There is plenty of talent still sitting with an RFA tag in the NHL.
The NHL offseason has been an interesting one, to say the least. From a free agency perspective, big name unrestricted free agents like Steven Stamkos, Andrew Ladd, and Milan Lucic have all been signed over the past month, but several restricted free agents have yet to sign with their current teams.
For some players, like Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, it is only a matter of time before they re-sign with their current squad, the Calgary Flames. For others, like Jacob Trouba, there has been significant speculation that he could be moved, and the Arizona Coyotes look like a frontrunner.
It is no secret that this offseason is all about the defensemen. Danny DeKeyser just signed a six-year, $30 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings, and has opened the floodgates for several young defensemen to get paid handsomely. Not to mention, there are only a few RFA forwards, and most of them are getting locked up fairly quickly.
Here is a look at the top five restricted free agents who have yet to sign a contract, and are not very close to getting one done.
Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars
As mentioned, there are few RFA forwards remaining on the market, and one of the more popular players is Nichushkin. Jim Nil has been very vocal about the Russian forward, and is in constant talks with his agent to get a deal done. He believes Nichushkin will continue to grow as a main part of the Stars’ long term plans, and should get signed in the coming weeks as training camp rolls around.
So far, Nichushkin has been hampered by injuries, and has yet to perform consistently when healthy. He actually did better as a rookie, scoring 14 goals and 20 assists in 79 games in 2013-14. Last year, Nichushkin scored just nine goals with 20 assists once again, limiting him to just 29 points in 79 games. Based on production alone, the young Russian forward could come at a discount. Nevertheless, chances are the Stars will have to pay up, before someone else takes a chance.
Rickard Rakell, C; Hampus Lindholm, D, Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks just signed Sami Vatanen and have just over $8 million in cap space remaining. With Rakell and Lindholm still unsigned, the Ducks have some tough decisions to make. However, when looking at their roster, it seems like Rakell may be the better choice.
Rakell had a breakout campaign last season, scoring 20 goals with 23 assists in 72 games. He developed significant chemistry with Corey Perry on the second line, and ended the season playing on the wing with Ryan Getzlaf and Perry about 11% of the time. The Ducks struggled offensively in the first half of the season, but turned things around after finding the right combinations up front. Of all skaters who played the full season with the Ducks, Rakell finished third with a 2.23 points/60 mins, behind only Perry and Getzlaf.
The Ducks have plenty of talent on the blueline and would get significant assets for a player like Lindholm. From an offensive perspective, the Ducks have struggled in the past, but the emergence of Rakell on their second unit provided consistent offensive production last year. With several young defensemen like Shea Theodore and Sami Vatanen in the mix, it would seem like Rakell is the more suitable, and cheaper, asset to keep in Anaheim.
5. Cody Ceci, D, Ottawa Senators
Ceci slowly climbed the ranks in Ottawa and had a breakout season last year. While averaging close to 20 minutes a game, Ceci scored 10 goals with 16 assists in 75 games. After scoring just five in his first full season, Ceci is becoming a more consistent scorer. The Senators have relied heavily on Erik Karlsson for production from the blueline, but the emergence of Ceci allows them to spread their trust, especially from an offensive perspective.
After inking Mike Hoffman to a new deal, the Senators will shift all their attention to their young defenseman. As it stands, Ceci is a major part of the Senators top six, alongside Karlsson, Marc Methot, Dion Phaneuf, Mark Borowiecki, and Chris Wideman. If this group starts the NHL season, Ceci is a must-sign for the Senators. Other than Karlsson, Ceci was the only defenseman to break the double-digit goal mark and surpass the 25-point plateau.
Playing alongside Phaneuf on the second unit, Ceci provides a much needed offensive boost from the back-end, given his team-best 0.41 goals/60 mins from the blueline. He not only topped Karlsson in that department, but came in second with a 1.08 points/60 mins. At just 22 years old, Ceci has the skating and scoring ability of a high-end NHL defenseman, but only showed that for one season. However, given the current rate for young, top-end defenseman, there is a good chance Ceci will get paid well to stay in Ottawa.
4. Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Buffalo Sabres
From a production perspective, Ristolainen may be the most attractive RFA this offseason. Despite an ugly minus-21 on a struggling Buffalo Sabres team, Ristolainen averaged over 25 minutes of ice time, and scored nine goals with 32 assists while playing all 82 games. Not only did he finish first for defenseman in assists/60 mins and points/per 60 minutes on the team, but he posted a solid 0.26 minor penalties taken/per 60 mins as well, good for fifth among Sabres who played the full season.
With how the Jimmy Vesey situation played out, Tim Murray needs to ensure he does not lose out on any other young talent. While this is a completely different situation, Ristolainen is an elite level prospect and needs to be treated as such. The Sabres have become a very talented group from a prospect perspective, and need to ensure the corps group of players remain with the team. In addition, contract talks can be somewhat grueling on the relationship between team and player, and it is in the best interest of the Sabres organization to allow this process to transpire as smoothly as possible.
Being the Sabres best defensive prospect by a long shot, it would be shocking to see this contract process go past the month of August. If it does, surely several teams will be preparing offer sheets for the up-and-coming Finnish defenseman.
3. Dmitry Orlov, D, Washington Capitals
Of all the defensemen left to snag, Orlov is the oldest and most experienced. He has made NHL stints since 2011-12, but really had his coming out party last season. He played all 82 games and scored eight goals with 21 assists, but it was his emergence as a consistent player that made him so good in 2015-16. He finished the season with a SAT% of 53.34, the best on the Capitals’ blueline. In fact, Matt Niskanen was barely a close second, with a 50.99 SAT% over 82 games as well.
One major knock against Orlov is his disappearing act in the playoffs. In the 11 games played, Orlov managed just one assist and was certainly an afterthought as the playoffs wore on. He averaged about 16 minutes of ice time in the regular season, but saw that number drop to under 15 during the postseason. From a negotiating standpoint, the Capitals must be leveraging that experience against Orlov, which could be derailing the trade talks thus far. However, according to the most recent report by CSN, the Capitals are aiming to sign Orlov prior to training camp.
Orlov shares a great relationship with captain Alex Ovechkin and breakout star Evgeni Kuznetsov, which makes an even more attractive asset for the Capitals. He is a good skater and has emerged as a secondary offensive producer from the blueline. While the Capitals still have John Carlson, Orlov is an added threat that makes the Capitals’ offense even deadlier.
Needless to say, the Capitals need to find a way to keep Orlov in Washington, but the $3.45 million in cap space is surely playing a part in the grueling negotiation process.
2. Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg Jets
With so many young defensemen hitting the RFA market, 22-year-old Trouba stands alone as the prized-possession. The Winnipeg Jets have significant cap space issues, and will need to find a way to bridge the gap. According to Gary Lawless, the Jets and Trouba are not close to a deal. He has the makings of a franchise defenseman, and is looking to get paid in a similar way.
For the Jets, financial restrictions are surely playing a part with just a little over $10 million in cap space, especially with so much already spent on the blueline. Not to mention, the crowded blueline also indicates an uncertain situation for Trouba.
Scoring six goals and 15 assists in 81 games, Trouba averaged about 22 minutes a game, and has emerged as a top two-way prospect in the NHL, maintaining an impressive 52.47 USAT%, second only to Dustin Byfuglien. He also has the most impressive USAT% when the game is tied, topping all Jets defensemen with a whopping 56.05, beating out Byfuglien by 3.09. Trouba is not only trying to chase his well-deserved payday, but also establish himself as a top pairing defenseman at the NHL level.
The Jets still have Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Tyler Myers, and Josh Morrissey manning the blueline, which makes Trouba’s role on the top unit a lot less certain. However, if the Jets can retain his services, their blueline looks very promising with Myers and Trouba in the mix. Trouba has the desire to play in Winnipeg as well, which makes his signing all the more important for the Jets.
1. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Kucherov is, by far, the best RFA forward on the market. He has emerged as an elite offensive performer at the NHL level, and finished with 30 goals and 36 points in his second full season. The Lightning just spent a chunk of change on Stamkos, and have about $6.5 million in cap space. They still need to sign defenseman Nikita Nesterov and have Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat to deal with next year.
From a strategic perspective, Kucherov is the Lightning’s best right winger, and it would be tough to fill his production in the offensive zone. Over 77 games, Kucherov had the best points/60 mins with 2.82, 0.30 better than Stamkos. Ryan Callahan is a good two-way forward but lacks the same goal-scoring instincts. On the other hand, the Lightning still have players like Alex Killorn, Johnson, Palat, Stamkos, and Drouin to take on a larger offensive roles, which opens the door to trading the highly-skilled Russian.
Over the last 10 games of the season, the Lightning’s most popular line was Kucherov, Killorn, and Johnson, hitting the ice over 13% of the time. Throughout the whole season, their go-to line was Kucherov, Palat, and Johnson, playing about 8% of the time. Needless to say, the combination of Kucherov and Johnson has become one of the most reliable duos in the NHL, and it could be detrimental to the team’s success if that combination was lost.
The fact is, the Lightning have built a team that can win now. If Kucherov is willing to accept a deal around the $6 million range, they would be one of the scariest offensive teams in the NHL. Their goaltending and defense make them a true Stanley Cup contender, but retaining Kucherov for next season is an absolute must to keep their chances alive.
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