With the excitement of the NHL Draft fresh in many people’s minds, it’s time to turn the page and focus on July 1st, when a number of free agents will hit the open market. While the crop of players available may be thin in both top-end talent and depth, there are a number who could be game-changers for shrewd general managers.
After covering the three categories of UFA’s over the past three days, LWOS wanted to bring you a list on something that doesn’t get as much coverage: the RFA market. Every once in a while, we witness a team throw an offer sheet towards someone else’s star player, and it makes for an entertaining few days (see Shea Weber and the Flyers, 2012.) It’s a rare occasion, but one worth covering.
Top 10 NHL Restricted Free Agents 2015
1) Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
2014-15 Cap Hit: $900,000
Tarasenko is by far the biggest star included on this list, and is among the finest young forwards in the National Hockey League. After several seasons of being touted as the next big thing in hockey, Tarasenko finally broke out this season, establishing himself as one the league’s most dangerous and exciting players.
With 37 goals in 77 games, he tied for fifth in league goal scoring, while his 73 points ranked solidly in the top ten league wide. After a mere 62 points in his first 102 contests, Tarasenko put it all together this season, earning the title “living highlight reel.”
The 23-year-old Russian has also been a strong player possession-wise, with a Corsi-For of 55.2%, and a Fenwick-For of 56.1%, along with a scoring chance plus-minus of plus-171. Another aspect that will look attractive to other clubs is his outstanding playoff stats, where he put up six goals and seven points in the Blues’ six-game defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Wild.
There is no doubt that Tarasenko is one of the league’s fastest rising young talents, one that could dramatically change a franchise, and it’s certain that he’ll get paid, whether it be via offer sheet or (more likely) by the St. Louis Blues. He’s a game breaker, and is without question the best player on the RFA market this season.
2) Derek Stepan, New York Rangers
2014-15 Cap Hit: $3.075 million
At first glance, New York Rangers centerman Stepan doesn’t come across as anything special. He has never cracked more than 57 points (which he recorded in 2013-14, though he was on a 75-point pace in the lockout shortened year of 2012-13), and has never scored more than 21 goals (his rookie year in 2010-11.)
However, Stepan has established himself as a strong two-way presence in the NHL, and considering how often some players’ production fluctuates each season, the consistency of Stepan in the 50-60 point range is likely attractive to many clubs. When it comes to post-season production, Stepan gets the job done, with 27 points in 43 games over the past two seasons, including 12 in 19 contests over the course of the Rangers’ recent run to the Eastern Conference final.
Possession-wise, Stepan has some work to do, with a Corsi-For and Fenwick-For both below 50%, both of which were among the lowest on his team. That said, there’s still much more to like than dislike about Stepan’s game, and considering young top-six centers of Stepan’s caliber are tough to come by these days, the 25-year-old will likely look to add to the $3.85 million he made last season.
3) Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
2014-15 Cap Hit: $1.85 million
After bursting onto the scene in the 2011-12 playoffs with .935 SV% and a 1.95 GAA through 14 games, Holtby had a couple seasons where, despite posting solid numbers, he wasn’t quite living up to his potential.
2014-15 is where that all changed, as Holtby established himself among the NHL’s top goaltenders with a .923 SV% and a 2.22 GAA, while finishing fourth in Vezina trophy voting, just slightly behind Wild netminder Devan Dubnyk for third place. In 2014-15, Holtby played a total of 73 games, tops among all NHL goaltenders, while ranking fifth in GAA and seventh in SV%.
Adding to the accomplishment is the fact the Capitals are a middle-of-the-pack possession team, ranking 14th in the league. While Holtby may have been overshadowed by Alex Ovechkin and, to a lesser extent, Nicklas Backstrom, one could easily make the case that Holtby was the Capitals’ MVP this past season, and there is no doubt that the 25-year-old is going to cash in this off-season.
4) Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks
2014-15 Cap Hit: $764,166
While he may not have the “wow” season under his belt that Tarasenko does quit yet, Saad has developed into a key player on the Blackhawks roster and has been a solid contributor during the playoffs, including both Cup runs that he’s been involved in (2013 and 2015.)
Saad was up for the Calder Trophy in 2012-13 for a season that saw him score 27 points in 46 games (he lost out to Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers). Since then, Saad has put up 99 points in 160 contests, with seasons that saw totals of 47 and 52. His post-season production has also been respectable, with 27 points in 38 games over the past two seasons. Saad put up a 53.8% Corsi-For, and a 52.7% Fenwick-For, as well as a plus-115 scoring chance differential last season.
It seems like a near-guarantee that Patrick Sharp is on his way out this summer, and when taking into account that Marian Hossa may start to slow down, Saad will likely see his ice-time increase, and he could start to put up gaudier totals than what he has accomplished to-date. Considering the lack of household names on the free agency market this year, teams may look to add a semi-proven scoring winger on the RFA front, and Saad will likely be an intriguing name for many.
5) Dougie Hamilton, Calgary Flames
2014-15 Cap Hit: $894,166
After being traded to the Calgary Flames from the Boston Bruins at the draft, a transaction that sparked a lot of debate among hockey fans, one has to shift their attention to whether or not the Calgary Flames will be able to retain the 22-year-old Hamilton, and while it seems extremely likely that they will be able to, there is a very real possibility that teams try to offer sheet the coveted young defenceman.
This season, Hamilton emerged as arguably the Bruins’ top defender, scoring 42 points in 72 games, third among all Bruins skaters and tops among d-men. With a Corsi-For of 54.9% and a Fenwick-For of 52.9%, the 9th overall selection of the 2011 entry draft has established himself as a strong possession player. Hamilton possesses everything one could want in a defenceman: he can play physically, contribute offensively, and play against top opponents on a nightly basis.
The one concern, however, is rumors circulating the Toronto native is demanding upwards of $6 million, but considering the Flames gave up three solid draft picks (a 1st-rounder and two 2nd-rounders), it appears likely that they’ll give him his pay, whether they’re forced into it via an offer sheet or not.
6) Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings
2014-15 Cap Hit: $950,000
Nyquist took the hockey world by storm during the 2013-14 campaign, scoring 48 points in 57 games and almost single-handedly lifting the Red Wings into a playoff berth during a time of injury crises. While he wasn’t able to replicate that success in 2014-15, the 25-year-old still has plenty of upside, and it won’t be too long before he’s among the ten best scorers in hockey.
Nyquist is yet another example of a mid to late round gem by the Red Wings, selected in the fourth round of the 2008 entry draft (121st overall.) This season, Nyquist spent the whole season with the Red Wings, scoring 54 points in 82 games, along with two in seven playoff games. He also put up a strong 53.2% Corsi-For and a 50.9% Fenwick-For, as well as a plus-67 scoring chance plus-minus. Nyquist’s minor league numbers before joining the NHL were very strong as well, with seasons that saw PPG numbers of 1.03 (2011-12, 2012-13) and 1.4 (2013-14.)
All signs point towards Nyquist developing into a top offensive threat in the NHL and the next in a long line of successful Red Wings Europeans, and while a bridge contract seems more likely at this point, Nyquist still remains one of the top RFAs of this year’s crop.
7) Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
2014-15 Cap Hit: $894,166
After a couple seasons of setbacks for Huberdeau, he broke into the NHL in a big way in 2012-13, winning the Calder Trophy with 31 points in 48 games, beating out the Canadiens Brendan Gallagher and the aforementioned Saad.
Since then, things haven’t been quite as rosy for the third overall pick of the 2011 entry draft. He got hit hard by the sophomore slump in 2013-14, scoring three less points in 21 more games in a season where the Panthers finished second-to-last in the NHL. Huberdeau saw a mild bounce-back this past season, with a career-high 15 goals and 54 points in 79 games, tops among all Panthers, as well as a plus-10 rating, third on the club.
The 22-year-old was a force in junior, with seasons that saw him score 45 points in 30 games (2012-13 ), 72 in 37 (2011-12) and 105 in 67 (2010-11.) While Huberdeau has not put together that type of season at the NHL level, there’s no reason he can’t be a consistent 60-70 point guy one day, and he looks to be a big part of the Panthers’ organization going forward.
8) Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs
2014-15 Cap Hit: $2.9 million
Few things have gone right for the Toronto Maple Leafs over the course of the past few seasons, but one thing that largely has is the play of goaltender Bernier. While the 2014-15 campaign was a step backwards, his play in 2013-14 proved he has a lot to give, and there is the potential for him to be a top-end goalie.
In 2013-14, many were talking about Bernier as a potential Vezina nominee, with a save percentage of .922 and a goals against average of 2.70 (which may not seem overly spectacular, but that’s why goals against average is a flawed stat.) Those stats dropped in 2014-15 to .912 and 2.87, but were still relatively decent considering the defensive struggles.
On a better team, there’s a lot of upside for the young Bernier. He’s shown that he can play at an elite level, and behind a stronger blue line, he could live up to his potential as a 60-65 game starter. It seems unlikely he gets a huge contract this year, but give it time. It might just happen soon.
9) Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens
2014-15 Cap Hit: $925,000
Galchenyuk was taken 3rd overall in the 2012 entry draft, and while possessing boatloads of skill and monster numbers in junior, hasn’t quite been able to breakout as a superstar.
Since being drafted, Galchenyuk has seen totals of 46 points (pro-rated to a full 82-game season), 39 points (pro-rated) and 46 points, solid though unspectacular numbers. Considering the Canadiens have had their offensive struggles, Galchenyuk will have to become a bigger producer if the Habs want to establish themselves as an Eastern powerhouse.
The Milwaukee native has played in a total of 22 NHL playoff games, scoring four goals and 10 points in the process. On the possession side of things, he has a Corsi-For of 51.2% to go with a Fenwick-For of 51% and a scoring chance plus-minus of plus-60. At this point, it seems a bridge deal is the most likely scenario for Galchenyuk, and it’s after that when he’ll potentially get the chance to bring in some cash.
10) Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs
2014-15 Cap Hit: $2.9 million
Kadri was selected 7th overall by the Maple Leafs in the 2009 entry draft, and so far, outside of the 2012-13 campaign, he hasn’t quite panned out, but he still boasts a lot of potential to become an effective top-six producer.
His 2013 season was by far his finest, with 44 points in 48 games (a 75 point pace), but hasn’t come close to replicating that success since. He put up 50 points in 78 games in 2013-14, followed by a 2014-15 campaign that saw him score 44 points in 73 contests.
Kadri has had success in the minor and junior leagues, scoring 41 points in 44 games in 2010-11 with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, as well as 0.96, 1.39 and 1.66 PPG seasons with the Kitchener Rangers and London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Kadri’s possession numbers were below 50% this past season, but considering how poor his team did with possession as a whole, those statistics can be forgiven. Kadri will likely never be the huge scorer he was in junior, but there’s still plenty of reason to believe that he can become a productive top-six centerman within the next few years.