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Five major RFAs still facing tough negotiations as season nears

The first game of the 2016-17 campaign is less than two weeks away, yet five key RFAs, including the Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau and Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov, remain without contracts.

In less than two weeks’ time, the puck will have dropped on a new season, and there’s a chance that several high profile restricted free agents will begin the season on the sideline due to contract negotiations that have yet to result in a deal that works for both sides.

While Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba has requested a trade and Arizona Coyotes winger Tobias Rieder’s agent said it would be best at this point if his client were shipped elsewhere, other key RFAs are still engaged in negotiations. That doesn’t necessarily mean a contract is imminent, but it does mean progress can be made and at least lends hope that a deal can reached before the seasons starts on Oct. 12.

Here are the five major RFAs still without deals — Trouba and Rieder excluded — and what it could take for their respective club to work out a deal before the start of the new campaign:

Hampus Lindholm, D, Anaheim Ducks

In terms of average ice time, no defenseman was more important to the Anaheim Ducks this past season than Lindholm. The 22-year-old scored 10 goals and 28 points, all the while averaging an even 22 minutes per night, and it’s his offensive production and importance to the Ducks’ blueline that make his deal such a tough one to manage.

Of course, in a perfect world, the Ducks would have been able to hand Lindholm the contract he’s after and call it a day. However, in the salary cap world, that’s not the case. The Ducks have little more than $7.5 million in cap space and have a significant amount of money tied up in their bottom-three blueliners, including two years remaining on an unfortunate four-year, $13-million deal with Clayton Stoner.

The Orange County Register’s Eric Stephens reported that Lindholm could be looking for aem eight-year, $48-million deal that carries an average salary of $6 million. That’s not easy for the Ducks to do given their cap situation, and it’s no wonder they’ve yet to come to terms with Lindholm. 

A deal compared to that of Torey Krug, Seth Jones or Morgan Rielly, all defenders under 25 and carrying cap hits between $5-5.4 million, would be easier for the Ducks to manage, but it would require Lindholm to show some give on his asking price.

Rickard Rakell, C, Anaheim Ducks

Rakell’s off-season has been up-and-down, what with his selection to the World Cup team and subsequent injury that cost him his spot, but the one constant has been that he still needs a deal if he’s going to suit up for the Ducks this coming campaign. Like Lindholm, though, the Ducks’ cap space has become somewhat of an issue.

Cap space, however, is less of an issue when it comes to Rakell’s deal and more problematic when considering that both Rakell and Lindholm need to be signed. Again, if it was only one or the other, this is probably a non-issue and contracts are likely done by now, but things are more complicated because Anaheim has roughly than $7.5 million to work with under the cap.

The structure for Rakell’s deal has long been speculated and Victor Rask’s six-year, $24-million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes as the most commonly used comparable. However, the Ducks might be more comfortable if Rakell took a deal that carries a cap hit more similar to that of Jakob Silfverberg. In August 2015, Anaheim inked Silfverberg to a four-year, $15-million deal carrying a cap hit of $3.75 million.

Rakell’s negotiations have been some of the most positive of the outstanding RFAs, though, and his agent, Peter Wallen, told Stephens in July that he believed the two sides would, “find common ground for a solid agreement as I feel both parties seem to want that to happen very much.”

Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Buffalo Sabres

Rakell might be having solid negotiations, but no one is making it more clear he wants to be with his current team than Ristolainen. Despite the fact he’s without a deal for the upcoming season, the towering blueliner took the ice with his Sabres teammates for a practice Thursday, receiving permission from the club to participate even though he’s still unsigned.

Ristolainen’s agent, Mike Liut, told The Buffalo News’ John Vogl that contract talks between the two sides aren’t close, but that Ristolainen wanted to “continue to build on the gains he made this summer” and join the team ahead of the season. As for the contract, though, it might take the Sabres giving Ristolainen a massive raise in order for it to get done. 

This past season, Ristolainen appeared in all 82 games for the Sabres and averaged a whopping 25-plus minutes per game. Among the other defensemen who averaged ice time that high are Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Duncan Keith, Roman Josi and Shea Weber. That gives an idea of the kind of players Ristolainen is probably hoping to be paid like, though that’s a hard bargain to drive without the results to back it up.

The Sabres struggled last season, and though that’s not on Ristolainen, he still has a ton of room to grow before he turns his big minutes into big impact. He’s not in the conversation for the Norris Trophy, and his deal should likely fall somewhere in the same range as Lindholm’s. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, it could take an average salary of $6 million-plus to get Ristolainen to sign a new deal.

Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames

Chief among the reasons why Gaudreau has yet to sign a new deal in Calgary appears to be the team’s unwillingness to pay the dynamic playmaker much more than other players on the roster. 

Before Sean Monahan signed a seven-year deal that carries a $6.375-million cap hit, the belief was that he and Gaudreau could receive matching deals. For the Flames, that could still be the hope, but Gaudreau is worth much more than that and he has proven it with his play over the past two seasons. 

There are only 11 players who have put up more points than Gaudreau’s 142 over the past two seasons, and the 23-year-old is the life blood of the Flames’ offense. He was an immediate impact player, is already a 30-goal scorer two years into his career and finished sixth in the league in scoring even while suiting up for a bad Flames team this past season. The hardest part about this situation for Gaudreau, though, is that he has absolutely no bargaining power regardless of his production. 

While he falls into the RFA category, Gaudreau entered the off-season without arbitration rights, wasn’t eligible to receive or sign an offer sheet and has his rights pretty much owned by the Flames. He has said, time and again, that he wants to stay in Calgary, so that’s not an issue, but that Gaudreau’s new contract could — and probably should — be worth upwards of $7.5 million per season seems to be.

Signing a deal worth more than $6.75 million per season would make Gaudreau Calgary’s highest-paid player, and when the dust settles, it’ll probably take exactly that to get the young star locked up long-term.

Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith reported Thursday that Kucherov’s agent Scott Greenspun has told Steve Yzerman the Russian winger won’t be coming to training camp without a contract, so that means Yzerman and Co. need to find a solution or risk starting the season without the services of the 23-year-old sniper.

It seemed like a clear outline for Kucherov’s deal was there when the Nashville Predators inked RFA Filip Forsberg to a six-year, $36-million contract, but the issue with the Forsberg comparison is production in the post-season. While the two players, both wingers, have scored 59 goals a piece over the past two seasons, Kucherov has added 21 playoff goals in 43 games.

Yzerman has remained confident that he can get Kucherov under contract and has never been anything less than optimistic about the situation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a deal is close. The biggest stumbling block is the Lightning’s cap situation. Signing Kucherov would almost assuredly mean Tampa Bay is over the cap to start the season. The only way to avoid that, really, is by either trading someone to make cap space for Kucherov’s new contract or somehow managing to persuade Kucherov into taking a $5.5-million deal.

As has been mentioned on a number of occasions, though, the Lightning have to be careful not just of this season, but of the situation that awaits them next off-season. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Andrej Suster, Nikita Nesterov and Slater Koekkoek will all see their deals expire after 2016-17, and signing six RFAs is going to be costly and require some tough choices. As it stands, the Bolts will have slightly less than $18 million to operate if the salary cap remains flat. That’s not going to be enough money to keep everyone, even if Kucherov takes a sizeable discount.

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