When the “free agent frenzy” arrives on Oct. 9, much of the attention will go to UFAs, rather than restricted free agents (RFAs). Being that all 31 NHL teams (theoretically) have a chance to sign UFAs, it makes sense that they dominate our attention compared to RFAs.

But, amid a challenging economic climate, could NHL GMs target RFAs with offer sheets a bit more often than we interact with unicorns in the wild? Being that plenty of NHL teams are going to see money challenges — from the flat salary cap, internal budget constraints, and sometimes both — this would be quite the time to launch a strike more precise than the Canadiens’ half-hearted efforts to land Sebastian Aho on certain RFAs.

Offer sheets or not, there are plenty of NHL RFAs to watch, and many restricted free agent situations that may leave teams with restricted room to breathe.

Honestly, the Lightning were heading into salary cap headaches even when it looked like the flat $81.5M salary cap would rise. Now? Gulp.

Not only players get to drink from the Cup pic.twitter.com/NYcOk5wLoV

— Diana C. Nearhos (@dianacnearhos) September 30, 2020


Both Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev rank as Lightning RFAs who are easily worth Tampa Bay’s currently estimated $5.33M in cap space. Cirelli finished fourth in Selke voting this season, while Sergachev showed plenty of flashes of the brilliance he could be capable of.

Frankly, the Lightning are a bit fortunate that those two RFAs haven’t been able to get the opportunities to prove their full value yet. But even while fighting for limelight, it’s abundantly obvious that both Cirelli and Sergachev deserve big raises. (No more waiting tables for Cirelli?)

With Erik Cernak also lingering as an RFA, Julien BriseBois will need to pull off some real GM of the Year wizardry to make this all work.

Let’s be honest; if Mathew Barzal ended up eating all of the Islanders’ near-$9 million in cap space, would that be out of line? (Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool puts an eight-year pact for Barzal, 23, at a $9.581M cap hit.)

Yet, Barzal’s just the biggest piece of the Islanders’ RFA puzzle. A decent chunk of the hockey world got a better look at how vital Ryan Pulock, 25, really is to the Isles. And 26-year-old Devon Toews has been a nice find for their defense, too.

Soon we’ll learn what sort of tricks “Loophole Lou” Lamoriello has up his sleeves. After all, threading this needle might require a little magic.

After falling two wins short of a Stanley Cup, the Stars approach a fork in the road.

With almost $15.5M in cap space to work with, the Stars could get creative and aggressive during the off-season. But not without clearing up some questions.

Do they give Anton Khudobin a raise, possibly making for an expensive (and old) tandem with Ben Bishop? Either way, Denis Gurianov, Radek Faksa, and Roope Hintz should eat up a chunk of that $15.5M.

Being that Miro Heiskanen‘s rookie contract expires after 2020-21 (and John Klingberg will no longer be sorely underpaid at $4.25M after 2021-22), Dallas also must pencil in big money to keep its defensive advantages intact. Could be tricky, but there are also opportunities, especially in “rentals” (either in free agency or through trades).

Ryan Strome quietly put up one of the most productive seasons of any pending RFA, scoring 59 points (just one behind Barzal’s 60). Anthony DeAngelo also produced plenty of offense, collecting an eye-popping 53 points in 2020-21.

Do the Rangers really want to pay up to keep Strome and DeAngelo, though?

Being that Strome played the majority of his even-strength minutes with Artemi Panarin, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assert that Strome’s numbers were vastly inflated. And, for all of DeAngelo’s offensive prowess, he struggles in his own end (and sometimes, off the ice).

If the Rangers are cutthroat enough to buy out Henrik Lundqvist, who knows what could happen with RFAs who might command too heavy a price?

You may also find it interesting that both Stromes are RFAs, as Dylan Strome needs a new deal with the Blackhawks. This seems like a useful segue to jump into other noteworthy restricted free agent situations, while those looking for a truly comprehensive RFA list should head here.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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