Free agency is nearly upon us, folks. And it's shaping up to be a doozy.
While the UFAs tend to grab most of the headlines when the market opens due to their ability to sign anywhere, the RFAs are just as interesting this season, with a particularly intriguing crop of them set to command new deals starting on Wednesday.
Who will stay and who will go? That's the question.
So, let's take a look at the top-10 RFAs on the board right now and determine where they stand as July 13th quickly approaches.
Matthew Tkachuk - Calgary Flames
2021-22 Cap Hit: $7,000,000
Matthew Tkachuk is going to get paid. Probably by the Calgary Flames, too.
The 24-year-old broke out in a massive way last season, racking up 42 goals and 62 assists for 104 points while suiting up in all 82 games to lead the Flames to their best regular season in years. A homegrown talent doing all that while also establishing himself as one of the top power forwards and pests in the league is usually followed by a massive contract extension.
The Flames, though, have yet to lock in their prospective franchise face -- likely because they're in the process of trying to do the same with Johnny Gaudreau.
Gaudreau, if he re-signs in Calgary, will almost certainly command over $9 million per year. Can the Flames afford to dedicate that much cap to two players -- wingers, no less -- at the same time? That remains to be seen. But if Tkachuk somehow finds himself on the outs in Calgary, the entire league will back their BRINKS trucks up to his front step the second he hits the market.
Jason Robertson - Dallas Stars
2021-22 Cap Hit: $795,000
If Jason Robertson played anywhere but Dallas -- ok, maybe not Arizona, but you get my point -- he'd be a household name.
The 22-year-old is an incredible talent who has done nothing but produce since arriving at the NHL level, finishing last season on an absolute tear with 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in 74 games -- all with largely no high-end talent around him.
Robertson is the hockey equivalent of a "walking bucket" in basketball. All the kid does is put the puck in the net. And for under $800,000 last season, he did it at an absurdly low rate.
That bargain is about to vanish in a big way this summer, though. Robertson is a baby by NHL standards who now has a 40-goal season already under his belt, and whose rights belong to a team in desperate need of any offensive help.
He could command the sun and the moon from the Stars and they'll probably give it to him. It probably won't be too long before they do, either.
Patrik Laine - Columbus Blue Jackets
2021-22 Cap Hit: $7,500,000
The NHL's biggest enigma.
When Laine is on, he's one of the game's greatest goal scorers, ripping pucks past goaltenders with the best of them to wow audiences and opponents alike. And in a league in which goals rule, that's arguably the most valuable commodity for a player to have.
The only problem, though, is that Laine is not "on" all the time. In fact, it's typically a 50/50 split depending on the year, as the Finnish sniper has been prone to experience months-long stretches during which his production dries up and his intensity level plummets.
With Laine, you take the good with the bad. That's the deal you make. But when you never know which side of him you're going to get in any given season, a long-term contract becomes a truly dicey proposition.
Something will probably get done between the Blue Jackets and Laine this summer, as GM Jarmo Kekalainen has quietly been stockpiling young talent over the past 24 months, and Laine could be a great addition. But the gap in term between the two sides will not make this negotiation easy. And when feelings get hurt, anything can happen.
Jesper Bratt - New Jersey Devils
2021-22 Cap Hit: $2,750,000
Even if Bratt does sign his contract with the Devils, it will likely be another team paying him next season.
For some reason, both sides have struggled to find much common ground on an extension over the past few seasons, despite the fact that Bratt is a 23-year-old former sixth-round value pick who just scored nearly a point-per-game in 2021-22 despite a dearth of talent around him.
Why would the Devils not want to pay the man his money? That's a great question, to which no one but those two parties can answer.
Pierre-Luc Dubois - Winnipeg Jets
2021-22 Cap Hit: $5,000,000
All reports seem to indicate that Dubois' sights are set on singing in Montreal when he becomes a UFA in two years, which likely renders any possible extension with the Jets to a short-term pact.
It's the era of player empowerment, and Dubois is now seemingly on his way to hitting eject on two different organizations, which is definitely a unique feat in the typically conservative NHL. All the power to him, really.
After a rough debut with the Jets after arriving midway through the 2021 season, Dubois looked far more comfortable in Winnipeg last year, finishing with 28 goals and 60 points in 81 games. If he can continue to improve and become an actual first-line centre, the money will follow. The Canadiens could certainly use a player like that -- even if they'll have to wait two years to possibly get one.
Jesse Puljujarvi - Edmonton Oilers
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,175,000
Young, cheap, versatile, possession-driving, defensively responsible. What more could you possibly want from Puljujarvi?
And yet, like they do seem to do with every homegrown talent not named McDavid or Draisaitl, the Oilers are all-too-giddy to punt the former third-overall pick out the door, even if the team is reportedly "frustrated" at the lack of tantalizing offers they've received for him.
Whoever does end up paying Puljujarvi next season will be getting a wonderful player with plenty of room to grow. And for what should be a minuscule cap hit, Puljujarvi could be the bargain of the summer. Good for him.
Artturi Lehkonen - Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 Cap Hit: $2,300,000
One of the best trade deadline acquisitions in recent memory, Lehkonen is going to get a serious raise from the Avalanche this summer as they look to reload for a title defense.
Lehkonen's counting stats might not jump off the page initially. The 26-year-old racked up a respectable 19 goals and 38 points in 74 games between the Canadiens and Avalanche before really turning on the jets in the playoffs to become a key piece of Colorado's Cup-winning attack. It's Lehkonen's versatility and defensive mastery, though, that really make those who coach him fall in love, as his skill as a penalty killer and his forechecking might make him a threat to be reckoned with.
It'll be interesting to see how the Avalanche fit Lehkonen under the cap, given how many other players they need to re-sign, too. But Joe Sakic & Co. will likely find a way. They always seem to.
Noah Dobson - New York Islanders
2021-22 Cap Hit: $894,167
One of the quieter breakout players from the 2021-22 season, Dobson has flourished into a terrific young defenseman, exploding for 13 goals and 51 points at just 22 years old, and, in the process, putting him in line for a serious raise.
Lou Lamoriello is, of course, a tough negotiator. But this is also the same guy who gave Nikita Zaitsev a seven-year deal worth $4.5 million per season after a year far worse than the one Dobson just had.
With cap space a little tight, the Islanders might need to do some slight shuffling to fit Dobson's new price tag onto their books this summer. But whatever work needs to be done, they should do it. Soon.
Dobson is worth it and is only getting better.
Kailer Yamamoto - Edmonton Oilers
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,175,000
Despite scoring at a lower clip than Puljujarvi did last season while making the exact same amount of money and being just a year apart in age, Yamamoto seems like the RFA the Oilers actually want to keep.
So, the two sides will almost certainly find common ground in the coming months. They have to, right?
Yamamoto is a fine middle-six winger at this stage in his career, coming off a 20-goal season that showed all the signs of a player with miles of runway upon which to improve.
Why the capped-out team in the middle of a contention window wouldn't want to keep both of their young players who fit that description is baffling. But Yamamoto is seemingly the Oilers' preferred favorite and will surely get locked up sooner rather than later.
Ondrej Kase - Toronto Maple Leafs
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,250,000
Gosh, this one is so tough.
When Kase was on the ice for the Leafs last season, he looked fantastic. The 26-year-old scored roughly 0.5 points per game while serving as a versatile winger with enough skill and grit to play up and down Toronto's line-up, and made just a little over $1 million to do it.
But, as has always been the case with Kase, injuries struck again.
Kase suffered yet another concussion midway through the season and missed the entire final stretch. He returned for the playoffs and looked fine in Toronto's seven-game first-round exit versus Tampa, but he was already playing with fire before he went down in the first place. Another fall or bump on the head could not only derail his hockey career, but seriously impact his ability to lead a normal life, as well.
Hockey is important, but it's not everything. And when making an investment, such a massive amount of risk might dissuade the buyer.
It remains to be seen whether the Leafs will even qualify Kase before the 5 pm deadline on Monday night. But if they do, and he can be healthy moving forward, that's a great piece to add to the Leafs' lineup at an affordable price.