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Top restricted free agents present unique challenges

by Dan Rosen

While very few restricted free agents have changed teams in the NHL's salary-cap era, how teams negotiate contracts for their young talent is a huge part of constructing a roster in the long term.

Whether the player is negotiating his second or third contract can have an effect on the money involved. The tweaks to the Collective Bargaining Agreement before the 2012-13 season could also have an impact on negotiations.

There are a lot of talented players who could command significant money this summer. Here's a look at some of the most interesting RFAs who need a new contract this offseason:

Ryan O'Reilly, C/W, Colorado Avalanche

Ryan O'Reilly
Center - COL
GOALS: 28 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 64
SOG: 201 | +/-: -1
O'Reilly said he wants to stay in Colorado and win there, but he's in yet another contract struggle with the only NHL team he's known. He sat out the start of the 2012-13 season before signing a two-year, $10 million offer sheet from the Calgary Flames that the Avalanche quickly matched.

The contract came with a slight wrinkle that could be the biggest cause for consternation this time around. It counted $5 million against the salary cap each season, but O'Reilly made $3.5 million in 2012-13 and $6.5 million in 2013-14.

Colorado has already filed for club-elected arbitration against O'Reilly. If the case goes to arbitration, O'Reilly would be able to select his term (one or two years) and would be awarded a monetary term of at least 85 percent of his previous season's salary ($5.525 million).

O'Reilly is a strong two-way player who can help drive possession. He might be more valuable to another team at center, his natural position, but he's typically played on the wing the past two seasons. He can qualify for unrestricted free agency in two seasons, depending on the length of his next contract.

P.K. Subban, D, Montreal Canadiens

P.K. Subban
Defense - MTL
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 43 | PTS: 53
SOG: 204 | +/-: -4
The Canadiens hedged on Subban two years ago and signed him to a two-year, $5.75 million "bridge contract." He proceeded to win the Norris Trophy, and followed that with another great season and an even better Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013-14.

Subban's third contract is going to be significantly larger and more expensive than his second. He is a terrific defenseman and a charismatic personality, someone the phrase "franchise player" fits quite well.

Ryan Johansen, C, Columbus Blue Jackets

Ryan Johansen
Center - CBJ
GOALS: 33 | ASST: 30 | PTS: 63
SOG: 237 | +/-: 3
Johansen and Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin battled back and forth for the unofficial title of breakout player of 2013-14. Columbus' 21-year-old forward had 33 goals and 63 points and looked every bit the part of a No. 1 center on a playoff team.

He's got 189 games of NHL experience, though he wasn't nearly as productive in his first two seasons. This deal will likely hinge on term; the longer the contract, the more money per season Johansen will likely want. A four-year deal would take him to UFA status, so five or more could include some large dollar figures.

James Reimer, G, Toronto Maple Leafs

James Reimer
Goalie - TOR
RECORD: 12-16-1
GAA: 3.290000 | SVP: 0.911000
Reimer has looked like a No. 1 goaltender at his best but also has struggled severely at times. He has never played more than 37 games in a season because of injury and the lockout before 2012-13, which was his best season.

He also lost his starter's job in Toronto when Jonathan Bernier emerged this past season as a franchise goaltender. If the two sides decide to part ways, there don't appear to be any clear openings for a No. 1 goalie around the NHL.

Is Reimer one of the 30 best goalies in the NHL? Almost certainly, but he could be stuck as Bernier's backup. And if that's the case, what kind of contract does he agree to with Toronto? He can be a UFA after 2014-15.

Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton Oilers

Justin Schultz
Defense - EDM
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 33
SOG: 109 | +/-: -22
The Oilers gave Schultz a fairly unique contract after he decided against signing with the Anaheim Ducks, who drafted him in 2008. With bonuses, the defenseman's contract with Edmonton looked more like what a top-five draft pick typically gets on his entry-level deal.

After two years of demonstrating strong offensive production but clear issues with puck possession and defensive inconsistency, what is Schultz worth? Do the Oilers still see him as a franchise defenseman who can eat up large minutes in the coming seasons?

Derick Brassard, C, New York Rangers

Derick Brassard
Center - NYR
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 27 | PTS: 45
SOG: 159 | +/-: 2
Brassard just completed a four-year contract at an average annual value of $3.2 million. He's one year away from unrestricted free agency, and he had 18 goals and 45 points this past season for the Rangers.

That's pretty much where his production has been the past four seasons. He and Sam Gagner are comparable players. Are either of them a No. 2 center on a good team? Will the Rangers try to add a marquee pivot and push Brassard to third on the depth chart?

Gagner signed a three-year deal worth $4.8 million per season with the Oilers, but that doesn't look like a great deal for Edmonton after this season.

Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins

Torey Krug
Defense - BOS
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 40
SOG: 183 | +/-: 18
Krug is 23 and coming off his entry-level contract. With his new contract, he could conceivably triple his salary-cap charge, which was $916,667, according to Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli will have to do some finagling to make it work because forwards Reilly Smith and Jordan Caron as well as defenseman Matt Bartkowski are also scheduled for restricted free agency. The Bruins are tight against the cap and also want to re-sign Jarome Iginla, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Krug put up 40 points this season to tie captain Zdeno Chara for the most among Boston defensemen. He had 19 points on the power play, tying him for the team lead with center David Krejci. Krug was also a strong possession player (55.4 Corsi-for percentage) on one of the League's best possession teams.

Reilly Smith, RW, Boston Bruins

Reilly Smith
Right Wing - BOS
GOALS: 20 | ASST: 31 | PTS: 51
SOG: 146 | +/-: 28
Acquired in the trade that sent Seguin to the Stars last summer, Smith was a breakout performer on Boston's second line this past season. He had 20 goals, 51 points, a plus-28 rating and a 58.5 Corsi-for percentage playing with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

Like Krug, Smith is 23 and coming off his entry-level contract, which had a $900,000 salary-cap charge. It wouldn't be shocking to see Smith and Krug sign similar contracts.

Jaden Schwartz, RW, St. Louis Blues

Jaden Schwartz
Left Wing - STL
GOALS: 25 | ASST: 31 | PTS: 56
SOG: 188 | +/-: 28
Schwartz, 21, just completed his entry-level contract. He's young and already a core member of the Blues' forward group. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock compares him to a young Zach Parise because of how difficult he is to check off the puck and how aggressive he is on the forecheck.

Schwartz had 25 goals and 56 points in 80 games in 2013-14. He is one of three RFA forwards that are part of the Blues core, along with Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka. Schwartz has to be a top priority for GM Doug Armstrong because of his age and goal-scoring ability.

--- staff writer Corey Masisak contributed to this article

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