When you think about what made the Tampa Bay Lightning so good offensively this year, the name Nikita Kucherov quickly comes to mind. But what about the guy that spent the season setting him up?
Brayden Point was a major steal for the Lightning in the third round (79th overall) of the 2014 NHL draft, recording 92 points in his third year with the club. And while he was rather invisible in the playoffs – but who wasn't on Tampa? – it's clear that Point is already a top-10 center in the NHL. And for the first time in his career, Point, 23, is up for restricted free agency, making an already tough cap situation for the Lightning this summer even more difficult.
Just how tough is it? The Lightning only have $8 million in cap space with seven roster spots to fill. The Lightning have $50 million tied up in 10 forwards, with just two – rookies Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph on entry-level contracts – making below $4.5 million. Cap management is going to be a big issue, but if GM Julien BriseBois can convince a team to take J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson or Ryan Callahan's deals off the books, the Lightning could afford to offer Point what he's worth, somewhere in the range of $8 million per year for eight seasons.
Point's contract will be a tricky one to manage, but one that needs to be done if the Lightning are going to remain long-term contenders. Tampa Bay, however, isn't the only team trying to sign a top RFA center this year. To follow with our series of looking at the off-season's top restricted free agents, including goaltenders, defensemen and wingers, let's take a look at the top centermen available on the RFA market:
Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
Aho is Carolina’s most important forward and should be generously paid for his efforts this summer. Coming off an 83-point campaign in what was a breakthrough year for the franchise, Aho, 21, has truly come into his own and is one of the best two-way centers in the league. The Hurricanes have big decisions to make this summer, especially when it comes to signing playoff star Warren Foegele, captain Justin Williams and power forward Micheal Ferland, and the only signed goaltender for next year is AHLer Scott Darling, but getting Aho locked up long-term with the $28.8 million in cap space the team has will be a priority. A deal in the $8-million area would be reasonable.
William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights
Few players benefited from the Vegas expansion like Karlsson, who went from being a depth forward capable of 25 points to become a 43-goal, 78-point scorer in 2017-18. Sure, he regressed to 24 goals and 56 points this year, but Karlsson, 26, will be a Golden Knight for the long run and could settle in to become a consistent 60-point guy. Vegas is bound to have cap problems with eight players holding free-agent status this year and another eight poised for the market in 2020, but Karlsson has been an integral part of the team’s short lifespan and it wouldn’t be crazy to see him make more than Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, who are at $5 million each. Somewhere around $5.5 million per season seems like a good starting point on a six- or seven-year deal.
Ryan Donato, Minnesota Wild
Donato may not have the profile as those mentioned above, but he started to show what he's capable of when he exploded for 16 points in 22 games with the Wild after a pre-trade deadline deal with Boston, including 13 in his first 14 games. Donato, 23, was a big-time scorer in college, with his 60 goals over three years ranking second among NCAA players in that time frame before recording five goals in six Olympic games with the United States. What Donato showed in his short time in Minnesota is that he’s capable of generating offense at a good pace and a two- or three-year deal at $3.5 million per season seems fair as he continues to develop in what has been a short pro career.
Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche
Lost in Colorado’s exciting season and the hoopla that was the team’s dominant first line was Kerfoot’s 42-point campaign, just one point shy of his previous year's output. A secondary playmaking option, Kerfoot, 24, could likely reach the 20-goal mark consistently if given more to work with on Colorado’s second line. Kerfoot is exactly what the Avs need: with Mikko Rantanen commanding a big deal this summer, Kerfoot offers inexpensive scoring depth that could be had for around $2.5 million per year. Just get him some decent wingers to work with and you've got a valuable piece of the puzzle for cheap.
Danton Heinen, Boston Bruins
Offensively, Heinen's game regressed this season, falling from 47 points in 2017-18 to 34 this time around. But Heinen's strong playoff with seven points in 17 games, mixed in with the fact that the Bruins' possession numbers look good with him on the ice, and you have a worthy depth forward who has more value than he offers on the scoresheet. Heinen's energy and solid all-around skill set make him a solid option in the lineup as a guy who can be utilized in various situations and chip in with secondary offensive numbers, too. Boston could afford him at $3-3.5 million this summer as they'll look to quickly jump back in the title chase.
Other notables: Pavel Zacha (New Jersey Devils), Scott Laughton (Philadelphia Flyers), Oskar Sundqvist (St. Louis Blues), Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings), Ivan Barbashev (St. Louis Blues)
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