NHL's Top 15 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.

It’s a youth-driven league, folks.

We have first-line wingers and at least one franchise centreman who are 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 and still has three in our top 10.

So many RFAs shining in their platform seasons and so many executives wrestling with a flat salary cap has set the stage for several compelling negotiations and trades heading into training camp.

Cale Makar got paid in Colorado, Miro Heiskanen in Dallas, Brandon Carlo in Boston.

Joel Eriksson Ek committed to Minnesota and Anthony Duclair to Florida.

Detroit's Steve Yzerman heisted Carolina for Alex Nedeljkovic and instantly inked him to a two-year bridge at $3 million per.

But these extensions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s where things stand with the top 15 pending RFAs of 2021.

1. 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. 97 points through first 129 NHL games. Key building block in Vancouver. Averages nearly 23 minutes per game.

The latest: Preliminary contract talks got underway between Benning and the two most important engines of the Canucks’ rebuild in early April.

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 drew 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.

On June 15, agent J.P. Barry suggested to Donnie and Dhali on CHEK that he is exploring a deal longer than five years for Hughes.

Conversations continue.

2. 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 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.

“The Canucks have cap issues. I don’t think we can do long-term deals for Petey and Quinn. We have started the dance; we are engaged in talks,” Barry told Donnie and Dhali.

“We are exploring shorter term for Elias, five years and under. Quinn longer.”

Sportsnet's Iain McIntyre estimates that somewhere in the ballpark of $14 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.

Benning vowed to match any offer sheet on Pettersson during a Sportsnet radio interview in Vancouver on July 22.

A rehabbing Pettersson tweeted footage of him firing pucks on July 14, an encouraging video for Canucks fans.

3. Kirill Kaprizov
Age: 24
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: 2021 Calder champ. Blew up with 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games 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 prized forward Kevin Fiala. (The club already took care of Ryan Hartman and Eriksson Ek before they hit RFA status.)

Certainly, the twin buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter freed up cash for this summer’s spending.

Kevin Weekes caused a stir on June 18 with his report that talks had gone cold and that Kaprizov was threatening to sign back in the KHL, yanking on his only leverage in this situation.

Guerin said on July 13 that “dialogue is open” with Kaprisov’s camp and that talks began around July 3. The GM cautioned the sides are still early in the process.

4. 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. 125 points through first 198 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.

“We haven’t really started to talk yet,” Tkachuk told the Cam and Strick podcast in June. “So, I’m going to give you the hockey answer and then I’m going to give you the real answer. I will let my agent [Newport Sports’ Craig Oster] and Pierre figure it out.

“I think it’s pretty cool going through this for the first time. Of course, it’s a little stressful, and people say you shouldn’t think about it, but it’s your life.

“For it now to be kind of getting into the works this summer, it’s definitely going to be exciting, and I hear different stories about different negotiations and how they go. Being there with Matthew and with his negotiations [with the Calgary Flames], I’m just excited that it’s happened to me.”

Elliotte Friedman suggested on July 12 that a three-year bridge might be the route here:

5. 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 .921 save percentage through first 47 NHL appearances. Seasoned, well-developed pro. Tagged as New York’s goalie of the future.

The latest: In a deep summer for 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, “I-gor! I-gor!” chants rang through the rink late season 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,” Norris winner Adam Fox said.

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

A two-year bridge deal could land in the range of $4 million ballpark. That AAV goes up if rookie GM Chris Drury wants to lock up the netminder.

Thatcher Demko’s five-year deal in Vancouver at a $5-million AAV would be the ballpark to be considered on a longer deal.

6. 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 career-high 17-plus minutes.

The latest: “I'm open,” Svechnikov said way 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."

Extension talks with Svechnikov reportedly quieted in February but picked up after Carolina was eliminated in Round 2.

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. Or that Nedeljkovic left.

Carolina also has decisions to make on top UFA defenceman Dougie Hamilton, forward Warren Foegele, and a few other integral RFAs.

"We will be talking every day. The goal from our end is to get him signed, make sure we don't miss anything this summer, and get him ready for the start of the season," GM Don Waddell told reporters on June 17.

7. 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. Former 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 10 goals and 11 assists through 45 games in Columbus 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.”

Does Tortorella’s departure bode well for Laine’s chances of sticking?

"I don't think it matters who is behind the bench. I still have to go out there and do what I do, and I couldn't do that this year. I'll do that next year,” Laine vowed before flying home for the summer.

"I have enjoyed every minute I've been here. It was great to see the fans in the stands… I love it here, and I want to stay here for sure."

Kekalainen said that because the sniper is under team control, it is “self-explanatory” that he’ll be back in Columbus.

"I am pretty sure that nobody is more disappointed in Patrik Laine's year than Patrik himself," the GM said upon season’s end, noting that some players struggled with performing in a pandemic. "I think you have to give them a fresh start and a new opportunity to show what they can do in a normal year.”

If Laine forces his way out of another city, well, chalk up this blockbuster as a loss for Kekalainen — who is fielding offers on stud D-man Seth Jones (UFA 2022).

“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.

The winger is considering whether to sign a $7.5-million qualifying offer from Columbus that would make him the highest-paid player on the Blue Jackets and give both sides more time to consider a longer commitment.

The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta reported on July 19 that Kekalaien is doing his due diligence in gauging the trade market for Laine.

“The Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks, Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers expressed interest in the past and could circle back again this month,” Pagnotta wrote.

8. Pavel Buchnevich
Age: 26
Position: Right wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $3.25 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: His 20 goals and 48 points in 2021 puts him top-three among all RFAs. 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: So what if Buchnevich had a quietly impressive 2021 platform season?

The Rangers needed to save money and get grittier in their bottom six. Thus, GM Chris Drury traded a talented winger to St. Louis on Draft Day for inexpensive energy guy Sammy Blais and a second-round pick.

Drury knows he has young right wings Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov coming. And entry-level deals are balm for cap issues.

The Blues needed an offensive jolt, and Buchnevich can help provide it.

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).

Buchnevich’s co-agent, Todd Diamond, and Blues GM Doug Armstrong will talk extension this week.

“For Pavel, it’s difficult. All he knows is the New York Rangers and has many close friends in that locker room. The Blues have a solid veteran core, and I am sure will make him feel welcome when he gets into town,” Diamond told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Armstrong hopes to ink a multi-year contract done with the newest Blue.
“I’ve enjoyed working with Todd in the past. He’s a straight shooter,” Armstrong said.
“The goal going in is to see if we can get something done now or in the future on a long-term deal. At 26 years old, he’s a player that’s at a very good age.”

9. 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. Led team in points (26) and assists (24) this season. Logs 23:23 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,” promised GM Steve Yzerman back in October, during an appearance on 97.1 The Ticket.

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.

10. 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. Won 2021 world championship bronze with Team USA. You don’t trade for a stud forward and not wish to lock him up.

The latest: GM Bill Armstrong dealt Garland and captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson in a blockbuster deal on July 23, taking on some bad-money contracts from Vancouver to gain draft picks.

Garland wanted to remain a Coyote for life but felt disrespected by the lack of negotiations leading up to the trade.

“Everybody knows what’s gone on here. We haven’t heard anything from the team since maybe three days after the season ended when they asked for our offer. It’s been a while waiting for that. You just want to go where you’re wanted,” Garland said post-trade.

“I feel like I'm just starting. I've only played 160 games, and last year was the first year that I've felt comfortable.”

The Canucks are getting a motivated, underrated talent.

It’s now up to Benning to fit Garland’s extension into a puzzle that includes bigger pieces like Hughes and Pettersson. Dumping Jay Beagle, Loui Eriksson and Antoine Roussel’s cap hits helps in that regard.

11. Sam Reinhart
Age: 25
Position: Centre / Right wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $5.2 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Second-overall pick in 2014. Four consecutive 20-goal, 40-point seasons. Hot off career-best 25 goals in 54 games. Improving defensive play and showing signs of being an adequate centre substitute. Panthers already gave up a haul to acquire his rights.

The latest: On Day 2 of the NHL Draft, Sabres Gm Kevyn Adams dealt Reinhart to the Florida Panthers for goaltending prospect Devon Levi and a first-round pick in 2022 — a decent return for a player who was on the block.

Reinhart is coming off a stellar season from a personal standpoint in which he produced at a high level and showed aptitude in the middle of the ice.

In theory, he could take the Panthers to arbitration, get a one-year raise and walk as a UFA in 2022. But with a fresh start and a better surrounding cast, the smart money is on Reinhart and the Cats coming to terms on a multi-year deal.

Florida GM Bill Zito needs to be diligent with this extension, however. Reinhart’s cap hit could set a benchmark that homegrown stars Aleksander Barkov (UFA 2022) and Jonathan Huberdeau (UFA 2023) will want to clear easily.

12. Juuse Saros
Age: 26
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $1.5 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: World junior gold medallist. Natural successor to UFA Pekka Rinne’s long run as Nashville’s No. 1 netminder. Career .920 goaltender coming off a personal-best 21-win, .927 season. Started all 2021 playoff games for the Predators and showed well.

The latest: GM David Poile said at his season-ending conference that he and Saros’s representatives had yet to dive into negotiations, but with Rinne retiring and Saros proving he can handle No. 1 duties, anything less than an juicy Juuse extension will be a shock.

The question will be whether Nashville goes long-term (see: Matt Murray in Ottawa or Demko in Vancouver) or bridge (Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh, Mackenzie Blackwood in New Jersey) with its RFA netminder.

13. Andrew Copp
Age: 27
Position: Left wing / Centre
2020-21 salary cap hit: $2.28 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Breakout offensive season in which he scored 15 goals and 39 points in 55 games. Only getting better with age. Not afraid to take the Jets to arbitration. Only one year away from unrestricted free agency. Valued teammate and two-way force versatile to play anywhere in middle six. Faceoff force.

The latest: Copp’s platform performance was timed perfectly, and with UFA status less than 12 months away, the player holds more leverage than most RFAs.

During Copp’s end-of-season press conference, he said he was open to all possibilities for his next contract. That AAV should climb north of $4 million, regardless of term.

So valued is Copp that, even without a contract, he was protected by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff over Dylan DeMelo and Mason Appleton in the expansion draft.

If the sides can’t strike a deal, Copp could be used as a weighty trade chip to help the Jets upgrade their D corps.

14. Rasmus Dahlin
Age: 21
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: First-overall draft pick in 2018. Calder Trophy finalist in 2019. Fifth defenceman in NHL history to record 30 points before age 19. World junior silver medallist. Building block who wants to stay in Buffalo. 107 points in first 197 NHL games. Skates more than 21 minutes per night.

The latest: The Buffalo News reported on July 21 that contract negotiations are underway between Dahlin and GM Kevyn Adams, who has gained some leverage here after the D-man's disappointing minus-36 performance in 2021.

"Going through a year like this is not easy," Dahlin said. "the one thing I'll take with me is that it has been an experience that will make me a stronger person and better player and person."

Dahlin was encouraged when Don Granato took over the bench, saying he felt more trusted.

The safe play for both sides might be a bridge, but the Sabres don't have a single defenceman signed beyond 2022.

Could they lock up Dahlin long-term early in this rebuild of the rebuild and position his as their No. 1, the way Ottawa did with Thomas Chabot?

15. Tyler Bertuzzi
Age: 26
Position: Left wing / right wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $3.5 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: 2017 Calder Cup champ with Grand Rapids. 2019 Team Canada silver medallist at IIHF worlds. Represented Detroit at 2020 NHL All-Star Game. First player in Red Wings history to record four consecutive three-point games. Back-to-back 21-goal, 47-point seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Detroit needs all the top-line forwards it can get.

The latest: The skilled and bruising Bertuzzi went through arbitration in the 2020 off-season, settling with Yzerman on a one-year, $3.5-million pact, closer to the $3.15 million filed by the Wings than the $4.25 million Bertuzzi requested.

Hurt feelings sometimes linger from these cases, but Bertuzzi downplayed that, telling the Detroit Free Press there was "nothing personal at all."
Bertuzzi injured his back on Jan. 28 against Dallas, but a troubling recovery pushed him to seek a second opinion and he had an operation on April 30.

"You never want surgery, but I thought I was honestly going to be a little bit more immobile after," Bertuzzi told reporters in May. "I'm feeling really good right now, so I'm happy I ended up doing it.

"Honestly, it was a really tough year and I'm looking to just put it past me and get ready for next year."

Bertuzzi, a net-front presence, vowed that his rehab won’t alter his hard-driving game.

"It's just a slow process initially after surgery and gradually ramp things up," Yzerman said on locker cleanout day. "Tyler, as you know, is pretty quiet. He doesn't say a lot. He is very upbeat and positive. We expect him to be full steam ahead in September."

Bertuzzi is again speeding toward RFA status. Again, he is arbitration-eligible. How much can he command coming off a down year in which he played nine games and scored five goals?

The Maple Leafs were reported to have interest in a trade for Bertuzzi, with Zach Hyman leaving for Edmonton — but Yzerman set a high price.

The GM since said publicly that he intends to make Bertuzzi part of the Wings future, yet trade rumours lingered last week.

Fascinating case here.

More notable RFAs: Drake Batherson, Carter Hart, Jordan Kyrou, Ilya Sorokin, Neal Pionk, Jakub Vrana, Ilya Samsonov, Maxime Comtois, Travis Sanheim, Dante Fabbro, Kevin Fiala, Jake Bean, Kailer Yamamoto, Vince Dunn, Pius Suter, Adin Hill, Nikita Zadorov, Danton Heinen, Ondrej Kase, Sam Bennett, Artturi Lehkonen, Warren Foegele, Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech, Nick Ritchie, Andreas Athanasiou, Adam Erne, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Casey Mittelstadt, Ross Colton

All salary info via the essential CapFriendly.com.

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