Restricted NHL Free Agents Making Themselves Hot Commodities in 2016-17
When the Chicago Blackhawks re-signed Artemi Panarin just after Christmas, they did more than lock up a key part of their roster. They also took the player who might have been this summer’s most intriguing restricted free agent off the market.
The market for RFAs often exists more in imagination than reality. Even with offer sheets a long-standing component of collective bargaining agreements between the NHL and NHLPA, teams rarely seem interested in committing the money and draft picks necessary to poach a player from another team. In those instances where they do, the offer sheet is usually matched quickly.
Even with offer sheets an underused tool, negotiations between cap-strapped teams and good young players are often fascinating. The players, understandably, want the best contract possible; just as logically, teams often have to fight for every penny of cap space they can.
The following slideshow looks at some of the best young players around the NHL playing in the final season of their respective contracts. In each case, we break down what makes this year so special for the player and what it’s likely to mean for negotiations this summer.
Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville Predators
2016-17 Stats: 38 games, 10 goals, 25 points, +3.6 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: This is the year that Viktor Arvidsson proved he could play in the NHL. Obviously, the offensive outburst is helpful; he’s already nine points ahead of what he managed in all of last season. Yet he’s also taken on a regular role on Nashville’s penalty kill. Add offence and penalty-killing to a player who was already a speed demon and effective bottom-six forward at five-on-five, and that’s a special player.
Salary prognosis: There are a few items working against Arvidsson. First, he’s listed at just 5'9", 180 pounds, and those guys generally don’t get paid a lot unless they light the world aflame offensively. Second, he was drafted outside the top 100, which both hurts the perception of his long-term value and means he’s coming off a lower-end entry-level deal. He’ll get a nice raise from his current cap hit of $631,667, but he should still be a relative bargain.
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
2016-17 Stats: 42 games, 15 goals, 35 points, +3.3 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: Leon Draisaitl is the first of the big names on this list. He is already within four goals of last year’s total, mostly thanks to a big year on the power play. He’s recently been promoted to right wing on the Connor McDavid line, a move that shouldn’t hurt his scoring numbers at all. He looks set to head into the summer having built on a breakthrough performance in 2015-16.
Salary prognosis: It depends. There are two options for the Oilers here. The first is to sign the same kind of long-term, big-money pact they agreed to with previous young stars. The second is to push for an entry-level deal. One big item in Edmonton’s favour is that Draisaitl’s rookie year burned the first season of his entry-level deal, but not the first season toward unrestricted free agency, meaning that it could buy an extra RFA year on his second contract.
Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay Lightning
2016-17 Stats: 34 games, 12 goals, 26 points, +2.9 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: After last season’s playoff performance, there wasn’t a lot of doubt that Jonathan Drouin could score at the NHL level, but he’d never done it over a full regular season. Even having missed time to injury, he’s just six points shy of his previous career high, and he’s logging major minutes for the injury-ravaged Lightning. The 2013 third overall pick will enter the summer having re-established himself as one of the best up-and-comers in hockey.
Salary prognosis: It seems virtually certain that the Lightning will opt for a bridge contract given their other obligations. They were pushed into doing it with Nikita Kucherov, and with both Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat also needing new deals this summer, they won’t have a lot of choice. Negotiations may bear watching—while Drouin doesn’t have arbitration rights, he also hasn’t been afraid to push the Bolts hard for his interests, leading to a relationship between team and player that has at times been contentious.
Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens
2016-17 Stats: 25 games, nine goals, 23 points, +1.2 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: Like Draisaitl, Alex Galchenyuk entered 2016-17 looking to build off a successful campaign. Also like Draisaitl, he’s done an admirable job. He’s scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace despite getting less ice time per game than he has the past two seasons. A spike in shooting percentage hasn’t hurt, but he’s also on pace to have his best campaign in terms of assists.
Salary prognosis: Galchenyuk is going to get paid. He agreed to a two-year bridge deal with a cap hit of $2.8 million when his entry-level pact ended, and he’ll enter the summer with arbitration rights and just two years separating him from unrestricted free agency. It’s a good thing the Canadiens have some salary coming off the books this summer.
Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks
2016-17 Stats: 42 games, 13 goals, 29 points, +2.5 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: This is Bo Horvat’s best offensive season, and the scoring totals don’t begin to do justice to a player who is leaned on heavily in key defensive minutes while still on his entry-level contract. He’s just three goals shy of his career-best mark already, though like a few other players on this list, he’s had some help in the form of a shooting-percentage spike.
Salary prognosis: Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy reported back in November that Vancouver’s management wanted to go long-term on Horvat’s next contract. That makes total sense. Not only do the Canucks have some money coming off the books, but they’re in the middle of a retooling phase, so paying more up front in exchange for paying less down the road is a logical play. Ryan Biech of Canucks Army projected something in the six-year, $30 million range back in December, and that’s a realistic figure.
Dmitry Orlov, Washington Capitals
2016-17 Stats: 39 games, two goals, 18 points, +3.6 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: Incredibly, no defenceman on the Capitals’ blue line plays more even-strength minutes in an average game than Dmitry Orlov. He doesn’t get a lot of special teams time, which pushes him down into second-pair minutes overall, but even so, he’s playing three minutes more per night than he was last season. He still makes the odd highlight-reel gaffe, but they’re becoming less frequent, and he’s always earned top marks for offensive ability, physical play and puck possession.
Salary prognosis: The big question for the Caps this summer is what happens to pending unrestricted free agent Karl Alzner, with the decision there likely determining whether Washington has enough money to re-sign Orlov. Orlov took a one-year contract last summer at $2.57 million after coming off a previous two-year bridge deal, and he’s now close to free agency himself. Whether the Caps have the money or not, he’s likely looking at a big raise in the offseason.
David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
2016-17 Stats: 36 games, 19 goals, 28 points, +6.6 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: David Pastrnak established a new career high in points last week with an assist in Boston’s win over Florida, having already topped his previous best in goals. He’s tied for sixth in NHL goal-scoring, along with Alex Ovechkin and a handful of others, which is a nice place to be for a player on an expiring contract. He’s six goals ahead of Brad Marchand, the Bruins’ next most prolific goal scorer, despite having no goals in his last 10 games.
Salary prognosis: Pastrnak has been excellent for the Bruins since the moment he stepped into the league midway through 2014-15, so the team likely has the necessary confidence to ink him to a long-term deal. What Boston doesn’t have is any major contracts coming off the books this summer.
Justin Schultz, Pittsburgh Penguins
2016-17 Stats: 39 games, seven goals, 25 points, +3.2 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: In the best season of his career, Justin Schultz put up 33 points, and he’s within sight of that mark at the halfway point of this year. This was a redemption year for Schultz, who was a much-hyped free-agent signing by the Oilers and saw his career sewered in Edmonton. Pittsburgh didn’t qualify him last summer but did re-sign him at a lower price point, and the gamble on Schultz’s end was that he could bounce back. He has, and after starting the year in a sheltered role, he’s seen his minutes steadily increase.
Salary prognosis: Schultz’s remuneration was slashed this summer, as he fell from a $3.9 million salary to just $1.4 million. He’ll have options now, though his time in Edmonton may make some teams leery of paying him like a linchpin. He will and should get a big raise and some security on his next contract, though his time in Pittsburgh has worked out so well that it’s probably worth leaving money on the table to fit in with the Penguins’ salary structure.
Alexander Wennberg, Columbus Blue Jackets
2016-17 Stats: 39 games, eight goals, 34 points, +1.3 relative Fenwick
What makes this year special: Among Blue Jackets forwards, only Nick Foligno has averaged more ice time per game than Alexander Wennberg, and Wennberg leads his team in even-strength usage. He’s pushed his way into a top-line role and helped the team avoid missing a beat even without Ryan Johansen. He’s also having a career offensive season. He’s already matched his previous career best in goals, and he’s now just six points back of last season’s points total.
Salary prognosis: Wennberg is coming out of his entry-level deal, which opens up the possibility of a bridge contract. Based on their play this season, the Jackets must be regarded as a contender in the here and now, which makes maximum cap flexibility for the next few years vital. Additionally, the team looks to be in a difficult contract situation heading into next year, something that increases the probability of a short-term pact.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
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