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Under the Radar: RFA Trade Targets

With Erik Karlsson traded to San Jose, Stars fans have set their sights on Artemi Panarin. But the team would do well to look into two unsigned RFAs as well.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, news broke that Erik Karlsson had been traded by the Ottawa Senators to the San Jose Sharks. Dallas Stars fans, still giddy with excitement over Tyler Seguin’s extension, didn’t let the news discourage them, and instead immediately resumed dreaming about Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin, or even other players from the Senators such as Matt Duchene or Mark Stone.

But while everyone has been talking about acquiring these kinds of players, ones with one last year on their contract who would hopefully sign an extension, there are others who, in my opinion, would be much more interesting targets for the Stars: unsigned Restricted Free Agents, or RFAs.

For better or for worse, no one even tries to sign RFAs to offer sheets anymore. The last player to sign an offer sheet was Ryan O’Reilly in 2013, and the last one that wasn’t matched was Dustin Penner’s in 2007. There are many reasons why NHL general managers don’t try this tactic anymore, but it basically boils down to GMs being both afraid of souring a relationship with another GM, and of another team doing the same to them as a sort of payback.

I could go on and on about why the current offer sheet system is broken, but we’ll save that for another day. Instead, we’ll focus on the other way to acquire RFAs: by trading for them. It’s not a novel concept — during the NHL draft this year, the Calgary Flames traded with the Carolina Hurricanes for pending RFAs Noah Hanafin and Elias Lindholm — but it’s a tactic that I feel isn’t discussed enough as a possibility.

While there’s not too many unsigned RFA’s left, there are two that make sense as targets for Dallas: Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander and Buffalo Sabres forward Sam Reinhart. So today, let’s take a look at each player and and see why the Stars might want them, why their current team might be willing to trade them, and what the Stars might have to give up to land them.

Some notes before we begin: first, there is absolutely no indication that these teams are planning on trading these two players. In fact, it’d be rather surprising if either of them was traded before December 1st — the deadline to sign RFAs to a new contract for the season — much less to Dallas. So don’t get your hopes up or falsely believe that these players are on the market.

Secondly, I’m not proposing any specific trade for these players. Unless you’re familiar with both teams and their players’ prospects (and are unbiased), trying to make a fair trade offer is kind of hard. Rather than irk the wrath of the comments section (and Twitter), I’m simply going to talk about players and prospects that the teams in question might be interested in.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive on in, shall we?

William Nylander, RW - Toronto Maple Leafs

Drafted 8th overall in the 2014 draft, Nylander spent roughly two years in the AHL, putting up an impressive 32 G, 45 A, 77 P in 75 games with the Toronto Marlies. He made his NHL debut in the 2015-16 season, scoring a respectable 13 points in 22 games, before having a huge breakthrough in his first full season with the Maple Leafs in 2016-17, ending up with 22 goals, 39 assists, 61 points in 81 games. Last year he repeated that point total with 20 goals and 41 assists in 82 games, and has emerged as one of the Leafs top forwards along with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner.

It should come as no surprise then that the Stars should at least be interested in Nylander as they look to improve their Top 6. Nylander would immediately be one of the Stars’ top forwards, and given his age — he’s only 22 years old — he has the potential to be even better than he is now.

The real question is that if Nylander is so great, then why would Toronto even consider trading him? Well again, there seems to be no current indication that the Maple Leafs plan on trading any of their top forwards, including Nylander. GM Kyle Dubas stated as much back in July after they landed Tavares in Free Agency. Keeping the forwards will be a bit costly for the Maple Leafs, but it’s not impossible — after all, having four highly paid forwards on the roster is exactly what the Stars would be trying to do by trading for Nylander.

There are two small hiccups with this plan. First of all, Toronto is in a very different cap situation than Dallas. Not only do they need to sign Nylander, but next year they’ll need new deals for Matthews and Marner as well. In contrast, Dallas has Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov already locked up long-term, and — assuming Matthews signs a contract comparable to Jack Eichel’s $10M AAV with the Sabres — the Benn and Seguin duo will likely cost less than Tavares and Matthews.

The biggest difference, however, are the two teams’ defenses. Toronto’s blue line is better than they’re given credit for, but they’re probably an above average defense at best. Barring a huge breakout by Morgan Reilly, they don’t have a Norris-calibre defenseman like John Klingberg, and they certainly don’t have a potential franchise defenseman like Miro Heiskanen.

Then consider that Klingberg has a cap hit of only $4.25M, Heiskanen has one just shy of 900k, and that the Stars have other cheap defenseman like Esa Lindell and Stephen Johns and the difference becomes clear: the Stars can afford to have 4 highly paid forwards because their defense is dirt cheap, and will be for the foreseeable future.

The second hiccup is the reason I’m talking about Nylander in the first place: he’s still unsigned. Word is Nylander might be looking for an AAV of around $8M, and the two sides also seem to disagree on the term of the contract:

Add on the fact Nylander can’t play for them until he signs a new deal, and the Maple Leafs are in quite the pickle. The forward is perhaps asking for too much money, but they can’t just “pay the man,” as that will hinder their ability to re-sign Matthews and Marner. There’s no way they’re trading Matthews, which means they might end up having to pick between Nylander and Marner. And considering Marner is A) a year younger B) has scored slightly more (8 points) the last two years and C) might be more willing to sign for a deal with less money/term, the Maple Leafs would probably go with Marner.

So, now that we’ve established that Toronto could be willing to trade Nylander, what would they likely ask of the Stars in trade talks? The team would certainly be looking to improve their defensive corp, and with Miro Heiskanen off the table — otherwise Erik Karlsson would be wearing Victory Green already — they’re likely to target Esa Lindell. The Stars would probably get them to bite on Julius Honka instead, but I doubt the Maple Leafs would want to take a flier on Honka living up to his potential.

The Maple Leafs would also want to replace Nylander’s spot in the lineup, and would probably target wingers Mattias Janmark and Valeri Nichushkin. And since they’ll still have potential cap issues even with Nylander gone, they’d also be interested in cost-controlled players with decent upside, such as Devin Shore, Jason Dickinson, and Stephen Johns.

Sam Reinhart, C/RW - Buffalo Sabres

The other big RFA target for the Stars is the 2nd overall pick from that same 2014 draft. Reinhart put up a whopping 319 points in the CHL in 250 games over the span of four seasons. Unlike Nylander, Reinhart spent only three games in the AHL, and made the permanent jump to the NHL a year earlier in the 2015-16 season, where he put up 23 G, 19 A, 42 points in 79 games.

The past two seasons, Reinhart didn’t score as much as Nylander, tallying 47 points in 2016-17 and 50 this past season, for a total of 97 points in 161 games. It’s important, however, to realize that the two forwards were playing under very different conditions. The Maple Leafs made the playoffs both seasons, and were the 5th and 3rd highest scoring teams in 16-17 and 17-18 respectively. The Sabres meanwhile were the 5th worst and then the worst team in the league over the same span, with identical rankings in the Goals For column.

In short, while Reinhart hasn’t put up the same stats as Nylander, that can be explained away by playing on a horrible team, plus he has that higher draft pedigree going for him. With Ty Dellandrea likely years away from making the team, the Stars would do well to find a solid 2C to replace Jason Spezza after this year, and Reinhart fits the bill. But again, why would Buffalo want to trade Reinhart in the first place?

Like with Nylander, I can point at the lack of a signed contract as signs that getting a deal done has been difficult, although Sabres’ GM Jason Botterill remains optimistic about getting it done. But in my opinion, the best reason for moving on from Reinhart isn’t necessarily the money, but because he might not even be a Top 6 forward for Buffalo for much longer.

Let me explain: if the Sabres view Reinhart as a Center, then he’ll never be their #1 guy — that distinction belongs to Jack Eichel. Furthermore, rookie Casey Mittelstadt will be on the team this year, and the consensus seems to be that Mittelstadt has high-end potential and will most likely end up being the team’s 2C in the long term, leaving Reinhart as the 3C. If you instead view him as a right winger, then he’ll instead be beat out by Kyle Okposo (under contract for the next five years) and Jeff Skinner (assuming he signs an extension with Buffalo).

In other words, the Sabres have a player with Top 6 potential who may not have a Top 6 spot unless you move someone to their off-wing. Add in the potential issues in hammering out a new contract for Reinhart, and you have a team that might be willing to deal the young forward if the right offer comes along.

Enter the Stars. A lot of the players that Toronto might be interested in would likely be the targets for Buffalo as well. Specifically, Mattias Janmark would be a nice addition to a thin left side, while Julius Honka could bolster a blue line that has only two right-handed defenseman. You also can’t rule out Stars on the roster bubble but still have good potential, such as Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz.

The difference though is that Toronto is currently trying to win a Stanley Cup while the Sabres are still finishing up a rebuild. That means unlike the Maple Leafs, Buffalo might be interested in Dallas’ prospects who might not be NHL ready, such as Denis Gurianov, Riley Tufte, and Jason Robertson. Goaltending prospects Colton Point and Jake Oettinger would also be very tantalizing for Buffalo, and I guarantee you Buffalo would be willing to collect some more draft picks.

One final note: Mittelstadt might be the 2C of the future for Buffalo, but they likely don’t want to rush him into the roll. Since the Stars would acquire Reinhart to be their own 2C, that leaves Jason Spezza as an interesting piece. Spezza of course wouldn’t be at the center of the trade, but he’d provide the Sabres a one year stop gap as Mittelstadt gets used to the NHL, and he’d be a great veteran addition to a young locker room. The Stars would have to eat some of his salary or take a contract back — Buffalo doesn’t have the cap space for him — not to mention the Sabres could be on Spezza’s 10 team no-trade list, but it’s a possibility worth considering.

In summary, Nylander and Reinhart would both be solid additions to Dallas’ Top 6 and their core moving forward. Both seem to be looking for long-term contracts and a decent salary, but considering Dallas has an inexpensive defensive corp and just signed Tyler Seguin to a hometown discount, the Stars might be willing to fork over that cash to fix their secondary scoring woes and get them closer to “Cup Contender” status.

But while we can day dream all we want, the reality is that both players will likely hold-out at the start of the season and then eventually come to terms with their current teams. As I said, it’s unlikely that either player is traded, even if there are reasons for doing so, and it’s even more improbable that they end up in Victory Green.

If the Stars were to land one of these players, however, I would place my bet on Reinhart. While Dallas has the pieces to make a trade with Toronto for Nylander, I don’t think they’d be willing to pay the cost, especially if it meant losing Esa Lindell. Buffalo, on the other hand, would be intrested in futures that Dallas is more than capable of paying, not to mention Reinhart could solve their 2C woes of the present and immediate future.