With the opening day of free agency fast approaching, all eyes are on the John Tavareses, John Carlsons and James van Riemsdyks of the hockey world. But the NHL’s top unrestricted free agents aren’t the only players heading for big paydays this summer, nor are they the only players with which GMs — both big-league and armchair alike — should be concerned.
Matter of fact, as the summer signing season draws near, six of the 10 highest-scoring players currently without contracts for the upcoming campaign won’t be eligible to hit the open market at all. Instead, they’re restricted free agents, their rights held by their current clubs. So, as Tavares eyes up a potential Scrooge McDuck-sized fortune and Carlson paints a parking spot for the Brinks Truck, here are 10 RFAs who will be getting big-time pay raises this off-season:
WILLIAM KARLSSON, VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Karlsson was, in a sense, found money for the Golden Knights this past season. Brought in during the expansion draft from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Karlsson, 25, wasn’t projected to be much more than a third-line option for Vegas, but he exploded with a 43-goal, 78-point campaign, not to mention another seven goals and 15 points in the playoffs, as he played out the final season of his two-year, $2-million bridge deal. The issue, however, is that now ‘Wild Bill’ has put Vegas in a tough spot.
While there’s no doubt he’ll be remaining a Golden Knight for the foreseeable future, Vegas has a lot to consider when it comes to Karlsson. And first and foremost, they need to decide whether or not they believe his past campaign is sustainable. There are a lot of questions about that from a pure production standpoint, too, as he shot a ludicrous 23.4 percent this past season. Undeniably, he does some things that have nothing to do with so-called luck, and his mind for the game and defensive awareness is undeniable. But it’s his offense that is going to earn him top dollar, so Golden Knights GM George McPhee will have to determine whether the breakout season is worthy or a long-term deal or if it’s best to offer a bridge deal now and potentially pay big later.
MARK STONE, OTTAWA SENATORS
Stone’s name has to be the most oft-associated with an offer sheet, though it’s difficult to see how Ottawa would ever let the 26-year-old slip away. On a low-scoring Senators team last season, Stone was excellent, posting his fourth-straight 20-goal campaign and eclipsing the 60-point plateau for the third time in four seasons. The best part about Stone’s game, though, isn’t that he’s an offensive force who can put points up in bunches. Rather, it’s that he’s the type of complete player that a coach can trust in all situations. He earned a Selke Trophy vote in his rookie campaign and has finished 18th and sixth in the past two seasons, respectively. He’s a takeaway beast and dogged on the forecheck, which often turns into offense.
So, what does Stone get on his next deal? Well, one would imagine the Senators are going to have to pay him at least as well as Bobby Ryan, who earns $7.25 million per season for far less production. It’s not all that far-fetched to see Stone scoring somewhere in the $7.5-million range annually on his next deal, if not more, and he’d certainly be worth every penny over the lifetime of a long-term contract.
CONNOR HELLEBUYCK, WINNIPEG JETS
If signing a one-year, $2.25-million deal with the Jets last summer could be considered a bet on himself, Hellebuyck’s calculated risk is going to pay off in a big way. Not only did the 25-year-old keeper bounce back from a subpar sophomore campaign, one in which he took his lumps to the tune of a .907 save percentage and 2.89 goals-against average, but he got back to and bettered his rookie form. He finished his first season as the no-doubt No. 1 netminder with 44 wins and only 20 regulation, overtime or shootout losses, posted six shutouts and ended the campaign with a .924 SP and 2.36 GAA.
Looking around the league at other young netminders, the safe bet this time around is that Hellebuyck is in line for at least $6 million per season, which would see him earn a raise of nearly $4 million annually. That’s about the going rate for top-tier goaltending, as well, and would put Hellebuyck in some good company, alongside the likes of Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby, Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick. That’s company Hellebuyck should be keeping, too, if he’s performing as he did this past season.
WILLIAM NYLANDER, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
One 60-point season could be enough to get a young player a nice payday. But back-to-back 20-goal, 61-point seasons before turning 22 has Nylander in line for a hefty raise. It’s not like the Maple Leafs are at all that big a risk of not being able to afford the skilled youngster, either. Toronto enters this summer with nearly $22.5 million to spend and possibly an additional $5 million if the cap reaches its projections. That should be more than enough to retain Nylander’s services while still putting thought into what the salary structure will look like once Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner get their new deals, too.
The question, though, is what Nylander’s asking price is on his next deal. And a safe bet seems to be something in the $6.5-million range. If that seems too high, consider that similar point producers this past season such as Alexander Radulov, Nicklas Backstrom, Joe Pavelski and Filip Forsberg earn somewhere between $6 million and $7 million per season. Add in the seven-year, $42-million extension that the similarly aged and lower-producing Nikolaj Ehlers earned from the Jets, too, and even $7 million doesn’t seem a stretch for Nylander.
J.T. MILLER, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Certainly not the key piece in the Lightning’s blockbuster trade deadline deal with the New York Rangers, but Miller was more than just a throw-in alongside Ryan McDonagh. He proved that, too, by entering the Tampa Bay lineup post-deadline and firing home 10 goals and 18 points in 19 regular-season contests and then adding another two goals and eight points in 17 playoff games. Miller, 25, is a readymade top-six talent for the Lightning come next season, and after scoring a career-high 23 goals and 58 points this season, he could be in line for a breakout, potentially 30-goal campaign next year.
The difficult thing for Miller is that he’s not exactly part of an organization that throws money around haphazardly. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman is going to take into careful consideration upcoming contract concerns — McDonagh, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde are all up for new deals ahead of 2019-20 — and Miller’s contract could need some structuring around that if he wants to remain in Tampa Bay. That said, $5.5 million to keep a versatile, potential 30-goal forward in the lineup doesn’t seem all that expensive, and it might just be the number that gets a deal done for Miller and the Lightning.
Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild: After a career-best 22-goal, 47-point season, Zucker went out and scored 33 goals and 64 points as an encore. The speedy winger has developed into one heck of a quick-strike attacker, and his numbers weren’t all that inflated due to an exorbitant shooting percentage. He’s going to get a nice raise, and he’ll have earned every penny.
Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings: He’s the future up front for the Red Wings, and after a sophomore slump that saw him score 17 goals and 32 points, Larkin got back on track with 16 goals and 62 points in 82 games. If this contract creeps up above $6 million per season, don’t be surprised.
Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets: Last time out, the contract talk dragged on through into the season, but Trouba said following the campaign he wants to get this deal done sooner rather than later. If that’s the case, and the Jets sure would almost certainly prefer it to be, we’re probably staring down a $6-million payday, at least, for Trouba.
Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres: He might not earn a cap hit commensurate with others on this list, but Reinhart is worth watching given how often his name has cropped up in the rumor mill. With the possibility of Buffalo moving Ryan O’Reilly, paying Reinhart — even on a bridge deal — and hoping he continues to develop would seem to be the smart play.
Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: Hertl has remained a fixture of the top-six in San Jose for the past two seasons and is one of the brightest young stars the Sharks have at their disposal. His career-high 22-goal, 46-point campaign was followed by a six-goal, nine-point playoff performance. San Jose should be thinking long term.
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