NHL’s Top 15 RFAs of 2022: Latest rumours, reports

On this edition of 32 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discuss the Calgary Flames' plans regarding contract talks with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, Shane Wright's pre-draft meetings, the latest on Barry Trotz, and more.

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

And loaded with game-breaking young forwards.

We have top-line wingers and emerging franchise centremen who will be due for raises, plus a couple guys establishing themselves as top-four defencemen in their early 20s.

Calgary’s Brad Treliving will be under the most pressure to negotiate long-term extensions with his RFAs, but there are stress points in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Ottawa as well.

Plus, we should have a better understanding of who won 2021’s Jets-Jackets blockbuster based on which GM is able to re-sign his star and for how much.

As these RFAs shine in their platform seasons and owners wrestle with a relatively flat salary cap and pandemic losses, midseason extensions for RFAs have been few and far between, setting up some compelling negotiations (or trades?) in the off-season.

Qualifying offers are due by July 11. Free agency is set for July 13.

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

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Age on July 13: 24
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $7 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Sixth overall pick. Hockey genes. Top-line winger hot off 42-goal, 104-point campaign. 2020 All-Star Game rep. Potential future captain. Notorious for crawling under opponents’ skin.

The latest: Despite a 2020-21 production dip and a couple dustups of off-season trade rumours — a St. Louis homecoming? A package deal to lure Jack Eichel out of Buffalo? — Tkachuk remained a critical piece of Calgary’s club and one of the best lines in hockey.

Brad Treliving shot down the idea that he’d deal his most marketable star (“There’s nothing to it,” the GM said in the summer), but there is a sense of inevitability that the band in Calgary won’t be quite the same after these playoffs.

Twelve roster players are on expiring deals, and a major decision must be made regarding pending UFA Johnny Gaudreau — who should command the most money of any forward on 2022’s open market.

Tkachuk has shrewdly set himself up for a payday no matter how this shakes out.

While his cap hit is $7 million, the winger’s actual salary this season is $9 million. That’s the price Treliving would have to sign off on for Tkachuk’s next qualifying offer. Add in Tkachuk’s arbitration rights, and the player has growing leverage.

Calgary’s front office must devise a long-term plan and commit to the proper forwards. Feels like we’re headed toward a fork-in-the-road off-season in Alberta.

Tkachuk says he fell in love with Calgary. So much so, he’s willing to sign long-term.

2. Jason Robertson

Age on July 13: 22
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $795,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2021 All-Rookie Team and Calder Trophy runner-up. Bronze medallist for Team USA at 2021 worlds. Rare Stars forward under age 25 who can produce elite offence: 58 goals, 125 points through first 128 NHL games.

The latest: A major reason Jim Nill is unlikely to re-sign pending UFA defenceman John Klingberg is because the Dallas GM is seeking to invest a greater portion of his limited cap space in youth.

Robertson and the Stars’ stud goalie are supplying excellent value on their entry-level contracts. Both are restricted free agents come summer, however, and will require juicy raises. Robertson has been a godsend, establishing himself as a top-line threat and picking up slack from aging leaders Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.

Nill faces a compelling question: Try to lock up as much of Robertson’s prime now in hopes he looks like a bargain later, the way Nill did with 2021 RFA Miro Heiskanen? Or go with a bridge deal and risk handing Robertson increased leverage down the road?

3. Pierre-Luc Dubois

Age on July 13: 24
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Third-overall pick. Silver medallist for Team Canada at world juniors and world championships. Strong, 220-pound two-way centre. Coming off second 60-point showing and career-best 28 goals. Jets surrendered a haul to acquire him from Columbus.

The latest: Enjoying a fine bounce-back season after a disruptive and disastrous 2020-21, Dubois’s play has justified a payday. Much like others on this list, the centre’s actual salary ($6.65 million) is greater than his cap hit. It’ll take at least that much for the Jets to qualify him, and more in arbitration.

If GM Kevin Cheveldayoff — who plays his cards close to vest — is to lock up Dubois long-term, which was the plan when trading for him, he might need to sign him to the richest contract in club history.

We’re not certain Dubois and super-agent Pat Brisson want a seven- or eight-year deal, but if so, it’ll take a figure north of $8 million on an AAV to get it done.

The easier deal might be five years, but that would walk Dubois to UFA status right after his 29th birthday.

“We haven’t really talked. There’s been no real discussions,” Dubois told Sportsnet’s Ken Wiebe in late April. “I’ve enjoyed my two years here. I like the guys, I like the group, I like the team. I’ve had a fun two years.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but I haven’t put that much thought into it. That’s what these next four, five months are for. We have time. As soon as this season is over, I’m sure discussions will start and start picking up. I think that’s when most of the thinking will get done.”

Elliotte Friedman reported that, as of June 5, the Jets had not begun contract talks with Dubois.

4. Patrik Laine

Age on July 13: 24
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $7.5 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Second-overall draft pick. Columbus already gave up a top centre (Dubois) to acquire Laine. Capable of ripping 40 goals. Marketable personality. Blue Jackets need all the scoring they can get.

The latest: Despite the Finnish sniper’s hot start in the fall (10 points in 10 games) — a fine rebound from his dismal 2020-21 — injury and the tragic death of his father, Harri, made for a rocky platform season.

Laine accepted a hefty qualifying offer last summer (one year at $7.5 million), but he’ll again be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights in the summer.

GM Jarmo Kekäläinen cannot run the risk of inking Laine to another one-year deal and effectively walking an elite talent to unrestricted free agency shortly after he turns 25.

So, does Laine want to commit long-term to an organization that has been shedding assets for futures and clearly needs several more pieces to contend?

“I don’t think it should be an issue. They’ve expressed they want me here. I’ve said the same thing. The feeling is mutual. Just figure out the term and money and all that, and I think we should be fine,” Laine said at his season-ending meeting with the press.

Kekäläinen echoed the sentiment: “I think he’s expressed he wants to stay here. We’ve said we want him to stay. Now, it’s just finding the common ground.”

Too many stars have walked out of Columbus over the years. It’s imperative the organization keep Laine in the fold.

5. Josh Norris

Age on July 13: 23
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Incredible release. No. 1 centre potential. Key acquisition in the 2018 Erik Karlsson blockbuster trade. 52 goals and 90 points through first 125 NHL games. Prime aligns with Senators’ young core. Team-best 35 goals in 2021-22. Ottawa already traded away Nick Paul.

The latest: Preliminary talks between Norris’s agent, Newport Sports’ Craig Oster, and GM Pierre Dorion are believed to have already commenced.

But if the prolonged RFA negotiation between another Oster client, Brady Tkachuk, and the Senators taught us anything, this one could go down to the wire.

Norris was provided a handy comparable when the Montreal Canadiens jumped to extend 22-year-old centre Nick Suzuki to a handsome eight-year, $63-million extension in October. Since then, Norris has been the more productive player.

Dorion skipped the bridge and committed long term to core pieces Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, and Drake Batherson. That’s the smart play here, and cap space is no issue.

Good teams are built up the middle. Why would he not try the same philosophy with Norris?

Dorion happily told reporters that Norris informed him at his exit meeting that the player would like a new contract as soon as possible.

6. Kevin Fiala

Age on July 13: 25
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.1 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. World championships silver medallist. Four-time 20-goal man. Hot off career-best 33-goal, 85-point campaign.

The latest: The Minnesota Wild are staring at a crazy cap crunch, with roughly $8.2 million in spending power and seven roster players on expiring deals. Fiala is the best of the bunch, and his price is only going up.

Not only does the top-line winger have arbitration rights, he’s a year away from UFA status and he’s fresh off a scorching platform year. In short: the player has tons of leverage.

Does Fiala want to remain in Minnesota?

“There’s no other answer than we’ll see,” Fiala told reporters after meeting with GM Bill Guerin.

Then he posted a thank-you to Minnesota on Instagram.

A trade feels inevitable, and the Devils are reportedly front-runners.

“Kevin’s a good kid. He’s a good guy,” Guerin said on a radio appearance. “He’s had some success here, and I think he likes it here. But I also think he’s realistic. His agents are good guys and smart and they know the market. It’s a tough situation. Hey, look, we really like Kevin. Kevin’s a great kid. He had a helluva year for us. Who wouldn’t want that on their team?”

7. Jesper Bratt

Age on July 13: 23
Position: Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $2.75 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Fast becoming one of the NHL’s most underrated forwards. Silky mitts. Steadily increased his points per game over four seasons. Selected to Sweden’s 2019 world championship squad. Devils’ highest scorer with a career-best 26-goal, 73-point performance.

The latest: Bratt is about to make the franchise pay.

Delivering back-to-back career seasons since signing his two-year bridge contract, Bratt thrived in a breakout showing for New Jersey.

The sixth-rounder might be a late bloomer, but his confidence and underlying numbers are accelerating upward. In a somewhat surprising move, Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald committed early and aggressively to Bratt’s younger teammate, Jack Hughes, with an eight-year, $64-million whopper.

Hughes is a centre and arrived more highly touted; Bratt is a winger.

With the Devils’ largest cap hit, P.K. Subban ($9 million), coming off the books, space to extend Bratt won’t be an issue. But keeping his price tag well below Hughes’s might be.

GM Tom Fitzgerald described Bratt as “a big part of our future” when the season concluded.

“He’s a tremendous young player. Where he’s grown over the past two years, I can’t keep emphasizing the positives of the last two years with the individual play,” he said.

“We want Jesper Bratt here long term — and that’s my job, to work out a deal with his agent. The goal is to get Jesper Bratt under contract and be part of the puzzle that we’re building here.

“Prices are also part of the puzzle. And that’s where we have to figure out where we are with him. But we absolutely need Jesper Bratt in our lineup.”

8. Tony DeAngelo

Age on July 13: 26
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $1 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Right-shot defenceman in his prime. Skates 19-plus minutes a night. Proven producer from the back end. One of best bargain buys of the summer. Letting his play do the talking. Posted his second 10-goal, 50-point season, and a career-best plus-30 rating. Playoff performer.

The latest: Leaving New York City with bridges burning in his wake, the lightning-rod DeAngelo accepted a humbling $1-million, shut-up-and-play deal with contending Carolina.

Throughout his redemption bid, the offensive defenceman has kept his opinions to himself and played to his strengths. The Hurricanes may have lost Dougie Hamilton to free agency, but dollar for dollar, DeAngelo has done a fine job supplanting Hamilton’s playmaking.

“We felt comfortable after doing all the research of bringing him here on a short-term deal, and we’ll continue to work with him,” said GM Don Waddell, who absorbed fan criticism for the hire.

“Tony recognizes that he’s made mistakes. Every time he has made mistakes, he has improved on it. It’s something that he’s fully aware of, we’re fully aware. That is why, again, we did a short-term contract with a very low number. We’ll get him here, get him in our environment, and we believe it will all go well for us.”

That Carolina has been rumoured to be keenly interested in defencemen like John Klingberg and Jakob Chychrun suggests DeAngelo — whose play demands a raise — is at risk of pricing himself out of town come summer. His rights might get traded.

Or perhaps things have gone so well, that the sides re-up for another short-term deal.

9. Noah Dobson

Age on July 13: 22
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $894,167
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Represented Team Canada at 2019 world juniors. Already earning top-four minutes in New York. Right shot. Crushed career bests in goals (13) and points (51). 20 games of playoff experience.

The latest: Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech didn’t secure their life-changing extensions until their late-20s, and Dobson will sit down at Lou Lamoriello’s negotiating table with little leverage (i.e., no arbitration rights).

Yes, Dobson finding his stride in the final year of his entry-level deal is fantastic news. Still, we bet it’ll be in the player and team’s best interest to go short term. By the time Dobson is ready for a big extension, the cap should be on the rise.

“I think he’s playing with a lot more confidence,” future Hall of Famer and current defence partner Zdeno Chara said. “You can see in his game he’s making some plays, being there for us in crucial times. He’s using his hockey sense and his skating ability. He’s playing really well.”

How does three years and $10 million sound?

10. Andrew Mangiapane

Age on July 13: 26
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $2.425 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: MVP for gold medallist Team Canada at the 2021 worlds, scoring seven goals in seven games at the tournament. Named to Canada’s Olympic long list. Provides critical even-strength scoring. Solid penalty killer. Accepted a team-friendly bridge deal last time. Hit career highs in goals (35), points (55) and plus/minus (+20).

The latest: Mangiapane said he was open to a long-term deal in Calgary the last time he turned RFA, but the Flames’ tight cap situation made a two-year contract the best option.

Well, the versatile forward appears ready to make them pay this time — either by landing a windfall or setting himself up to walk away in his prime.

“My advice to him would be to do a short-term deal by way of arbitration or negotiation — negotiating ideally — and then let’s wait and take a look at the landscape,” agent Ritch Winter told Eric Francis.

“You’re a year away from being an unrestricted free agent at age 27 and, really, in the heart of your best producing years of your career. There’s nothing more valuable in a player’s career than his ability to look into free agency and see what the options are, and I highly recommend that he focus on that.”

The best option for Mangiapane would be the worst one for Treliving, whose plate will be overloaded with tough decisions.

Calgary already has five forwards making $4.85 million or more in 2022-23, and that list does not include Gaudreau, Tkachuk or Mangiapane. Yikes.

“At the end of the day there may be a number that Andrew finds very compelling, that he will take — that’s his choice,” Winter added.

“He likes Calgary. He has lots of friends in Calgary and best friends on the team. The team may be the best choice, so you don’t want to close the door on Calgary being his spot. There’s a lot of factors that weigh in favour of him signing long term in Calgary after free agency.”

11. Mario Ferraro

Age on July 13: 23
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Won gold with Team Canada at 2021 worlds. Skates an eye-popping 24 minutes a night. Fan favourite who runs his own YouTube channel. Beginning to flex some of the offence he wielded in college. Plays bigger than his size.

The latest: Ferraro won’t wow you with his stat line, but he’s increasingly assuming a more important role on a San Jose blueline desperate for a youthful boost.

Surely, Ferraro noted his UMass D partner, Cale Makar, hit a home run in negotiations with the Avalanche last summer, and it sounds like he’ll be gunning for security as well.

“The Sharks are the team that trusted me and drafted me,” Ferraro told reporters. “I’m very loyal to this to this organization. I don’t see there ever being any better organization that I’d like to be a part of.

“I’d love to be a Shark forever.”

The affable Ferraro is being mentioned as future captain material.

While there’s no rush to slap a letter on him yet, there is more money available to take care of him now that Evander Kane’s salary has been freed up.

Ferraro told reporters in May that he’d prefer a long-term commitment.

“I’d love to be here for a long time,” he said. “Being a successful NHL hockey team and winning a championship, that’s something I dream of doing as a Shark.

“Those are things that I really can’t control. I’m just taking it day by day with whatever happens, happens. But yeah, it would be nice.”

12. Brock Boeser

Age on July 13: 25
Position: Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.75 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Bronze medallist repping Team USA at 2016 world juniors. 2018 NHL All-Rookie Team and All-Star Game MVP. Four-time 20-goal scorer. Five-time 45-point getter.

The latest: Boeser was downright electric as a rookie, stacking a career-best 29 goals and causing Canucks fans to believe this was just the beginning.

Much like the rest of the roster, however, Boeser has cooled since then — which should make his next negotiation a doozy.

Boeser’s agent, Ben Hankinson, said that he and former GM Jim Benning had discussed a six- and seven-year options for Boeser coming out of his entry-level deal. Ultimately, a three-year bridge won the day.

Although Boeser’s cap hit is $5.75 million, his actual salary is $7.5 million — so a one-year qualifying offer for that amount will need to be sent his way by GM Patrik Alvin.

With Elias Pettersson underdelivering since his raise and Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller hitting UFA in 2023, Alvin faces interesting questions as he builds the future core of Vancouver forwards.

Trade rumours keep popping up around Boeser, who has tried not to let the uncertainty faze him.

“It’s not really a worry of mine,” Boeser told The Province. “I’ve been a big believer in saying whatever happens, happens. I’ve said what I wanted to say in how much this organization means to me. But at the end of the day, it’s up to them (management).”

13. Jake Oettinger
Age on July 13: 23
Position: Goaltender
2021-22 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Two-time world junior medallist. World championships medallist. Took starter’s job in competitive Dallas crease. Posted career-best 30 wins and .914 save percentage in regular season. Great size (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) and growing confidence. Led all goalies in Round 1 of the 2022 playoffs with a .954 save percentage.

The latest: The only healthy NHL-level goaltender under club control, Oettinger has emerged a critical piece to Dallas’s hopes now and in the future.

The playoff stud said he was “just scratching the surface” of his capabilities after willing his team to a seven-game series with the heavily favoured Calgary Flames — a star turn that should boost his bargaining power this summer.

With true No. 1 goaltenders so difficult to come by, Nill should consider locking up Oettinger long term.

14. Adrian Kempe

Age on July 13: 25
Position: Centre / Wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $2 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. 2018 world championship gold medallist for Team Sweden. Named to 2022 All-Star Game amidst a career season (35 goals, 54 points). Speedster. Big body.

The latest: With his three-year bridge contract winding down, Kempe slammed the gas. He exceeded his career highs in goals and game-winners prior to the schedule’s halfway point and was named the Kings’ representative to the all-star game.

“It was a little bit of a shock. I’m very excited for it,” Kempe said. “I felt like going into this year I want to take another step, scoring goals and shooting more. It’s paying off right now. I’m trying to have at least three shots on goal every night.”

Further, Kempe’s ice time has increased in all situations as he gains more defensive trust from coach Todd MacLellan.

“This was my best year so far,” Kempe said upon elimination. “Maybe it took me a little longer than I wanted it to take.”

We don’t envision Kempe’s extension causing an issue. As Dustin Brown’s $5.875-million cap hit comes off the books, a chunk of that should go toward Kempe’s raise.

Following the Kings’ playoff exit, Kempe said he’d like to sign a long-term deal with the club.

15. Ilya Samsonov

Age on July 13: 25
Position: Goaltender
2021-22 salary cap hit: $2 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Silver and bronze medallist at world juniors. 2016 Gagarin Cup champion. Capitals do not have an NHL goalie under contract for 2022-23. Big frame (6-foot-3, 200 pounds). Wins games (53-23-10).

The latest: The patiently developed successor to Braden Holtby has played well enough to keep the Capitals in the playoff mix — but he is still seeking a serious commitment from management.

There was speculation that Washington was tempted to expose the young goalie in the Seattle expansion draft. The Russian was ultimately protected and signed to a one-year prove-it deal that rides him to a potential arbitration case this off-season.

GM Brian MacLellan’s biggest question mark heading into 2022-23 will be his crease. Both 1A Samsonov and 1B Vitek Vanecek are on expiring deals, and neither seized the crease outright.

Management is disappointed here. So much so, the Capitals explored trading for rental Marc-Andre Fleury at the deadline.

MacLellan didn’t rule out the possibility of running it back with his young tandem next fall, but the executive told reporters in May that the scenario “depends on the availability of other people.”

Make GMBM an offer.

“They’ve both been pretty good, but not great,” MacLellan said.

Ouch.

More notable pending RFAs: Victor Olofsson, Dylan Strome, Jesse Puljujarvi, Sonny Milano, Pavel Zacha, Alexandar Georgiev, Vitek Vanecek, Ondrej Kase, Sean Durzi, Danton Heinen, Luke Kunin, Lawson Crouse, Kasperi Kapanen, Kirby Dach, Martin Necas, Adam Boqvist, Sean Durzi, Kaapo Kakko, Alexander Romanov, Oliver Kylington, Nicolas Hague, Nicolas Roy, Rasmus Sandin, Michael Anderson, Timothy Liljegren, Dysin Mayo, Kaapo Kahkonen, Artturi Lehkonen, Pierre Engvall, Erik Brannstrom

Contract info via the excellent CapFriendly.com.

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