As the NHL continues to skew towards younger and younger talent with players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews making an immediate impact, the restricted free agent classes become more and more important.
Last year we saw an impressive group, headlined by the dynamic duo in Calgary Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, Tampa’s new sniper Nikita Kucherov and a handful of excellent defensemen like Hampus Lindholm and Jacob Trouba.
While teams have started to lock up their young talent before they even become restricted free agents – like Aaron Ekblad in Florida who signed a $60MM deal just months after his 20th birthday – this year looks like it will be one of the biggest and most expensive RFA crops ever. Glen Miller took a look back in September at this year’s crop in an excellent series of articles that really should be consumed before reading any further (parts one, two, three, four, five and six), but let’s now check in on the group and how they’re fairing this season. Well list just a few of the highlights, as the group is almost endless.
Leon Draisaitl (EDM) – 47 GP / 17 G / 23 A / 40 P
You can’t start this list without mentioning Draisaitl, who will head to restricted free agency for the first time after what looks like a 30+ goal, 70+ point season. Skating alongside McDavid for much of the year, Draisaitl is currently tied for 18th in league scoring and leads the RFA group. He won’t turn 22 until after the 2017-18 season begins, and is an important player for the Edmonton Oilers to lock up long term. Expect the team to shell out big money to buy into a few free agent years this summer.
Mikael Granlund (MIN) – 44 GP / 10 G / 27 A / 37 P
Often forgotten about across much of the league because of the relative gag-order on any Minnesota Wild news, Granlund is having an exceptional season. Playing almost 20 minutes a night and on pace to shatter his previous career high in points, the Finnish forward will get a huge deal this summer. Unlike Draisaitl, Granlund is 24 and has already been through the RFA process before, signing a two-year $6MM deal before last season. With three solid seasons and now one spectacular one, he’ll likely earn something closer to $7MM (AAV) if signed long-term.
Justin Schultz (PIT) – 44 GP / 7 G / 23 A / 30 P
Schultz is such an interesting case, because of the breakout he’s experiencing this year. With Kris Letang on the shelf for much of the season, Schultz has blossomed in Pittsburgh to the player most teams expected when he signed out of college. He’s 26 now, and will turn 27 just days after free agency opens, but will likely fetch a hefty price as an RFA. After not even receiving a qualifying offer last year, has he done enough to prove that a big-money deal is worth it?
Robin Lehner (BUF) – 29 GP / .920 SV% / 2.54 GAA
The best RFA goaltender this year is one who just blew up at his coach after getting pulled and has generally been inconsistent for the Sabres since they traded a first-round pick for him in 2015. He has all the talent in the world to be a number one goaltender in this league, but with Buffalo floundering again near the bottom of the league will he be able to put it all together and lead them back to the playoffs? He’s 25-years old now and has 136 games under his belt with an above-average .916 save percentage. If Buffalo can ice any healthy defensemen, perhaps they’d be able to finish in the top half of the league for a change.