After the big name on the board, John Tavares, the free agent class is awfully thin. But here are the best of the rest set to hit the open market.
Chances are, your favorite NHL team isn’t going to get a whole lot better on July 1, no matter how many unrestricted free agents they sign. In fact, less might be more this year — the less a team does, the more successful they might turn out to be. There’s just not that much out there. Obviously, there’s a few big fish in the UFA pond, like what’s-his-name from the Islanders and the big goal-scoring guy from the Leafs and…uhh…a couple others whose names escape me at the moment. But there isn’t nearly enough supply to meet the demand, which means the top-end guys are going to get overpaid, as will a lot of the middle class, too.
Here’s a look at the leading UFA goal-scorers and point producers in 2017-18, as well as top UFA defensemen in ice time. (Goalies? You’re looking for a UFA goalie? Better hope it’s a backup, because there’s not a single Grade-A goaltender on the market.)
There are only six players up for unrestricted free agency who scored 20-plus goals in 2017-18. John Tavares and James van Riemsdyk led the way with 36 apiece, followed by Michael Grabner (27), James Neal (25), Thomas Vanek (24) and Rick Nash (21). We know Tavares is going to hit the jackpot, whether it’s with the Islanders or elsewhere, and van Riemsdyk and Neal are sure to cash in with long-term, big-money deals. Vanek ($2-million salary in 2017-18) and Grabner ($1.65M) are in line for raises, but it’s hard to see either of them getting anything more than a two- or three-year contract at mid-level money. They’re not first-liners, and paying them anything close to that would be a mistake. Nash has indicated that he’s not going to sign with anyone on July 1 as he mulls his hockey future.
Others: Joe Thornton scored 13 goals in 47 games, which is a 20-plus goal pace, but he also turns 39 on July 2. It would come as a surprise if he doesn’t re-sign with San Jose, his NHL home since 2005…Patrick Maroon had 16 goals splitting his time between Edmonton and New Jersey. That’s probably his ceiling — at least when he’s not skating on a line with Connor McDavid – but he brings a physical element that few other players possess…Riley Nash picked a good time for a career year with Boston, posting 15 goals (and 41 points) in 76 games. The risk, of course, is that he reverts to the 10-goal, 20-point production that he exhibited during his first four full seasons in the league.
The aforementioned Tavares (83), Vanek (56) and van Riemsdyk (54) are three of the five pending UFAs who had 50 or more points in 2017-18. David Perron put up 66 points in 70 games with Vegas, and his 50 assists led all UFAs. Perron set career highs in assists and points, and he’s got some fire in his game, too. Someone’s going to pay for him. Paul Stastny collected 53 points between St. Louis and Winnipeg. As the second-best available center behind Tavares, Stastny is probably going to be paid too much by a team desperate for help down the middle — unless he takes a discount to stay in Winnipeg, where he fared well down the stretch and in the playoffs after being a trade-deadline acquisition.
Others: You could do a lot worse than Tyler Bozak as your third-line center who can move up and down the lineup as needed. He’s quietly efficient, usually checking in with 15 goals and 40-50 points. He was a little on the low side in 2017-18 (11 goals, 43 points), but he was cast in a more defensive role in Toronto than in previous seasons…Derek Ryan finally made it as a full-time NHLer at age 29 with Carolina in 2016-17. He connected for 38 points in 2017-18, including 15 goals, but you have to wonder if that’s as good as it gets…Farther down the list, Leo Komarov produced only seven goals and 19 points in 73 games for Toronto. He’s not exactly an offensive dynamo, but he’s better than that. He should rebound to the 15-goal, 35-point range while also agitating opponents in his inimitable ‘Uncle Leo’ fashion.
BLUELINE MINUTE MEN
Mike Green performed admirably in a tough situation in Detroit in 2017-18. He led all UFA defensemen in average ice time (22:04 per game), not to mention goals (eight) and points (33) despite the fact he was limited to 66 games. Still, it’s not the best sign when Green is the best UFA option among blueliners. And the scary thing is, there’s only a handful of (borderline) top-four defensemen lined up behind Green. Dan Hamhuis was the second-busiest UFA defenseman, skating 20:13 per game for Dallas, but it’s hard to imagine him getting anything more than a two-year deal as depth defender. John Moore (19:59 per game) is on the market as a 27-year-old, so he should garner some interest as a No. 4-5 D-man. Greg Pateryn (19:36) and Luca Sbisa (19:31), a pair of 28-year-olds who suited up for Dallas and Vegas, respectively, round out the top five among defensemen ice-time leaders. But they’re third-pairing defenders, at least on a contender.
Others:Jack Johnson (19:29) is rumored to be headed to Pittsburgh. He’s got size, pedigree and more offense than his 11-point output in 2017-18 would indicate. But he’s also been a minus player in 10 of his 11 NHL seasons. That’s not going to help the Penguins, who need shoring up defensively…Thirty-seven-year-old Brooks Orpik (19:23) will block shots for Cup rings, Nick Holden (19:22) is a third-pairing defender and Jason Garrison (19:04 in eight NHL games) spent most of the season in the minors. These guys are fill-ins at best…The New York Islanders were a mess defensively in 2017-18, but they’ve got a hat trick of UFA defensemen who could be worth a look, especially Calvin De Haan (18:44) and Thomas Hickey (18:05), while 36-year-old warhorse Dennis Seidenberg (17:52 in 27 games) might have another season left in him. But yeah, the fact we’re talking about three Isles defensemen is about all you need to know about the 2018 UFA defensemen pool. It’s not deep, not deep at all…OK, we’ve established that it’s a not great time to be looking for help on defense. But that isn’t to say there aren’t a few blueliners worth gambling on. Toby Enstrom (17:01) is skilled but injury-prone. Michael Kempny (15:19) looked good winning a Stanley Cup with Washington after coming over from Chicago. Christian Folin (15:35) isn’t going to spark the power play, but he’s an option for in the No. 5-6 slot.
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