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NHL’s Top 12 RFAs of 2023: Latest rumours, reports

Trade bait, bridge candidates and future superstars that need to be locked up ASAP.

The 2023 class of restricted free agents offers a little bit of everything.

And although several potential ’23 RFAs avoided the drama and uncertainty by signing well in advance of expiry (Mathew Barzal, Roope Hintz, Dylan Cozens, Matt Boldy, Dan Vladar and Stuart Skinner among them), plenty of intriguing young names remain unsigned.

As these RFAs look to bank off their platform seasons and owners wrestle with slow-to-rise salary cap, many tense negotiations (or trades?) are still on deck.

The situations in Winnipeg, New York, Ottawa, New Jersey and Anaheim are particularly interesting.

Here’s where things stand with the top 12 RFAs of 2023 after the trade-deadline dust settles.

1. Pierre-Luc Dubois

Age: 25
Position: Centre
2022-23 salary cap hit: $6 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Strong, 220-pound two-way, No. 1 centreman. Third-overall pick. World junior and two-time world championships silver medallist. Expert drawer of penalties. Four-time 20-goal man. Jets surrendered a haul to acquire him from Columbus.

The latest: The grand suspicion is that the Quebec native is biding his time until unrestricted free agency and a chance to sign with his boyhood-favourite Montreal Canadiens.

Had the Winnipeg Jets not been enjoying a refreshing bounce-back season under new coach Rick Bowness — and Dubois thriving in his system — surely the trade winds would’ve swirling at deadline.

But with the Jets legit, Dubois’s focus has been on playing his best hockey since accepting a one-year qualifying offer.

“I told (Dubois) that when I got the job: ‘I’m going to do everything I can to keep you, to help you stay in Winnipeg,’ ” Bowness said on Jan. 18.

OK. So how about Dubois’ agent, Pat Brisson, and his July comments that Dubois would love to be a Canadien someday?

“Time will tell on that. That’s totally out of my control right now. He’s going to do what’s best for him and his career,” Bowness said. “All I can do is tell him I’d love to see him be a Winnipeg Jet for a long time, and I’ll do everything I can to keep you in a Winnipeg Jets uniform.”

Dubois’ situation most resembles that of Matthew Tkachuk in Calgary last season: playoff-bound team, star player, only one more year of club control.

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff must find the best deal possible this summer if a long-term extension cannot be reached quickly.

Dubois himself has been diplomatic but noncommittal.

“If I think of anything else than finishing first in the West and winning the Stanley Cup, it’d be a disservice to my teammates, the coaching staff and everybody,” Dubois said.

On a long-term pact, Dubois should command an AAV in the $9 million range.

2. Timo Meier

Age: 26
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $6 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: Top-10 draft pick. World championships silver medallist. Three-time 30-goal scorer. Posted career-best 76-point season in 2021-22. Big body (6-foot-1, 220 pounds). Devils worked hard to acquire him in a competitive market. A threat off both wings.

The latest: Don’t let the cap hit fool you.

Because Meier’s agent, Claude Lemieux, shrewdly backloaded his client’s contract, Meier requires a monster $10-million qualifying offer to remain in New Jersey.

Though Meier is technically a restricted free agent, he was being treated like a UFA by the rebuilding Sharks and was highly coveted on the trade market before getting shipped to the Devils in a 13-piece deadline blockbuster.

In New Jersey’s case, there is cap room to extend — and a popular theory that Meier’s Swiss connections and the promise of a long contention window will create a seamless transition.

GM Tom Fitzgerald is making a long-term extension a priority.

“Very important. If you’re gonna give up those types of assets, you want to at least control him for a couple years, and we do with Timo. The goal here is to extend him. The goal is for him to fall in love with New Jersey — the on-ice product, the players, the age group, the living,” Fitzgerald told The Athletic Hockey Show.

“If you don’t live here, you don’t understand it. You don’t know it. But it’s a hidden gem. It really is. … I mean, we’re in our bed every night anytime we play an Eastern Conference team at one in the morning, at the very least. The airport’s 10 minutes away, one-stop shopping with practice facility/game facility. There’s a lot to like, a couple bus trips for games.

“We travel the least out of every NHL team, other than the neighbours here. So, it’s just a lot to sell — and that’s our goal. When he comes here, he’s gonna fall in love with it and understand that Newark to Zurich is nonstop five-and-a-half hours, so we’ll have family over for him.”

3. Jesper Bratt

Age: 24
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $2.75 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: One of the NHL’s most underrated forwards. Silky mitts. Steadily increased his points per game over three seasons. Selected to Sweden’s 2019 world championship squad. Devils’ top scorer in 2021-22 with a career-best 26-goal, 73-point performance. Has his own fan club.

The latest: Bratt is about to make the franchise pay.

Delivering career season after career season since signing his two-year bridge contract, followed by a one-year mini bridge, Bratt is once again thriving for breakout contender New Jersey.

The sixth-rounder might be a late bloomer, but his confidence and underlying numbers are accelerating upward. In a somewhat surprising move, Fitzgerald committed early and aggressively to Bratt’s younger teammate, Jack Hughes, in late 2021 with an eight-year, $64-million whopper.

Hughes is a centre and arrived more highly touted; Bratt is a winger.

Even with Meier aboard, space to extend Bratt should not be an issue. But keeping his price tag well below Hughes’ is the challenge, considering Bratt’s camp knows the ceiling is on the rise.

Kevin Fiala’s seven-year, $55-million deal with Los Angeles is one comparable, and Bratt has not been shy about filing for arbitration.

Fitzgerald describes Bratt as “a big part of our future,” and informed The Fourth Period in November that extensions talks are underway.

“I just don’t want this to be a distraction to the player. You know, as we go along, we know how we feel about him. And we want to tie him up long-term. We hope the feeling’s mutual,” said Fitzgerald, trying to get individuals to take less for the greater good.

“Look at the Boston Bruins. They’re a championship-calibre team because there’s enough depth and there’s enough money to go around to build a championship team.

“And that’s how I want to build our team. So, there’s gotta be a will and a want to stay here and play, and understand, and I said this to his agent, ‘Jesper isn’t the only person without a contract. He’s not the only important person without one. We’ve got a lot of important people that don’t have contracts next year.’ It’s figuring out who we want to move forward with. What are they going to re-price at? There’s only so much money to go around for everybody. But Jesper is a huge part of where we are at, where we want to go.”

Fitzgerald reinforced the desire to extend in a late-February conversation with the NHL Network: “I’m trying to hammer out a deal with his agent as we speak.”

4. Cole Caufield

Age: 22
Position: Left wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $880,833
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. 2021 world junior gold medallist. Two-time 20-goal man. Wicked shot. Legitimate 50-goal threat. Core piece of Montreal’s future. Chemistry with captain Nick Suzuki.

The latest: Bummer that Caufield’s offensive breakout and outside shot at becoming the Montreal Canadiens’ long-awaited New 50-Goal Scorer was snuffed out mid-January because of a season-ending shoulder surgery.

But as colleague Eric Engels reports, Caufield’s injury won’t bring an end to contract extension chatter between GM Kent Hughes and super-agent Pat Brisson.

“One thing’s for sure is that we want Cole Caufield with us long-term,” Hughes told reporters on Jan. 18. “I think that Cole wants to stay with us long-term. The way contracts go, it could depend. We always want to keep a certain flexibility.

“It’s not to say that there are any negotiating problems, so many things can happen, but if it’s open to everyone, I find that there’s a lot of speculation that can become a distraction for the player and for the team. When the negotiations will be done and the contract will be finalized, I’ll be happy to answer questions, but to comment while the negotiations are ongoing is something we’d want to avoid.”

Caufield admitted on Jan. 20 that the unfinished paperwork had been creeping into his thoughts.

“I love being here, I love this team and this group of guys,” Caufield said. “So, I just take it one step at a time. But for sure it’s in the back of my mind.

“My agent and the guys behind the scenes take care of those things, but I’m not too worried.”

The bet here is that Montreal will jump to go long-term with Caufield, the way it did with Suzuki and the way Buffalo is handing its emerging stars.

Said president Jeff Gorton in late November: “Don’t worry about it. Cole’s going to be here.”

5. Alex DeBrincat

Age: 26
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $6.4 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: World junior and world championships medallist. 2022 All-Star Game participant. Two-time 40-goal, 75-point scorer. Ottawa invested 2022’s seventh- and 39th-overall picks to acquire the player.

The latest: The Summer of Pierre was at risk of morphing into a Winter of Despair.

Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion spent a haul at the draft to acquire game-breaking scorer DeBrincat, only to see the sniper’s shooting percentage dip.

Unlike Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar in Calgary, DeBrincat didn’t jump at the opportunity to chat extension after his blockbuster trade to Canada.

As is the case with Meier, DeBrincat’s steep qualifying offer ($9 million) complicates matters.

Unlike Meier’s case, the Senators did not entertain a deadline trade. In fact, Dorion turned into a surprise buyer, smartly picking up Jakob Chychrun and hanging around the fringes of the playoff conversation.

Dorion has enough cap room to extend DeBrincat and certainly doesn’t want this marriage to end as a one-year rental to nowhere.

Thus, the player holds all the leverage.

In a January interview with The Athletic’s Ian Mendes, DeBrincat expressed his comfort with the Ottawa lifestyle.

“Nothing has really changed. Still taking it day by day, just trying to focus on hockey rather than things outside of hockey,” DeBrincat said.

“I keep that stuff to other people and let them deal with it. I think it’s kind of out of my mind and trying to just focus on playing well. Getting back in the playoff race, I think that’s the most important thing.”

Post-deadline, DeBrincat reiterated that agent Jeff Jackson won’t sit down with Dorion until season’s end. No rush: “We’re just going to wait until the summer. We have a lot of big games here and we don’t really want any distractions, so we’re probably just going to wait until the summer.”

Said Dorion: “People forget there’s an adjustment when you go to a new team. There’s adjustments. Alex has played with different centres all through this year. He works hard. He’s talented. He does the right thing. … We’ve been very happy about how Alex’s play overall.”

6. Troy Terry

Age: 25
Position: Centre / Right wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $1.45 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: 2017 world junior gold medallist. 2018 Olympian for Team USA. Erupted for 37 goals and 67 points in 2021-22. Anaheim’s 2022 and 2023 All-Star Game representative.

The latest: Rebuilding Anaheim needs to seek out important pieces of the future while retaining the young talent currently in the stable.

That means finding a path to re-signing Terry, whose solid back-to-back seasons and arbitration rights give the top-line forward leverage heading into this summer.

Terry is wrapping up a three-year bridge deal at a bargain $1.45-million price tag, and GM Pat Verbeek prefers to wait until season’s end to drill down on negotiations.

Terry’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, is keeping mum on the file, letting his client’s performance do all the talking.

This will be a fascinating situation to watch considering Verbeek has a handful of emerging stars up for raises. Cap space is not a big obstacle.

How he chooses to allot his dollars will shape the future of this squad.

7. Vince Dunn

Age: 26
Position: Defence
2022-23 salary cap hit: $4 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: 2019 Stanley Cup champion. Superb puck-mover. Improving defensively. About to 35 points for the third season from the back end. Skates nearly 24 minutes per night. Power-play facilitator.

The latest: Seattle’s premier offensive defenceman has played a significant role in the NHL’s newest franchise rapid ascent to playoff contention.

A healthy Dunn has found his top-four niche and should finally get the long-term contract that eluded him in St. Louis.

“Dunner’s just playing with confidence, and he’s doing a lot of the little things,” coach Dave Hakstol told reporters. “When you look at the way he’s getting us out of the zone, he’s defending well and he’s using his feet, he’s playing fast on our exits. He’s doing a really good job there, and that’s a credit to him.”

Dunn and GM Ron Francis held brief discussions on an extension but, as Jeff Marek reported in a January edition of 32 Thoughts, opted to set serious negotiations off until summer. Dunn and the Kraken, instead, will focus on securing the club’s first playoff berth.

Jamie Oleksiak is Seattle’s highest-paid D-man, at $4.6 million. Adam Larsson makes $4 million.

Remember: Francis chose Dunn over game-breaker Vladimir Tarasenko in the expansion draft.

It’s time for Dunn to become the highest-paid defenceman in Seattle.

Francis addressed Dunn’s contract talks after a sleepy trade deadline in Seattle: “We’ve had sort of small conversations. But at the end of the day, we decided to push it off until the end of the year and let the guys focus on playing as well as they can.”

8. K’Andre Miller

Age: 23
Position: Defence
2022-23 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2019 world junior silver medallist. First-round pick. 2021 NHL All-Rookie Team. Skates 22-plus minutes a night. Big, rangy (6-foot-4, 216 pounds) D-man with offensive upside. Thrived in Rangers’ 2022 run to the conference final.

The latest: New York has already committed significant term and dollars to two defencemen (Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba). Miller should be the third.

The catch here is that GM Chris Drury must also find money to bump the pay of Miller’s fellow RFAs, Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere.

Without the benefit of arbitration rights, Drury holds the hammer.

The GM can either bridge Miller and save money short-term or bet long-term in hopes that Miller will look like a bargain down the road.

“Everyone knows what this year means for me and my career and my family – everyone I’ve been through this journey with,” Miller told on Jan. 12.

“It’s something you’ve been working for your whole life, and for it to be so close, it’s just that last push before (restricted free agency). That’s been in the back of my mind – way back of my mind – but I don’t think it’s been anything that I’ve been caught up on or hung up on.”

Rangers scribe Vincent Z. Mercoglioano places “the absolute floor” for Miller’s next contract at three years and $3 million per (the same as Ryan Lindgren signed in 2021), “but the prevailing belief is Miller will land more money and years.”

Rasmus Dahlin’s $6 million AAV in Buffalo is a reach, so something in the $4 million to $5 million ballpark would make sense.

9. Trevor Zegras

Age: 22
Position: Centre / Left wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2021 world junior gold mediallist. Top-10 draft pick. Skills for days. NHL23 video game coverboy. One of the NHL’s most markable young stars. 20-goal, 60-point man.

The latest: Just like teammate Terry, Zegras must play the waiting game as GM Verbeek plans to map out his salary plan in the off-season.

“Since (Verbeek) came out publicly that he wants to wait until the end of the year, we didn’t talk contract, and I’m good with it,” Brisson, Zegras’s agent, told The Athletic‘s Pierre LeBrun. “I’m fine either way.”

The growing trend leaguewide is to skip the bridge and go long-term with talented young forwards (Jack Hughes, Nick Suzuki, Matt Boldy et al.).

But in the case of Verbeek — who is new to the office and without much of a signing track record — we don’t yet have a handle on his philosophy when it comes to building.

Thus far, he’s only torn down.

“We’re going to have to see how their years go this year and then obviously we’re going to have to get some new contracts out,” Verbeek said.

“Having flexibility with the cap is vital moving ahead. At the end of the day, there’s only so much money to go around. We have to make sure we can all fit it in.”

10. Evan Bouchard

Age: 23
Position: Defence
2022-23 salary cap hit: $863,333
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: Top-10 draft pick. Puck-moving right shot. Scored 18 goals and 67 points through first 150 NHL games. Skates 18-plus minutes per night. Meaningful contributor in Oilers’ 2022 playoff run. Can run a power play.

The latest: Bouchard’s jolt up the Oilers’ depth chart last season had many predicting (us included) he would assume a stranglehold running point on the No. 1 power-play unit in 2022-23 — and reap the rewards of all those 5-on-4 points that come with playing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Well, Bouchard’s ascendance hasn’t been quite so smooth. His production has slipped and his defensive game still needs work. (A plus-10 in 2021-22, Bouchard is tracking to be a minus this season.)

That said, 23-year-old D-men with Bouchard’s pedigree who can log top-four minutes aren’t easy to come across. The deadline departure of Tyson Barrie opens up more power-play minutes for Bouchard to seize, and the arrival of Mattias Ekholm alleviates some D-zone pressure.

This is the kid’s shot to thrive.

“It is a little bit of an opportunity for me,” Bouchard said. “Hopefully, I can take it and run with it.”

GM Ken Holland holds the hammer in this one. Dangling the performance incentive that comes with a bridge contract will be the safest route, considering the Oilers’ tight cap situation in 2023-24.

11. Ilya Samsonov

Age: 25
Position: Goaltender
2022-23 salary cap hit: $1.8 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: First-round draft pick. Two-time world juniors medallist and one-time world juniors All-Star. Gagarin Cup champion. Has posted a winning record in all four NHL seasons.

The latest: Not qualified by Washington as an RFA, Samsonov signed a one-year, prove-it contract in Toronto knowing he’d have a legitimate shot to take the net from the accomplished but injury-prone Matt Murray.

By the All-Star break, the Maple Leafs’ younger, cheaper option had done just that.

Samsonov has put up better numbers and stayed healthier than his tandem mate, making him Toronto’s No. 1 and a strong candidate for a hard-earned raise come summertime.

“He really wanted it to be a one-year kind of show-me, bet-on-yourself type deal, which is not always common with players coming off of this shock of being non-QO’d when he wasn’t expecting it,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said. “That was impressive to me.”

Dubas is content to let the season play out to see if Samsonov (or Murray, for that matter) “can become the long-term solution in net.” In-season extensions are not a priority in Leafland.

A critical part of this trial period is discovering how the affable Samsonov can perform under playoff pressure.

He loves Toronto so far, no question.

He has also shown struggles on the road and owns a 1-6 record in the postseason.

“I don’t talk with Kyle. I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe my agent talks with him. I didn’t listen about this. I’m focused on the next day,” Samsonov replied, when asked on Feb. 9 if extension talks are underway.

Let’s see how April goes.

12. Filip Chytil

Age: 23
Position: Centre / Left wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $2.3 million
Arbitration rights: Yes
Bargaining chips: First-round pick. Playoff performer. Enjoying a career season. Big body (6-foot-2, 204 pounds). Hasn’t reached ceiling.

The latest: The centre of the Kid Line is shining toward the conclusion of the two-year bridge deal he accepted in 2021, and he’ll be armed with arbitration rights and the case for a significant raise when he meets with the Rangers’ brass this off-season.

Should the player exercise his arb rights, a bump to $4 million short-term feels about right. To secure his services long-term, the AAV jumps.

As mentioned, Drury must also figure out the futures of RFAs Miller and Lafreniere while considering if it’s worth keeping pending UFAs Tarasenko, Patrick Kane and Niko Mikkola as more than rentals. (A poorly kept secret is the Vancouver Canucks’ interest in Lafreniere as a trade target.)

New York already has its top two pivots, Mika Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck, locked up long-term, so a juicy deal for 3C Chytil will be complicated. The player could point to Dylan Cozens’ recent windfall in Buffalo (seven years, $49.7 million) as a long-term comparable.

Despite third-line minutes and limited power-play looks, Chytil delivers meaningful offence and will hit 20 goals for the first time.

The Athletic’s Arthur Staple reports that preliminary talks have begun between Drury and Chytil’s agent, J.P. Barry, but there are plenty of moving pieces in the Big Apple.

Another bridge could be the easiest solution, but the Rangers risk walking a valuable player to UFA status in two more seasons.

More notable pending RFAs: Alexis Lafreniere, Bowen Byram, Tanner Jeannot, Jeremy Swayman, Daniel Sprong, Filip Gustavsson, Martin Fehervary, Cam York, Simon Benoit, Ethan Bear, Alexandre Carrier, Jamie Drysdale, Morgan Frost, Alex Newhook, Erik Brannstrom, Mackenzie Blackwood, Matias Maccelli, Gabriel Vilardi, Sam Steel, Morgan Geekie, Klim Kostin, Trent Frederic, Shane Pinto, Cody Glass, Pontus Holmberg, Tyson Jost, Christian Fischer, Denis Gurianov, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Noah Cates, Jesse Puljujarvi, Ross Colton, Colin White

Contract info via the excellent


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