Eight weeks have passed since the beginning of free agency, and with the final days of August on the horizon, the free agent pool has transformed from a safe diving depth to perilously shallow.
Long gone, of course, are the biggest names. It took little more than several hours for some of the top talents, players such as Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, to land with their new clubs, while the signings continued to steadily filter in on through the second week of free agency, which is when the likes of Micheal Ferland and Ryan Dzingel put pen to paper. But as we’ve noted previously, just because most of the noteworthy talent has found homes for next season doesn’t mean there aren’t still a few players – some with name value, others with significantly less – aren’t still available.
So, who is the best of the bunch? And what’s the best lineup that can be assembled with those left on the open market?
When it comes to pure, natural centers, the market for experienced NHL pivots has all but dried up. In fact, unless a team was to look across the pond for some sort of late-summer European free agent steal, there are really only two centers worth scooping up. The first – and truly the better option, no matter his age – is Joe Thornton. Though the 40-year-old is the greyest of the greybeards left without a pact, he’s far and away the best pivot and his numbers scream continued effectiveness. He notched 16 goals and 51 points last season on a high-scoring Sharks club, and that was after going under the knife for knee surgery late in the 2017-18 campaign. He’s still a solid third-line option and that’s exactly where San Jose will pencil him into the lineup once he’s inked. And you can count on him returning to the Bay Area.
The second-best of the bunch? It’s a toss-up between Derick Brassard and Brian Boyle. Life wasn’t easy for the 31-year-old Brassard last season, who saw his point total from the campaign prior cut in half despite playing only two fewer games. Assuming he finds an NHL home before the start of the season, Brassard will enter 2019-20 with plenty to prove after a 14-goal, 23-point season that saw him traded twice and end the season as a fourth-liner. But Brassard has competition in Boyle, 34, who can excel in a shutdown role and chipped in 18 goals and 24 points last season in 73 games. He has less potential upside, but Boyle is the safer bet and more versatile player.
The left side brings with it a legitimate toss up. On one hand, Patrick Marleau was the third-highest scoring forward among the remaining free agents, he skated upwards of 16 minutes per night and he played in every single game, making it 10 consecutive seasons in which he’s played every game. On the other, he’ll be 40 by the time the season starts and, in terms of points per game, Marleau actually finished fourth among all remaining free agent forwards last season, more than one-tenth of a point per game behind Thomas Vanek.
Vanek, 35, is an intriguing potential addition, too. He’s been a journeyman since his early career with the Buffalo Sabres, spending time with the New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks and Columbus Blue Jackets over the past six seasons. He’s been a decent fit everywhere he’s been, though. His "worst" season across the past six seasons was 2018-19’s 16-goal, 36-point output in his second go-round with the Red Wings, but he was that productive in 64 games while averaging 14 minutes per game. Put him on the power play and let him go to work.
One of the true oddities of free agency thus far has been the lack of a deal for versatile winger Patrick Maroon, who scored 10 goals and 28 points last season on a sweetheart deal with his hometown St. Louis Blues and looked primed to land a longer-term pact elsewhere this summer but has yet to sign a deal. There’s a couple of ways to look at it, however. One is that Maroon, 31, could be working on a way to return to St. Louis. The other is that Maroon is waiting to see which team is most in need of his services and where the best fit is.
That said, Maroon doesn’t actually top his position. Rather, Justin Williams sits atop the heap of right wingers. The leader of the Storm Surge, who seems most likely to return to the Carolina Hurricanes if he suits up next season, was a 23-goal, 53-point second-liner last season. He’s still got game late in his career and can skate top-six minutes. And even if Williams plays in 2019-20 and doesn’t match last season’s output, chances are he’ll still be good for somewhere in the 35-point range. The same can’t be said for Maroon, who has only eclipsed that plateau twice in his career and did so thanks in part to time spent with Connor McDavid.
It’s not exactly a tinfoil hat theory, but it sure seems as though Jake Gardiner’s lack of a contract is tied in some way to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ negotiation with Mitch Marner. That’s to say that if Marner had signed by now and the Maple Leafs knew the cap space with which they’d be working, maybe Gardiner would have taken a team-friendly, one-year pact by now to give chase to a Stanley Cup next season. That hasn’t come to pass, though, and time is running out. If there’s no deal in place by the time training camp rolls around, Gardiner, 28, might seek work elsewhere and get some certainty.
The next-best option is Ben Hutton. The 26-year-old didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Vancouver Canucks and remains on the open market. With an average ice time of 22:21 last season and a five-goal, 20-point output, it’s somewhat surprising no team has taken a shot on Hutton, who might be able to thrive with fewer minutes in another system.
Beyond Gardiner and Hutton, it’s largely a group of experienced, veteran blueliners who are in the twilight of their respective careers. Among those available are 38-year-old Niklas Kronwall, 35-year-old Dan Girardi, 34-year-old Dion Phaneuf, 32-year-old Andrew MacDonald and 32-year-old Adam McQuaid. An interesting option with upside, however, is 26-year-old Joe Morrow, who can blast away and move well but hasn’t been an every-game NHLer at any point in his career.
Have we seen the last of Scott Darling? That’s the first question we have to ask. His tenure with the Carolina Hurricanes wasn’t great, to say the least. In 51 games across two seasons – a span that culminated with a stint in the minors, a trade to the Florida Panthers and a buyout – he posted an .887 save percentage, 3.20 goals-against average and a 15-25-9 record. But Darling is only 30 and just two seasons removed from posting a .924 SP and solid underlying numbers in 32 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. There’s potential, even if it is slim, for a career resurgence.
Unfortunately, that Darling is the top option speaks to the crease depth on the open market. The next-best bet is Chad Johnson. Though he’s posted back-to-back seasons with a sub-.900 SP, Johnson is a career .907 SP and a .905 SP over the past four years. He’s not No. 1 caliber and he’s not going to challenge for the Vezina Trophy, but Johnson, 33, can win games in a backup role.
FIRST ALL-UFA TEAM
Center: Joe Thornton
Left Wing: Patrick Marleau
Right Wing: Justin Williams
Defense: Jake Gardiner
Defense: Ben Hutton
Goaltender: Chad Johnson
You could argue for Vanek ahead of Marleau, but let’s get the dynamic Thornton-Marleau duo back together, pair them up with fellow veteran Williams. Two offensive-minded defensemen make the cut as the pairing for the first team, while Johnson, who is nothing if not a consistent second-string netminder, gets the top spot in the crease.
SECOND ALL-UFA TEAM
Center: Derick Brassard
Left Wing: Thomas Vanek
Right Wing: Patrick Maroon
Defense: Dan Girardi
Defense: Joe Morrow
Goaltender: Scott Darling
Let’s not worry about playing it safe. Brassard scored 21 goals and 46 points in 2017-18 and it’s too soon to write him off, even if last season was ugly at times and he fell out of favor awfully quickly with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Vanek gets the thumbs-up on the left side, Maroon fits on the right and then we pair veteran shutdown defender Girardi with prime-aged puck-mover Morrow. Darling gets his chance to prove himself.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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