Free agent season is upon the National Hockey League. The period where teams can meet with and contact free agents began June 26th and contracts signed starting July 1st. While the unrestricted free agents generally take center stage, this year the NHL restricted free agent market has made most of the headlines.
Restricted free agency is a status in which teams retain the right to match any contracts offered to a player and are entitled to compensation by way of draft picks if they do not match the contract. Because of the assets, it takes to acquire a restricted free agent, these deals generally never take place.
This year could change everything. The 2019 restricted free agent class features franchise-altering players, potential superstars, and ancillary pieces that could be key to a teams championship hopes.
Top 10 NHL Restricted Free Agent Forwards
#1 – Mitch Marner (RW)
Previous Cap Hit: $894,167 with The Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner is the undisputed jewel of this years restricted free agency class. The exciting winger has wasted no time in becoming one of the leagues must watch talents. His creativity, underrated shot, and elite play-making ability dazzled fans and opposing teams alike. Marner is a bonafide superstar in the NHL that any team would love to have. Players like this hardly hit the free agent market (even with RFA status).
Any issues with Marner have been constrained to off the ice problems. The Ontario native has a sparkling reputation with fans, but this admiration has been tested with tumultuous contract negotiations with the Leafs. The Leafs are facing a tough salary cap situation and may not be able to match a big-time offer sheet for Marner.
A Marner offer sheet could be a significant gamble to an outside team though. Any team coveting the forward would likely be giving up four first-round draft picks as compensation. They also would need the salary cap space and a real need for his services. This unique blend of needs could make for a small number of teams that make sense, but Marner’s talent may be worth the risk. Will Marner be the catalyst for a successful offer sheet to be made for the first time since 2007?
#2 – Brayden Point (C)
Previous Cap Hit: $686,677 with The Tampa Bay Lightning
Brayden Point is one of the more intriguing free agent cases of the off-season. Point had a stellar year in 2018-19, but it will be interesting to see whether he can maintain that production going into the future. Point scored 41 goals last season, however, he scored 20 of those goals on the power play. Perhaps even more concerning, Point scored on 21.5% of his shots. In many ways, Point had a similar season to that of William Karlsson last year. They were both 40 goal scorers that accomplished that on a high shooting percentage. They also both received Selke votes. Karlsson entered the last off-season as a restricted free agent as well.
Will Point receive a bridge deal like Karlsson? Point is likely worth more than Karlsson, as Point had a 30 goal season in his second year. Even if Point can’t score at the same rate he did this season, he is still a very valuable player. Still, it’s unlikely that a 21.5% shooting percentage is sustainable. Point will command a large salary, but the Lightning have been proven to be able to sign talent to team friendly deals in the past. Only these negotiations with Point will tell if that trend continues without Steve Yzerman at the helm.
#3 – Mikko Rantanen (RW)
Previous Cap Hit: $894,167 with The Colorado Avalanche
In 2017-18 Mikko Rantanen put the NHL on notice when he scored 84 points in 81 games. If his sophomore effort was a coming out party, last season was Rantanen’s proof of concept. The winger not only replicated his previous success but improved upon it with 87 points in 74 games. On top of that, he has also improved his possession metrics in three consecutive seasons. As a part of one of the best lines in hockey, playing with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, Rantanen has become one of the elite scoring threats in the NHL.
The Colorado Avalanche have spent the early stages of the off-season clearing salary cap room. This is presumably to make room for a new contract for Rantanen. Of all the top restricted free agents, the Avalanche forward seems an unlikely candidate to move. The Avalanche have room to match just about any offer sheet that could come through.
#4 – Sebastian Aho (C/W)
Previous Cap Hit: $925,000 with The Carolina Hurricanes
Of all the 2019 Restricted free agents, Sebastian Aho may be the most important to his respective team. The 2015 second round draft pick has improved each season since his debut in 2016. He broke out for the league to see in his third season. Scoring 83 points in 82 games, Aho was a handful to deal with for every team. Aho is one of the few premiere scoring threat on a Hurricanes team that surprised the NHL by making the Eastern Conference Final.
What makes Aho even more special is that he is not just an offensive threat. He finished 12th in Selke voting for the 2018-19 season and used his lethal two-way game to produce an expected plus/minus (a measure of what players expected plus/minus should be based on where shots were taken from on the ice, and the league average shooting percentage from that location) of +21.7. If the Hurricanes want to maintain their momentum from last season they must keep Aho. Carolina has a solid foundation that should grow around their young Finnish star. However, he is the centrepiece that other teams may try and target.
#5 – Patrik Laine (RW)
Previous Cap Hit: $925,000 with The Winnipeg Jets
If this list was made last year, Patrik Laine would definitively be ranked as one of the top three available talents. Laine’s latest season, however, raised questions about his ability to score goals at an elite level consistently. The Finnish forward saw the lowest goal output of his young career with 30 goals on the season. On top of this, he scored 11 of these goals in just three games during the month of November. When Laine is hot there are few players in the league that can match his scoring acumen, but he went through long stretches with no production during the 2018-19 season.
These stretches serve as a cause for concern because when Laine is not scoring goals, he is unable to contribute meaningfully in other ways. He has seen his assist totals drop in three straight years and played porous defence in 2018-19 with an expected plus/minus of -10.3.
Laine has all the talent in the world to right the ship and rebound. Still, teams should see risk in his play-style. Facing a cap crunch, the Jets may not be able to take on this risk if another team comes through with a big offer sheet. Laine could be the perfect candidate for a bridge deal.
#6 – Matthew Tkachuk (LW)
Previous Cap Hit: $925,000 with The Calgary Flames
Matthew Tkachuk has wasted no time becoming one of the most hated players in the league. Apart from his “tenacity” Tkachuk also possesses one of the most intriguing bundles of attributes in the NHL. The forward has increased his goal-scoring output in each of his first three seasons. Tkachuk is a versatile forward that can score goals from any area on the ice, plays solid defence, and showed play-making ability last year with the highest assist total (43) of his pro career.
In addition, Tkachuk has made an effort to become more disciplined. In his rookie season, the forward sat in the box for 102 minutes. Since then, he has logged 61 penalty minutes in his second season, and 62 minutes in his latest. Though that number increased this year, he also played 12 more games.
Tkachuk has exceeded expectations in many ways. Though he was a highly touted player coming into the league, many would not have suspected that he reach these heights this soon. Has Tkachuk reached his ceiling? Will teams be willing to pay him for further development that may not come? Even if Tkachuk is a finished product at this point, it is still a product that would be highly valuable to any team.
#7 – Brock Boeser (RW)
Previous Cap Hit: $925,000 with The Vancouver Canucks
Brock Boeser is another player with a high upside that needs a new contract. Boeser, however, is in a unique situation because he has less of a sample size than most other players entering restricted free agency. The forward just completed his second full NHL season and has yet to play more than 70 games in a season. On top of this, Boeser did not take the step forward many had expected in his sophomore season. The Canucks forward saw his goal total drop from 29 to 26 while playing seven more games.
Despite the raw numbers being fairly disappointing, advanced stats may indicate that Boeser is in line for a bounce-back season. His Corsi percentage jumped from 48.3% to 51.6% and saw an increase in expected goals for from 39.1 to 45.8. These numbers are encouraging for the long-term prospects of Boeser’s career output. Even without the step forward most saw coming, it would be hard to describe Boeser’s sophomore season as a slump. He remains an important part of Vancouver’s core for the future.
#8 – Timo Meier (LW)
Previous Cap Hit: $894,167 with The San Jose Sharks
The 2018-19 season was a breakout year for Sharks forward Timo Meier. The forward scored 30 goals for the first time in his career as an important cog of a lethal Sharks offence. Playing top-six minutes for the first time in his short career, Meier delivered on the promise he has shown. Meier’s calling card is his possession driving offensive play, registering a 56.0% Corsi For percentage in the 2018-19 season. Though he does not have an elite shot, his goal scoring should maintain this pace or even improve because of this trait.
The Sharks will have some tough decisions to make this off-season. They have already inked Erik Karlsson to a long-term deal, but they still have multiple free agents to deal with. Though money will be tight, it is hard to imagine the Sharks not doing whatever they can to retain Meier.
#9 – Kyle Connor (LW)
Previous Cap Hit: $925,000 with The Winnipeg Jets
Kyle Connor is another player that does not have a cast sample size to work off of. For the time he has been in the league, Connor has blossomed into a dangerous goal scorer. The forward has scored more than 30 goals in each of his first two seasons. Kyle Connor‘s free agency has been overshadowed by his teammate, Patrik Laine.
Connor, however, may be the more consistent and safer option. He will also likely be cheaper. The Michigan University product intends to re-up with the Jets, per TSN’s Pierre LeBrun and may not be available in free agency for long.
#10 – Travis Konecny (C/RW/LW)
Previous Cap Hit: $897,167 with The Philadelphia Flyers
There are a few different names that could go in the final spot of the top 10 restricted free agent class. Ryan Donato played well after being traded to Minnesota. Jakub Vrana improved upon his solid rookie campaign. Travis Konecny stands above these players because of his versatility.
Konecny can play every forward position and has scored well in his short NHL career. The forward scored 49 points while averaging just 15:16 in time on ice. Though he could not fully enjoy a breakout season, the Ontario native likely has more room to grow. He can also be placed anywhere throughout the lineup, often featuring on the Philadelphia top line with Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux. With the Flyers having bountiful salary cap space, they should retain Konecny.
Offer Sheet Outlook
Despite the bevy of talent available, questions still remain as to whether any offer sheets will be extended. Teams not only have to pay a salary, but also draft pick compensation. This, along with any vendetta that could be created with opposing General Managers, make signing a restricted free agent a risky proposition. Will this be the Summer of the offer sheet? Or will the risk prove too much?