NHL’s Top 10 unsigned RFAs: 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.

Last week’s flurry of trades and signings swept some star players — Matthew Tkachuk, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Patrik Laine — from the top of our RFA board.

But there are plenty of intriguing young names still unsigned deep into July.

As these RFAs look to bank off their platform seasons and owners wrestle with a relatively flat salary cap and pandemic losses, some tense negotiations (or trades?) are still on deck.

The situations in Edmonton and Dallas are particularly interesting.

Arbitration cases have been filed, and the deadline to sign qualifying offers has long passed.

Offer sheets can now be negotiated by those without an arbitration hearing.

Here’s where things stand with the top 10 RFAs of 2022.

1. Jason Robertson

Age: 23
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 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 Stars starting goalie Jake Oettinger supplied excellent value on their entry-level contracts. Both are restricted free agents, however, and 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?

2. Jesper Bratt

Age: 23
Position: Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $2.75 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
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.

Kevin Fiala’s seven-year, $55-million deal with Los Angeles is the one we’re pointing to if we’re Bratt’s agent.

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

“We’ve talked to Jesper and made him an offer, an offer that shows the commitment that (Devils co-managing partners) David Blitzer and Josh Harris have in this young gentleman for very good reasons,” Fitzgerald said at the NHL Draft. “He’s a really good hockey player that makes our team better.”

The GM denied ever putting Bratt on the block and asserted he’s never spoken with anyone about a possible trade. Fitzgerald prefers to go long-term here.

“We don’t make the offers we’ve made with the intention of not having the player, and we want to build with Jesper,” Fitzgerald said. “Last time we negotiated (with Bratt), were they smooth? No. But not all negotiations are. At the end of the day, we want Jesper Bratt to be a New Jersey Devil for a long time.”

Bratt filed for arbitration, which is set for Aug. 3 and ensures there will be no offer sheet. This will soon get settled one way or another.

3. Noah Dobson

Age: 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) unless he dares sign an offer sheet.

“I don’t even think like that,” Lamoriello said at the draft, when asked about the urgency of locking Dobson up. “It’s not even in my vocabulary, in other words.

“We’ll do whatever we can to get him signed whenever we can, but we’re not gonna be threatened by worrying about doing something because of an offer sheet. I’ve been in this too long to worry about that.” 

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’s 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 most recent 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?

4. Andrew Mangiapane

Age: 26
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $2.425 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
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 (plus-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 may be the worst one for Treliving, who is still riding the roller coaster.

With Treliving spending so much time on Gaudreau and Tkachuk, Mangiapane’s business was pushed to the back burner for most of July.

Winter told the Eric Francis Show that his client is keen to sign for longer than the one year that would walk him to the open market. 

“I don’t want to get into the negotiations. I share Brad’s view that it’s never really healthy for the process. But I think, ultimately, to admit that Andrew has submitted a proposal on a multi-year deal tells you he’s quite interested in staying here despite the uncertainty that surrounds Matthew Tkachuk,” Winter said.

“Certainly, Andrew feels very comfortable with the coaching staff. He likes the management team here. He likes the city. He’s had a good experience.

“He said to them he’s quite willing to stay on a longer-term deal.”

Arbitration is set for Aug. 5.

5. Mario Ferraro

Age: 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 with Evander Kane’s salary freed and Jonathan Dahlen not qualified.

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.”

A Ferraro extension is but one of a long list of items on brand-new GM Mike Grier’s to-do list.

Since trading Brent Burns, Ferraro’s importance to the lineup has only escalated.

6. Jake Oettinger

Age: 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 the regular season. Great size (6-5, 220 pounds) and growing confidence. Led all goalies in the 2022 playoffs with a .954 save percentage.

The latest: The only healthy NHL-level goaltender under club control, Oettinger has emerged as 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. If not, rivals would be wise to consider an offer sheet.

7. Lawson Crouse

Age: 25
Position: Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $1.53 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Gold medal winner at world juniors. Coming off a career season (20 goals, 34 points in 65 games). Big body (6-4, 215 pounds). Coyotes short on impactful offensive players.

The latest: The rebuilding Coyotes would be wise to keep Crouse — an improving power forward — in the fold.

A breakout offensive season has placed Crouse in line for a significant raise, and that payday was ensured once he filed for salary arbitration.

Contract negotiations had been slow to this point, but with an arbitration hearing scheduled for Aug. 8, expect talks to heat up.

8. Pavel Zacha

Age: 25
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $2.25 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: Sixth-overall draft pick. Big body (6-3, 210 pounds). Three consecutive 30-point seasons. Boston Bruins gave up a useful middle-six forward to obtain rights. Belief that ceiling has yet to be reached.

The latest: Zacha never quite met his expectations as a high draft pick in the New Jersey Devils’ system, so his July 13 trade to Boston makes sense for a fresh start under a more veteran group.

GM Don Sweeney made the swap without an extension already in place, but an Aug. 11 arbitration date will make sure at least a short-term contract is in place well before training camp.

With the Bruins yet to get veteran UFAs Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci under contract, Zacha is key to Boston’s centre depth.

Zacha’s agent, Darren Ferris, texted the Boston Herald shortly after the trade and assured a new deal for Zacha “should be completed in short order. Lots going on.”

Ferris’s top priority remains No. 1 unrestricted free agent Nazem Kadri.

9. Kailer Yamamoto

Age: 23
Position: Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $1.175 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. World junior medallist. Hit the 20-goal and 40-point plateaus in his first full 82-game campaign. Maintained 0.5 points-per-game pace in the postseason. Quick feet and hands. Driven to succeed despite small frame.

The latest: Yamamoto is certainly on better terms with management than fellow RFA right wing Jesse Puljujarvi, and is therefore more likely to ink a two- or three-year extension and remain in Edmonton.

The smart, tenacious winger saw an uptick in both ice time and production once the Oilers shifted bench control midseason from Dave Tippett to Jay Woodcroft. This is a positive sign that should help Yamamoto earn a bridge contract in the $3 million AAV ballpark.

His hearing is set for Aug. 7, but there is no reason a deal cannot be reached in advance.

10. Alexander Romanov

Age: 22
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $894,167
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: F 20-plus minutes a night.

The latest: Here’s the other 22-year-old defenceman the New York Islanders must get under contract.

Lou Lamoriello acquired the young, left-shot rearguard (as well as the 98th pick) from the Montreal Canadiens on the draft floor in exchange for the 13th pick. (Montreal then flipped picks 13 and 66 to Chicago for Kirby Dach.)

The deal was a bit of a stunner considering the Canadiens had previously let go of another prized Russian D-man (Mikhail Sergachev) before his prime, and Romanov had expressed his desire to remain with the club that drafted him.

“I love Montreal so much. That’s why I want to stay here as long as I can,” he told reporters in the spring.

By acquiring Romanov, Lamoriello made an effort to fill the gap he created by dealing Devon Toews to the Avalanche in 2020.

Romanov has already been spotted working out in his Isles gear while training in South Florida. There’s no reason to believe Lamoriello won’t be able to bridge both Dobson and Romanov.

When their contracts will actually be announced, however, is anybody’s guess.

More notable pending RFAs: Sean Durzi, Kirby Dach, Martin Necas, Oliver Kylington, Nicolas Hague, Nicolas Roy, Rasmus Sandin, Michael Anderson, Erik Brannstrom, Barrett Hayton, Yakov Trenin, Ryan McLeod, Mason Appleton, Miles Wood, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Cayden Primeau

Contract info via the excellent CapFriendly.com.

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