Tampa Bay Lightning fans, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You’ve got Mikhail Sergachev on a bargain deal. It’s amazing how Julien Brisebois continues to make things work.
But the pain isn’t over: the team still needs to sign Anthony Cirelli.
Tampa Bay is currently over the salary cap by about $2 million and Cirelli won’t come cheap after proving himself as a reliable two-way center. Add in Erik Cernak’s potential new deal on the point and the next few moves will not be easy to put together.
The Lightning moved on from Zach Bogosian and Kevin Shattenkirk which cleared a few million each, but not enough to make everything work just yet. The Lightning were unsuccessful in their search to give Tyler Johnson a new home via the waiver wire in October and despite a solid scoring background, his play has dropped off over time. Seattle would be a fantastic dumping ground for Johnson, but the Lightning can’t wait a year if they want to secure Cirelli.
That’s the issue the Lightning face moving forward, and Ryan Kennedy does a great job at highlighting the challenge ahead after the Sergachev news. But what about the rest of the league’s top RFAs? Here’s a look at the best players still available as we head into December:
Mathew Barzal, C (New York Islanders)
Barzal is the centerpiece of the Islanders, bar none. He’s going nowhere, period. Barzal has recorded at least 60 points in all three of his NHL seasons, highlighted by a superb 85-point rookie campaign in 2017-18. At 23, what’s his next contract going to look like? Matt Larkin suggested that Barzal would make close to Jack Eichel’s $10 million deal in a non-COVID-19 world, but nobody’s making that this off-season. The Isles have just $3.9 million in cap space as it stands, but that’s about to change. But things might be ready to get just a bit more interesting. Long-time NHL defenseman Johnny Boychuk was forced into early retirement due to an eye injury, opening up about $6 million in free space to give them nearly $10 million in cap room to play with. That’ll be enough to land Barzal in this COVID-19 contract landscape, but what about the length?
Pierre-Luc Dubois, C (Columbus Blue Jackets)
The Blue Jackets have shown true promise with first- and qualification-round victories the past two seasons. Now it’s time for the Jackets to continue towards a successful long-term future and Dubois is one of the biggest pieces of that puzzle. The Jackets have $9.23 million in available cap space so landing Dubois shouldn’t be an issue. But GM Jarmo Kekalainen needs to be mindful of Columbus’ cap situation moving forward, too: only Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist and Vladislav Gavrikov are signed past 2021-22, meaning the Jackets still need to deal with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Max Domi, among others over the next two years. Dubois is a No. 1 centerman at the age of 22 with a 61-point season to his credit – give him time and Dubois will be a true star in the NHL. It just won’t come cheap.
Mackenzie Blackwood, G (New Jersey Devils)
The Devils seemed set on making Blackwood the team’s goaltender of the future and bringing in two-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford into the fray will offer some guidance and competition that Blackwood hasn’t really had in his short NHL career. He picked an incredible time to get hot during the season: from Dec. 14 until the shutdown on March 12, Blackwood had a 14-6-4 record to make him one of the better goalies down the stretch. Blackwood is still young at 23 with about a season and a half of NHL experience to his credit, so I’d keep an eye on something like Matt Murray’s three-year deal at $3.75-million per that he signed in 2016 as a comparable.
Ethan Bear, D (Edmonton Oilers)
Bear’s emergence in 2019-20 was one of the best surprises in Edmonton. Bear played in 18 games in 2017-18 but never received a call-up in 2018-19 after suffering injuries along the way. Bear averaged 21:53 a game in 2019-20 as a rookie and in a normal year, his performance would have earned him a long-term deal at a reasonable rate. But with a flat-cap world, Bear’s likely chasing a short-term bridge deal. The Oilers have $732,509 in cap space and Bear has next to no leverage in earning a better deal, so GM Ken Holland will have to get creative to keep a player the team will likely protect ahead of the 2021 expansion draft.
Jack Roslovic, RW (Winnipeg Jets)
Roslovic has never really developed into the star some hoped he would be after being Auston Matthews’ setup man with the U.S. National Development Team Program in 2014-15. Roslovic’s career-high in points is 29 and it’s arguable that he’s a 35-point player at his best at this point. That’s still not a bad player to have in the bottom six and the Jets could use the scoring depth if they intend on moving on from Patrik Laine in the near future. Anything much higher than $2 million will be an over-payment.
Dylan Strome, C (Chicago Blackhawks)
Strome emerged as one of the team’s top young guns in 2018-19 after recording 51 points in 58 games, following an unsuccessful three-year stint in Arizona. But Strome’s numbers dipped this season with just 38 points in 58 games, leaving some to wonder what his results will look like in the future. Kirby Dach should force Strome down in the lineup, which could make Strome expendable after a few years. A one-year deal would make him arbitration-eligible next off-season, but it might be worth signing him for three years and, if needed, move him a year or two in.
Jesper Bratt, LW (New Jersey Devils)
At 22, Bratt is another young piece on a youthful core that’s still a few years away from being serious contenders again. Bratt has hit the 32-point threshold in all three of his NHL seasons to date and if that’s what the club can expect moving forward, he’s a decent secondary scorer to keep in the fray. As the Devils improve, Bratt’s numbers could, too. At 5-on-5, only Nikita Gusev (29) had more points than Bratt (25) on the Devils, and Bratt played six fewer games. Bratt also came second to Gusev (2.29) in points-per-60 (2.21), so Bratt clearly is making the most of his opportunities. That should factor in nicely for Bratt on his next deal.
Vince Dunn, D (St. Louis Blues)
The Blues lost Alex Pietrangelo over the summer, and while the club got a strong replacement in Krug, Dunn is still someone the club needs to deal with. The Blues don’t have a ton of room to work with in regular cap space, but injuries Alex Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko will take them off the books for a bit and giving the club more to work with. The Blues should be able to make it work, but we’re talking about a player that, when everyone else is healthy, is a third-pairing defenseman at best. He’s a good value guy there, but the Blues won’t spend too much to keep him around.
Philippe Myers, D (Philadelphia Flyers)
Myers was an absolute steal as an unsigned prospect, but he hasn’t found his groove in the NHL just yet. Still, his presence as a reliable depth defenseman is noteworthy and the shocking retirement of Matt Niskanen could give Myers a better shot on the right side moving forward. Myers is the only player the Flyers need to sign with around $5 million in cap space, but a one-year deal before arbitration rights click in could be how GM Chuck Fletcher decides to proceed. Or, on the other hand, with the extra space, do they bet on his long-term play and overpay a bit to keep from having to pay him more next year?