NHL's top 8 RFAs still unsigned: Latest rumours, reports

NHL insider Luke Fox joins Good Show with Roger Lajoie to discuss a couple of big names still unsigned with the NHL season opener fast approaching.

OK, time to start sweating.

All 31 NHL training camps will be open by Sunday, and yet several key restricted free agents are still in need of a contract.

The announcement of the league’s 2021 schedule spurred a flurry of Christmastime action, with notable RFAs like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Vince Dunn, Anthony Cirelli, MacKenzie Blackwood and Ethan Bear putting pen to paper.

As camp approaches, here is a rundown of the remaining unsigned RFAs and the latest reports surrounding their future as the game of chicken with their GMs heats up.

To be eligible to play in the 2020-21 season, RFAs must be signed by Feb. 11.

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 nearing the end of a tricky off-season with $3.9 million in projected cap space.

He’d still 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. 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 a young, emerging forward like Bratt is worthy of 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.

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

And yet… Bratt was still training in Europe around Christmastime.

“Right now, I’d say it would be hard-pressed to think Jesper Bratt will be in training camp because of all the obstacles we’d have to go over with quarantine and immigration,” Fitzgerald told the Two-Man Advantage podcast on Dec. 23.

“But Jesper wants to be in New Jersey. That’s the bottom line.”

3. 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, relatively 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 probably 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 arbitration 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.

GM Stan Bowman said on Dec. 18 that negotiations were ongoing and that he was optimistic a deal would get done. Later, on Dec. 26, Bowman signed UFA centreman Carl Soderberg for a $1 million bargain.

With news that two Chicago centres, Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach, will not be fit for opening night, Strome has clawed back a measure of leverage in negotiations.

4. Luke Kunin
Age: 23
Position: Right wing / Centre
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.

5. 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 points (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 gauge 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 seldom seeing top-six action.

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

Now Roslovic's agent, Claude Lemieux, has said that the player has requested a trade. Training in Ohio, he will not be in Manitoba in time for camp.

Drama!

6. Dmytro Timashov
Age: 23
Position: Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $694,444
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: F

The latest: The Jets

7. Aleksi Saarela
Age: 23
Position: Centre / Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $753,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2016 world junior champion with Team Finland. Calder Cup champion with Charlotte Checkers in 2019. A stud (31 points in 43) for AHL Springfield in 2019-20. Four points in his nine NHL games. Elite shot and playmaking ability.

The latest: Viewed as a candidate to crack Florida's middle six this season, Saarela has been honing his skills in his native Finland.

Through 19 games Saarela has racked up 12 goals and 18 points for Lukko, but the prospect suffered an undisclosed injury this week.

His status for appearing at Florida's camp is in doubt.

8. Henrik Borgstrom
Age: 22
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: All-American college star and 2017 NCAA national champion with Denver. Hobey Baker finalist. First-round draft pick. Steady producer at AHL level. Nine goals and 19 points in 58 games with Panthers. Regarded as one of the top prospects in Florida's system.

The latest: Like Saarela, Borgstrom has been playing in Liiga, Finland's top pro league, this season and is questionable to be stateside for the opening of Panthers camp.

"There have been whispers that the 2016 first-round pick would be staying with HIFK for its entire season, and as NHL camp has drawn closer, those whispers have only gotten louder," reports David Dwork of Local 10. "That could be, at least in part, due to rumors that circulated earlier this year that Borgstrom has not been pleased with his role in the Panthers organization to this point."

Borgstrom's deal with HIFK reportedly comes with an NHL out clause.

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