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

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

Do they look nervous?

Even in the wake of the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet, the forced settlement of arbitration season and some serious commitments to cornerstone stars, more than a few critical restricted free agents remain without contract.

No sweat. Training camps only open in a matter of hours.

We still have first-line wingers, two stud defencemen and at least one franchise centre due big raises.

Vancouver’s Jim Benning may be under the most pressure to negotiate long-term extensions with his RFAs. Despite taking care of Thatcher Demko and Conor Garland, he still has two big guns to compensate.

The next true pressure point to settle unsolved cases will be training camp, which is fast approaching.

Will any of these young stars refuse to report?

Here is where things stand with the eight unsigned 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 (Charlie McAvoy, Zach 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 significant money came off the books in July — Loui Eriksson, Alex Edler, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel — Vancouver inherited Oliver Ekman-Larsson's huge contract, still has multiple RFAs to satisfy and is 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.

Term will be a major sticking point, and fellow RFAs Heiskanen and Makar helped set Hughes' market. He won't be cheap.

Conversations continue, but a significant gap remains.

“You look around, a lot of these deals are done during camp,” agent Pat Brisson told Postmedia in mid-August. “But this isn’t our goal; our goal is to get it done. There’s no animosity.”

Benning is singing the same song.

“We have a good relationship,” Benning told Sportsnet's Iain MacIntyre on Sept. 16. “There's no angry sides. We're just trying to work through it to figure out how to make everybody happy.

“We're in constant communication with Pat Brisson and his group. The communication's good and we're just trying to figure out how to get to some common ground from their perspective and our perspective. They're important players in the future of our team and our group but these are complicated deals.

“We talk every day or every second day. We've got a week before main camp starts, so we have time to get it done and then get these guys in camp.”

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.

Barry reminded on July 30 that agreeing on term is a hurdle in negotiations, but the good news is that both Hughes and Pettersson are committed to re-signing with Vancouver.

In a Swedish interview, Pettersson said that he wants to make sure the Canucks are as committed to winning as he is.

Canucks training camp opens Sept. 22.

3. Kirill Kaprizov
Age: 24
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: Yes, but did not file
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. His only leverage was threatening to sign in the KHL.

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.

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.

The KHL pressure point was raised again on Aug. 9, when Frank Seravalli reported that Kaprisov has a deal in place with CSKA Moscow for one year and eight figures should a new contract with the Wild fail to work out.

Guerin has indicated for a month that he’s willing to compromise by signing Kaprizov to a mid-range deal (five or six years).

“There are gonna be some obstacles,” Guerin told Russo this week.

While the Wild at first wanted to re-sign Kaprizov to the maximum eight-year term, Kaprizov's camp is more inclined to take a short-term deal to walk to unrestricted free agency. Russo has since reported that both sides have been working towards a compromise.

“We are at a point where we feel we’re being extremely fair,” Guerin said. “How far apart are we? Not very, but sometimes those can be the things that take a while. I mean, that’s the way I see it. You could ask Paul or Kirill, and they might say something very different.”

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 were slow to get going.

“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.”

Pierre Dorion re-signed head coach D.J. Smith and RFA Drake Batherson, which should please Tkachuk. The GM 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.”

Shawn Simpson reported on Aug. 5 that "Brady loves the crew in Ottawa. But he's totally waiting to see if ownership is willing to spend what it takes to deliver a Cup team. How that relates to this summer and his deal, I'm not sure. But it was made very clear that he would be all in long term if ownership does the same. At the same time they know the business and won't be playing any games."

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

While he drills down on a long-term Tkachuk deal, Dorion described discussions as "positive" and "productive."

Andrei Svechnikov's recent eight-year, $62.5-million pact with the Carolina Senators could serve as a comparable if the sides go deep.

Simpson reports that Tkachuk won't travel to our nation's capital until the paperwork is signed.

TSN's Gord Miller reported on Sept. 14 that a deal is getting close, and Dorion stated that he's confident it will be done before camp.

"It’s believed the Senators have tabled an offer of an eight-year deal worth $8 million per season," Bruce Garrioch wrote for the Ottawa Sun. That would match the deal Thomas Chabot inked coming out of his entry-level deal.

Then Brady's brother, Matthew Tkachuk, sounded off the week before camp, saying that there were a lot of false rumours surfacing and that, although Brady loves Ottawa, the sides aren't so close to a deal.

5. 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 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 Chabot?

GM Kevyn Adams signed RFAs Casey Mittelstadt and Henri Jokiharju to three-year contracts each worth $7.5 million on Sept. 2, but the biggie is unsettled.

Negotiations are underway, but Day One of camp will be the pressure point.

6. Robert Thomas
Age: 21
Position: Right wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Serial winner. 2016 Memorial cup champion. 2018 world junior gold medallist with Team Canada. 2019 Stanley Cup champion. 87 points through first 169 NHL games.

The latest: According to Blues insider Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic, Thomas is looking for more than Jordan Kyrou’s $2.8 million AAV on a short-term deal.

The trick is, the Blues have less than $1 million in cap space after bringing back UFA Tyler Bozak.

Hanging over Thomas’s negotiations is Vladimir Tarasenko’s $7.5 million cap hit, which GM Doug Armstrong has been unable to unload.

Rutherford is hearing that Thomas may be willing to miss Day One of training camp if he isn’t offered a suitable deal. Without arbitration rights, that’s the player’s only leverage.

To be frank, Thomas didn’t help his negotiations by following up his 42-point breakout in 2019-20 with just three goals and nine assists in the 33 games he played in 2020-21.

The injured Oskar Sundqvist ($2.75 million cap hit) is likely to start the season on injured reserve, which could provide temporary cap relief.

Rutherford dives into detail on the Thomas standoff here, suggesting that Jordan Kyrou's contract may be a divisive issue in these talks.

Despite the tension, Thomas participated in St. Louis development camp sessions, suggesting he could join his teammates in training camp this week.

7. Kieffer Bellows
Age: 23
Position: Centre / Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $ 894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2016 first-round pick. 2017 world junior gold medallist with Team USA. Played a career-high 14 big-league games in 2021, scoring thrice. NHL genes: Kieffer is the son of retired star Brian Bellows. 22-goal scorer for Bridgeport in 2019-20.

The latest: Bellows’ attendance alongside Isles teammates at the New York Jets game Sunday fuelled speculation that he’s already signed a contract. (GM Lou Lamorillo doesn’t always feel the need to announce these matters right away.)

In any event, the rising talent is in town in time for training camp, a positive sign.

Bellows was given a qualifying offer at season’s end despite hearing his name in occasional trade rumours and punching the clock on the taxi squad.

Though his skating has come under criticism, Bellows’ forechecking and nose for the net show promise that he could develop into an NHL-level power forward.

8. Anatoly Golyshev
Age: 26
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $910,392
Arbitration rights: Yes — but unused
Bargaining chips: 2015 world junior silver medallist. Established pro forward with seven years of KHL experience and two all-star game appearances. Scored as many as 25 goals and 44 points for Yekaterinburg Automobilist.

The latest: Golyshev signed a one-year pact with the Islanders, the club that drafted him back in ’16, in the spring of 2021 after Automobilist terminated his deal. But he has yet to suit up for Lou Lamoriello’s group.

A projected middle-six winger, Golyshev might have the potential to make up for some of the offence the Isles lost when Jordan Eberle got selected in the Seattle expansion draft.

But until the Russian signs a new deal — and proves himself in the AHL? — the winger remains an intriguing potential add.

We’ll wait and see what becomes of Golyshev’s NHL career.

All salary info via the essential CapFriendly.com.

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