Top players to watch this year

Please, we pray to the hockey gods, let’s not see a repeat of what happened this past summer.

The 2019 RFA class was full of star power, with Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Matthew Tkachuk, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and a host of others overshadowing the talent from the UFA pool. The process of getting each team’s biggest stars locked up lasted months, with a few contracts held up until the start of NHL training camp. It was brutal for everyone involved and something nobody wants to repeat.

Luckily, the 2020 class doesn’t have the star power the previous year did, especially with Alex DeBrincat and Nico Hischier now inked to new deals. The clear No. 1 RFA heading into next summer is New York Islanders pivot Mathew Barzal. Even after a dip in offensive production from 85 points in 2017-18 to 62 last season, Barzal is arguably the Islanders’ most important player following the departure of John Tavares.

Given how last summer went with the top RFAs, it’s unlikely the Islanders, Barzal or his agent, J.P. Barry, want to drag things out. But Barzal isn’t going to come cheap, particularly with how he’s developed into quite the well-rounded player. Hischier signed for $7.25 million a year despite having far lower offensive output during his two-year career. Does that mean Barzal earns north of $8 million? The Islanders have nearly $14 million in projected cap space for next summer and, beyond Barzal, only a couple of low-cost signings to worry about. Signing Barzal to an big-money, long-term deal shouldn’t be impossible.

So, if Barzal is the top RFA on the market heading into 2020, who are the other stars that’ll be ready for big deals heading into 2020-21?

Anthony Mantha, LW (Detroit Red Wings)
Mantha’s output has slowed since he notched seven points in the first two games of the season, but he finished October with 12 points in 13 games. Mantha is truly starting to find himself after a slow start to his NHL career. He has consecutive 48-point campaigns and has shown great chemistry alongside Dylan Larkin and fellow pending RFA Tyler Bertuzzi on Detroit’s top line, although Mantha has been moved to the second line for now. Mantha’s going to get a nice raise from his $3.3-million salary, which is fitting for a player who is primed to be one of Detroit’s best for the next several seasons. By the end of the season, he should have his first 50-point campaign. Not long after, he should have a hefty pay check hitting his bank account.

Max Domi, C (Montreal Canadiens)
Alex Galchenyuk was supposed to be the star center for which the Canadiens have been searching. Instead, the Canadiens moved Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes two summers ago to acquire Domi, who not only has assumed the No. 1 center role, but has thrived in it. The 24-year-old had a career-high 72-point campaign on Montreal’s top line last year and has followed that up with 12 points in October, putting him in a three-way tie for first in Habs scoring. With nearly $8 million in cap space, the only other notable name Montreal has to deal with next summer is defenseman Victor Mete, who won’t command much more than $2 million-$3 million, likely on a short deal. That makes Domi the top target and one the Canadiens should look to lock down sooner rather than later. One note: the 2021 off-season will see most of the team’s current top six hit the open market, so the Canadiens have to tread carefully.

Mikhail Sergachev, D (Tampa Bay Lightning)
The Lightning had a fun time trying to fit Brayden Point into the equation this season, but the cap gymnastics aren’t done yet for GM Julien BriseBois. Despite a dip from 40 points as a rookie in 2017-18 to 32 last season, there’s no questioning the impact of Sergachev’s two-way play. But something is going to have to give. Not a single Lightning player making over $2 million will be up for free agency this summer, and Sergachev joins a group of RFAs that includes forwards Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Carter Verhaeghe, as well as defenseman Erik Cernak. Those are all players the Lightning won’t want to give up, and Sergachev will eat up a large portion of the $7 million cap space the club is projected to have. Sergachev’s strong start, highlighted by eight assists in 12 games in October, doesn’t make things easier for the Lightning.

Matt Murray, G (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Murray is an interesting name due to the roller-coaster nature of his career. It started off better than literally any young goalie could hope for with consecutive Stanley Cup championships, but the past few seasons have been filled with inconsistent play and some wonky stats along the way. This season, Murray’s .918 save percentage at 5-on-5 is seventh among goalies with at least 10 starts and his high-danger save percentage is fourth at .859. With a 7-3-0 record heading into the weekend, Murray has played well enough to keep giving the Penguins a chance each night, but staying consistent is his next challenge.

Other notables: Darnell Nurse, D (Edmonton Oilers); Pierre-Luc Dubois, C (Columbus Blue Jackets); Victor Olofsson, LW (Buffalo Sabres); Kevin Labanc, LW (San Jose Sharks); Sam Reinhart, RW (Buffalo Sabres).

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