13 most intriguing RFAs of 2017: Young stars aim for raises

Hockey Central at Noon discussion on expectations for Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews, believing his rookie campaign will compare to Jonathan Toews, John Tavares and Anze Kopitar.

I know, I know. Even a few members of the esteemed 2016 RFA class have yet to sign contracts.

But it’s not too soon to take a look at a deep group of gifted twentysomethings who are embarking on critical contract years.

Most of the best projected restricted free agents of 2017 have (so far) made good on their shot-term bridge deals and will be looking to improve their play once again and knock their next contract out of the park, like a Vladimir Tarasenko or Mark Scheifele. A few others have impressed so much in their entry-level deals that another step forward in 2016-17 could accelerate their financial windfall.

Here’s a look at the baker’s dozen RFAs-in-waiting we’re most intrigued to see break out or bounce back and earn their keep.

1. Ryan Johansen
Age on July 1, 2017: 24
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: Three consecutive seasons in which he’s scored a minimum of 60 points. 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.
What the future holds: Pressure to perform. Eight goals in 42 games with Nashville was good but not mind-blowing good. Poile challenged Johansen to step up his conditioning in the off-season, and now the health of the Vancouver native’s pocketbook rests on his results. “I expect him to have the best year of his career,” Poile said in August. Is that all?

SNEAK PEEK: NHL’s Top 10 Unrestricted Free Agents in 2017

2. Artemi Panarin
Age on July 1, 2017: 25
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.388 million
Bargaining chips: Rookie of the Year in 2016 after exploding for 30 goals and 77 points. Incredible chemistry with linemate and reigning NHL MVP Patrick Kane.
What the future holds: Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune reports that Panarin is seeking a six-year contract extension with an average annual value exceeding $6 million.

“I don’t think it’s a productive thing to negotiate through the media,” GM Stan Bowman told reporters. “Artemi is a big part of our team. We’re excited for the season he had. We’re looking forward to him building on that. And then the negotiations will be what they are between his agent and myself. I respect Tom [Lynn]. He’s a very knowledgeable guy and I know Artemi put a lot of faith in him.

“Tom and I will work to get something done.”

3. Tyler Johnson
Age on July 1, 2017: 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.
What the future holds: Restricted riches. 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. Despite a down season in an injury-plagued 2015-16 (38 points), Johnson could come close to doubling his current salary. Look at what gets current RFA Nikita Kucherov signed and aim a little lower.

4. Ondrej Palat
Age on July 1, 2017: 25
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.33 million
Bargaining chips: One of the best two-way forwards in hockey. Sorely underrated at both ends of the ice. Capable of 65 points if he can stay healthy all season.
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. The best impending UFA goalie, Ben Bishop, is also a member of the Lightning. That Palat brings a defensive element to his game makes him harder to part with than Drouin or Johnson if/when Yzerman is forced to make a tough choice.

5. Evgeny Kuznetsov
Age on July 1, 2017: 24
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3 million
Bargaining chips: Coming off breakout 20-goal 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, probably. Although Washington is a cap team now, the 2017 off-season should see significant roster juggling, especially among the forward group. Kuznetsov, who put .94 points per game last season (14th best league-wide) is the one most worth keeping. His playoff dry spell, however, did raise some concerns. One goal and one assist in 12 post-season games didn’t cut it. He’ll need to excel this spring, and has the hands to do it.

6. Alex Galchenyuk
Age on July 1, 2017: 22
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 and shows no signs of slowing down. Montreal needs a top-tier centre almost as much as it needs an MVP goalie.
What the future holds: Scrutiny and success. Yes, the young American came on strong towards the end of 2016, when the Habs had fallen out of the playoff race, but there’s no reason to believe Galchenyuk won’t thrive this season. Clean slate. Plus, wingers Alexander Radulov and Max Pacioretty are eager to prove themselves. Expectations? A 60-point-plus season and a doubling of Galchenyuk’s salary. Maybe more.

7. Shayne Gostisbehere
Age on July 1, 2017: 24
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: A mid-season rookie phenomenon who went off for 46 points 64 games. Named to World Cup’s Team North America.
What the future holds: A windfall. Even if the Ghost Bear can’t quite maintain the ridiculous production pace of 2015-16, he’s poised to be the offensive back-end the Flyers need for the future. Significant money has been committed to Andrew MacDonald (waived last season) and Radko Gudas (a much different brand of blue-liner), but Michael Del Zotto, Mark Streit and Nick Schultz all turn UFA next summer. Gostisbehere gets paid first, and Philly uses whatever is left over to fill in the blanks.

8. Jonathan Drouin
Age on July 1, 2017: 22
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $925,000
Bargaining chips: Third overall pick. Exploded in run to Eastern Conference championship by registering 14 points in 17 playoff games. Rescinded his trade request and played hard.
What the future holds: More intrigue. The shaky relationship between Drouin and the franchise made headlines last season. The player responded the best way possible and should see top-six time all season. 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. Even if Bishop leaves, will there be enough money left over to keep Drouin happy, or does he become one heck of trade piece? We figure this puzzle won’t get solved until the 11th hour.

9. Leon Draisaitl
Age on July 1, 2017: 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. Lit up Sweden’s much-gushed-over defence for a hat trick in World Cup of Hockey action.
What the future holds: A nice extension. While the floundering Oilers traded Taylor Hall and may still entertain offers for Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, one has to believe Draisaitl is the one least likely (aside from saviour Connor McDavid, of course) to hit the trade block. Anze Kopitar couldn’t stop raving about the kid’s game and humility at the World Cup.

10. Colton Parayko
Age on July 1, 2017:
2016-17 salary cap hit:
Bargaining chips:
Incredible rookie campaign that saw the Alberta kid log big, important minutes and put up 40 points (including playoffs). Another eye-opening turn as one of the best D-men on Team North America.
What the future holds:
A long-term commitment from the Blues, who will have little choice but to trade UFA defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk. GM Doug Armstrong shouldn’t mess around with a bridge deal here. Parayko can continue St. Louis’s tradition of excellent D-men.

11. Tyler Toffoli
Age on July 1, 2017: 25
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.25 million
Bargaining chips: Stanley Cup champion. Thirty-one-goal man. Hands made of Parkay.
What the future holds: Cash and term. Toffoli agreed to a team-friendly bridge deal last time ’round. That means the sniper will get a juicy raise and more security. Note: Fellow 70s kid Tanner Pearson is also turning RFA after a bridge agreement and is also in line for a nice raise.

12. Tomas Tatar
Age on July 1, 2017: 26
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.75 million
Bargaining chips: Averaged more than 20 goals over three seasons in Detroit. Most believe he still hasn’t reached his ceiling. Look fantastic for runner-up Team Europe at the World Cup.
What the future holds: Mon-ay. With Pavel Datsyuk gone and 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.

13. Mika Zibanejad
Age on July 1, 2017: 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. The Rangers gave Ottawa a No. 1 centre in order to land Zibanejad, so they’re already half committed.
What the future holds: Increased defensive demands under coach Alain Vigneault, and an opportunity to take another step as both a well-rounded centre and a human being with a lot of money in the bank. The Rangers are getting older. It’s imperative that young, reasonably priced forwards like Zibanejad take the baton. One tricky thing: Forwards Brandon Pirri, Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg and Josh Jooris will all become RFA as well. Survival of the fittest.

More intriguing RFAs: Sam Bennett, David Pastrnak, Teuvo Teravainen, Curtis Lazar, Radek Faksa, Anthony Duclair, Robin Lehner, Erik Gudbranson, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Dmitry Orlov, Nail Yakupov, Marcus Foligno, Tanner Pearson, Malcolm Subban, Nikita Zaitsev


(cap info via the excellent General Fanager)

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.