One of the strangest, most unpredictable off-seasons in NHL history looms for the 2020 free agent class. That’s obvious for the UFAs, which I discussed recently here, but it’s also true for the RFAs, who will have to decide between long-term security or signing shorter-term bridge contracts while the salary cap is flat, hoping for bigger paydays in a couple years.
The long layoff followed by the return-to-play tournament also gifted the RFAs with opportunities to increase their values with fresh-in-mind showings. What they do in August and September should carry more weight than normal given how long ago the 2019-20 regular season feels.
Which members of the 2020 RFA brigade have likely increased their dollar values so far this post-season?
(Disclaimer: this isn’t a list of the top RFAs, hence no Mathew Barzal. It also isn’t a list of which RFAs had the best regular seasons, hence no Valeri Nichushkin. We’re focusing on RFAs who have increased their worths with great post-season showings.)
1. Pierre-Luc Dubois, C, Columbus Blue Jackets
It didn’t take long for Dubois to justify his status as the 2016 draft’s shocking-in-the-moment No. 3 overall pick. He was firmly established as a long-term No. 1 center for Columbus to build around before this season. But his numbers dipped in 2019-20, largely the product of Columbus losing star forwards to free agency and enduring an endless parade of injuries during the season. After busting out for 27 goals and 61 points as a sophomore, his pro-rated stat line for 2019-20 plateaued to 21-36-57.
But Dubois was a man on a mission during the 2020 bubble tournament. The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t have an answer for him during the play-in round, which included a hat trick for him in Game 3, the kind of performance that leaves every fan base saying, “Why don't we have a Dubois?” He was fast, he was mean and he was powerful. His game translates better to the regular season than the playoffs. The Blue Jackets outscored opponents 9-4 during the playoffs when Dubois was on the ice, which is impressive considering his most common matchup opponents were elite Tampa Bay Lightning shutdown center Anthony Cirelli and high-end Leafs forwards William Nylander, John Tavares and Auston Matthews.
Dubois has played himself into a no-doubt long-term contract with Columbus at this point. That’s certainly what the Blue Jackets would want. But will Dubois go the medium-term route given the economic climate? Whatever happens, he should be looking at a minimum AAV of $6-million on a shorter term deal – or the $7-million plus range on longer-term pact. If you consider what the likes of Clayton Keller and Nico Hischier received on max-term contracts that rewarded them for yet-to-be-realized production, Dubois could have a case for $7.5 million if he goes the max-term route.
2. Ryan Pulock, D, New York Islanders
Pulock waited for his opportunity longer than he should’ve. As a first-round pick with size, mobility and a truly blistering slapshot in the Shea Weber/Zdeno Chara tier, Pulock always had exciting tools, but he was blocked for years by creaky veterans on the Islanders' depth chart. He finally broke through as a regular NHLer at 23 in 2017-18 and hasn’t disappointed, averaging 11 goals and 39 points per 82 games over the past three seasons while playing more than 21 minutes a night. During that same stretch, among 235 blueliners who logged 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, Pulock was 16th in shots per 60, 78th in hits per 60 and 69th in shots blocked per 60, reflecting a well-rounded game.
In the 2020 post-season, he’s ascended from solid youngster to key cog, picking up six points in 10 games and toiling on the top pair with Adam Pelech. Pulock is also one of the many Isles defenders ranking near the top of the league on shots blocked per 60 this post-season, a big reason why coach Barry Trotz’s scheme is limiting opponents to about 25 shots on goal per night. Among all NHL defensemen, only Colorado’s Cale Makar has a better shot differential percentage at 5-on-5 than Pulock this post-season.
Until top prospect Noah Dobson finds his footing in the NHL for good, Pulock has established himself as the team’s most important defenseman. He’s earned himself a long-term extension. The Islanders would be wise to do what the Columbus Blue Jackets did with Seth Jones and what the Toronto Maple Leafs did with Morgan Rielly: lock the good young D-man in early for an AAV that qualifies as a significant raise now but will eventually look like a bargain. It’s the model the Nashville Predators started with their Roman Josi contract seven years ago. The Calgary Flames did it recently with their promising 23-year-old righty, Rasmus Andersson on a six-year pact at a $4.55-million AAV, but Pulock will cost more given (a) he offers a lot more offense and (b) he’s increased his worth in the playoffs. If you’re willing to hand Pulock a max term, could you get him for an AAV below $6 million? I'm not so sure.
3. Denis Gurianov, RW, Dallas Stars
As if the 2015 NHL draft class wasn’t already shaping up as one of the greatest of all-time, one of its slowest-blooming first-rounders busted out in 2019-20. Gurianov’s 20 goals tied him for second among all rookies, and he was extremely efficient with his 12:59 of ice time per game. Among 334 NHL forwards who played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, Gurianov sat 44th in goals per 60 and 50th in shots per 60.
During the post-season, he’s provided a similar splash in relatively limited work. Still averaging below the 14-minute mark, he leads all players with five even-strength goals. He obviously did a lot of his damage in his a four-goal game against Calgary, but he scored in three different games that series, and anyone who can score four goals in a playoff game is showcasing a high ceiling as a sniper. He’s also using his 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame effectively, sitting near the top of the league in hits per 60 this post-season.
Among the key contributors in Dallas’ top-nine forward group, Jamie Benn is 31, Alexander Radulov 34 and Corey Perry 35. The path is open for Gurianov to ascend into the role of No. 1 right winger as soon as next season. Surely, GM Jim Nill knows this. The question is whether to project out a still-smallish sample size with a longer-team deal or sign Gurianov to a prove-it bridge pact. The latter would give Dallas much more short-term cap flexibility during a win-now window but would mean Gurianov will cost a lot more in a couple seasons. Considering Dallas is in full-on Cup contention mode, a bridge pact of two or three years with an AAV around $2.5 to $3 million probably does make the most sense for both sides.
4. Philippe Myers, D, Philadelphia Flyers
Myers has a massive wingspan, a sneaky good shot and a gift for keeping opponents away from his net. In the 2020 post-season, the Flyers have outshot opponents 91-75 and outscored them 8-3 with Myers on the ice at 5-on-5. He’s formed a steady second paring with Travis Sanheim that should only get better as the two mature under coach Alain Vigneault’s tutelage. Last year, Sanheim signed a two-year bridge deal with a $3.25-million AAV. He had 131 NHL games under his belt at the time. That sounds like a good comparable for Myers. He’s played 71 regular-season games but has more playoff experience than Sanheim did when he signed.
5. Nick Cousins, C/LW, Vegas Golden Knights
One reason why Vegas has been the most dominant team of the playoffs so far? It doesn’t rely on one big line. The checking units make an impact, too, and Cousins has done damage from the third line. He’s chipped in five assists in 10 games while playing a crucial agitator role, chirping opponents like crazy and buzzing the other team’s net. He ranks top-15 in takeaways per 60 among forwards this post-season, too. He’s likely played his way into Vegas’ lineup next season and beyond. He only carried a $1-million cap hit this season, so even doubling his pay would make him a cost-efficient re-signing on a medium-term deal.
Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com