Predictions for NHL's Top 2022 Restricted Free Agents
When NHL free agency opens at noon ET July 13, much of the focus of fans and pundits will be on where the top unrestricted free agents will end up. There are, however, a number of restricted free agents whose contract negotiations could dominate offseason headlines once the unrestricted free-agency signing frenzy has subsided.
Unlike with UFAs, the rights of RFAs remain with their clubs when their contracts expire. It could take weeks or months for some players to reach agreements on new deals. It's not unusual for talks to extend into the training camp period in September.
Some of this class' noteworthy restricted free agents, such as the Dallas Stars' Jason Robertson, are rising stars likely to seek significant raises coming off entry-level contracts. Others, such as the Calgary Flames' Matthew Tkachuk, are completing their second deals and have arbitration rights, giving them more leverage in negotiations.
So, what is in store for the top restricted free agents? That's what we'll try to determine with the following predictions. Feel free to express your views on this topic in the comments section below.
Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
A frequent subject of trade speculation, Boeser finished with 23 goals and 46 points in 71 games. Those were respectable numbers given the circumstances, but Boeser's future with the Canucks remains uncertain.
The Canucks have $11.5 million in cap space for 2022-23 with 15 players under contract. They can garner $3.5 million in salary-cap relief should sidelined winger Micheal Ferland remain on the long-term injury reserve. Nevertheless, a raise for Boeser will take up a big chunk of that cap room.
Boeser's average annual value was $5.9 million, but his salary was $7.5 million this season. That's how much it'll cost the Canucks to qualify his rights. He signed that contract before the changes in the rates for qualifying offers went into effect with the 2020 collective bargaining agreement extension. Unless he agrees to a lower cap hit, he could be shopped before the July 11 due date for qualifying offers.
The Canucks and Boeser fail to reach an agreement. He gets traded to a club with cap space that's seeking scoring depth on the right wing and agrees to a five-year deal worth $8 million annually. Possible landing spots include the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils.
Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils
After four straight seasons with 30 or more points, Jesper Bratt enjoyed a 73-point breakout performance in 2021-22. He became the Devils' leading scorer and was among their few bright spots in an otherwise discouraging season.
Bratt, 23, is coming off a two-year contract worth an annual average value of $2.8 million. He likely won't be interested in another short-term deal and has arbitration rights to leverage a more lucrative third pact.
On May 5, Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said Bratt was "a big part of our future," praising the winger's development over the past two seasons. He said his goal was to keep Bratt with the Devils over the long term and work out a deal with his agent.
That deal, however, will be expensive. The Devils lack depth among established scoring wingers to skate alongside young centers Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. With $25.3 million in salary-cap space and 15 players under contract for 2022-23, they have the room to sign Bratt to a big raise on a lengthy new deal.
Bratt signs an eight-year contract with the Devils worth $7.5 million per season.
Tony DeAngelo, Carolina Hurricanes
Bought out of the final year of his contract in July by the New York Rangers, Tony DeAngelo signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. It gave the defenseman an opportunity for a fresh start following his troubled final year.
DeAngelo, 26, made the most of it. He fit in well, finishing fourth on the Hurricanes with 51 points in 64 games. He missed 18 games after he was placed in the COVID-19 protocol and suffered an abdominal injury. He also finished third among Carolina postseason scorers with 10 points in 14 games.
The puck-mover has earned a substantial raise. Perhaps he'll seek something comparable to the $4.8 million average annual value of his former contract, though his representatives could make the case for $6 million per season.
DeAngelo has arbitration rights and is a year from becoming an unrestricted free agent. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have $19.4 million in cap space for 2022-23 with 14 players signed. Unrestricted free agents Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck and Max Domi must be re-signed or replaced, while Martin Necas and Ethan Bear are their other notable restricted free agents.
The Hurricanes need to use as much of their cap space as possible to retain key players and perhaps make additions. DeAngelo, meanwhile, might have an eye on maximizing his value for his unrestricted free-agency eligibility next year. The sides could avoid arbitration by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $4.9 million.
Noah Dobson, New York Islanders
The breakout performance of Noah Dobson was a highlight in a forgetful season for the New York Islanders. While they missed the playoffs, the 22-year-old defenseman tallied a career-best 51 points in 80 games to finish third among Isles.
Dobson was thrust into a bigger role with top-pairing right-side defenseman Ryan Pulock limited to 56 games by injuries. He led the Islanders in time on ice per game (21:28) and blocked shots (154). He also led their defensemen by averaging 2:37 of power-play ice time per game.
That performance ensured Dobson will get a raise with his next contract. However, he's coming off an entry-level deal and lacks the leverage of arbitration rights. New York has $12 million in cap room with 18 players under contract for next season with Dobson as its notable restricted free agent. It must also re-sign or replace pending unrestricted free agents Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene.
Dobson and his agent face a tough negotiator in Lou Lamoriello. They will have to wait until his next contract expires to garner a more lucrative long-term deal.
Dobson signs a three-year deal worth $3.5 million per season.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Winnipeg Jets
Acquired in January 2021 from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pierre-Luc Dubois had garnered a reputation as a solid two-way center. Injury and illness limited him to just 21 points in 46 games last season. He rebounded in his first full campaign with the Jets, however, finishing third on the team with 28 goals and 60 points in 81 games.
Dubois is finishing a two-year contract he signed with the Jackets with an annual cap hit of $5 million, though his salary this season was $6.7 million. It'll cost the Jets $6 million to qualify his rights, and he could seek $7.5-8 million annually on his next contract. The 23-year-old center also has the leverage of arbitration rights.
The Jets have $18 million in salary-cap space with 13 players signed for 2022-23. They have all their core players under contract except for Dubois. A hefty raise will take up a big chunk of their cap space, limiting efforts to fill out the roster. They must also improve their defense to lighten the burden of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who faced a league-leading 2,155 shots.
Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff must also keep an eye on the future. First-line center Mark Scheifele is just two years from unrestricted free agency. Cheveldayoff will want to ensure Dubois is under contract in case Scheifele decides to test the market.
The Jets sign Dubois to an eight-year deal worth an average annual value of $8.3 million, matching the team-leading salary of captain Blake Wheeler.
Kevin Fiala, Minnesota Wild
This season featured a career-best showing by the Minnesota Wild's Kevin Fiala. The 25-year-old left winger finished second on the team with 85 points in 82 games while skating mostly on the second line.
Playing on a one-year, $5.1 million contract, Fiala earned a substantial raise. The Wild, however, face a significant salary-cap crunch heading into 2022-23 with just $7.4 million and 18 players under contract.
Further complicating things was Fiala's poor postseason production as the Wild were eliminated in the opening round by the St. Louis Blues. His three assists in six games could serve as justification for Minnesota to offer less than he expects, sending the two sides to arbitration or perhaps forcing a trade.
On May 25, The Athletic's Michael Russo and Harman Dayal examined potential returns and possible suitors for Fiala. He could fetch a first-round pick and a top prospect. The Devils and Ottawa Senators were among the clubs on their list that have depth of prospects and the cap space to sign him.
The Wild trade Fiala to the Senators or Devils. He signs a seven-year deal worth $7 million per season.
Patrik Laine, Columbus Blue Jackets
Acquired from the Jets in January 2021, Patrik Laine struggled through the worst performance of his career with 24 points in 46 games last season. The 24-year-old left winger, however, responded in 2021-22 with 56 points despite a strained oblique and an upper-body injury that sidelined him for 26 games.
Laine and the Blue Jackets agreed on a one-year, $7.5 million contract last year. His point-per-game pace this season ensured he'll seek a more lucrative deal this time around. Like in 2021, he has arbitration rights to use as leverage if necessary.
If Laine and the Jackets agree to another one-year contract, his eligibility for unrestricted free agency next year could complicate things. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen will likely attempt to get the winger under a long-term deal. Columbus can afford him, with $22.8 million in cap space for 2022-23 and all its core players except Laine under contract.
The rebuilding Jackets showed considerable improvement last season thanks in part to Laine, finishing with a respectable 81 points. He will be a key part of their long-term plans if an agreement can be reached, giving them a marketable star while they continue to build with young talent.
Laine and the Jackets come to terms on an eight-year contract with an average annual value of $9.5 million.
Josh Norris, Ottawa Senators
Overshadowed at times by captain Brady Tkachuk and promising forward Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris has established himself in just two seasons as a reliable first-line center. After netting 35 points in 56 games in 2020-21, the 23-year-old led the Senators with 35 goals while finishing third with 55 points in 66 games. Those stats would've been better if not for a shoulder injury.
Having completed an entry-level contract, Norris is due for a big raise from an annual cap hit of $925,000. He lacks arbitration rights, though, so general manager Pierre Dorion could attempt to use that to negotiate a bridge contract.
Dorion, however, has shown a willingness to ink his rising talent to lucrative long-term deals. Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Drake Batherson signed long-term deals coming out of their entry-level years.
The Senators have $24.2 million in salary-cap space and 14 players under contract for next season with Norris as their only core player in need of a new deal. Given his value, it's unlikely he'll get a bridge contract. Dorion could offer a longer-term deal with a cap hit that would be more affordable to Ottawa in the long term.
Norris signs a five-year contract with the Sens with an average annual value of $5.5 million.
Jason Robertson, Dallas Stars
The Stars have $14.6 million in salary-cap space with 17 players under contract for 2022-23. A good portion of that money will be put toward signing goaltender Jake Oettinger and winger Jason Robertson. The youngsters are coming off their entry-level contracts but are invaluable members of the club's core.
In his first full season, the 23-year-old Oettinger showed impressive potential, particularly in Dallas' first-round series with Calgary. He'll likely get a raise to $3 million annually on perhaps a two- or three-year deal, as he needs to prove he's ready to handle the starter's job on a full-time basis.
Robertson, 22, has a more impressive body of work that could garner him a significant new contract. In his first full season in 2020-21, he finished second among Stars with 45 points in 51 games during the COVID-19-shortened season. His efforts made him a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy.
Avoiding a sophomore slump this season, Robertson tallied 79 points in 74 games to again finish second on the team in points. The 6'3”, 200-pounder acquitted himself well in his first postseason, finishing with four points in seven games during a low-scoring series.
With longtime Stars such as Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin past their primes, Robertson has proved himself as a first-line talent and could seek to be paid like one. He may opt for the security of a long-term deal comparable to teammate Miro Heiskanen's, signing a maximum eight-year pact worth $8 million annually.
Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
The Flames have two key players with arbitration rights slated for restricted free agency in Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane. The latter is coming off a career-best 35-goal season with a $2.4 million cap hit. Having never reached that production level before, he and the Flames could agree to a one-year, $4 million deal and revisit talks for a long-term contract before next summer.
Tkachuk, however, is slated for a big payday. Since 2018-19, he has regularly been among Calgary's top scorers, sitting second with 115 goals and 285 points. This season was his best, as he ranked eighth in the NHL with 104 points.
Coming off a three-year, $21 million contract, the 24-year-old Tkachuk has arbitration rights. While his average annual value was $7 million, he earned $9 million in salary this season, which is how much it'll cost the Flames to qualify his rights. Like Vancouver's Brock Boeser, he signed his contract before the changes in the rates for qualifying offers went into effect under the 2020 CBA extension.
Tkachuk and the Flames could reach an agreement on a long-term contract with a lower annual cap hit, but that's unlikely given his performance. Signing him to an expensive deal could complicate efforts to re-sign Mangiapane and unrestricted free agent Johnny Gaudreau, but that's a risk management will likely take.
Calgary signs Tkachuk to an eight-year deal worth $9.5 million annually and configured to pay him more during the first four years. It will have to shed one or two players to make room for the new contract and those of Gaudreau and Mangiapane.