The only thing that seems certain about the National Hockey League these days is that nothing at all can be considered certain during this ongoing pandemic, and one only need look at how free agency has played out in this bizarre offseason to see evidence of that.
Although several of the big names signed during the earlier stages of free agency, as is often the case, there remain an usual number of high profile free agents on the open market now nearly 2 months in free agency. There are unrestricted free agents like forward Mike Hoffman who have yet to find a home in spite of their obvious talents, and this is especially true of the players who remain that are restricted free agents. Some of the top young players in the game today are still without a contract and today we'll take a look at the very best of the RFAs who have yet to get a new deal in the offseason.
#1 Mathew Barzal.
There will be no surprises in the only going of this list as the names that belong at the top are relatively obvious, starting with New York Islanders star forward Mathew Barzal. It seemed like the Islanders were going to have some big problems getting this deal done under the cap but a rather fortunately timed career ending injury to defenseman Johnny Boychuk has suddenly left them with plenty of room to work with. I can't envision a world in which Barzal would even entertain an offer sheet given his prominent role on a team that has recently shown itself to be a contender.
#2 Pierre Luc Dubois.
Again a no brainer here at the top of the list, the Blue Jackets centerman figures to be a centerpiece of that lineup for many years to come. The Blue Jackets have plenty of cap space, so much so in fact that many anticipate they are waiting for Dubois to sign before pulling the trigger on other moves that they may have waiting in the wings. At 22 years of age he is just one year removed from a 27 goal season and given his age, position, and the important role he plays for the Jackets I can't imagine a world in which they don't get this deal done.
#3 Anthony Cirelli.
This is where things begin to get more interesting because no one really knows how in the world the Tampa Bay Lightning can afford to get Cirelli under contract and remain cap compliant. Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois pulled off a steal earlier in the week when he signed defenseman Mikhail Sergachev well below what was expected market value, and he will need another move of that nature to find a way to get Cirelli in under the cap. Although many have wondered why teams have not approached Cirelli with an offer sheet, given that he was effectively the #2 center on a Stanley Cup winning team, but it may simply be that the young man isn't willing to sign anywhere other than Tampa Bay. After all who would want to leave the defending Stanley Cup Champions when they appear poised to take another run next season?
#4 Mackenzie Blackwood.
The New Jersey Devils starting goaltender surprised many with his outstanding performances down the stretch to close out the 2019 - 2020 NHL regular season, so much so that even with the addition of Corey Crawford in the offseason he remains the clear starter. When you consider that he was playing for a team so poor that they failed to make even the extended playoff format, his 2.77 goals against average and .915 save percentage look all that much more impressive.The Devils have a ton of cap space and the decision to bring in Crawford, an experienced veteran who could serve as a mentor of sorts, would appear to suggest that they are all in on molding Blackwood into their goalie of the future.
#5 Ethan Bear.
This situation is a tricky one for the Edmonton Oilers who like the Tampa Bay Lightning do not really appear to have the cap space required to get this move done. The Oilers have less than $1 million in projected cap space although that could be mitigated somewhat by the injury to defenseman Oscar Klefbom who could provide some relief in that regard by beginning the season on long term injured reserve. In his rookie season he had a breakout year for the Oilers chewing up nearly 22 minutes a game while recording goals and 16 assists for 21 total points. There are rumblings that Bear could be looking at a discounted deal on a short, 1 year, term that would see him get paid big time at the end of the season, something akin to the situation between Kevin Leblanc and the San Jose Sharks.