In a cap world, controlling your player salaries is critical to building a competitive roster. The concept of restricted free agency was put into the NHL collective bargaining agreement to help teams accomplish that. Subject to some exceptions relating to age and games played, the RFA system gives teams approximately four seasons of control over a player beyond his entry-level years. After that, a player can control his own destiny, and price tag, in unrestricted free agency.
RFAs only have two ways to leverage fair payment for their services. The first is to take a team to salary arbitration, a right that RFAs acquire at certain points in their career depending on eligibility criteria that include age and experience. The other is to withhold services, a strategy that we have seen with increasing frequency over the years from players without arbitration rights, including William Nylander of the Toronto Maple leafs, Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders and Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators.
For many years after the introduction of the RFA concept, teams used their CBA rights to keep RFA salaries down, typically offering bridge deals that were far below the deals for comparable players who had achieved UFA status. Recently, however, the tables have turned, and whether it is due to the threat of holdouts or the realization that paying for players in their primes is preferable to paying for UFAs who may be leaving their primes, RFAs are now commanding massive deals.
This is the first instalment of a two-part piece in which I’ll count down what I view as the 10 most critical RFA negotiations to watch this off-season, in ascending order of how high their AAVs could go. Here are the first five:
10. Jake Oettinger, G, Dallas Stars
Oettinger had a very solid regular season, earning the starter’s job over veterans Braden Holtby and Scott Wedgewood. Oettinger then followed it up with a spectacular round 1 playoff series against Calgary, almost singlehandedly giving the Stars an opportunity to steal the series before they ultimately fell in seven games. He sported a .954 save percentage in the seven games, somewhat reminiscent of Thatcher Demko’s .985 in the 2019-20 playoffs, a performance that cemented Demko as the Vancouver Canucks’ No. 1 goalie and later helped earn him a five-year deal. Teams are generally cautious with early goaltender success and don’t usually reward goalies with long-term deals out of the entry-level system. Even Jordan Binnington’s Stanley Cup winning performance only netted him a two-year deal at $4.4 million per year before he earned his current six-year contract. Oettinger is still very young, at 23, and won’t have arbitration rights. I would expect a bridge here, too. My projection: 2 years, $3.8M per year
9. Tony DeAngelo, D, Carolina Hurricanes
The DeAngelo situation is very interesting indeed. Carolina got a bargain by signing him to a one year, $1-million deal when it seemed no other NHL team was prepared to touch him after he was dismissed by the New York Rangers. DeAngelo appears to have stayed out of trouble, and he has fit in well with the Hurricanes. His 51 points this season had him tied for 15th in NHL defenseman scoring, and those numbers were depressed by the fact he missed 18 games. DeAngelo will have arbitration rights, so Carolina will have to pay him this time around. One limiting factor is that he plays the fourth most minutes on Carolina’s blueline, behind Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei, all of whom have below-market cap hits. That, and Carolina’s willingness to have taken a chance on him, should bode well for DeAngelo agreeing to a reasonable deal to stick around without the sides having to go to arbitration. My projection: 4 years, $6.0M per year