Buried in the high-profile masses of the 2013 NHL free-agency market lies a young and talented bunch of restricted free agents. They're waiting for their next pay raise and new contract just like every other player.
And while they may be restricted by definition, the possibility of finding a new team for 2013-14 always lingers in the shadows.
RFA offer sheets are becoming increasingly less taboo in the legally savvy universe of NHL general managers. In the past year alone, both Nashville's Shea Weber and Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly have signed such a contract (although both were matched by their current teams).
The costs in both cash and compensation—any offer-sheet salary above $3.3 million costs at least a first-round pick in return—are far from slim, yet the odds remain that at least one star 2013 RFA will sign an offer sheet at some point this summer.
Which restricted free agents are most likely to receive a mega-sized offer sheet in the coming month? We break down seven particularly good candidates on the coming slides.
***Update (Friday, 9:35 p.m.):
Renaud Lavoie of RDS reports Bernier has signed a new contract with Toronto:
Jonathan Bernier sign with Maple Leafs. 2 years / $5.8M #RDS— Renaud Lavoie (@RenLavoieRDS) July 6, 2013
***End of Update
Up-and-coming goaltender Jonathan Bernier's trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs last month seemed to foreshadow a lasting end to the long-running Bernier rumor mill.
Or maybe not.
Bernier remains merely an RFA at the moment, with his two-year, $2.5 million contract having expired. A GM willing to take a risk with his money could throw an offer sheet at the talented 24-year-old netminder and put the Leafs in a seriously sticky situation.
Toronto GM Dave Nonis would be blasted if he let Bernier walk after giving up so much for him just weeks ago. Conversely, he could also be forced into a cap hit exponentially higher than he'd planned.
It would certainly be in the Leafs' best interests to lock up Bernier before any more drama comes along.
Sam Gagner has never lived up the expectations set by his sixth overall selection in 2007, but the flashes of greatness shown by the 23-year-old center have shown there's more to Gagner than his stats indicate.
A number of teams would surely enjoy acquiring Gagner, coming off of a 2013 in which he produced at the highest rate (38 points in 48 appearances) of his career, in this offseason's generally shallow free-agent market.
If faced with an offer sheet in the $5 to $6 million range—a big step up over the $3.2 million Gagner made last year—the Oilers could be inclined to cut their losses and take the juicy compensation (a first-, second- and third-round pick) such a contract would garner.
The Maple Leafs have a plethora of elite RFAs to deal with this offseason. They have enough cap space ($24.5 million) to handle paying one or two of them a big sum in 2013-14. They don't, however, have enough to pay all of them a large amount.
A particularly mischievous GM could realize that sometime soon.
And that's where we tie back into the Jonathan Bernier situation.
Would two massive offer sheets by the same team to both Bernier and Nazem Kadri, the Leafs' second-leading scorer in 2013 with 44 points, be enough to land at least one of them? Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement's lower cap ceiling, it probably would.
Keep your eyes on Kadri and the Toronto franchise as a whole for any potential RFA chaos this July.
Minute-crunching defenseman Ryan McDonagh has quickly become a franchise cornerstone for the New York Rangers, taking advantage of Marc Staal's injury to average nearly 26 minutes of ice time per game in the playoffs in the top defensive pairing.
The former No. 12 overall draft selection is due for a colossal raise over his $1.3 million cap hit in 2012-13, however.
McDonagh could become the Shea Weber of 2013 if he opens up to outside offer sheets. While it's unlikely any other club would be able to outbid the Rangers, the tantalizing potential of grabbing a franchise defenseman like McDonagh could lure an especially thirsty GM.
Alex Pietrangelo has become one of the league's most unheralded No. 1 defensemen in recent years, headlining a top-flight St. Louis Blues defense and averaging more than 25 minutes a night in 2013.
The 23-year-old former No. 4 overall pick would, like McDonagh, be a shocking and game-changing player for any team to add.
The Blues will also have to negotiate with RFA Chris Stewart in the coming weeks, leaving Pietrangelo perhaps a bit unattended. While it's unlikely anything happens, the window may be open more now than ever for an adventurous GM to swoop in and attempt to pull Pietrangelo away from Missouri.
Tuukka Rask proved himself as one of the league's elite goalies in 2013, posting a 19-10-5 record along with a .929 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average in the regular season. Then, in the playoffs, he registered an even more impressive 14-8-3 record, .940 save percentage and 1.88 GAA.
If Jonathan Bernier will be considered a highly sought-after goalie, Rask will make his free-agent value sound like Rick DiPietro's—if Rask is open to weighing offer sheets. The 26-year-old is, without question, capable of leading just about any team deep into the postseason.
A cornucopia of franchises are currently seeking to upgrade their goaltending. If just one of them decides to get extremely bold with that quest, Rask could potentially be thrust into the thick of a massive storyline.
After several consecutive seasons of declining production, Blake Wheeler's 47 assists in 2011-12 tied for for the 16th-best mark in the NHL. That performance thrust the former No. 5 overall draft choice right back into the spotlight.
Wheeler has already become a near-point-per-game player, even on a merely average Winnipeg Jets offense. At age 26, he's ready to approach his prime years and also ready for his first huge contract—his 2013-14 cap hit could be double or even triple the $2.55 million he earned in 2012-13.
As the Jets juggle a surfeit of contract negotiations this offseason (they currently have 13 RFAs on the books, including Zach Bogosian, Alexander Burmistrov and Bryan Little in addition to Wheeler), expect an offense-hungry club like Columbus, Nashville or New Jersey to take a serious look at this budding star.