National Hockey League general managers may need to dig a little deeper, and jobless players may need to lower their asking prices, but there are still a few gems — or at least some worthy gambles and depth additions — to be unearthed from the ever-shrinking 2017 UFA market.
The pickings are getting slim, and youth is scarce.
Nevertheless, we examine the latest buzz surrounding the top unrestricted free agents still lingering on the midsummer market.
1. Thomas Vanek
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.6 million
Bargaining chips: Nine-time 20-goal guy. Easily one of the most productive offensive players on the open market. Accustomed to changing teams. Can play both wings and boost your power play.
The latest: A strong showing on a bad 2016-17 Red Wings team earned Vanek a trade to Florida, where the rental put up 10 points in 20 games as a Panther.
Vanek’s scoring touch will earn him another shot in the league, and a handful of teams have kicked tires here.
No UFA remaining on the board had more assists (31) or points (48) this past season than Vanek, who averaged just 14:37 in ice time over 68 games.
The Red Wings haven’t ruled out bringing him back when he was traded to Florida. The winger hopped on Buffalo radio and said he’d be open to going back there as well.
Detroit was maintaining contact with Vanek as recently as July 12, according to the Free Press, but needs to pay unsigned RFA forward Andreas Athanasiou.
According to CapFriendly.com, the Wings have zero cap space (although they can place Johan Franzen’s $3.9 million on LTIR).
2. Jaromir Jagr
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: Second all-time in NHL scoring. First all-time in NHL hair.
The latest: Travelling Jagr’s most recent employer, the Florida Panthers, announced they will be embracing a youth movement up front, but there are 30 other teams out there.
Older and more fun than sin, Jagr is still putting up top-six-calibre stats in his dotage. He scored a respectable 16 goals and 30 assists this past season. Even more impressive? The guy didn’t miss a single game.
Despite his Twitter jokes to the contrary, Jagr has interest in the NHL. He can boost your power play and sell some tickets. Just ask the ECHL’s Florida Everblades.
Heading home to the Czech league (and skating in the Olympics?) remains an option. Hanging up the blades is not.
Jagr recently skated with his hometown club of Kladno and addressed his NHL status: “I don’t think I am so bad that I couldn’t play there.”
Jeremy Roenick went to bat for his contemporary in early July 8.
Everywhere I look,I read:all FA getting calls from10-12teams. Me0 calls.On the contrary,I’m trying to call them,and no ones picking up.
— Jaromir Jagr (@68Jagr) June 29, 2017
— Jaromir Jagr (@68Jagr) June 29, 2017
3. Mike Fisher
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4.4 million
Bargaining chips: Captain material. A 20-goal scorer six times over. More than 1,000 regular-season and 134 post-season games of experience. Can win draws, play up and down the lineup, plus help both special teams.
The latest: The best centreman still floating on the open market (18 goals and 42 points in 2016-17) is taking time to decide if he wants to play another season or retire.
“I love playing the game, I love being around the guys,” Fisher said at the team’s dressing-room cleanout. “At the end of the day, this is a game. It’s an important part of my life, but it’s not everything. There’s other decisions and other people involved.
“For me it’s faith, family and then hockey.”
The Predators would likely welcome Fisher back on a one-year deal at a lower rate, but they signed Nick Bonino on July 1 as insurance.
GM David Poile spoke to The Tennessean on July 25 and gave a time line on Fisher’s decision.
“I’m hoping to talk to him later this week to see where he’s at. I’d say by next week, we should have an update,” said Poile, who wants to know his captain’s intentions soon.
“I think we’re getting to that point…. I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to [provide] an update next week.”
4. Cody Franson
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.325 million
Bargaining chips: Is there better UFA defenceman under the age of 30? No one else is even in the ballpark.
The latest: A youngish, right-shot D-man who would improve most teams’ third pairing (and a few teams’ second pairing) is still out there.
Such was the case the last time Franson hit free agency, in the summer of 2015, before he finally inked a deal with Buffalo in early September.
The 6-foot-5 B.C. native can throw a hit and move a puck. Teams are calling. He’ll land a job, but it might not be for the term he’d like.
The Devils, who lost out on the Kevin Shattenkirk sweepstakes, are believed to be a good fit, but are reportedly not so interested in the three-year deal Franson is gunning for.
In mid-July, a report surfaced that Franson might join the cap-tight Chicago Blackhawks on a professional tryout if he fails to land a more concrete deal.
5. Drew Stafford
Age on July 1, 2017: 31
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4.35 million
Bargaining chips: Four-time 20-goal man. The best winger under the age of 32 still standing. Versatile enough to play either side, top six or bottom six.
The latest: Stafford spoke to WEEI in Boston on the eve of free agency and said “100 per cent” his first choice would be to sign on as a Bruin — and Boston still hasn’t closed the door.
“It’s all about fit and opportunity. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t,” said Stafford, who was rented from the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline.
“I could’ve come here and been a poor fit and things could have went the opposite here, but I got here, and it felt like it was a great fit. I was able to play a few different roles, but I was able to get a little bit of offense going and the goal-scoring that I know I can still produce in this league.”
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, there is mutual interest between the Wild and Stafford.
Minnesota must first pay its three restricted free agent forwards: Marcus Foligno, Mikael Granlund, and Nino Niederreiter.
“This has become the typical shift in the NHL after the first few days of free agency,” Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said. “You talk to players, sign a few, then shift to the RFAs. Once that’s done, you see where you’re at when you have a little better sense of your available cap space.”
6. Brian Gionta
Age on July 1, 2017: 38
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.25 million
Bargaining chips: Solid leader. Very durable for his age (averaged 16:36 over 82 games in 2016-17). One-time 48-goal scorer still capable of 35 points as a secondary scorer.
The latest: The Buffalo Sabres haven’t closed the door on bringing back their captain just yet, but it hardly looks good at this point — especially with the addition of veteran right wing Jason Pominville.
“I’ve always had a ton of respect for Brian,” Sabres GM Jason Botterill told reporters. “He was a player I got to know a little bit during my time in Rochester just with him being a Rochester native. We’ll continue to see how our roster organizes with things here, but I’m well-aware of the assets and how valuable Brian can be.
“But it’s also a situation where we’re very excited to bring Jason in from a leadership standpoint, too.”
We spoke with Gionta about his free agency on July 11 (full details here).
“The door is not completely shut [in Buffalo] but very unlikely,” Gionta said.
“I’m still trying to figure things out. At this point in my career, it’s got to be a good situation for the family, so I’m just working through some things.”
7. Jarome Iginla
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.33 million
Bargaining chips: First-ballot Hockey Hall of Famer. Still willing to drop gloves for his teammates. Could boost your second power-play unit. Only a couple years removed from a 22-goal showing.
The latest: Iginla is a living legend. He’s also 40 years old and coming off his least productive season (27 points, minus-30 rating) as a professional hockey player.
Iginla’s agent, Don Meehan, appeared on Prime Time Sports just prior to July 1’s free agency opening (listen here) and declined comment when asked if clubs had been calling on Iginla during the free agent negotiating window.
Iginla, a father of three, is at home relaxing with his family. He will take time to decide if he wants to play in 2017-18.
“It’s not as cut and dry as when I was young and we didn’t have any kids,” Iginla told Kamloops This Week, noting his agent has spoken with a few teams. “There is a point where we don’t want to keep moving them.
“If I keep playing, I look forward to that. I’ll be ready. If I don’t, I’ve had a great run and I’m very thankful for that.
“I know last year I had a tough year, probably the toughest of my career. I look at it as fuel. I think I can bounce back and score goals and help a team in different areas.
“I still love competing and battling and fighting in the hard areas. I think I’ll miss that when I am done, going into those battles.”
Team Canada GM Sean Burke is open to bringing vets like Iginla and Doan onto the 2018 Olympic squad should NHL deals not materialize.
8. Shane Doan
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.88 million
Bargaining chips: One of the NHL’s best captains. Only one year removed from a 28-goal, 47-point campaign. Should be inspired to prove the Coyotes wrong for cutting ties. An incredible 1,540 career games and 972 career points.
The latest: As free agency approached, Doan was leaning towards playing another season. If so, it won’t be with the only franchise he’s ever known.
“Initially, you want to prove some things,” Doan told Kamloops This Week on July 13. “Maybe as I calm down a little bit, cooler heads will prevail.
“In the end, you deal with things, you get over the thoughts and emotions.”
Doan has more gas in the tank but said finding the right fit has been difficult.
“It’s pretty hard to find that,” said Doan. “Pretty much impossible at this point.
“We’re just kind of waiting and seeing. We’ve talked to four or five teams.”
The St. Louis Blues may be a potential fit on a one-year deal, as they should be getting desperate for wingers.
9. Andrei Loktionov
2013-14 salary cap hit: $725,000
Bargaining chips: Productive KHL forward still under 30 years old. Exploded for 12 points in just 15 games in his latest playoff run with Lokomotiv. Has 155 games of NHL experience and a relationship with the Los Angeles Kings that goes back to when he was drafted in 2008.
The latest: A veteran forward who has now twice departed the Kontinental Hockey League to make it in North America is being given a chance by his first NHL franchise, L.A., to make an offence-starved club if he excels in training camp. A story worth following.
10. Matt Cullen
2016-17 salary cap hit: $1 million
Bargaining chips: Three-time Stanley Cup champion. Willing to sign for one year and won’t break the bank. Adds experience, leadership and desire to your bottom six.
The latest: Hot off back-to-back championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the well-regarded Cullen is taking time to ponder his future and consider retirement. The departure of Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonino (to Nashville) opens up the idea of another Penguins return, and GM Jim Rutherford hasn’t completely ruled it out.
The Minnesota Wild, another one of Cullen’s former clubs, has also expressed interest, but GM Chuck Fletcher’s priority is extending RFA forwards Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter.
Here’s an idea: If the NHL offers don’t suit Cullen, does he consider joining Team USA’s Olympic squad?
More unsigned notables: Jhonas Enroth, Alex Chiasson, Dennis Wideman, Roman Polak, Brooks Laich, Francois Beauchemin, John-Michael Liles, Dwight King, Teddy Purcell, P.A. Parenteau, Jiri Hudler, Jay McClement, Rene Bourque, Will Butcher (Aug. 15), R.J. Umberger (PTO, Stars)