The Restricted Free Agent Class of 2019 Breaking Restrictions
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
A look at each team’s key pending RFA
With Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews ending discussions of an Arizona offer sheet, the focus shifts to… well everyone. The Restricted Free Agent Class of 2019 is poised to be the most stacked in recent memory, and will therefore be primed to break from traditional second year contracts. This was already seen with Matthews, who instead of either going for a bridge deal or the full 8 years, settled on a 5 year extensions at a healthy cap hit of approximately 11.6 million. Walking him into his prime years, this will allow Matthews, barring an injury or an unpredictable decline in play, to cash in again at age 26, while risking some long-term monetary security in the meantime.
With Matthews settled, let’s take a look at a pending Restricted Free Agent from each team that may break from the norm, or at the very least, will be important to the future of the franchise.
Anaheim (not so mighty) Ducks
You know what sucks? The Alphabet. Because out of all 31 NHL teams, there is only one with no RFA this summer. And OF COURSE they’re at the top of the league in alphabetical order.
While Anaheim has no RFAs this summer, they have two important RFAs coming up next year in defenceman and noted almost-Maple-Leaf Brandon Montour as well as Troy Terry, the shootout hero for the Americans at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. Montour, who will be finishing his second contract with a cap hit of 3.387 million, will be an interesting case considering the limited room the Ducks may have. Troy Terry will also be interesting, as GM Bob Murray has emphasized the youngster as an important member for the future of the organization, but will likely have only one year under his belt before he hits the restricted market.
Thanks to a big trade earlier this season, the Coyotes’ most important restricted player is former Blackhawk Nick Schmaltz, who will be coming off his Entry Level Contract (ELC). Projected to have plenty of cap space, it will be interesting to see the route that GM John Chayka takes with his young centre. Bad luck has knocked Schmaltz out for the rest of the year with injury, but with a short history of playmaking abilities and the potential to be a productive top 6 forward, the Coyotes may look at a mid level deal with regards to term, similar to Matthews. Reaching a 3 or 4 year deal would allow the player to prove his worth and cash in big entering Free Agency, while also locking up his young prime years with the Coyotes at a reasonable cost.
The best RFA that’s not talked about belongs to the Bruins in defenceman Charlie McAvoy. The young defencemen who entered the league during the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2017 is a sure fire top pairing defenceman, who has been unfortunately plagued by injury for most of this year. It will be interesting to see what kind of balance is struck between his dripping potential and mitigating injury risk for both parties. Expect to see something in the range of 2 to 3 years, with a decent cap hit as incentive for the player to take less term and bet on himself.
It will be further complicated by the quickly tightening contract situation for the Bruins, who will also have notable RFAs Danton Heinen and Brandon Carlo up for negotiation, and will likely have to hand a new contract to their captain and UFA (only in status but not actually going anywhere) Zdeno Chara. Which contracts will come first? And how will they affect negotiations with teammates?
The assistant captain for this juggernaut Flames team will be, by far and away, the most important negotiations this year. This is Matthew Tkachuk. The young firecracker is having a career year, posting a point-per-game season while serving as the driving force for the Flames’ second line. That being said, the Flames look to be quickly approaching a cap crunch, with forward Sam Bennett and goalies Mike Smith and David Rittich all either needing new contracts or to be replaced. With Tkachuk, coupled with the cap situation, expect Flames management to get creative similar to Matthews and the Leafs were – ensuring that Tkachuk gets some monetary security, while the locking him up with the Flames for 5 to 6 years.
This one is a no-brainer, it is the man who runs the Canes’ offence – it is forward Sebastian Aho. Operating at well over a point per game this season, Aho has often been cited as one of the most underrated players in the league. With Carolina possessing oodles of cap space, I think it would be all but foolish for the Canes to sign Aho to any term less than 8 years. Give him a blank check, and when he writes down his number, run to centre ice and re-enact the Bautista bat-flip again, because you’ve all but certainly hit a homerun. He’s a dynamic and special player, and with Carolina’s trouble with attracting big name free agents, you should do everything to keep your all-NHL talent. Plain and simple.
You were expecting Alex DeBrincat weren’t you? So was I, but he isn’t up until next summer. With that contract negotiation in mind, the Blackhawks will engage in talks with recent trade acquisition Brandon Perlini in an attempt to lock down their most important RFA this year. The former first round pick has been relatively underwhelming since coming over from the Coyotes (sidenote: do the Hawks and Yotes know they can trade with other teams besides each other?). Given his first-rounder potential, and the seeming lack of depth that now plagues the former dynasty, he could have a very interesting negotiations this summer. 4 points through 28 games with his new team won’t command much, but I have a feeling this may be one of the more bitter contract negotiations, and may be a prime candidate for a Hold Out situation.
This is a very interesting case. While the team will have to find room to sign RFAs Alexander Kerfoot and JT Compher, Mikko Rantanen will be commanding a huge payday and is the easy choice here. This is also very interesting and in my humble opinion, will be the largest contract of any name said here (except for Matthews). This is because with many of the cases that have been displayed and will be shown, there are internal ceilings that may be tough to surpass, such as Nikita Kucherov for Brayden Point, or Blake Wheeler for Patrick Laine. But in Colorado, the two non-Rantanen most important players, Nathan Mackinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, make 6.3 and 5.5 million respectively (if you want more information on Mackinnon and some of the other best contracts around the league, check out Paul Volpe’s “Robbery at its Finest”).
Rantanen has a chance to almost double up his captain’s cap hit, and if that is what it takes to buy a couple of years and get him to the 8 years maximum contract, then you do it.
Columbus Blue Jackets
A couple of their former top-10 draft picks are up for a contract, Ryan Murray and Zach Werenski. While both have proven to be very important pieces on a formidable defence corps in Columbus, Werenski has separated himself from the pack and established himself as an elite two-way defenceman. While he is having an underwhelming offensive season (by the standards he set as a rookie), his possession metrics continue to sparkle while often facing the top competition in the Metropolitan Division, a group that includes Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and the aforementioned Sebastian Aho among many others.
Werenski may benefit greatly from the quandary that GM Jarmo Kekalainen finds himself in, with regards to likely parting with both of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. That freed up money will likely be allocated to both of these defencemen, but expect Werenski to take a shorter term contract than the norm to both keep his cap hit down, as well as allow the player to strike gold in his mid-20s.
While the Stars will have notable players entering the RFA class of 2019 in Mattias Janmark, Jason Dickinson and Julius Honka, their most important negotiation will be with top-4 defenceman Esa Lindell. Lindell has grown into a valuable member of the Dallas defence corps, displaying his importance just earlier this year when partner John Klingberg went down with an injury.
The Stars’ current cap situation looks bleak, but with Jason Spezza’s 7.5 million coming off the books on July 1st, they should have enough to lock up, at the very least a couple of their RFAs named above. At the top of this list will be Lindell. Look for him to get a mid-ranged contract similar to that of Montour, short-mid range term with a cap hit starting with a 3.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings don’t have much in the way of high profile RFAs, but they will likely intend on keeping the vowel-less Martin Frk. Last season was when Frk began to make a name for himself (made a name without vowels we see), tallying 11 goals and 25 points in a shortened season with the Red Wings. These stats don’t jump off the page, and neither do his possession numbers, playing as a middling fourth liner.
Getting an increased role on a barren Detroit offense, Frk may ask for more than he is realistically worth, reminiscent of the Nick Ritchie holdout with Anaheim from this passed off-season.
Edmonton (always sp)Oilers
The most important RFA for the SpOilers, whoops, Oilers*, may also be the most interesting case in the league: Jesse Puljujarvi. When he’s not swirling around in daily trade rumours, he’s been largely underperforming on the ice, posting just 9 points across 46 games. What contract will he get? No matter which team he ends up with, look for him to receive a deal similar to that of Toronto’s Andreas Johnsson from last summer, a 1 year, 1-way deal for around 1 million as a prove it deal.
Is this ideal for the player? I’m not too sure. I’m a firm believer in the notion of confidence as an important role in player development, and for most of Puljujarvi’s tenure in Edmonton, they have continually ripped into him at every turn. Frankly, I believe that the best course of action for the player is to move out and get a change of scenery, very much like Dylan Strome found getting out of Arizona.
At only 24 years old, Frankie Vatrano is the key RFA for the Florida Panthers, who will have oodles of money to get him going. There is a key consideration there though. It has now been documented that the Panthers are eyeing to pick up the Russian Duo in free agency coming out of Columbus in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.
If GM Dale Tallon is able to pull off even half of their plans, this could start to complicate negotiations with Vatrano. Currently sitting at 20 goals on the season, the 24-year old winger could threaten to post his first 30 goal season, with little to no power play time. While his contract will likely come third to the aforementioned UFAs that management is hunting, expect a mid-term deal that will carry him passed his first year of UFA eligibility.
Los Angeles Kings
This one was a bit of a toss up between two players, but Adrian Kempe gets the nod given that he is younger than his competition, Alex Iafallo. Kempe is still only 22 years old and coming off of his ELC, and while he has shown flashes of top 9 upside, he has been plagued by inconsistency. As the Kings continue to shed salary, expect him to move further up the line-up and get opportunities that may elevate his gameplay, and therefore his price. The young winger will likely be looking at a short term deal, similar to that of Toronto’s Connor Brown in the 3 year, 2 million dollars per year range.
Joel Eriksson Ek was a prospect that I once thought to have tremendous upside, and is now hitting the RFA market with the Wild. He does not appear to be setting himself up for a big pay day, as this season he’s posted just 11 points in 42 games. While still only 21, the Wild will have to give him more time to develop to truly understand what kind of player and the calibre of player he will become. As of right now, he appears to be an extremely skilled 4th liner right now, and will likely get paid as such.
Given his age, I expect that the Wild will offer him a short term, low money deal. With permission to begin stripping the team, GM Paul Fenton may create opportunities for Eriksson Ek to move up the line-up. With this in mind, I’m sure the young forward will look forward to remaining with the team through the re-tooling, and proving himself to being an important member of the forward corps.
While Joel Armia was a worthy candidate of the most important RFA for the Habs, I believe the younger Artturi Lehkonen is a higher priority for GM Marc Bergevin. Coming off of his ELC, Lehkonen is posting a respectable season thus far with 24 points in 59 games. Still only 23, this young Finn still has much to prove in establishing his presence in Montreal’s top 9.
Looking for Lehkonen to be seeking a similar deal to what was outlined for Eriksson Ek, as in a two or three year deal to prove himself capable of better things, and thus allowing the player to cash in on their play later.
Never worry about Nashville. With one of the savviest GMs in the league in David Poile, the Predators have an all-world defence corps that is, as a whole, underpaid (their captain, Roman Josi, makes 4 million per year…). This is not to say that Poile will blow his cap savings on his top RFA, Kevin Fiala, but instead we should expect something creative from the Nashville-lifer. Still just 22 years old, Fiala is producing at a 0.5 points per game in the final year of his ELC, a slight dip in production from his 48-point sophomore season.
Still, with plenty of upside and a decent track record, I expect Fiala to get a midrange deal, say 4-5 years at a cap hit no larger than 4 million. This will leave the Predators room to pursue Free Agents, as well as get their other notable RFA under contract (Ryan Hartman).
New Jersey Devils
Their key College Free Agent signing, defenceman Will Butcher, is up for contract this summer and will be looking to get a significant raise. Despite having plenty of projected cap space, the New Jersey devils will need to figure out their identity and where they want to go as a team. Despite making the playoffs as the second wild card last year, their rebuild remained largely uninspired beyond future stud Nico Hischier, and this brought them back to earth this year.
I believe Butcher, a young, skilled puck-moving defenceman, can be a key cog in their ascent to a consistent playoff team, when considering that many of their other key players focus on a similar style of game (Taylor Hall, Hischier, Kyle Palmieri). For this, GM Ray Shero will be looking to lock up Butcher to a max term deal, likely in the range of 5 million dollars per year.
New York Islanders
The Cinderella of the NHL will have to make room for one of their budding offensive catalysts as he is slated to get a definite raise this summer. Former first round pick (and noted package of the Griffin Reinhart trade to Edmonton), Anthony Beauvillier has proven to be a consistent scorer with the Isles, despite their down year offensively.
Despite only putting up 20 points this year, Beauvillier looks poised to break the 20 goal plateau for a second consecutive year, an impressive feat for a kid still on his ELC. With this in mind, along with the cap space that will be freed up this summer with the likely departures of Valtteri Filppula and Luca Sbisa, Beauvillier will likely command a dollar value in and around where Rangers-player Vladislav Namestnikov signed, 4 million per year across 2 years. This will keep the player as a RFA next time he is up, but will further allow him to prove that he deserves a raise.
New York Rangers
Speaking of the Rangers, the emergence of defenceman Neal Pionk gave the top Ranger RFA a run for his money, but despite his down year, the potential that Pavel Buchnevich has flashed across his short tenure in the league is enough to propel him above his defensive counterpart.
Posting 43 points in 74 games for a basement feeding Rangers team last season, there was a significant amount of hype surrounding Buchnevich’s potential to lead this Ranger rebuild. But this season has fallen flat for the young Russian. Through 41 games, Buchnevich has managed only 21 points, with a large chunk of that production coming on the powerplay. His 5 on 5 ways have created a degree of pause when consider his oozing potential, but this should not stop him from getting a reasonable contract this summer. Expect him to receive somewhat of a “prove-it” one or two year deal at a low cap hit.
When I originally compiled the list for each team, I had “fan-favourite” Cody Ceci as the Ottawa-representative. But between his awful play at 5 on 5, the potential that he may not be a Senator beyond the trade deadline, and the fact that most Sens fans tag him as their least favourite player, I will spare them. Instead, GM Pierre Dorion and management will have to focus on getting RFA Colin White under contract.
The former first round pick has shown great potential at the AHL and even flashes of top 6 potential at the NHL level. But for the most part, it has seemed as though the young centre has battled injuries early in his career. Despite this, he has posted a respectable 29 points in 52 games with Ottawa this year. I expect him to, you guessed it, also get a “prove-it” deal, and hopefully gain some sheltered minutes at 5 on 5 to display what he can be capable of.
Who remembers when the Flyers not only didn’t have goaltending, but had the league’s funniest assortment of d-men that they called a top 4? Well times have changed, and astute drafting has the Flyers looking very young, skilled, and deep on the back end. Breakout defenceman Travis Sanheim is a new high-profile member of the 2019 RFA class, joining his forward compatriot and fellow-Travis, Travis Konecny.
But neither of these stud RFAs are most important, or intriguing, as the struggling potential number one defenceman, Ivan Provorov. Only a year removed from posting 17 goals and 41 points as a sophomore defenceman, Provorov has underwhelmed this year after being pegged as the future anchor of the Flyers defence corps. Despite this, I expect GM Chuck Fletcher to pay for potential. This would be to overpay for what the payer has done to monetarily meet what the GM expects them to do in the future. For this, I believe Provorov will get a long term, 6-8 year deal in the range of 5-6.5 million per year.
They won back-to-back Cups, who cares what RFAs they have, they have like a 10 year “do whatever you want” shield. This was the easiest one.
San Jose Sharks
I knew who it was going to be when I began research on San Jose, what I didn’t realize is that pending RFA Timo Meier was a 9th overall draft pick??? I don’t remember the Sharks missing the playoffs? Okay well this guy is going to get paid. He is having a truly breakout season, posting 51 points in 56 games while playing top line minutes for this contending Sharks team.
Given the likely fact that the average age of the Sharks has to be one of the highest, I believe they will be very lenient in contract negotiations with a star coming off of their ELC. Furthermore, Sharks players have described how much they enjoy playing in San Jose and subsequently signing long term. For these reasons, I believe he will sign a max 8-year contract for around the same cap-hit as Logan Couture, around 8-million dollars.
Okay Fine, Pittsburgh
Not that they deserve even MORE attention, but the key RFA that GM Jim Rutherford will be looking to lock up is Zach Aston-Reese. In just his second season, and with only 49 career games under his belt, he will not be commanding too much in terms of cap hit.
Aston-Reese has proven to be a very good bottom 6 forward for the Penguins, and he will be paid as such. I expect him to pick up a 2 or 3 year deal with a cap hit just under 2 million per season.
St. Louis Blues
Prior to the turn of the year, one of Zach Sanford, Ivan Barbashev, or Oscar Sundqvist would have taken the cake for the Blues. But the man who is their most important RFA just so happens to be the man who turned their season around: Goalie Jordan Binnington. As a 25-year old rookie, he has posted video game numbers: 12-1-1, 1.58 GAA and .937 Sv% with 4 shutouts. Absolutely insane.
For his contract, given his very small sample size, I believe he should get a contract similar to Andrei Vasilevskiy’s – 3 years at 3.5 million. While this is a steal of a contract for the best goalie in the league, Binnington’s sample size will be his main hurdle, and therefore guaranteeing modest money now with the potential to really cash in big in a few years time.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Brayden Point. Brayden Point. Brayden Point. Easy. Maybe the biggest non-Matthews RFA this summer (prior to the Leaf signing). How Tampa got this bonafide star in the third round is baffling. Nevertheless, the first player this season to reach 30 goals and 30 assists will be due for a SIGNIFICANT pay day. He is poised to break barriers and traditions similar to Matthews as well.
I expect this contract to be max term, but with the Lightning facing a cap crunch, his extension may have to wait for GM Julien Brisbois to clear out some cap. While he’s trying to do that, does someone offer sheet the young centre? Probably, and it’s probably extremely unlikely that Point would sign an offer sheet. It’s fun to imagine though. He could be looking at matching, if not slightly topping, Kucherov’s 9.5 million. I think this guy, similar to his teammates, takes a bit of a Tampa discount, settling in at 8.5/9 million per year.
Toronto Maple Leafs
While Kasperi Kapanen made a name for himself while the William Nylander negotiations stretched into December, and Andreas Johnsson began to produce like a top line left-winger, Mitch Marner is a to scorer in the league and is the obvious choice. With so much information swirling in the media, expert predictions, agent discussions, player numbers, what is missing is any news from the Leafs. The tight-lipped organization will likely reveal nothing on a Marner extension, thus it is important for fans to remind themselves that everything said is likely speculation.
So on that note, I SPECULATE that the 11 million dollar number floating around is more of a starting point, similar to Nylander, who reportedly started at an absurd number as well. I don’t believe one season of elite production from Marner will be enough to propel him into the double digit range on cap hit, I see him settling, similar to Braydon Point, somewhere in between 8.5-9.5 million per year.
The term will be very interesting. Given Nylander signed a 6 year contract, Matthews signed a 5 year, Tavares signed 7, I believe he will get a contract that will end in the range of his teammates, settling with either a 5 or 6 year deal.
Prince Charming is going to get paid. RFA and one-time rookie all star Brock Boeser will be the main priority for the Canucks this off-season. Sitting with an even 100 points in 118 games, Boeser has proven to be a consistent and elite producer at the NHL level, and will now have a future MVP-candidate as his running mate (Elias Pettersson).
I think somewhere in the range of Vegas’ Max Pacioretty’s 4 year, 7 million extension is a good comparable. Given his younger age though, and the likely desire for the Canucks to buy up some of his UFA years, I believe they will settle in and around 8-8.5 million per season across anywhere between 6-8 years.
Vegas Golden Knights
While not coming off of his ELC, the Golden Knights will, for a second year in a row, have an interesting negotiation with RFA centre William Karlsson. Following an incredible, and unpredictable, 42-goal season, Wild Bill, as they call him, settled on a one-year, 5.25 million dollar deal that would see him re-enter restricted free agency again in 2019. He has not been quite as productive this year, posting 18 goals and 38 points in 60 games.
For Wild Bill, I expect him to settle down and seek a long-term deal with the Golden Knights, in the range of 5-6 years. Furthermore, given his erratic production across Vegas’ existence, I believe he will settle for a smaller AAV than his current deal, likely coming to terms in the range of 4.5 million per season.
With GM Brain MacLellan recently making pending RFA André Burakovsky available for trade, it is evident that other young players have passed him on the depth charts, and none more than Jakub Vrána.
The young Czech forward has posted a good season, and seems poised to top 25 goals on the year. With that in mind, consider the fact that the Capitals have a projected 236 Thousand in cap space. Look for him to receive something in the neighbourhood of what New Jersey’s Miles Wood received – 4 years at 2.75 million per season. This would allow for some security for the player while keeping the cap hit relatively low for the ceiling-scratching Caps.
Last, but oh my lord not least, this is the only case where I did actually pick two players. It is evident that the two players are Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, and I could not decide between the two largely because of their very different seasons. Connor is playing, simply put, as an all-NHL talent and an unquestionable top line winger. Sitting with 44 points in 59 games, the young winger is also dynamic in transition, and has a positive influence in all three of the defensive, neutral, and offensive zone for his teammates. Laine is not. Going for the Cy Young, he has 25 goals and 11 assists in 59 games. Or, he has 20 goals and 11 assists in 58 games if we eliminate his wild 5-goal outing. Point being, he has had a dismal season by his standard, and while he is almost surely going to top 30 goals, his defensive efforts is questionable, and he is generating virtually nothing without the puck.
Connor is poised to get more than Laine, and it's getting hard to argue otherwise. Connor would likely look to get a similar deal to the Canucks’ Boeser, getting a long-term deal at around 8 million per year. For Laine though, there is no way he takes a long-term deal. The elite sniper will likely take a short term, low money “prove-it” deal to cash in on a big money contract in two years time. Laine may look at the type of bridge contract that PK Subban, 2 years at say, 5 million per season, then win an award (Subban the Norris, Laine more likely the Rocket Richard), and pick up your 10 million dollar AAV.
Contract Information from capfriendly.com
Stats from hockey-reference.com