Six crucial NHL RFAs who still need contracts, including Pettersson, Hughes

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Considering the lack of recent free-agent activity, you’d think that NHL teams are done for the offseason. However, if you merely peek at the robust list of remaining restricted free agents, you’ll notice that the Canucks and other NHL teams still have some enormously important work to do.

(Just imagine how stressed out NHL teams would be about big-name RFAs if offer sheets came along more often than unicorns.)

Truly, there are a wide range of possibilities for upcoming contracts between RFAs and their NHL teams. Some might prefer “bridge deals,” either to test the free-agent market or to bail on terrible situations (or both). Others may be more-than-willing to go the maximum eight years with their next contracts.

Let’s take a look at how some of the most prominent NHL RFA situations could play out.

Pettersson and Hughes: Two challenging RFA situations for the Canucks

On the ice and during offseasons, a lot has changed each year for the Canucks. Yet, if there’s been one refrain — even through the bleaker moments — it’s been, “At least the Canucks have Hughes and Pettersson.”

Naturally, there are key differences between the two, starting with Pettersson being a center, and Hughes a defenseman. Also: Pettersson could receive an offer sheet if a team discovers a unicorn of courage. Hughes, meanwhile, joins Kirill Kaprizov on the short list of RFAs who aren’t eligible for offer sheets.

For all those differences, they’re bound by key similarities.

  • Even though they struggled from a two-way perspective (especially Hughes) last season, both still put up the sort of “counting numbers” that help their market value.
  • Back in January, Pettersson switched to CAA, who also act as Hughes’ agent(s). They could easily hold out as a tandem, ask for matching deals, and/or generally make this a coordinated challenge for Vancouver.

Let’s drill down to some specifics for each of Hughes and Pettersson, too.

Specifics for Hughes

If you just look at point totals, Hughes had a strong 2020-21 season, with 41 points in 56 games. Truly, it’s remarkable how much offense he’s produced (97 points) while already logging 129 career regular-season games at age 21. In 2019-20, Hughes also looked like a true all-around gem.

Look deeper at 2020-21, and his all-around play is more troubling. Maybe the defensive drop-off is expected, but his overall offensive impact might have also been overrated.

Six crucial NHL RFAs who need contracts, including Pettersson, Hughes player card

An at-times-batty defensemen market shows that teams will look the other way about certain concerns when it comes to who they believe will be No. 1 blueliners. Consider Seth Jones.

The most Hughes-relevant, former-RFA defensemen deals are probably those of Cale Makar (six years, $9M AAV) and Miro Heiskanen (eight years, $8.45M cap hit). Frankly, Hughes and Heiskanen line up in fascinatingly similar ways, and that could make things uncomfortable for the Canucks. At least if they want to sign Hughes long-term:

Six crucial NHL RFAs who need contracts, including Pettersson, Hughes Heiskanen

Evolving Hockey’s wonderful contract projection tool predicts a few outcomes for Hughes:

  • The top prediction is a six-year deal with a $7.017M cap hit.
  • Short-term deals (one, two, or three years) represent just 16-percent of the outcomes.

As the Evolving Hockey twins mentioned in their first podcast, that contract projection tool factored in deals from before 2021 NHL Free Agency, though.

A bridge for Pettersson?

Thanks to the Canucks’ salary cap crunch, you can’t ignore a “bridge deal” possibilities for both Hughes and Pettersson. In separate June and late-July interviews, JP Barry wondered if the Canucks’ cap issues might derail long-term deals for both RFAs.

Still, Pettersson, in particular, has been attached to “bridge deal” ponderings. Pettersson getting less term and Hughes receiving more was floated by Barry, and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman also noted that could happen.

Mathew Barzal‘s current deal (three years, $7M cap hit) was noted as a possible comparable.

[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Via Evolving Hockey, a possible Pettersson bridge could look like two years, with a cap hit of just under $5M. If both Evolving Hockey projections came true, Pettersson and Hughes would combine for $12M per in cap hits, albeit on very different terms (two for Pettersson, six for Hughes).

Such a combination might just-barely work for the Canucks … for now. It would be uncomfortable for a number of reasons, though.

  • What if Hughes isn’t as much of a “net-positive” in the grand scheme of things?
  • Frankly, Pettersson might be the player you’d rather sign long-term. He could easily cost a lot more after two or three more seasons.
  • Last season, the Canucks didn’t even make the playoffs. Changed or not, is this really a group you want to go to the salary cap ceiling with?

It’s all messy, but it will be even messier if the Canucks fail to sign one or both of Pettersson and Hughes. Maybe those situations will go down to the wire?

Kaprizov, Svechnikov, Dahlin, Tkachuk: Plenty of other crucial RFA situations

There are a lot of noteworthy RFAs who still need free-agent contracts. Here are the key ones, though, in the “non-Canucks division.”

Andrei Svechnikov

When the Hurricanes matched the Sebastian Aho offer sheet, people mocked the Canadiens. The Hurricanes even got cheeky about it on Twitter.

Yet, considering how penny-pinching the Hurricanes have been under Tom Dundon, was it that outrageous to test the waters?

It would be surprising if someone tried to poach Svechnikov from the Hurricanes with an offer sheet. It will also be interesting to see if Aho’s contract (five years, $8.45M cap hit) serves as any sort of barometer for what Svechnikov will sign.

Could that $8.45M serve as something of a rhetorical ceiling, with the Hurricanes asking: “How can you make more than Aho?” (Or at least, “You can’t make too much more than Aho, right?”)

Perhaps it won’t be relevant to Svechnikov, overall. Evolving Hockey’s top projection is intriguing: four years, $6.175M. As a winger, it might make sense for Svechnikov to come in at a lower clip.

Would the Hurricanes maybe want to bump up that AAV a bit, to buy UFA years, though? That would be a smart move if the Hurricanes believe Svechnikov will leap from “star” to “superstar.” At 21, Svechnikov could still make those strides.

(A rich offer, even a potentially proactive one, could be too rich for Carolina’s tastes.)

Kirill Kaprizov

You’ve probably already read up on how Kaprizov’s KHL threats make things a bit complicated for the Wild. There’s also the matter of how complicated the Wild’s overall situation is, especially if Kaprizov commands huge dollars.

Those postsvprovide more detail, but here are a few thoughts.

In some ways, you’d expect less leverage. He’s a little older than some of the other top-end RFA forwards, being that he’s 24. He also only has one season of NHL experience, even if he was sensational in winning the Calder Trophy. Kaprizov didn’t file for salary arbitration, and isn’t eligible for an offer sheet.

Granted, that age isn’t all bad. With his UFA window closer, every year of a Kaprizov contract means more. And maybe costs more.

While the Wild are publicly shrugging off the KHL threat, it’s a fairly impressive negotiation tactic.

Considering Evolving Hockey’s top Kaprizov projection (seven years, $7.74M), the situation is fascinating. After all, The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that Kaprizov had seven or eight-year offers ranging in $9M per year.

Not every remaining RFA compares seamlessly to Kaprizov, but one wonders if they might want to see how that plays out before signing.

Brady Tkachuk

Late in the 2020-21 season, the Ottawa Sun’s Ken Warren threw out some pretty bold comparables for Tkachuk’s next possible contract. Warren wondered if Tkachuk’s contract might even exceed that of Senators teammate Thomas Chabot (eight years, $8M cap hit). Names like Mikko Rantanen (six years, $9.25M) were thrown around.

To Brady Tkachuk personally, perhaps two deals are most relevant: that of Chabot, and perhaps his brother Matthew’s three-year bridge with the Flames ($7M cap hit).

Overall, assessing Tkachuk’s value could be an interesting riddle for the Senators.

It’s easy to see how Brady Tkachuk might sell himself.

  • The offensive production is already there. Tkachuk scored 22 goals and 45 points as a rookie in 2018-19, then produced at almost the exact same level a year later (21G, 44P in 2019-20). Last season, he kept going, as his 17 goals and 36 points came in 56 games.
  • Naturally, as a Tkachuk, he’s also a nuisance for opponents. Tkachuk hits, fights heavyweights like Shea Weber, and has a nose for the net. Plenty pencil him as a possible Senators captain.
  • His scamp-like behavior seems downright wholesome at times.

If you’re really getting into that high-spending stratosphere, then you need to be more critical. (Or, uh, you should be.) And that’s where you ask: yes, Brady Tkachuk is good, but how good?

Again, though, it’s not just about production, or finishing ability. Tkachuk brings “intangibles” to the table, and teams spent huge dollars for grit this offseason.

Naturally, as UFAs, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and others had different leverage than an RFA like Tkachuk. Those contracts might make it easier for people to stomach something bold for Brady, though.

Here are a few projections for Tkachuk’s next contract with the Senators.

Like Dundon in Carolina, you must also at least ponder if certain Tkachuk offers might be too rich for Senators owner Eugene Melnyk’s blood. Overall, there are a lot of moving parts with this one.

Rasmus Dahlin

The Jack Eichel trade (and surgery) situation is the most important, and messy, thing the Sabres must deal with. But getting Rasmus Dahlin’s next contract right is also crucial.

So, what do we make of the first overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft?

On one hand, he’s been a bit disappointing compared to the sheer hype he came in with. We’ve seen plenty of No. 1 overall picks enter the NHL with rave reviews, but it’s rare to see a defenseman labeled so close to a sure-thing. It’s at least been a while.

By lofty standards, Dahlin’s been up-and-down. A mixture of unspectacular offense and below-average defense was not what many envisioned.

Even Dahlin’s ice time went through ups and downs.

  • As a rookie in 2018-19, Dahlin averaged 21:09 time on ice.
  • In 2019-20, that average strangely dipped to 19:18 TOI.
  • At least that ice time bounced back in 2020-21, setting a career-high of 21:36 TOI. Still, the Sabres haven’t trusted Dahlin like the Canucks deploy Hughes, or the Stars lean on Heiskanen.

How much blame do you place on the Sabres for possibly stunting Dahlin’s growth, though? Under Ralph Krueger, Dahlin strained with a short leash. Dahlin flourished — relatively speaking — under Don Granato, and maybe can blossom further.

“His way to play is how I learned to play hockey,” Dahlin said of Granato, according to John Vogl of the Athletic. “He trusted me as a player. He really saw what my potential was, and I felt comfortable playing out there.”

[Who can actually afford an Eichel trade?]

And, hey, for all that went wrong, Dahlin still produced reasonably well. As a rookie, Dahlin scored 44 points in 82 games. Despite being limited to 59 games in 2019-20, Dahlin still scored 40 points. Last season didn’t help his cause, however, as Dahlin scored 23 points in 56 games. That said, 107 points in 197 games is pretty impressive for a 21-year-old on an often-dreadful team.

On one hand, what’s the rush for a mess of a Sabres franchise? Do they want to get burned by another Rasmus after just now ridding themselves of a bad Rasmus Ristolainen investment?

The counterpoint is poignant, though: Sabres fans need something to latch onto. Signing Rasmus Dahlin before the season starts might end up being the bare minimum.

What are some possibilities, though?

  • In June, Vogl gave some ideas. A two or three-year Dahlin deal might command something in the $6.5M range. Meanwhile, an eight-year deal may fall in the $8M-$8.25M range.
  • Evolving Hockey’s prediction fell somewhere between those ideas: six years, $6M.

Both projections happened before Makar and Heiskanen signed their own RFA deals, ones that both did and did not compare to the benchmark of the Chabot 8×8 contract.

How much might Dahlin’s deal compare to that of Heiskanen, Makar, or Hughes? Could a bridge make more sense for a defenseman who arguably hasn’t shown his best work yet? Should be intriguing, which is something you could say about these other big-name NHL RFA situations, too.

Other noteworthy NHL RFAs

Head to Cap Friendly for the full list.

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

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    Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — No team in over 25 years has been more dominant than the Vegas Golden Knights through the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final.

    They have outscored the Florida Panthers by eight goals, including a 7-2 victory in Game 2 that put the Knights two wins from the first championship in the franchise’s short six-year history.

    It will take a rare rally for the Panthers to come back as the series shifts to Florida for Game 3 on Thursday. Teams that took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era, but the Panthers opened the playoffs by storming back from 3-1 down to beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins.

    Florida will have to significantly up its level of play to beat a Vegas team that won by three goals on Saturday and then five in this game. The last team to win the first two games of a Cup Final by more than eight combined goals was the 1996 Colorado Avalanche – who outscored the Panthers by nine.

    “I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”

    Jonathan Marchessault scored twice for the Knights and started an early blitz that chased Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie.

    Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all of them coming after the first round. The only player with more following the opening round was Pavel Bure, who scored 13 for Vancouver in 1994.

    “They want to set the tone with being undisciplined like Game 1 and we set the tone back,” Marchessault said. “It was scoring that first goal there. But we’re still pretty far from our goal here.”

    Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

    It was too much for Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

    Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, carried Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coming into the Stanley Cup Final, he had won 11 of his past 12 starts with a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage during that stretch. But he’s given up eight goals in 87 minutes against Vegas, compiling a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage in the series.

    “We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

    Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

    Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Knights. Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

    “He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

    A group of four fans behind one of the nets wore sweaters that spelled out his last name, and Hill has often received the loudest cheers from Knights fans, reminiscent of when Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for Vegas in its first three seasons.

    “It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”

    The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

    The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

    That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

    Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

    “We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

    Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

    “We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

    Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

    “We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

    Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

    The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

    “It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

    That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

    Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

    The outcome was determined long before that.

    After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

    Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

    “That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

    Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

    Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

    “I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

    Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

    Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

    “If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

    Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

    “It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

    The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

    The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

    It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.