Inside the NHL’s restricted free agent waiting game

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /
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toronto maple leafs /

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

After the draft, after the big fish of free agency have re-signed, the NHL’s restricted free agents can decide a team’s fate for years to come.

In every piece of hockey writing I do, I will remind you (and myself) that we still do not know when the 2020-2021 season will begin. Mostly because I miss the NHL, and if you are reading this, I am sure you do too. In a year without a pandemic, we would be about a month into the NHL’s regular season.

Instead, hockey media led by the NHL network is just now getting around to releasing its usual offseason ranking lists. Lists of top prospects, top young NHLers, top overall players, top front offices, etc. At the top of most of these lists are Tampa Bay‘s Brayden Point, Colorado‘s Mikko Rantanen, and Toronto‘s Mitch Marner.

The three are huge impact players. Point and Rantanen are 24-years-old, while Marner is 23. Point and Rantanen played huge in last year’s playoff tournament, while Marner makes up one of the most dynamic top-six forward cores in the NHL. Why does this matter today when we are not even close to seeing NHL games being played?

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All three played the waiting game last offseason as their entry-level contracts expired and became restricted free agents. The teams that had drafted them still owned the negotiating rights to them while being unsigned. Marner signed his six-year $65.3 million extension on September 13, 2019. Point signed his three-year $20.25 million extension on September 23, 2019. Rantanen signed his six-year $55.5 million extension on September 28, 2019.

NHL training camps began on September 11th last year, with most teams beginning preseason play within a week of that. Regular season games began only four days after Rantanen signed his new contract. In the first Avalanche game of the season, Rantanen happened to score two goals against Calgary despite not participating in the training camp.

As for Brayden Point, he very nearly won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. Even with a historic performance by teammate Victor Hedman, had Point been given the honor, it would not have been very outlandish. Point became Tampa Bay’s best forward, and the Lightning did not show signs of missing the injured Steven Stamkos.

Not to be ignored, Mitch Marner only scored 67 points in 59 games. 67 points were good for 18th in the NHL last year. What makes this even more impressive is that Marner played about ten fewer games than most because of injury.

This year, we do not have those hard start dates. We do not have any dates published by the NHL. Instead, a kind of soft, hopeful estimate by Gary Bettman. Can we all agree that when arenas and events are once again full of fans, one of the huge upsides will be the ability to ‘boo’ the long-time commissioner? Booing my T.V. during the video conference NHL draft is not quite the same.

According to, there are still 37 players who are playing the waiting game as restricted free agents. Some are waiting for the market value to get established in a flat cap year. While others are waiting for their team to execute whatever plan they are scheming to keep their young talent. In some cases, it is probably a little of both.

There will still be some very impactful roster moves made as the RFA questions are answered before the new season begins. Here are the two biggest dominos that will fall in place and help set the value of other contracts still in limbo.