Listing five noteworthy September RFAs

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We looked at five significant unrestricted free agents yesterday. There are still some helpful players looking for jobs, but there are some great restricted free agents that also need contracts.

Most of the time, RFAs that hold out all summer end up agreeing to terms either just before or shortly after the start of training camp. But sometimes these negotiations drag on into the regular season or prompt a trade. There’s even a chance that an opposing club could decide to make life a little more complicated for a team near the salary cap by extending an offer sheet.

With that in mind, here are five restricted free agents to keep an eye on:

1) Alex Pietrangelo — The Blues’ cap situation is healthy and the 23-year-old Pietrangelo is a vital part of the team, so you would think that the two sides would be able to work something out before the start of the regular season. Of course, you could point to P.K. Subban’s talks with the Montreal Canadiens, which dragged into the 2013 campaign, but the lockout makes those situations largely incomparable. Drew Doughty’s situation in 2011 works a little better though and he ended up missing the entire preseason before inking an eight-year, $56 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings. The main thing to keep in mind though is that Subban, Pietrangelo, and Doughty have something in common: They are all represented by Newport Sports’ Don Meehan. At the same time, Pietrangelo insists that he’s “not even thinking about holding out.”

2) Nazem Kadri — The Toronto Maple Leafs spent freely this summer and they consequently have less than $5 million in cap space left to ink Kadri and fellow RFA Cody Franson. Kadri noted that worrying about the Leafs’ cap situation isn’t his job and it’s gotten to the point where he’s frustrated with the way the negotiations have been going. At the same time, he denied a report that he’s demanding a six-year, $30 million contract. After all that, he decided to just stop talking about it until he has a deal. We’ll see if the Leafs and Kadri end up agreeing to a bridge contract to determine if his 44-point 2013 campaign is genuinely representative of the type of player he is now.

3) Derek Stepan — Like Kadri, Stepan broke out last season with 18 goals and 44 points in 48 games. The difference is that Stepan has a longer history of success in the NHL and therefore can make a better case for a lucrative long-term deal, if that’s what he’s after. The only problem is that the New York Rangers don’t have the cap space to give him that kind of contract right now. With roughly $2 million in projected cap space, they aren’t even really in a position to offer him a bridge contract without getting creative. Stepan is content to let his agent and the team handle the ongoing negotiations, although he recently spoke on the matter and said that “these things take time.” Not that there’s much time left before the start of training camp.

4) Cody Hodgson — The Buffalo Sabres have shifted their focus towards building for the future and as a consequence of that, they have plenty of cap space. That doesn’t mean they’ll be liberal with their money when it comes to Hodgson, but it does lessen the possibility of them being outmaneuvered by an offer sheet. Hodgson had 15 goals and 34 points in 48 games last season, but the 23-year-old still has plenty to prove at the NHL level. He seems like an ideal candidate for a bridge contract, although he might have held out this long in the hope of getting something better.

5) Marcus Johansson — If there was a loser in the Washington Capitals’ decision to sign Mikhail Grabovski, it might have been Johansson as they now have a little under $2.7 million in cap space. Johansson scored six goals and registered 16 assists in 34 games last season while getting some playing time with Alex Ovechkin. With the Capitals lack of cap flexibility, it is possible that Johansson will be dealt before the start of the 2013-14 campaign, but it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign a one-year contract just below Washington’s limit in the hopes that he earns a regular spot with Ovechkin and is a stronger negotiating position next summer.

Penguins shouldn’t rush to replace Bonino

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Nick Bonino was an important player for Pittsburgh the past two years. So when he signed with Nashville on July 1, it was natural for Penguins fans to want an immediate replacement.

But for GM Jim Rutherford, finding a new third-line center may take some time. The Penguins might even start the season without knowing who it will be.

What Rutherford wants to avoid is panicking and being forced into a mistake. All the other general managers are well-aware of what he needs. He’s probably been thrown a few anvils already.

“There’s a couple of guys I could acquire right now,” Rutherford told the Post-Gazette on Wednesday. “I feel like there’s another group of guys that could possibly be available here soon. Kind of just waiting to see if that happens. Something could happen in the very near future or this could drag on for a little while.”

If nothing is done by the start of the season, the Penguins could give someone like Jake Guentzel a chance to take over Bonino’s role. Or, if they’d prefer to keep Guentzel in the top six, maybe a youngster like Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese would be game to try, at least on a temporary basis.

It should be noted that Rutherford has proven a savvy mid-season trader. In 2015-16, he brought in Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley, a couple of veterans who played big roles on the way to a Stanley Cup title. And then, last season, he acquired Ron Hainsey, who likewise played a key part in a championship.

Perhaps owing to that experience, Rutherford says he’s more comfortable waiting to unearth a solution than “trading for somebody where I’m not sure whether they can help us or not.”

In fairness, it’s not easy to just replace a productive third-line center whose salary was a bargain. The Penguins had Bonino for a cap hit of just $1.9 million, and he turned his time in Pittsburgh into a four-year, $16.4 million deal with the Predators.

One potential target that’s come up in speculation is the Maple Leafs’ Tyler Bozak, who just so happens to be Phil Kessel‘s good friend and former center.

Bozak, 31, has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent, a status that naturally lends itself to trade speculation.

But with a $4.1 million cap hit, making room for Bozak could be a challenge for the Penguins. And on top of that, the Leafs are bound to ask a fair bit for a guy who had 55 points (18G, 37A) last season.

That’s why it’s so hard to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in today’s NHL. The Penguins were lucky to bring back mostly the same roster last season.

Things will be different in 2017-18.

Related: Matt Murray discusses the ‘new look’ Penguins

Tavares says ‘no rush’ to sign extension with Isles

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John Tavares keeps saying all the right things about his future with the New York Islanders.

But that doesn’t change the fact he still doesn’t have a contract extension in place.

Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, spoke with Newsday yesterday, telling the newspaper he was in “no rush” to sign and that he’s comfortable to just “let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal.”

It’s been reported that the Isles’ uncertain arena situation could be complicating matters. It’s still not clear where the team will call home for the long term.

On that topic, Tavares chose to avoid making any definitive statements.

“The possibility with Belmont and that RFP coming out, there’s great potential there,” the 26-year-old said. “We’ll see where it goes. A lot of those things are out of my hands. Some things I don’t try to worry about them too, too much. I’m just a hockey player. I try to be as best prepared as I can be. It’s a big decision obviously because it’s eight years of my career, really entering into my prime years and a great opportunity for myself to achieve what I set out to achieve when I was a kid, making it to the NHL, wanting to win a Stanley Cup and wanting to do that with the Islanders.”

There’s more in the interview, including his thoughts on the Isles’ offseason moves. Click here to give it a read.

Tavares also spoke with Newday about the thumb surgery he had in April. All’s well on that front, according to the captain.  

“I felt I didn’t want this reoccurring and the recovery time was only six weeks,” he said, “so it was the right thing to do once the season ended.”

Related: Tavares open to signing contract extension this summer

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot (again)

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For the second straight year, Derrick Pouliot is our pick for the Pittsburgh player under the most pressure heading into the season.

Perhaps we should just focus on someone else, but the Penguins gave the 23-year-old defenseman a one-year contract extension in July. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Pouliot knows time is running short to prove Pittsburgh didn’t make a big mistake.

It should be compelling to watch how he fares.

“I’ve got to make an impact right away and show that I belong in the NHL,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “It’s been three years now. I haven’t fully established myself yet. I want to take it one step at a time and build as the year goes on.”

Pouliot felt he had a strong finish to his AHL season, and perhaps that will help his confidence heading into camp.

But it’s worth noting that he’s no longer exempt from waivers. So unless he earns a spot, that could mean a change of scenery, with the Penguins either losing him for nothing or trading him for pennies on the dollar.

Pouliot could feasibly crack the opening roster as Pittsburgh’s eighth defenseman, behind Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Chad Ruhwedel and new addition Matt Hunwick.

He could then languish on that roster until an injury gives him a chance to play.

The first step, though, is coming into camp and building off the back half of last season.

“For me to establish myself as an NHL defenseman, a regular guy in the lineup, it’s kind of playing how I ended the season: solid defensively, consistent in that regard,” Pouliot said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s been one thing that’s always been brought up about me, inconsistency. So I think it’s starting with that and building each game.”

Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”