The free agent market has been open for nearly a month, folks. And there are still a number of good young players who remain unsigned.
While the UFAs tend to grab most of the headlines when the market opens due to their ability to sign anywhere, the RFA crop is just as interesting this season, with an intriguing number of future stars still searching for deals with their respective teams as the dog. days tick on by.
Who will stay and who will go? That’s the question.
So, let’s take a look at the best RFAs still on the market as arbitration hearings get underway.
Jake Oettinger – Dallas Stars
2021-22 Stat Line: 48 GPs, 30-15-1, .914 save percentage, 1 SO
2021-22 Cap Hit: $925,000
Hey, so, the Dallas Stars still haven’t signed their franchise goalie yet.
Why aren’t we talking about this?
After stabilizing the Stars’ crease throughout the regular season in 2021-22, Oettinger became the one and only reason Dallas managed to put up anything even remotely close to a fight in their first-round playoff series versus the Calgary Flames in May, going on a run for the ages that nearly bounced the Pacific Division winners from the postseason before it even really began.
In the seven games it took for the far superior Flames to knock off the Stars, Oettinger shut things down to the tune of an absurd .954 save percentage, facing a total of 285 total shots — averaging out to 41 shots per game — and stopping 272 of them.
His teammates, on the other hand, fired just 195 total pucks at the opposing net throughout the series, nearly 100 fewer than they surrendered, and, when looking at the heat maps, doing so from far worse angles, too.
And still, Oettinger somehow kept the Stars in it until overtime of Game 7. That’s sorcery.
It’s highly unlikely that GM Jim Nill looked at the 23-year-old who just gave his team the most consistent goaltending it’s received since the days of Marty Turco and thought he was unworthy of an extension.
Oettinger will likely get a new deal soon. But with just upwards of $10 million in cap space to work with, and the next entry on this list in need of an extension as well, the Stars might have to shift some things around in order to make it happen.
Jason Robertson – Dallas Stars
2021-22 Stat Line: 74 GP, 41 goals, 38 assists, 79 points, 18:06 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $795,000
If Jason Robertson played anywhere but Dallas — ok, maybe not Arizona, but you get the idea — he’d be a household name.
The 22-year-old is an incredible young talent who has simply done nothing but score since bursting onto the scene in 2021, finishing last season on an absolute tear with 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in 74 games — all while being surrounded by basically no high-end talent.
Robertson is the hockey equivalent of a “walking bucket” in basketball. All the kid does is put pucks in the net. And for a smidge under $800,000 in salary last season, he did it at an absurdly low rate.
That bargain will vanish in a big way come next season, though. Or, at least, it should. Robertson is a baby by NHL standards who, despite his limited experience, now has a 40-goal season already under his belt and also happens to belong to a team currently in desperate need of literally any offensive help.
Robertson could command the sun and the moon from the Stars if he wanted to, and they’ll probably give it to him. It probably won’t be too long before they do, either.
Noah Dobson – New York Islanders
2021-22 Stat Line: 80 GP, 13 goals, 38 assists, 51 points, 21:27 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $894,167
One of the quieter breakout players from the 2021-22 season, Dobson has flourished into a terrific young defenseman throughout his short time in the NHL to date, exploding for 13 goals and 51 points at just 22 years old last season, and, in the process, putting him in line for a serious raise.
Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello, of course, is a tough negotiator. Or, that’s at least what his reputation would suggest despite the fact that he’s the same guy who gave Nikita Zaitsev a seven-year deal worth $4.5 million per season after a year far worse than the one Dobson just had.
Something will get done. In fact, given Lamoriello’s odd penchant for waiting until September to announce deals that were signed in July, there’s a good chance it already has.
With cap space a little tight, though, the Islanders might need to do some slight shuffling to fit Dobson’s new price tag onto their books this summer, if they’re still waiting to do it. But whatever work needs to be done, do it. And soon.
Dobson is worth it and is only getting better.
Kirby Dach – Montreal Canadiens
2021-22 Stat Line: 70 GP, 9 goals, 17 assists, 26 points, 18:02 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $925,000
Dach, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft and still a budding star, now joins a Canadiens organization currently doing everything to stockpile talent this summer in the hopes of erasing a disastrous 2021-22 season.
That, on the surface, should give him some leverage.
But Dach is a work in progress, still. The 21-year-old scored just nine goals and 26 points in 70 games for the Blackhawks last season and has clearly struggled to establish himself at the NHL level to this point.
The potential is what is so tantalizing here, at the end of the day, as Dach has a tremendous skillset and is precisely the type of player to take a major leap after a strong offseason of training and some guidance from Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis .
Martin Necas – Carolina Hurricanes
2021-22 Stat Line: 78 GP, 14 goals, 26 assists, 40 points, 16:11 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $863,333
You never know what to expect from the Hurricanes when it comes to their RFAs.
This is the same team that cavalierly dealt young netminder Alex Nedeljkovic to the Red Wings last season only a few weeks after he locked down a Calder nomination in order to sign a pair of injury-prone puck stoppers in their mid-30s.
That’s weird. They’re a weird organization.
Unless it’s Andrei Svechnikov or Sebastian Aho — the latter of whom only got extended because Montreal gave him an offer sheet — the Canes always seem to squeeze their RFAs in negotiations, drawing a clear line in the sand before cutting bait in the event the player continues to bargain.
That Necas, an effective young player but not a star by any means, remains unsigned this late in the summer seems typical, then. The 23-year-old has been a steady contributor in each of his three NHL seasons, taking a tiny step back last year from the tremendous pandemic-shortened 2021 campaign he had the year prior while still finishing with 40 points and setting a career- high in games played.
That step back, though, might be just the type of thing to worry about Canes management, who now have only a little over $1.8 million in cap space to work with after locking in Ethan Bear.
Necas has every right to command upwards of $2.5 on a short-term bridge deal if he chooses to, and that’s likely what he’ll end up getting. But for a club with a track record of being so finicky with its mid-tier young players, a happy ending is all but guaranteed.