Big NHL contract years: 32 RFAs under pressure

The pressure is on Nazem Kadri, who has one season to prove himself and his worth. And the Toronto Maple Leafs forward has bets that he will come through on top.

Bridge contracts, prove-it deals, arbitration rights, offer sheets… ah, the language of NHL restricted free agency.

The RFA class of 2016 has some beauties: No. 1 picks, players that have already proven their worth, and guys who might need to show a little more growth at the NHL level before they’re deemed worthy of that home-run deal.

In no particular order, here are the 32 impending RFAs we’re most interested in watching this year. Your performance in 2015-16 will have a direct effect on your future income, fellas. No pressure.

Nathan MacKinnon
Age on July 1: 20
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $925,000
The situation: The 2013 first-overall pick and 2014 Calder Trophy winner should rebound from an injury-hampered sophomore season that saw his entire stat line dip. MacKinnon went from a plus-20 to a minus-7 and was held personally responsible for my fantasy team’s loss. He did, however, take over a Tim Hortons drive-thru this summer with buddy Sidney Crosby and, now that Erik Johnson is locked up, is the Avalanche’s No. 1 priority. We would be shocked if we didn’t see a long-term commitment here.

 

Nazem Kadri
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Centre
2014-15 salary cap hit: $4.1 million
The situation: Every season is a prove-it year for a first-rounder with first-line dreams. Under new coach Mike Babcock, however, the penalty-drawing Corsi favourite could finally get the minutes he wants. If he scores more than 20 goals and 50 points and behaves after hours, we could see a long-term contract extension.

Justin Schultz
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $3.9 million
The situation: The Oilers once bid hard for Schultz’s services but decided to take the work-in-progress D-man to arbitration in July. (Translation: We think you’re overpaid.) A new coach, new GM and a new forward to feed on the power-play gives Schultz a fresh shot.

Mike Hoffman
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing
2014-15 cap hit: $2 million
The situation: While teammate Mark Stone stole the headlines, in most years Hoffman would’ve been a Calder finalist. A rookie in 2014-15, he had 27 goals, 21 assists and a plus-16 rating. Yet the cash-conscious Sens made certain to retain him at a reasonable rate.

Nikita Kucherov
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Right wing
2014-15 cap hit: $711,666
The situation: Impending UFA Steven Stamkos is, of course, priority one for GM Steve Yzerman, but wingers who score 86 points at age 21 (Kucherov’s 2014-15 regular and post seasons combined) don’t come along too often. Now is not the time to break up the Triplets.

Marcus Johansson
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2014-15 cap hit: $3.75 million
The situation: A breakout 20-goal, 47-point campaign led to an arbitration case as Washington was forced to balance the books with so many pieces coming and going. Despite a minor back injury in preseason, there’s no reason to believe Johansson can’t put up 20 again.

Torey Krug
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $3.4 million
The situation: The Bruins have been leaking blueliners lately, trading blue-chippers they didn’t think they could re-sign (Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton) and dealing with injuries to veterans like Dennis Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara. This makes keeping a healthy, young Krug even more important. The player should have some leverage.

Tyson Barrie
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $2.6 million
The situation: Colorado needs to hang on to the quality defencemen it has, and the emerging Barrie falls into that slim category. He posted a career-best 53 points in 2014-15 and was a plus-5 defender on a minus-8 team.

Alex Killorn
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $2.55 million
The situation: One more complicated piece to the Lightning’s cap-puzzling future, the unheralded Harvard grad built on two solid seasons by breaking out for 18 points in the playoffs.

Brayden Schenn
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $2.5 million
The situation: A 20-goal threat again this year, Schenn’s name has popped up in trade rumours but he’s still an important, affordable piece to the Flyers team.

Andrew Shaw
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $2 million
The situation: An agitator of the highest degree, Shaw’s dirty work (and secondary scoring) are of great value to the Blackhawks. His role, though important, should limit his salary to a price Chicago can make work.

Marcus Kruger
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $1.5 million
The situation: The two-way Kruger, on the other hand, will be aiming for a more significant raise than Shaw. One of the last RFAs to come to terms this summer, we sense Kruger gave Chicago a cap-friendly, one-year deal on the premise that he’ll be rewarded in 2016.

Sami Vatanen
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $1.2625 million
The situation: The highest-scoring Ducks defenceman in 2014-15 skated more than 21 minutes a game and was killer on the power play. He is about to cash in.

Jaden Schwartz
Age on July 1: 24
Position: Left wing
2014-15 cap hit: $2.35 million
The situation: Arguably the most under-hyped forward in the West, Schwartz scored 28 goals and 35 assists in 75 games last year. He’s coming into his prime.

Chris Kreider
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Left wing
2014-15 cap hit: $2.475 million
The situation: Drives to the net like a Tasmanian devil and is capable of breaking open a game, Kreider has improved with each season in the league. Should be in consideration for a spot on Team USA. His two-year bridge deal ends July 1.

Frederik Andersen
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Goaltender
2014-15 cap hit: $1.15 million
The situation: The lowest-paid No. 1 goalie in the NHL is entering a crucial year. Backup John Gibson already got his extension, so Andersen must prove he is worth keeping instead of Anton Khudobin, who is also on an expiring contract.

Cody Hodgson
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $1.05 million
The situation: Traded by Vancouver and bought out by Buffalo, Hodgson has become Nashville’s latest good-value reclamation project. Will he regain his 20-goal form and earn a more permanent job like Mike Ribeiro did last year as a Predator?

Seth Jones
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $925,000
The situation: A special talent on a defensive core full of special talents, Jones improved from a minus-23 player in his rookie year to a plus-3 skater as a sophomore and contributed four assists in six playoff games. Still a few years from his prime, but the fact that he’s a right shot increases his value.

Johnny Gaudreau
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Left wing
2014-15 cap hit: $1 million
The situation: Undoubtedly in line for a raise, the 2015 Calder finalist wowed us all in his rookie year. That he’s not eligible for arbitration gives Brad Treliving leverage here.

Sean Monahan
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $925,000
The situation: The kid is a two-way centre who can defend, create plays and scored 31 goals as a sophomore — and that’s not boring. The Flames re-upped with Mark Giordano in the summer for a reasonable rate, and they’ve long said they’re willing to spend to the cap. There should be room to get both Gaudreau and Monahan done.

Brandon Pirri
Age on July 1: 25
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $925,000
The situation: Hockey’s reigning Cy Young champ sniped 22 goals in 2014-15 but only had a pair of assists. This is hilarious, but it also makes him valuable to a club that needs finishers.

Jacob Trouba
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $894,166
The situation: Interesting times in Winnipeg, as captain Andrew Ladd and all-star Dustin Byfuglien — both UFAs-to-be — did not get extensions done over the summer. As Elliotte Friedman notes, keeping the younger, sunny-side Trouba may be most important as the blueliner’s prime should align with the Jets’ best shot at a Cup.

Valeri Nichushkin
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Right wing
2014-15 cap hit: $925,000
The situation: Injury prevented the Russian from having a breakout season in 2014-15 (he was limited to just eight games), but Nichushkin could do serious damage in the Stars’ top six and earn a monster raise.

Olli Maatta
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $894,166
The situation: A shoulder injury chopped Maatta’s season way short — he managed just 20 games in 2014-15 — but the Finnish first-rounder is still projected to be a star in this league.

Zemgus Girgensons
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $894,166
The situation: Latvia’s gift to hockey and all-star vote hog Girgensons should see his production improve as the Sabres’ offensive weaponry has now been expanded to include Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel.

Filip Forsberg
Age on July 1: 21
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $894,166
The situation: GM David Poile is open to negotiating extensions for Forsberg and Jones, both of whom are wrapping up their entry-level deals, during the season. We’d be surprised if things don’t go smoothly here, but the term will be interesting.

Morgan Rielly
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $894,166
The situation: One of the few Maple Leafs who did not disappoint in 2014-15 — a.k.a. The Season Everyone Involved Would Rather Forget — Rielly has never been the subject of trade rumours and should catch up to Jake Gardiner with a multi-year extension.

Mark Scheifele
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $863,333
The situation: The Kitchener, Ont., native has shown steady improvement, and with the Jets blatantly putting trust in their youth, he should notch his first 50-point season.

Boone Jenner
Age on July 1: 23
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $778,333
The situation: Jenner’s sophomore season was jinxed with a broken hand, limiting him to just 31 games and 17 points. But the upside is large for this 208-pound power forward.

Jared Spurgeon
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Defence
2014-15 cap hit: $2.66 million
The situation: Quietly, Spurgeon has been a key part of the Wild’s excellent defence corps. Though overshadowed with Ryan Suter’s marathon-ready legs and Jonas Brodin’s youth, Spurgeon is underpaid for what he contributes right now.

Tomas Hertl
Age on July 1: 22
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $925,000
The situation: Tomas “Four Goals” Hertl had a decent sophomore season (31 points) but did not break out in the way some had hoped. Can the Czech forward bring back some of the thrills he exhibited back in his rookie year?

Aleksander Barkov
Age on July 1: 20
Position: Centre
2014-15 cap hit: $925,000
The situation: GM Dale Tallon’s favourite young gun on a team with plenty of them, Barkov isn’t going anywhere. Plus, he gets to play with Jaromir Jagr this season, so that’ll be fun to watch.

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