

Despite a lack of resolution on the Rantanen front, Sakic actively pursuing free agents and traded for Nazem Kadri in effort to support his monster top line. The GM also made a significant offer to Artemi Panarin before the Russian star joined the Rangers.

4. Matthew Tkachuk
Age: 21
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Sixth-overall pick. Career highs in games (80), goals (34), assists (43), points (77), while posting a career low in PIM per game. Good genes. Likely successor to Mark Giordano as captain. Gets under Drew Doughty’s skin.

The latest: Tkachuk believes Matthews’ five-year monster extension raised the bar, which is a scary thought for the Flames, who must make Tkachuk their highest-paid player.

“It sets that new bar for guys that are in a position to be up for a deal to be a restricted free agent this year,” Tkachuk said on Feb. 6. “It kind of changes every year, it seems like. There’s always that one guy or a couple guys who change the money, whether higher or lower.

“Auston changed it, too, just going with the approach of a five-year deal, too. Maybe people haven’t seen it in a couple years, but it’s not uncommon. Guys used to do that all the time. He definitely set the bar for this year.”

Gulp.

GM Brad Treliving, who has a track record of locking up his RFAs, has maintained confidence that Tkachuk’s negotiations will have a happy ending.

“We’ll get him signed. I don’t know when that’s going to be,” Treliving said on Jan. 15. “But we’ll work away at that quietly and I can tell you we’ll let you know as soon as it’s done, whenever that is.”

Because Tkachuk and fellow RFAs Sam Bennett and David Rittich need significant raises, Treliving has been rumoured to be entertaining trade offers for James Neal, T.J. Brodie, Michael Frolik, and possibly Travis Hamonic.

RFAs Bennett, Rittich, plus AHLers Ryan Lomberg and Rinat Valiev all filed for arbitration, assuring new contracts.

With less than $10 million in cap space, the crunch is being felt in Calgary… but that didn’t keep Tkachuk from attending the Stampede.

5. Brock Boeser
Age: 22
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2018 Calder Trophy runner-up. 2018 All-Star Game MVP. Lethal shot. Great chemistry with franchise centre Elias Pettersson. Class act. Back-to-back 26-goal seasons despite never reaching the 70-game mark. Registered career highs in assists (30) and points (56). That flow.

The latest: While GM Jim Benning was active in both the UFA and trade markets, Boeser’s camp and the Canucks have at least opened extension talks, which is a positive sign. It remains a matter of closing the gap, which Sportsnet’s Irfaan Gaffar reported was still a significant one as of late May.

If Boeser is able to avoid a bridge deal, he should become the highest-paid member of the team.

Gaffar suggests Benning would be more comfortable with a six-year term, which is what he gave Bo Horvat when he came out of his entry-level deal, than an eight-year pact.

“Bo took a huge step in his third year, and I think I can do the same,” Boeser said.

Since embarking on another UFA spending spree — Tyler Myers, Michael Ferland, Jordie Benn — and bringing in J.T Miller, Benning finds himself up against the cap. After the Roberto Luongo recapture penalty, he’s left with just $5 million in cap space to sign Boeser.

Disgruntled veteran Loui Eriksson looks like he could be the odd man out.

6. Charlie McAvoy
Age: 21
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $916,667
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: A beast who led all Bruins in average ice time, both in the regular season and playoffs. Added years to Zdeno Chara’s NHL career. Led all Boston D-men in even-strength points and game-winning goals. Shutdown guy. 2018 All-Rookie Team. First-round pick. Right shot. A playoff stud who came within one win of getting his name on the Cup.

The latest: The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa reported in February that McAvoy turned down a long-term extension offer, citing the eight-year, $7.5-million AAV contract that Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad inked in the summer of 2016.

McAvoy has outpaced Ekblad offensively and has performed better in his own end of late. A $7.5-million cap hit — the ballpark agent Rick Curran is targeting — would make McAvoy the highest-paid player in Boston, ahead of David Krejci at $7.25 million.

The Bruins’ concern here is health: McAvoy has suffered heart and concussion issues and has yet to play more than 63 games in a season.

“The Bruins will try to dig in a little bit. They’ll point to his games and they’ll use [David] Pastrnak, who’s a superstar. It’ll be a tough deal to do, a tough deal to evaluate. It may end up that a solution is four years,” an anonymous agent told Shinzawa.

In addition to McAvoy, Boston must also find raises for defenceman Brandon Carlo, who filed for arbitration. As of now, there is only $8.1 million to accommodate both D for the upcoming season.

Since McAvoy is ineligible for an offer sheet, his only leverage is to withhold his services.

7. Kyle Connor
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Back-to-back 30-goal campaigns. First-round pick. Coming hot off career highs in goals (34), assists (32) and points (66). Bright spot (three goals, five points) in Jets’ disappointing first-round exit. Can contribute to both special teams. Better two-way winger than fellow RFA Laine. Wonderful chemistry with Winnipeg’s top players, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

The latest: Now that Trouba and Kevin Hayes have been traded, the Jets only have 13 impending free agents to sort through. Godspeed, Kevin Cheveldayoff.

“It’s not an easy time, so to speak, right now, to worry about anyone else but yourself. Everyone is just doing what they need to do within their own organizations,” Cheveldayoff told the Winnipeg Free Press of the draft weekend’s cost-cutting deals.

“Everyone has their own pressure points and jobs they need to do.”

Connor, a relatively unsung star and the most complete young forward of the bunch, needs to stay put.

Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic reported that rival clubs have reached out to Connor’s camp, but that doesn’t guarantee an offer sheet is forthcoming.

8. Patrik Laine
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Second-overall pick. Otherworldly shot. World junior champion. 2017 NHL all-star. Three consecutive 30-goal seasons. Showed well in post-season (three goals, five points in six games). Beauty quote.

The latest: “Not worried about that right now,” Laine told reporters, regarding his next contract, at season’s end. “Right now, I want to forget everything that is involved with hockey.”

Laine revealed he suffered a minor groin injury in the playoffs and was dealing with back problems during a season in which his year-over-year production dropped from 70 points to 50.

He’s flashy, he’s streaky, and his defensive game is under question, but the man can score in bunches.

A shorter-term deal might serve the player here, because Laine is better than 2018-19 showed.

Laine opted to skip the world championships. He flew back to Finland to golf and spend time with family and friends.

There was some smoke around the notion that Montreal considered trading for or offer-sheeting Laine.

9. Zachary Werenski
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Eighth-overall pick in 2015. Second only to all-star Seth Jones in Columbus ice time (22:54). Able to shutdown top forwards and contribute 40-plus points a season. Recorded a Gordie Howe hat trick in the second round of the playoffs. Only 21! Best years still ahead.

The latest: For all of the outgoing bodies this summer in Ohio, Werenski will not be one of them. He and Jones are a major reason the 2020 Blue Jackets won’t suffer the drop-off you might think.

“I haven’t thought about it, honestly,” Werenski told reporters, following Columbus’s ouster by the Bruins. “Obviously, that’s something we’re going to have to get done this summer. But I’m not worried about it at all. I guess it’s something I’ll have to start thinking about.”

After losing a handful of stars to free agency and coming to terms with RFA defenceman Ryan Murray, GM Jarmo Kekalainen should have no issue finding the funds to give Werenski an appropriate raise.

10. David Rittich
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Goaltender
2018-19 salary cap hit: $800,000
Arbitration rights: Yes, and he filed
Bargaining chips: Undrafted, late-blooming gem. Career-high 42 starts, 45 appearances, 27 wins, and .911 save percentage. Fun-loving team guy adored by teammates.

The latest: Big Save Dave has a golden opportunity to become the Flames’ undisputed No. 1 goalie next season, considering veteran Mike Smith — who performed well but went 1-4 in the playoffs — is off to Edmonton while a struggling Cam Talbot joins Calgary as Plan B.

“Ritter is an unbelievable kid with a bright future,” said coach Bill Peters, following exit meetings. “There are things he can do to allow himself to be able to play more games, too, as far as his ability to look after himself with nutrition, with everything that goes along with that, to make a real solid commitment to being a pro, a big-time NHL pro. And he’s going to do that.

“He has a lot of confidence in himself, and that’s earned. I thought he had a very good year. This is the most he’s played in the NHL was this year, and he’s looking to take that next step too.”

The giant organizational debate here: Can Rittich handle a full NHL workload and return the Flames to the post-season?

“I think he has the ability to do that, yeah,” Peters said. “But until you’ve done it and been there, everyone is going to question it, right?”

That Rittich filed for arbitration ensures at least a bridge deal will be reached and he’ll be in attendance for Day 1 of training camp.

That Cup-winning RFA Jordan Binnington signed for a reasonable two years at $4.4 million per season with the Blues should help keep Rittich’s payday in check.

11. Travis Konecny
Age: 22
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $894,167
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. World championships silver medallist. Increased production with every NHL season. Back-to-back 20-goal man. Career-best 24 goals and 49 points (plus career-low 40 penalty minutes) in 2018-19.

A late-round steal in 2017, Konecny has been a wonderful addition to the Flyers, and now it’s time to pay him. The retooling Flyers must also find the dollars to award raises to forward Scott Laughton and defenceman Ivan Provorov this summer.

Serious extension talks with Konecny’s camp reportedly did not begin until after GM Chuck Fletcher made a couple off-season trades and explored the UFA market.

12. Pavel Buchnevich
Age: 24
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: Yes, and he filed
Bargaining chips: Young scorer on a team that needs them. Despite being relatively new to the NHL, he’s entering his eighth year as a pro (KHL). Coming off career-best 21-goal season. Good for 40-plus points if healthy.

The latest: The cap flexibly Jeff Gorton granted himself is suddenly drying up in the wake of landing this summer’s greatest UFA prize, Artemi Panarin.

While Jacob Trouba is now the top signing priority, RFAs Buchnevich, Brendan Lemieux and Anthony Deangelo also need deals. The Blueshirts have only a shade over $8 million in cap space to work with, so with a second buyout window coming, an expensive defenceman like Brendan Smith or Kevin Shattenkirk could be at risk.

There is also the possibility of trading a winger like Chris Kreider (UFA 2020) or Buchnevich himself.

Buchnevich’s arbitration is set to be heard July 29.

13. Nikita Gusev
Age: 27
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Posted league and career high of 82 points during his 2018-19 KHL campaign. 2018 Olympic gold medalist. Nine seasons of professional experience. Ranked 10th all-time in KHL scoring (332 points). Elite playmaker. Better than a point-per-game in 2019 KHL post-season. Did not make noise about being scratched in NHL playoffs.

The latest: The Golden Knights, who acquired Gusev’s North American rights from Tampa during the expansion draft, are in cap hell and may need to shed some salary if they are to sign Gusev — the most dominant offensive player in the KHL last season.

In the middle of their first-round playoff series against San Jose, the Knights signed Gusev to an entry-level contract, making him a restricted free agent this summer. But they elected not to dress the Russian star.

“You don’t know what transpires in the playoffs. We have some real good depth. Never had a problem having too many good players around,” president George McPhee said in April.

According to The Athletic, Vegas and Gusev are as far as $2 million apart in negotiations. The winger, whose contract with SKA has expired, is said to looking for $4 million per season on a two-year commitment.

A trade is possible if the sides can’t bridge the gap.

“We think he’s a really good player. We’d like to work something out here,” McPhee said on July 1. “If that doesn’t work out, we’ll look at options. But there’s definitely interest in him. We’ve had people call us on him, and we’ll see what develops. I can’t tell you today what will develop, but we’ll work on it.

“He’s been very, very good on the international stage. He wants to play in the NHL. He worked hard to get over here, and we’re going to accommodate him one way or another, either here or with another club.”

More notable RFAs: Kevin Fiala, Ivan Provorov, Anthony Beauvillier, Brandon Carlo, Colin White, Sam Bennett, Pavel Zacha, Andrew Copp, Linus Ullmark, Joel Edmundson, Will Butcher, Colton Sissons, Jake McCabe, Colton Sissons, Zach Aston-Reese, Oskar Sundqvist, Neal Pionk

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