NHL's top 12 RFAs of 2021: Latest rumours and reports

Columbus Blue Jackets forward Patrik Laine stuns the entire Chicago Blackhawks team with an end-to-end goal midway through the third period.

Yes, one could quibble about the ranking on this list, or the players left just outside the cut. That’s because the quality of impending NHL restricted free agents this summer is deep.

And loaded with top-tier defencemen.

We have some top-line wingers and at least one franchise centreman who will be due for raises, but the amount of young top-pair defencemen and emerging goaltenders with No. 1 potential is staggering.

Vancouver’s Jim Benning may be under the most pressure to negotiate long-term extensions with his RFAs. He got a jump on his workload by inking goaltender Thatcher Demko to a five-year, $25-million whopper on April 8, setting a comparable for more to follow.

But as RFAs shine in their platform seasons and executives wrestle with a flat salary cap, the mid-season extensions have been few and far between, setting up some compelling negotiations (or trades?) in the off-season.

Here’s where things stand with the top 12 impending RFAs of 2021, a class led by some electric defencemen.

1. Cale Makar
Age: 22
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $880,833
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2020 Calder Trophy champ and top-10 Norris Trophy finisher. Game changer. Logs 24-plus minutes nightly. Nimbler in skates than most of us are in shoes. Only pending RFA averaging a point per game.

The latest: Makar is a franchise player, a game-breaker and a future Norris champ. Dude is 22. This season he required the fewest games by a defenceman in NHL history (79) to record five outings with three or more assists.

Colorado GM Joe Sakic will be hard-pressed to lock up Makar on a bargain deal the way he did with Nathan MacKinnon during his RFA negotiation.

Makar either inks a max contract using Thomas Chabot’s eight-year, $64-million whopper in Ottawa as a starting point or goes the patient bridge route and waits for the cap to rise. Such was the path stud RFA D-men Charlie McAvoy ($4.9 million times three years) and Zach Werenski ($5 million times three years) took in recent off-seasons.

Makar is top priority, but Sakic also needs to find raises for captain Gabriel Landeskog and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. Some other impending free agent will walk.

“This is as deep of team as we’re going to have here,” Sakic said, after adding rentals at deadline. “We’re going to have to get cheaper starting next year at some of those positions.”

The executive doesn’t want to distract from the playoff run. The paperwork can wait.

“Everybody is focused on trying to win a Stanley Cup here,” Sakic said. “We’ll get to all those guys when we get to them. I don’t really have any information on that. I think we’re just focused on hockey right now.”

2. Miro Heiskanen
Age: 21
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Earned votes for the 2020 Norris, Lady Byng and all-star team. Plays an eye-popping 25 minutes per game. Phenomenal performance in the playoffs, putting up 26 points in 27 games in the bubble. Increased his physical play, great penalty-killer and matches top forwards heads-up.

The latest: How good is Heiskanen? We were thisclose to ranking him ahead of Makar and had to triple-check that he’s only 21. Like Makar, Heiskanen’s value should surpass Chabot’s $8-million cap hit, pandemic and all.

Over the past decade, P.K. Subban is the only RFA D-man to leap the $8-million barrier. Montreal gave him a $9-million AAV at age 25… and later traded him.

Jim Nill loves the versatile left-shot Heiskanen and decided not to trade pending UFA Jamie Oleksiak at the deadline — despite interest from Winnipeg, Toronto and others — in part because he sees them as an integral pairing.

Nill’s budget will be put to the test this summer with RFAs Roope Hintz, Joel Kiviranta and Jason Dickinson also seeking pay bumps.

Veteran UFAs like Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau may be forced to take a pay cut or look elsewhere as a result.

3. Quinn Hughes
Age: 21
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $916,667
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2020 Calder runner-up. Power-play quarterback. 84 points through first 110 NHL games. Key building block in Vancouver. Averages nearly 23 minutes per game.

The latest: Elliotte Friedman reported in early April that preliminary contract talks had gotten underway between Benning and the two most important engines of the Canucks’ rebuild.

Hughes has been putting up gaudier numbers than recent RFA defencemen (McAvoy, Werenski, Mikhail Sergachev) and is arguably more important to his franchise’s future.

Benning has drawn mild criticism for the in-season extensions he handed out to Demko and Tanner Pearson, essentially signing some smaller fish before dealing with the biggies. While some money is coming off the books — Brandon Sutter, Alex Edler — Vancouver is still overpaying on the back half of its lineup and dealing with Roberto Luongo’s cap recapture penalty.

Perhaps bridge is the only solution. The good news for panicky people in Van City: Hughes is classified as a 10.2(c) RFA, meaning he cannot sign an offer sheet.

4. Elias Pettersson
Age: 22
Position: Centre
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2019 Calder Trophy winner. Finished 16th in Hart voting in 2020. 66 points in each of his first two seasons. Plus-19 player. Career 17.6 per cent shooter. No. 1 centre. Put up 21 points through 26 games in 2021, and it still feels like underachieving.

The latest: In late January, Pettersson switched agents, leaving Michael Deutsch at Eclipse Sports Management and joining teammate Hughes at CAA. Power brokers Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry will handle their extension negotiations — and hold a great deal of leverage.

Barry told Rick Dhaliwal that the plan is to work on both deals together, like the twin monsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed in the summer of 2014. Unlike Hughes, Pettersson could theoretically ink an offer sheet.

Barry, you may recall, put the screws to Benning in securing lucrative contracts for Tyler Myers and Loui Eriksson in recent off-seasons. But they were UFAs, not RFAs.

Friedman has estimated that somewhere in the ballpark of $15 million in total AAV could get both stars under contract. One would have to bet that means going the Auston Matthews–style, five-year route and keeping the door ajar for another windfall when the cap escalates.

5. Kirill Kaprizov
Age: 24
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: 2021 Calder favourite. On pace to cruise past 20 goals and 40 points as an NHL rookie, while logging 18-plus minutes nightly. Most points and goals by a rookie in Wild history. Instant star and fan favourite. Minnesota is desperate for young, exciting offensive talent.

The latest: Wild insider Michael Russo of The Athletic reported in late March that Kaprizov’s agent, Paul Theofanous, sat down with GM Bill Guerin to kick off “a long conversation that will eventually lead to a new contract” for the most exciting young talent to pull on a Wild sweater since… who? Marian Gaborik?

Kaprizov’s status as a 10.2(c) RFA means he’s immune to an offer sheet. He can become a UFA as early as the 2024 off-season, so Guerin should be gunning for term here.

In polling execs and agents, Russo’s sources’ predictions on Kaprizov’s next contract range from a $6.5-million AAV on a two-year deal to a $9-million AAV for a lockup of six years plus.

Kaprizov headlines a Minnesota RFA class that includes Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek. All deserve pay bumps. (The club took care of Ryan Hartman, another impending RFA in late April.) UFAs-to-be Marcus Johansson, Nick Bonino, Nick Bjugstad, Ian Cole and Brad Hunt will be candidates to walk.

6. Brady Tkachuk
Age: 21
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Finished fifth in Calder votes in 2019. 118 points through first 188 NHL games. Plays 18-plus minutes per night. Willing to fight Shea Weber. Hits hard and often. Beloved by teammates and fans. His prime will align with Sens’ ascent. Captain material.

The latest: Tkachuk has expressed his love for playing in the nation's capital. He’s also revealed that his in-depth conversations with management regarding a new contract have been limited.

“That’s a good question,” Tkachuk told reporters in January. “Where the world’s at right now, we haven't really been talking about (my extension), and we don't know how the salary cap is going to look for the next couple of years.

“I love being here. I love the crew, love the teammates and the staff, so definitely love it here. But we'll see how it unfolds.”

GM Pierre Dorion has the cap room to commit and has shown a preference to go deep with RFAs he deems worthy of the core (see: Chabot, Colin White and Matt Murray).

Tkachuk is absolutely worth the investment, so it’ll be fascinating to see how he plays this out. Senators fans needn’t be reminded of past free agents who’ve departed for more money elsewhere.

7. Igor Shesterkin
Age: 25
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Superior track record in KHL. 23-12-3 record and .924 save percentage through first 40 NHL appearances. Seasoned, well-developed pro. Posted back-to-back shutouts as Rangers strive to get in the race.

The latest: In a deep summer for emerging RFA starting netminders, we’ve placed Shesterkin on this list because he’s emerging as the bona fide No. 1 starter in a spotlight market. And his prime should align with the Rangers’ run back to Cup contender status.

Even with limited fans permitted into Madison Square Garden this week, “I-gor! I-gor!” chants rang through the rink as the Russian stood on his head.

“He’s been great all year. Obviously, he had a little bout with injuries. He’s always giving us a chance to win and makes key saves for us,” defenceman Adam Fox said.

At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, Shesterkin has taken the baton from Henrik Lundqvist and has the makings of being New York’s backbone in net for the next eight years.

8. Andrei Svechnikov
Age: 21
Position: Right wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Second-overall pick. Big power forward (six-foot-two, 200 pounds) entering prime. Two 20-goal seasons before age 21. Power-play weapon. Skating a careet-high 17-plus minutes.

The latest: “I'm open,” Svechnikov said back in August regarding re-signing. "I think my agent (Mark Gandler) is going to do that job, and I tell him I don't want to know anything (until) it's going to be done. So, he's going to tell me when it's going to be done and I just don't want to worry about that."

GM Don Waddell has played things cool with both Svechnikov and pending UFA Dougie Hamilton, reminding reporters that there is no timeline to strike a deal.

“We have a good relationship with both players,” Waddell said. “I fully expect both players to want to stay here."

Extension talks with Svechnikov have reportedly gone quiet since February. Owner Tom Dundon is always looking for a deal, and it’s no coincidence the Canes’ last high-profile RFA, Sebastian Aho, signed the NHL’s most recent offer sheet.

Carolina also has decisions to make on RFAs Alex Nedeljkovic, Jake Bean and Warren Foegele.

9. Patrik Laine
Age: 23
Position: Right wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $6.75 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Second-overall draft pick. Three-time 30-goal man. Capable of 44 goals and 70 points. Columbus already gave up prized centre Pierre-Luc Dubois to acquire him. Wrist shot concocted by Finnish gods.

The latest: Had his production not fallen off a cliff, had his transition to his new club not been so rock, Laine would be top-five on this list, easy.

A few highlight moments notwithstanding, this is hardly how GM Jarmo Kekalainen envisioned Laine’s migration to Ohio. Coach John Tortorella benched the star early, and as Laine struggles to find his groove and the Jackets struggle to find playmaking centres, the sniper’s 12 goals and eight assists through 39 games is a disappointment.

Shortly after the trade, Laine said he’d be open to a long-term extension in Columbus: “Hopefully that’s a spot where I’m enjoying life and enjoying playing hockey.”

Rampant speculation has Tortorella departing the organization once his contract expires this summer, which should bode well for Laine’s chances of sticking.

If Laine forces his way out of another city, well, chalk up this blockbuster as a loss for Kekalainen — who desperately needs Laine and Seth Jones (UFA 2022) to stick around.

“If I’m Laine’s agent, I feel really, really good about my leverage in these talks, and yes I realize he isn’t playing well right now. Doesn’t matter,” Jackets insider Aaron Portzline wrote in a recent mailbag at The Athletic.

Laine now holds an arbitration hammer and could force a one-and-done.

10. Pavel Buchnevich
Age: 26
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $3.25 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: His 19 goals in 2021 tops all RFAs. Already registered his third 40-point campaign. Skates nearly 19 minutes a night, a career high. Following up a career year with a career year.

The latest: Probably the least-discussed name on this list, Buchnevich punctuated his quietly impressive 2021 platform season with a birthday hat trick on April 17.

The inevitable summer buyout of Anthony DeAngelo should free some spending dollars for Buchnevich and a number of other pending RFAs on Jeff Gorton’s roster.

Recent winger comparables Buchnevich could use on a longer deal include Anthony Mantha ($5.7 million AAV over four year) and Oliver Bjorkstrand ($5.4 million AAV over five years).

If Gorton balks at a serious commitment, Buchnevich could earn a tidy sum short-term via arbitration.

11. Filip Hronek
Age: 23
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $714,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2017 Calder Cup champ. 2019 Red Wings rookie of the year. Team Czech staple who won Best Defenceman at 2019 worlds. Puck-moving, right-shot defenceman yet to reach his ceiling. Tied for franchise lead in points (23) and Red Wings’ top assist man (21) at 48-game mark. Logs about 23:30 per game. Improved discipline and defensively during platform year.

The latest: Fantasy managers know: Hronek is that rare Red Wing worth hanging onto, even during the mighty franchise’s patient rebuild.

“A year from now, Filip Hronek’s up and we’ll extend his contract,” vowed GM Steve Yzerman back in October, during an appearance on 97.1 The Ticket.

And as recently as the 2021 trade deadline, when he dealt away Mantha, Yzerman highlighted Hronek as a core member of a roster he’s slowly building back to prominence.

Detroit is flush with cap space, so Hronek should surface this summer with more term than any of his teammates. Yzerman was prudent in managing his internal cap in Tampa, so the bar he sets with Hronek will be one worth watching.

12. Conor Garland
Age: 25
Position: Right wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $775,000
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Back-to-back 30-point seasons. Career-high ice time. Steals pucks. Provides 5-on-5 offence on a team that needs all it can get.

The latest: GM Bill Armstrong fielded more than one tire-kicking call on the cap-friendly Garland at the trade deadline and ultimately decided to stay pat.

Interesting case here. Arizona has more than enough cap space to give Garland the raise he deserves, and if the player wishes to take this thing to arbitration, he’ll hold decent leverage.

But the Coyotes desperately need to stock up on prospects and picks, and Garland could still be used as a trade chip on the 2021 draft floor.

The club must ask itself: Will the late-blooming winger’s best hockey align with a Coyotes’ contention window?

More notable RFAs: Andrew Copp, Rasmus Dahlin, Drake Batherson, Carter Hart, Jordan Kyrou, Ilya Sorokin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Neal Pionk, Sam Reinhart, Jakub Vrana, Ilya Samsonov, Alex Nedeljkovic, Maxime Comtois, Joel Eriksson Ek, Travis Sanheim, Dante Fabbro, Andrew Copp, Juuse Saros, Kevin Fiala, Jake Bean, Kailer Yamamoto, Vince Dunn, Pius Suter, Adin Hill, Nikita Zadorov, Brandon Carlo, Danton Heinen, Ondrej Kase, Sam Bennett, Artturi Lehkonen, Warren Foegele, Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech, Anthony Duclair, Nick Ritchie, Andreas Athanasiou, Adam Erne, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Teddy Blueger

All salary info via the essential CapFriendly.com.

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