It’s a youth-driven league, folks, and the quality of the NHL's restricted free agents this summer is deep.

Yes, even as we speed toward September.

We still have first-line wingers and at least one franchise centreman who are due for raises, and the number of young top-pair defencemen and emerging goaltenders with No. 1 potential is impressive.

Vancouver’s Jim Benning may be under the most pressure to negotiate long-term extensions with his RFAs. Despite taking care of Thatcher Demko and Conor Garland, he still has two big guns to compensate.

Cale Makar got paid in Colorado, Miro Heiskanen in Dallas, Brandon Carlo in Boston.

Joel Eriksson Ek committed to Minnesota, Andrei Svechnikov to Carolina, and Samc Bennett and Sam Reinhart to Florida.

With arbitration season come and gone, the next real pressure point to settle unsolved cases will be training camp. (And Jesperi Kotkaniemi proved that offer sheets are still a thing.)

Here is where things stand with the top unsigned RFAs of 2021.


1. Quinn Hughes
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $916,667
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2020 Calder runner-up. Power-play quarterback. 97 points through first 129 NHL games. Key building block in Vancouver. Averages nearly 23 minutes per game.

The latest: Preliminary contract talks got underway between Benning and the two most important engines of the Canucks’ rebuild in early April.

Hughes has been putting up gaudier numbers than recent RFA defencemen (Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, Mikhail Sergachev) and is arguably more important to his franchise’s future.

Benning drew mild criticism for the in-season extensions he handed out to Demko and Tanner Pearson, essentially signing some smaller fish before dealing with the biggies.

While significant money came off the books in July — Loui Eriksson, Alex Edler, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel — Vancouver inherited Oliver Ekman-Larsson's huge contract, still has multiple RFAs to satisfy and is dealing with Roberto Luongo’s cap recapture penalty.

Perhaps bridge is the only solution. The good news for panicky people in Van City: Hughes is classified as a 10.2(c) RFA, meaning he cannot sign an offer sheet.

On June 15, agent J.P. Barry suggested to Donnie and Dhali on CHEK that he is exploring a deal longer than five years for Hughes.

Term will be a major sticking point, and fellow RFAs Heiskanen and Makar helped set Hughes' market. He won't be cheap.

Conversations continue.


2. Elias Pettersson
Position: Centre
2020-21 salary cap hit: $925,000
Arbitration rights: No
Bargaining chips: 2019 Calder Trophy winner. Finished 16th in Hart voting in 2020. 66 points in each of his first two seasons. Plus-19 player. Career 17.6 per cent shooter. No. 1 centre. Put up 21 points through 26 games in 2021, and it still feels like underachieving.

The latest: In late January, Pettersson switched agents, leaving Michael Deutsch at Eclipse Sports Management and joining teammate Hughes at CAA. Power brokers Pat Brisson and Barry will handle their extension negotiations — and hold a great deal of leverage.

Barry told Rick Dhaliwal that the plan is to work on both deals together, like the twin monsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed in the summer of 2014. Unlike Hughes, Pettersson could theoretically ink an offer sheet.

Barry, you may recall, put the screws to Benning in securing lucrative contracts for Tyler Myers and Loui Eriksson in recent off-seasons. But they were UFAs, not RFAs.

“The Canucks have cap issues. I don’t think we can do long-term deals for Petey and Quinn. We have started the dance; we are engaged in talks,” Barry told Donnie and Dhali.

“We are exploring shorter term for Elias, five years and under. Quinn longer.”

Sportsnet's Iain McIntyre estimates that somewhere in the ballpark of $14 million in total AAV could get both stars under contract. One would have to bet that means going the Auston Matthews–style, five-year route and keeping the door ajar for another windfall when the cap escalates.

Benning vowed to match any offer sheet on Pettersson during a Sportsnet radio interview in Vancouver on July 22.

A rehabbing Pettersson tweeted footage of him firing pucks on July 14, an encouraging video for Canucks fans.

Barry reminded on July 30 that agreeing on term is a hurdle in negotiations, but the good news is that both Hughes and Pettersson are committed to re-signing with Vancouver.

In a Swedish interview, Pettersson said that he wants to make sure the Canucks are as committed to winning as he is.