NHL Free Agency: Isles’ Barzal, Lightning’s Cirelli among top RFAs

NHL Restricted Free Agents: Islanders' Barzal, Lightning's Cirelli, other top RFAs
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When the “free agent frenzy” arrives on Oct. 9, much of the attention will go to UFAs, rather than restricted free agents (RFAs). Being that all 31 NHL teams (theoretically) have a chance to sign UFAs, it makes sense that they dominate our attention compared to RFAs.

But, amid a challenging economic climate, could NHL GMs target RFAs with offer sheets a bit more often than we interact with unicorns in the wild? Being that plenty of NHL teams are going to see money challenges — from the flat salary cap, internal budget constraints, and sometimes both — this would be quite the time to launch a strike more precise than the Canadiens’ half-hearted efforts to land Sebastian Aho on certain RFAs.

Offer sheets or not, there are plenty of NHL RFAs to watch, and many restricted free agent situations that may leave teams with restricted room to breathe.

Defending champion Lightning’s cap troubles also involve big RFAs

Honestly, the Lightning were heading into salary cap headaches even when it looked like the flat $81.5M salary cap would rise. Now? Gulp.

(Gulp.)

Both Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev rank as Lightning RFAs who are easily worth Tampa Bay’s currently estimated $5.33M in cap space. Cirelli finished fourth in Selke voting this season, while Sergachev showed plenty of flashes of the brilliance he could be capable of.

Frankly, the Lightning are a bit fortunate that those two RFAs haven’t been able to get the opportunities to prove their full value yet. But even while fighting for limelight, it’s abundantly obvious that both Cirelli and Sergachev deserve big raises. (No more waiting tables for Cirelli?)

With Erik Cernak also lingering as an RFA, Julien BriseBois will need to pull off some real GM of the Year wizardry to make this all work.

Mathew Barzal tops Islanders’ challenges

Let’s be honest; if Mathew Barzal ended up eating all of the Islanders’ near-$9 million in cap space, would that be out of line? (Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool puts an eight-year pact for Barzal, 23, at a $9.581M cap hit.)

Yet, Barzal’s just the biggest piece of the Islanders’ RFA puzzle. A decent chunk of the hockey world got a better look at how vital Ryan Pulock, 25, really is to the Isles. And 26-year-old Devon Toews has been a nice find for their defense, too.

Soon we’ll learn what sort of tricks “Loophole Lou” Lamoriello has up his sleeves. After all, threading this needle might require a little magic.

RFAs, Khudobin set complicated stage for Stars

After falling two wins short of a Stanley Cup, the Stars approach a fork in the road.

With almost $15.5M in cap space to work with, the Stars could get creative and aggressive during the off-season. But not without clearing up some questions.

Do they give Anton Khudobin a raise, possibly making for an expensive (and old) tandem with Ben Bishop? Either way, Denis Gurianov, Radek Faksa, and Roope Hintz should eat up a chunk of that $15.5M.

Being that Miro Heiskanen‘s rookie contract expires after 2020-21 (and John Klingberg will no longer be sorely underpaid at $4.25M after 2021-22), Dallas also must pencil in big money to keep its defensive advantages intact. Could be tricky, but there are also opportunities, especially in “rentals” (either in free agency or through trades).

NHL Restricted Free Agents: Islanders' Barzal, Lightning's Cirelli, other top RFAs Hintz Gurianov
(Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Rangers risk buying high on their RFAs?

Ryan Strome quietly put up one of the most productive seasons of any pending RFA, scoring 59 points (just one behind Barzal’s 60). Anthony DeAngelo also produced plenty of offense, collecting an eye-popping 53 points in 2020-21.

Do the Rangers really want to pay up to keep Strome and DeAngelo, though?

Being that Strome played the majority of his even-strength minutes with Artemi Panarin, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assert that Strome’s numbers were vastly inflated. And, for all of DeAngelo’s offensive prowess, he struggles in his own end (and sometimes, off the ice).

If the Rangers are cutthroat enough to buy out Henrik Lundqvist, who knows what could happen with RFAs who might command too heavy a price?

You may also find it interesting that both Stromes are RFAs, as Dylan Strome needs a new deal with the Blackhawks. This seems like a useful segue to jump into other noteworthy restricted free agent situations, while those looking for a truly comprehensive RFA list should head here.

Plenty of other RFA situations worth watching around the NHL

  • Pierre-Luc Dubois (Blue Jackets): Columbus has a handful of situations to address, which might force banged-up winger Josh Anderson out of town. The biggest concern involves locking up their promising, punishing young center in Pierre-Luc Dubois.
  • Max Domi (Canadiens): As messy as this situation is, would Montreal really get much out ot trading Domi as an RFA? It wouldn’t be shocking if they hash out a “bridge” deal instead, but what will that look like?
  • Sam Reinhart and other Sabres: Kevyn Adams faces a busy time. Finding a good price for RFAs such as Reinhart and Victor Olofsson would go some ways in maybe keeping Jack Eichel from an open revolt.
  • Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi (Red Wings): Pretty much all of the Red Wings’ focus is on the future. Even so, Bertuzzi and especially Mantha represent significant pieces for both the present and future. Locking them both up to team-friendly, preferably long-term deals will be key.
  • Jake DeBrusk (Bruins): The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa reports that the Bruins may listen to trade offers for DeBrusk (sub required). DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk rank as the most prominent Bruins RFAs, but the UFAs are bigger fish to fry. Is Torey Krug really on his way out, and will Zdeno Chara retire? Combine those factors with the Bruins’ urge to get better while their Stanley Cup window is still open, and you have the makings for some serious intrigue.
  • Other supporting cast players: the Sharks likely won’t get another sweetheart deal with Kevin Labanc. Andre Burakovsky needs a new deal with the Avs, while Vince Dunn ranks as the other free agent defenseman of note for the Blues.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

“We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

“It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

NEW COACHES

The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

“Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

CAMP TRYOUTS

Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

“They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

EARLY START

Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

“We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

“I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

“The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

With that, Barkov was sold.

And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

“We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

“The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

“I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

“I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

CAMP ROSTER

Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.