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The offseason has settled down after the 2020 NHL Draft and Free Agency kicked off the month of October. That occurred just over a week after the Tampa Bay Lightning lifted the Stanley Cup following a condensed scheduled of hockey within the secure zone bubbles of Edmonton and Toronto.
A flat salary cap and the uncertainty of playing during a pandemic has slowed some deals. There are still several intriguing unrestricted free agents available, most of which were covered last week, and the list of key restricted free agents who remained unsigned is something to behold as well.
It’s common for players without arbitration rights to be signed closer to or shortly after training camps, but it would beneficial to the player and team to work out these contracts as quickly as possible.
Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders) - Barzal amassed 59 goals and 207 points in 232 games over the last three seasons. He has led the Islanders in scoring in each of those campaigns and he is more than deserving of a big raise coming off his entry-level contract. Barzal has excelled in the offensive zone, especially when he has control of the puck. He has piled up 148 assists, which ranks him 20th in the league in the past three seasons. It’s believed that the Islanders would like to sign Barzal to a deal in the $7.5 million per year range, but there is little doubt that the talented center’s camp will be aiming a bit higher than that. New York intends to match any potential offer sheet thrown Barzal’s way and moved Devon Toews to Colorado during the offseason to free up some cap space.
Pierre-Luc Dubois (Columbus) - Dubois collected 65 goals and 158 points over the first 234 games of his NHL career. He slipped from 27 goals and 61 points in 82 contests in 2018-19 to 18 markers and 49 points in 70 matches last campaign. Still, Dubois led the Blue Jackets in points during the regular season and in the postseason. Columbus’ top center should be fairly compensated following a successful run on his entry-level deal. The team isn’t suffering from a lack of cap space despite adding some depth down the middle with the acquisition and signing of Max Domi as well as the signing of Mikko Koivu. Dubois will probably be locked up to a long-term deal and GM Jarmo Kekalainen said recently that he isn’t concerned that talks haven’t progressed much yet.
Ryan Strome (New York Rangers) - Strome registered personal bests in 2019-20 with 41assists and 59 points in 70 games with the Rangers. He benefited tremendously from seeing playing time alongside Artemi Panarin and working on New York’s top power-play combination. The team was reportedly considering not giving Strome a qualifying offer, but ultimately the 27-year-old forward was given one to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. He has an arbitration hearing scheduled for Nov. 5. It’s believed he could sign a short-term contract with the Rangers prior to an arbitrator deciding the case. The team will give him a chance to prove himself as a reliable top-six forward following his long-awaited breakout performance.
Anthony Mantha (Detroit) - Mantha had 25 goals and 48 points in 67 appearances during the 2018-19 season and he generated 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) last campaign despite being limited to 43 outings. If he didn’t have to deal with injuries both years then he could have broken out offensively. Mantha was operating at 30-plus goal paces and could have ended up surpassing the 60-point plateau. He expected the negotiations between the two sides to be complicated because of his absences and he probably wants to be paid for the potential upside he brings, while the Red Wings may choose to take a more conservative approach. The two sides have been talking and Mantha said back in March that he hoped the process would be completed quickly. He is aiming for a long-term contract.
Victor Olofsson (Buffalo) - Olofsson was a bright spot for the Sabres in 2019-20, while producing 20 goals and 42 points in 54 games during his rookie season. He has supplied 46 points through 60 career NHL appearances. Olofsson tied Jack Eichel for the team lead with 11 power-play goals last campaign and he ranked third on Buffalo with 17 points on the man advantage. The Sabres signed fellow RFAs Sam Reinhart and Linus Ullmark to one-year deals recently. The team avoided going to salary arbitration with both players and the hope is that they can do the same with Olofsson, who has a hearing scheduled for Nov. 4. He could end up with a bridge contract before it reaches that point.
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Anthony Cirelli (Tampa Bay) - Cirelli recorded personal bests in 2019-20 with 28 assists and 44 points over 68 matches. He also logged a career-high 18:28 of ice time, while centering Tampa Bay’s second line. He has already become a valuable two-way forward and the 23-year-old center has continued to improve each season. Cap space is tight for the Lightning, which has turned Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson into potential trade chips. Johnson even found himself on waivers, but there weren’t any takers. Getting RFAs Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak signed is a top priority for Tampa Bay this offseason. None of them have arbitration rights.
Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay) - Sergachev tallied a career-high 10 goals last season and he posted 34 points in 70 contests. He surpassed 20 minutes (20:22) per game for the first time in his NHL career in 2019-20. Sergachev was also credited with 118 shots, 99 blocks and 106 hits. As previously mentioned, getting the 22-year-old defenseman signed is a top priority for the Lightning this offseason. Sergachev has collected 25 goals and 106 points in 224 matches for Tampa Bay. He has great all-around ability and should be in line for a long-term contract once the Lightning clear the necessary cap space to get him signed.
Ryan Pulock (New York Islanders) - Pulock produced 10 goals and 35 points in 68 games last season after he had nine markers and a personal best 37 points over 82 contests in 2018-19. He was on pace for a career year offensively prior to the pause and eventual shutdown of the 2019-20 campaign. Pulock averaged a career-high 22:24 of ice time and he is poised to receive a larger role on the power play in 2020-21 after Devon Toews was traded to Colorado. Unlike Barzal, Pulock is eligible for salary arbitration and he has a hearing scheduled for Nov. 6.
Jake DeBrusk (Boston) - DeBrusk has acknowledged that he has gone through ups and downs during the first seasons of his NHL career. He has 62 goals and 120 points across 203 games during the regular season. DeBrusk slipped to 19 goals and 35 points in 65 matches last year after he had 27 markers and 42 points over 68 appearances in 2018-19. He had a personal best 43 points (16 goals, 27 assists) in 70 outings during his rookie campaign. The Bruins will probably opt for a short-term bridge deal with DeBrusk, which falls in line with contracts that RFA blueliners Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo received last summer. He has displayed potential as a secondary contributor, but needs to do more to prove he can be a reliable offensive player.
Mackenzie Blackwood (New Jersey) - Blackwood led all rookie goalies with 22 wins in 2019-20. He impressively posted a .915 save percentage and 2.77 goals-against average in 47 games played for a Devils team that ranked 26th overall in the NHL standings. The 23-year-old netminder was not eligible to file for salary arbitration. He is projected to share starts with free-agent addition Corey Crawford in 2020-21. New Jersey has an abundance of cap space, so getting contracts done with Blackwood and fellow RFA Jesper Bratt shouldn’t be an issue. Both players will be in line for nice raises following the completions of their entry-level agreements.
Other notable RFAs: Dylan Strome (Chicago), Roope Hintz (Dallas), Jesper Bratt (New Jersey), Luke Kunin (Nashville), Warren Foegele (Carolina), Jack Roslovic (Winnipeg), Vince Dunn (St. Louis), Ethan Bear (Edmonton) and MacKenzie Weegar (Florida)