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.