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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