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NHL’s top 15 unsigned RFAs: Latest rumours, reports

Offer sheets, tough negotiations, last-minute trades, looming arbitration… it’s all on the table, as several compelling NHL restricted free agents remain unsigned by the clubs that control their rights.

While several key members of the 2020 RFA class — Thomas Chabot, Nico Hischier, Clayton Keller, Alex DeBrincat and Darnell Nurse — took the secure route and re-upped early, there is a boatload of sure-fire and breakout stars still gunning for big raises heading into 2020-21.

Those expectations must be tempered with the flattened salary cap, and it will be fascinating to see how negotiations play out under this tepid economic landscape.

More bridge deals, perhaps?

Yes, if we are to judge by the notable RFAs to sign contracts in a pandemic: Columbus forward Max Domi and goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo; Bruins forward Anders Bjork; Oilers winger Jesse Puljujarvi; Buffalo’s Brandon Montour; and Colorado’s Ryan Graves and Valeri Nichushkin.

Montreal’s Josh Anderson (seven years), Dallas’s Radek Faksa (five years), Ottawa’s Matt Murray (four years), and San Jose’s Kevin Labanc (four years) stand out as members of the 2020 RFA class who got big term this month. Exceptions, not the rule.

Free agency is open, which means all RFAs are eligible to sign their qualifying offer — or offer sheets. Qualifying offers expire on Oct. 18.

It also means arbitration cases will soon be heard. Hearings begin Oct. 20 and run through Nov. 8.

Here is a rundown of the top 15 impending RFAs of 2020 and the latest reports surrounding their future.

1. Mathew Barzal
Age: 23
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $863,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Franchise player. More points (60) and points per game (0.88) than any other impending RFA, despite playing in a system that accentuates defence. Skates more than 20 minutes a night. Three consecutive 60-point seasons and three seasons as the Isles’ top scorer. Racked up 85 points in his rookie season. Pivots faster than a politician. Gutsy playoff performance through four rounds.

The latest: On March 21, GM Lou Lamoriello sent a message to any GM thinking of floating an offer sheet Barzal’s way. Lamoriello was asked by a fan if he’d match any competitive contract offer for his top centreman.

“It is our intention to not allow it to get to that point, but should that happen, the answer is yes,” Lamoriello replied.

The slick skater raised eyebrows in September when he told Arthur Staple of The Athletic that he’d be interested in seeing an offer sheet signed by a member of 2019’s loaded RFA class.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone shake up the league a little bit. That would be fun. Maybe see an offer sheet tossed around,” Barzal mused.

Barzal and the Islanders have been in no great rush to settle his next deal, which should be a juicy one.

Lamoriello is in the thick of a tricky off-season. He’d love to bring in an elite winger to finish off Barzal’s passes, and he must also extend RFA defenceman Ryan Pulock on the back end.

In order to free cap space (and guard against offer sheets), the GM was prompted to trade unsigned RFA Devon Toews to Colorado for a pair of picks.

“Whenever we’re ready to sit down and get it done, I’d love for that to happen,” Barzal said of his next contract. “At the same time, I’m not a person that’s just going to rush this thing or get nervous about it or whatever. I’m just going about my day, and it’ll happen when it happens.”

Per Empire Sports, Lamoriello is looking to lock up Barzal in the ballpark of $7.5 million per season. Barzal’s camp, naturally, would like a higher figure.

If Barzal were to sign an offer sheet worth $10.9 million or more per season, the compensation to the Islanders would be four first-round picks. That feels highly unlikely.

2. Anthony Cirelli
Age: 23
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $728,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Logs significant ice time (18:28), mostly against tough opponents. Ranks top-five among all NHL forwards in penalty-killing time (2:49 per game). Fourth place in 2020 Selke Trophy voting for his two-way game. Points per game and plus/minus has increased every season. He was on pace for 50 points. Stanley Cup champ.

The latest: Cirelli had a front-row seat to RFA negotiations last summer, watching his good buddy, Brayden Point, wait until late September to put pen to paper. While Cirelli doesn’t have Point’s offensive numbers, he’s improved each year in the league and has become integral to the Bolts’ future.

GM Julien BriseBois declared, accurately, last fall that the 2020 off-season will be Tampa’s most difficult cap-wise — and that was before a flat cap and championship raises. That Cirelli is one of multiple Lightning RFAs in need of a raise hastened the need to trade a veteran forward or two: Alex Killorn and/or Tyler Johnson and/or (gasp) Steven Stamkos.

That Johnson cleared waivers unclaimed this month illustrates how difficult it is to dump salary in this climate.

I asked Tampa executive Dave Andreychuk about Cirelli’s future in April.

“He’s come a long way. He’s a big part of this team. He’s going to be here for a while,” Andreychuk said. “They’re going to try to lock him up as best they can, because this kid is the real deal — and he’s only going to get better.”

When Point went down to injury in the Eastern Conference Final, Cirelli was promoted to Tampa’s temporary top-line pivot. Re-signing him is a priority.

3. Anthony Deangelo
Age: 24
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: Breakout season in which he’s put up the fourth-most goals (15) and points (53) among all NHL D-men. Right shot. Has severely chopped down his penalties taken. Excellent passer and skater with fantastic vision. Already took a one-year, prove-it deal last summer — and knocked it out of the park.

The latest: The Rangers are one of the rare squads loaded with young, talented, right-shot defencemen. DeAngleo is joined by Jacob Trouba, 26, and rookie Adam Fox, 22, in that category.

With New York winning the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes and shaping into a team that’s ready to run back into playoff contention in 2020-21, GM Jeff Gorton is facing raises (or trades) at every position, with intriguing RFAs unsigned at forward (Ryan Strome, Brendan Lemieux) and in net (Alexandar Georgiev) as well.

Gorton’s trading of Brady Skjei to Carolina and Marc Staal to Detroit has cleared the cap and roster space necessary to re-up with DeAngelo, who’s earned the right to take this one to arbitration. The term will be tricky here.

Don’t forget: DeAngelo pushed 2019’s contract negotiation past the opening of training camp. He’ll want maximum value.

On Sept. 12, Rangers columnist Larry Brooks made the case for trading DeAngleo at peak value and guarding against the risk of losing touted 20-year-old right-shot defence prospect Nils Lundkvist to unrestricted free agency in 2022.

Anything beyond a one-year pact for DeAngelo, Brooks posits, doesn’t make sense for future planning.

The Rangers opened up some cap space via the Henrik Lundqvist buyout.

DeAngelo filed for arbitration, which goes Oct. 20.

4. Pierre-Luc Dubois
Age: 22
Position: Centre
2019-20 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Was on pace for his third-straight 20-goal season. Leads all Blue Jackets in assists (31) and points (49). Raised game in playoffs, with eight points through his first eight games. Cap space is not an issue in Columbus.

The latest: Generally, if you’re lucky enough to draft and develop a 22-year-old No. 1 centreman, you pay the man when his contract comes due.

Dubois exploded for a 61-point campaign skating mostly alongside the all-world Artemi Panarin, but even in the Bread Man’s absence, the big-bodied Quebecer has driven offence for an organization that needs all it can get.

“If he wants to be a difference-maker, a game-changer, one of the best players in the league, he has all the capabilities, all the tools,” says winger Cam Atkinson.

Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen got a jump on off-season business by re-signing his two RFA goalies to team-friendly deals, but he’s far from done. Instead of negotiating hard with power winger Josh Anderson, Kekalainen boosted his centre depth by making a draft-day trade for Montreal’s Max Domi — and then signed him last week. He then landed veteran Mikko Koivu for a $1.5-million flyer.

The GM has cap space but some work to do with Dubois.

5. Sam Reinhart
Age: 24
Position: Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $3.65 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: Three straight 20-goal, 50-point seasons. Second-overall pick. World junior and world championships gold medallist. The Sabres are in no position to let young offensive talent walk. Plays more than 20 minutes a night. Besties with Jack Eichel.

The latest: Reinhart delivered on his two-year bridge deal and had a shot at back-to-back 60-point campaigns until the pause. And amidst another disappointing season in Western New York, Reinhart displayed flashes of leadership.

“It’s all coming down to the players at this point,” Reinhart told reporters in February. “The systems and the game plans that are set out for us give us an opportunity to have success. I think it goes back to what I’m trying to preach here. Guys need to demand more out of themselves, and a lot of guys need to step the hell up.”

Frustration was mounting in Buffalo, before rookie GM Kevyn Adams went to work.

Taylor Hall gets the headlines, and rightly so, but legitimate forwards Eric Staal and Cody Eakin were also added to the mix.

We’d expect Reinhart to get the biggest chunk of the RFA pie, but decisions must be made on Victor Olofsson and Linus Ullmark as well.

Arbitration is set for Oct. 27.

6. Mikhail Sergachev
Age: 22
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Top-10 draft pick. Logs more than 20 minutes nightly. Was on pace for a career-best stat line before the pause. A top-four defenceman by 21 who hasn’t neared his ceiling. Now used on the penalty kill. Fantastic skater with superior vision and instincts. Shone in the championship run.

The latest: The impending raise for Sergachev — a must-keep — is a big reason why the cap-tight Lightning has to cut into its core in order to financially satisfy its young stars.

Tampa has been patient with its horse on the back end, and when the injury bug took down veterans for spells of this season, he rose to the occasion. Fearless, the kid even dropped the gloves with Shea Weber in March.

Despite a delay in serious talks between Sergachev’s agent, Mark Gandler, and GM BriseBois until the playoffs wrapped, the player has been optimistic a deal will get done.

“It’s a little different obviously right now, but I’m trying to leave it to my agent,” Sergachev said in May. “I feel like they’re going to work out something. I have a good agent.”

With the salary cap flat, BriseBois will face the type of roster crunch that necessitates a trade or two off the roster. And he must guard against offer sheets for Cirelli and Sergachev, who looked phenomenal in the playoffs.

Currently, Tampa has just $2.9 million in cap space. In other words, not enough.

7. Ryan Pulock
Age: 26
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $2 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: Overachieved through bridge deal. Excellent two-way game. Right shot. Slapshot makes you think better about getting in his lane. Was on pace to set career highs in goals (10) and points (35).

The latest: Deserving of more attention outside the Island than he receives, Pulock could be looking for an extension in the ballpark of Charlie McAvoy’s or Zach Werenski’s. A $5 million AAV would be the upper end, for sure, but anything below $4.5 million will feel like a bargain. His 22:24 average time on ice is more than any other pending RFA.

Pulock underscored his value in the post-season, defending like a beast while contributing 10 points in the Isles’ rip to the conference final.

Lamoriello is on record saying he intends to re-sign Pulock. A no-brainer, especially in light of the Toews trade.

Arbitration goes Nov. 6.

8. MacKenzie Blackwood
Age: 23
Position: Goaltender
2019-20 salary cap hit: $697,500
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Winning record on a bad team (32-24-8). One of the NHL’s hottest goalies since Christmas. Silver medallist at 2019 world championships. Arguably should’ve been a Calder Trophy finalist.

The latest: The Devils would be wise to rebuild from the net out, and few young goalies are as exciting as Blackwood, whose excellence helped ease the discomfort of Cory Schneider’s decline.

Few teams have more salary cap space than New Jersey, so even with other RFAs on deck (most notably Jesper Bratt), fitting in Blackwood’s raise won’t be an issue. Young goalies rarely get a long-term deal straight out of their entry-level deals, however.

We’d expect a bridge contract for this potential long-term franchise starter. That’s the route taken in recent summers by Jordan Binnington, Connor Hellebuyck, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the like.

Talks are expected to pick up shortly, with the Devils buying out Schneider and signing a suitable goalie mentor in Corey Crawford.

“I was really surprised at Blackwood and how great a young goaltender he is,” Crawford said.

Blackwood may wish to use Merzlikins’ two-year, $8-million bridge contract as a starting point.

9. Tyler Bertuzzi
Age: 25
Position: Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $1.4 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: Made first All-Star Game appearance. Back-to-back 21-goal, 47-point seasons. Skates nearly 20 minutes a night. Organization has invested seven years developing him into a first-line threat.

The latest: One of the few bright spots on a sad-sack Red Wings, Bertuzzi has over-delivered on his two-year, $2.8-million bridge pact signed back in 2018 and deserves a nice pay bump.

Of the three pending RFA forwards GM Steve Yzerman still must make decisions on, Bertuzzi is the most essential. Yzerman has been busy rebuilding his roster through smart, low-risk UFA signings, while clearing out veterans through buyout (Justin Abdelkader) or simply letting them walk (Jimmy Howard, Trevor Daley, Jonathan Ericsson).

Bertuzzi has 30-goal potential, brings grit to his game, and should be seen as a building block for a rebuild that needs as many as it can get.

Negotiations with Yzerman have begun as the sides try to work out a deal prior to arbitration Oct. 25.

10. Jake DeBrusk
Age: 23
Position: Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $863,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Was on track for his second-consecutive 20-goal season and third-straight 40-point season. Playoff performer. First-round pick. Plays with an edge befitting of the Bruins’ identity.

The latest: DeBrusk got off to a slow start in his platform year and finished with a career-low 35 points. The Bruins opted for bridge deals last summer with RFAs Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, and it makes a ton of sense for both sides to take that route again here.

“I feel like secondary scoring has been the question mark since I’ve been here, so I feel like if I can help lead in that [category] during the playoffs, then that would be great,” DeBrusk told NBC Sports in late July. “The quarantine break before now has really changed my mindset on everything, and that includes [my contract]. I’m just happy to be here and happy to be here playing.

“You want to score clutch goals and come up big in timely moments. It could be a blocked shot. Everybody wants to look at stats and production, but for me it’s about if I’m playing well. That’s what I’m focused on with [the contract].”

As a second-line player, DeBrusk’s future has taken a back seat to the Bruins’ most significant decision: How to reshape their blue line?

As a result, DeBrusk’s name has been zipping around the rumour mill of late, with everyone from Edmonton to Buffalo linked in trade interest.

The Bruins hold $11 million in cap space after letting a stud like Torey Krug walk out the door. That’s more than enough to re-sign DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk, but Boston is still poking around the UFA market as well.

11. Ryan Strome
Age: 27
Position: Centre / Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $3.1 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: Crushed career highs in goals (18) and points (59) and was about to register his first 20-goal, 60-point season. Logs nearly 20 minutes a night. Plus-21 on a non-playoff team. Top-five pick. Found quick chemistry alongside Artemi Panarin (but who doesn’t?).

The latest: Strome is a perplexing case. The most senior guy on this list, he had mustered just one goal and one assist in 18 games with Edmonton in 2018-19 but has absolutely taken off since being traded back to New York City, proving more than capable of a top-six role.

If you’re the Rangers, how much term do you give a forward whose numbers have fluctuated so wildly over the course of a career that’s toured through three franchises?

“It’s definitely special to be a Ranger right now, and I’m really happy with where I’m at,” Strome told Sportsnet’s Gene Principe.

Rangers insider Larry Brooks of the New York Post analyzed the Strome situation in April.

“I’d expect the Blueshirts to keep Strome on a one-year deal, preferably without having to go through an unhelpful arbitration hearing,” Brooks writes. “It would give management more time in which to assess Strome’s value and to ruminate over the wisdom of signing him to a long-term deal. In the alternative, he would likely become a prime rental property heading into next year’s deadline.”

Upon elimination, Strome said he was hopeful to remain a Ranger and will leave negotiations to his agent.

Cautious of a big Strome pay day in arbitration, the Rangers at least debated not qualifying him but did so last week.

As compelling an arbitration case as you’ll see this fall is scheduled for Nov. 5.

12. Anthony Mantha
Age: 26
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $3.3 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — but did not file
Bargaining chips: Puts up the same points per game (0.88) as Barzal. Plays nearly 19 minutes a night. Managed 38 points in 2019-20 despite being hampered with injuries. Consecutive 24-goal, 48-point efforts in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

The latest: When healthy, Mantha is a beastly winger and dependable contributor to Detroit’s top six. The drawback here is an injury history that has prevented Mantha from playing more than 70 games in all but one of his five pro years.

“It will be complicated, I think,” Mantha told The Detroit News of his upcoming negotiation with Yzerman. “But it’s not in my power. My power is to play hockey. My agent and Stevie are going to talk. Maybe they’ve started. I don’t even know.

“It’s hard to base right now. I played 40 games this year. I missed so many games, so it’s hard to go for the extension before the end of the year. We’ll see in the off-season.

“Hopefully it goes quick and I’ll be here for a long time.”

Yzerman recently confirmed that, yes, extension talks have begun.

13. Connor Brown
Age: 26
Position: Right wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $2.1 million
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: Just posted a career-best 27 assists and 43 points despite shortened season. Averaged more than 20 minutes a night in 2019-20, a career high. Scored 20 goals as a rookie. Excellent penalty killer. Versatile — can play up and down lineup, both wings. Emerging leader and hardworking pro on a young team. Great relationship with head coach D.J. Smith. Strong possession metrics despite starting vast majority of shifts in D-zone.

The latest: “A big part of it is just the belief in me that was given,” Brown said of his fit in Ottawa, following his trade out of Toronto. “It’s been nice to find that in myself and find that in my game.”

The workhorse Brown finished just one point behind Brady Tkachuk for the Sens’ team lead in scoring this past season, emerging as one of Ottawa’s most important and consistent players in all situations.

Brown is only a year away from UFA eligibility, but the Sens should try to position him as a tone-setting veteran as they come out of their rebuild.

If the Sens want Brown long term, however, they’ll need to get something in ink prior to Oct. 22’s arbitration date.

Pierre Dorion already split ties with RFA-turned-UFA Anthony Duclair and cap space is no issue. Someone’s gotta hang around, aright?

14. Devon Toews
Age: 26
Position: Defence
2019-20 salary cap hit: $700,000
Arbitration rights: Yes — and filed
Bargaining chips: Strong underlying numbers logging top-four minutes. Key role player in contributing to the Islanders’ trip to the conference final. Career-high six goals and 28 points in regular season. Bumped production rate to 10 points in 22 playoff contests. Colorado has already invested two picks to get him.

The latest: A tough pandemic loss for the Islanders here.

Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic swooped in and took advantage of Lamoriello up against the cap this week, paying two second-round selections (2021 and 2022) for a fine top-four, left-shot defender whose best days are probably still ahead.

“Devon is a smart, two-way, puck-moving defenseman who plays 20-plus minutes a night,” Sakic said. “He is a durable defender who is excellent in transition, and we are excited to add him to our blue line.”

Sakic has already re-signed RFAs Andre Burakovsky, Valeri Nichushkin and Ryan Graves.

Why wouldn’t Toews commit to an exciting group that could boost his offensive numbers and legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup in 2021?

Arbitration is scheduled for Oct. 31.

15. Denis Gurianov
Age: 23
Position: Left wing
2019-20 salary cap hit: $894,166
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Only 20-goal scorer on the Stars roster in 2019-20. Made several Calder ballots despite averaging under 13 minutes of ice time per night. Power-play weapon. Key contributor to Dallas’s rip to the Cup Final (nine goals, 17 points in post-season). First-round pick.

The latest: RFA centre Radek Faksa (five years at $3.25 million) was Jim Nill’s priority signing this month. Now the GM must take care of business with 23-year-old forwards Gurianov and Roope Hintz.

Seems manageable with $6.7 million in cap space.

What will be interesting here is term.

Do you take a safe bridge? Or try to lock up an emerging star like Gurianov early, knowing he’s on track succeed 34-year-old Alexander Radulov as the organization’s top-line right wing?

More notable RFAs: Victor Olofsson, Philippe Myers, Roope Hintz, Jesper Bratt, Dylan Strome, Chris Tierney, Jake Virtanen, MacKenzie Weegar, Adam Gaudette, Andrew Mangiapane, Ilya Mikheyev, Vince Dunn, Ethan Bear, Matt Grzelcyk, Linus Ullmark, Alexandar Georgiev, Nolan Patrick, Erik Cernak, Travis Dermott, Luke Kunin, Jack Roslovic, Warren Foegele, Vladislav Gavrikov, Julius Honka

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