This is not the year to be a Restricted Free Agent. With the cap remaining static from last season, teams are struggling to find the right deals to make with free agents as it is. There are some teams already projected to exceed the limit, while a handful barely make the salary floor. Some teams are going to have to get creative if they want to keep their prospects. Others may have to get creative in their offer sheets. Here are some of the highlights in the current RFA market. Please note, all cap related numbers are thanks to CapFriendly.
Projected cap space: $6.6mil
Jake Debrusk is the last RFA standing for the Bruins. He’s had a pretty impressive career so far and has the talent to be a top-six player. His entry-level contract had him get $863k last year. Considering his talent and production so far, there is ample reason to pay him well. How well? Well, there are three roster spots left for the B’s with $6mil left in the cap space. So with that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he got at least $3mil a year.
Projected cap space: $5.2mil
One half of the Strome brothers up for grabs, Dylan Strome seemed to fit in the Chicago lineup far better than in Arizona. He’s been playing fantastically well with Alex DeBrincat, who the Hawks need performing well in order to succeed. With tumultuous times in the organization, it may behoove them to keep Strome as a complement to players like DeBrincat. I don’t see him getting an offer sheet, so my estimation puts him at $1.5mil+ for the next few seasons.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Projected cap space: $12mil
The Jackets would be absolutely insane to give up Pierre-Luc DuBois. I can’t see it happening. Even though this season wasn’t quite as good as the last, DuBois has proven to be good under pressure and deserving of a top spot. This man is going to get paid. He’s incredibly fortunate to be on a team with the ability to do so.
Detroit Red Wings
Projected cap space: $15.2mil
Though Bertuzzi may be the big story from Detroit the last few weeks, another RFA deserving of a contract is Anthony Mantha. This season, he had the third most points on the team, behind only Larkin and Bertuzzi. I know the team is rebuilding, and they may have their eye on a big piece down the line, but I cannot think of a single good reason not to re-up this guy. With $15mil left in the cap and only a handful of roster spots left, Mantha deserves at least $2mil a year, especially with Bertuzzi only getting $3.5mil.
Projected cap space: $732k
Ethan Bear is one of the RFAs that may have a rough go of it. He had a decent season, though his points don’t really reflect the other factors he brings to the game. With over 100 blocked shots and over 50 hits, his physicality adds an edge to the Edmonton roster. His entry-level contract had him at $720k. Assuming the Oilers want to keep him, the question will be if Bear is content to make under a million or if he believes he deserves more.
New York Islanders
Projected cap space: $8.9mil
The Islanders are another team in a tough spot. Mathew Barzal is ready to get paid what he deserves, but he’s not the only RFA they likely want to keep. Barzal has been lighting it up for the last four seasons, only falling in points under Barry Trotz’s more controlled coaching style. I’m sure Barzal is looking around the league, seeing what other stars are getting paid; Eichel is at $10mil, Vasilevsky is at $12mil, Rantanen is also at $12mil. He’s going to want a lot, and the Isles don’t have the money for that. So where does that leave things? Well, there are a few teams who have the money to make an offer sheet. But, I’m sure the Islanders will at least see if he’ll take a team-friendly bridge deal. I’d hate to see him leave the island, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.
Ryan Pulock is another factor for New York. While not the star player that Barzal is, he’s played a key role for them on the back end for the past three seasons. He has point production in addition to his blocked shot and hit counts. Considering he was being paid $2mil last, he’s also going to be looking for a raise. This one, the Islanders could grant, but only if Barzal either takes a friendly deal or leaves the team. I don’t see a huge raise, however, maybe only $4mil tops.
New York Rangers
Projected cap space: $10.8mil
The other half of the Strome brothers made $3.2mil with the Rangers last season. Ryan Strome’s record with the Rangers has been the best of his career so far, at 92 points in 133 games. He had the third highest points this season. With only one other RFA left for New York, there isn’t much of a reason to leave him unsigned. Again, Strome isn’t one I expect to get much of a raise. My guess puts him at $5mil at most.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Projected cap space: $2.8mil
The static cap is going to impact the Stanley Cup winners the worst, no question. There are five RFAs left, three of whom are going to expect big contracts: Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak. Of the three, Cernak may be the most affordable. As a defenseman, he’s not the most point-producing player, but he’s a physical player who adds toughness on the back end. His entry-level contract had him making under $700k. If the Lightning want to keep one player out of the five, they’d have to max out their cap space to pay him.
Anthony Cirelli, whom I realized at the start of playoffs I should have paid closer attention to before, had a stellar performance in the Bubble. While I don’t expect him to be worth more than someone like Barzal, he’s worth more than the $2.8mil available in the cap. He was 4th in the votes for Selke winner this year. At only 23, Cirelli has a lot of still untapped potential. I’m not convinced we’ll see him in a Lightning jersey next season.
Arguably one of the best young players in the league, Mikhail Sergachev finds himself in a tough spot. This guy is what every coach wants in a player; not only is he a physical defenseman, but he produces points like a forward. I wouldn’t expect him to get paid less than $4mil in the next few seasons. He’s going to be a monster as he continues to develop his game. I have no doubt that Tampa would love nothing more than to keep him, I just don’t know what they’re willing to give up to make that happen.
The pandemic has hit everyone pretty hard, restricted free agents perhaps more so than free agents. There are going to be some familiar faces absent from rosters next season. I can only hope that if these players can’t stay with their current team, they find another home within the league. It would be a shame to lose these players to another league, even if only for a season or two.
-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)
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