With the arrival of August, the NHL regular season is now just two months away.
As always, there are still several free agents on the sidelines, but more so restricted than unrestricted this summer.
It has been a slow signing season for the RFAs — slower than usual — and the threat of offer sheets has subsided lately, at least in the media. So those stalemates could seemingly linger into training camp and perhaps beyond opening night on Oct. 2.
Most of the RFAs will eventually get deals done with their current teams, though a couple could ultimately be traded if the staring contests between their agents and general managers aren’t settled before October. A few could wind up sitting out the start of the season like William Nylander last year, with a Dec. 1 deadline to return or remain sidelined for the entire campaign.
For now, those RFAs are all playing the waiting game — waiting for one of their bigger-name peers to truly set the market since that Sebastian Aho offer sheet obviously hasn’t set off a signing spree of similarly structured contracts.
The leftover UFAs aren’t as appealing, by and large, and the majority of them are nearing PTO territory — meaning they might need to accept a professional tryout as a means of earning another NHL contract for the coming season.
Some will balk at that notion — the notion of auditioning for jobs at training camp — and opt to seek guaranteed employment overseas sooner than later, with the European leagues getting going momentarily. Their goal will be to play their way back to the NHL while potentially making more money — more than the NHL league minimum — in the meantime.
Reality is, there are upwards of 100 NHL-calibre players still without contracts for the 2019-20 season — 90 to be exact for this exercise. More than enough to field two full teams, Team RFA and Team UFA.
Let it be known, Team Ontario ain’t got nothing on Team RFA. By now, you’ve probably seen the Team Ontario mock-ups during the dog days of summer — such as the one below, found on the Odd Man Rush Facebook page (The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe also did a spin on Team Ontario).
OK, that’s a stacked team — and so is Team Other Provinces. That would be a fun game to watch.
Team RFA, which has the rights to one player from each of those teams, would certainly be able to hold its own in the present. This roster is naturally younger, not as stacked down the middle, and has a glaring weakness in net, but the defence is solid and scoring wouldn’t be a concern.
Matthew Tkachuk-Brayden Point-Mitch Marner
Kyle Connor-Colin White-Brock Boeser
Travis Konecny-Adrian Kempe-Mikko Rantanen
Patrik Laine-Pavel Zacha-Jesse Puljujarvi
Anthony Beauvillier-Ivan Barbashev-Brendan Perlini
Kevin Fiala-Joel Eriksson Ek-Adam Erne
Nikolai Goldobin-Denis Malgin-Andrew Mangiapane
Brendan Lemieux/Josh Ho-Sang/Saku Maenalanen/Rocco Grimaldi/Michael Dal Colle/A.J. Greer
The second line is all-American, all-NCAA, with White between Connor and Boeser. It wouldn’t take long for them to develop chemistry and start filling the net.
The third line would be able to do damage too, especially if Kempe breaks out this coming season as he appears capable of doing. Rantanen belongs in that top-six, but he’d be the finisher on the third line, with Konecny hounding pucks to help set him up.
The fourth line is no place for Laine, who could easily be flipped with Konecny to be paired with fellow Finn Rantanen. But the hope with this lineup is that Laine could unlock Puljujarvi’s potential as former junior linemates. That was a better fit, with Zacha helping them drive the play while creating space as a trio of big bodies.
The fifth and sixth lines are pretty interchangeable and could both serve as quality third lines for any NHL team.
The seventh line speaks to the depth of this RFA class, along with the six extras.
Zach Werenski-Charlie McAvoy
Ivan Provorov-Anthony DeAngelo
Marcus Pettersson-Brandon Carlo
Joel Edmundson-Jake McCabe
Julius Honka/Jimmy Schuldt/Louis Belpedio/Trevor Carrick/Roland McKeown
ANALYSIS: That top pair of Werenski and McAvoy would be a coach’s dream. There wouldn’t be much to complain about between the two at either end of the ice.
The second pair of Provorov and DeAngelo would arguably be even more dynamic offensively but more mistake-prone as well. Particularly with DeAngelo, who is high risk, high reward.
Carlo and Pettersson could form a shutdown pair, taking on some of the tougher minutes and also killing penalties.
Edmundson and McCabe would form a veteran pairing by RFA standards and also be capable of the heavy lifting when called upon.
The five extras are still trying to establish themselves as NHLers, with Honka potentially entering a make-or-break season and likely to get a change of scenery from Dallas.
ANALYSIS: Ullmark and Forsberg could form a mediocre Swedish tandem, while Comrie and Hill both developed in the WHL’s U.S. Division.
None of these four necessarily have starter upside and project to be platoon options at best, so Team RFA would have a tough time stopping Team Ontario or Team Other Provinces. Those would be high-scoring affairs to say the least, but also must-see TV — especially in August!
The lack of quality goaltenders is also an issue for Team UFA, which could ice a passable forward group accompanied by an older and slower defence corps.
This team would have trouble keeping up with the “kids” on Team RFA, but experience can sometimes be the great equalizer.
That said, Father Time will be calling on some of these veterans in the near future, with a few of them contemplating retirement in the present.
The younger UFAs still searching for landing spots will be looking to Europe more and more with every passing week, though AHL teams would happily welcome them to the fold too.
Most NHL teams are getting close to their 50-contract limit and one-way contracts are going to be hard to come by. So are seven-figure salaries.
The majority of these players would rather not be on Team UFA into August, but some of them are still biding their time and not losing sleep just yet.
Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Justin Williams
Patrick Maroon-Derick Brassard-Thomas Vanek
Tobias Rieder-Riley Sheahan-Valeri Nichushkin
Troy Brouwer-Brian Boyle-Jason Pominville
Magnus Paajarvi-Oscar Lindberg-Dmitrij Jaskin
Marko Dano-Rourke Chartier-Devante Smith-Pelly
Jamie McGinn-Gabriel Bourque-Stefan Noesen
ANALYSIS: That top line is the yet-to-be signed line since all signs point to Thornton and Marleau reuniting in San Jose and Williams re-upping for another year as Carolina’s captain. Those greybeards can enjoy their summer and show up to training camp if they feel up for it.
The second line is probably starting to panic — or at least getting restless. Maroon deserves some term this time around but will likely have to settle for another one-year deal — certainly if he’s staying in St. Louis. Brassard should be above a PTO, but his asking price was too high to garner a bidding war and now there are less than a handful of suitors left. Vanek could already be weighing his PTO options, with the ability to make the most of that opportunity.
The third line is on thin ice as NHLers, with Sheahan not providing enough offence to secure a contract to date. Rieder didn’t score a single goal last season and will surely have to go the PTO route now. Nichushkin hasn’t signed back in Russia yet but a KHL return seems even more likely than a PTO at this point.
The fourth line is hoping to hold off retirement, with Boyle still a good bet to find another NHL home as a serviceable bottom-six centre. But Pominville and Brouwer are on their last legs and might be squeezed out this fall.
The fifth and sixth lines are younger and could have NHL futures, but those six players — or seven counting Noesen from the seventh line — will likely have to prove their worth on PTOs. They would be going into camps with a 50-50 chance of earning contracts, so picking the right PTO is key — assuming they will all be presented with more than one offer to audition.
Jake Gardiner-Kevin Shattenkirk
Niklas Kronwall-Dan Girardi
Dion Phaneuf-Ben Lovejoy
Joe Morrow-Alex Petrovic
Ben Hutton-Fredrik Claesson
Andrew MacDonald-Adam McQuaid
Luca Sbisa-Dennis Seidenberg
David Schlemko-Eric Gryba
Griffin Reinhart/Rob O’Gara/Duncan Siemens/Jordan Subban
ANALYSIS: There is quantity over quality among Team UFA’s defencemen and the remaining quality is primarily left-handed, though Shattenkirk’s late addition to the team as a righty really helped balance things out.
Gardiner is the real prize as the top overall UFA still on the market. It is surprising that he didn’t sign on July 1 or shortly thereafter — warranting a similar contract to Tyler Myers — but now Gardiner will likely have to accept less term and presumably less money. Gardiner’s situation is somewhat similar to Cody Franson in 2015, another former Leaf that looked set to cash in as a free agent but lingered until Sept. 10 before settling for a two-year contract with Buffalo at an average annual value of $3.325 million. Inflation probably nets Gardiner around $5 million.
Kronwall, if healthy enough to continue his career, and Phaneuf should still have options without being subject to PTOs. Girardi and Lovejoy might too as the top right-handed defenders available after Shattenkirk.
The fourth and fifth pairings feature younger UFAs that should be in their prime but may not be able to avoid that PTO fate. Petrovic, in particular, finished last season as a healthy scratch and will need to play his way back into some team’s lineup.
The sixth and seventh pairings are all veterans of 500-plus NHL games and the eighth pairing has more than 300 games under their respective belts too. For them, it’s not about whether they could fill depth roles but more so whether teams have those holes. Vacant positions are at a premium as training camps approach.
That also applies to the four younger extras, all bubble players that haven’t been able to stick in the NHL to date.
ANALYSIS: It is slim pickings in goal for Team UFA, which might be better off looking overseas to fill those positions.
Ward seems destined for retirement, but it’s been quiet on his front, with no such announcement or even rumblings. Still, he is the best of this UFA bunch and the only option with a history as a starter.
The other four are career backups, having failed in their opportunities to become starters. They might get PTOs, but their chances of getting contracts would appear to be slim to none based on the numbers’ game with goaltenders around the league. The vast majority of those 62 jobs are already spoken for as of today, but injuries could open some additional doors.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.