NHL’s Top 12 UFAs of 2018: Latest rumours, reports

Jeff Marek and Chris Johnston discuss James van Riemsdyk and whether the Maple Leafs will offer the 28-year-old a contract extension.

Most of the best ones, as per league-wide trend, were crossed off the list well before puck drop. Or received juicy extensions mid-season.

The unrestricted free agent class of 2018 was set to include Carey Price, Cam Fowler, Brian Little, Martin Jones, Craig Anderson, Marc Edouard-Vlasic and Mikko Koivu. But that group all inked long-term extensions with their current clubs in the off-season.

Message reinforced: If you have a good goalie, defenceman or centreman, you keep him now and worry about the future later.

A second wave — Kyle Turris, Cam Atkinson, Jonathan Marchessault — landed their paydays in-season.

The remaining impending UFAs of 2018 — a group headlined by Islanders face John Tavares — still have much to offer, and considering the cap situations or playoff chances of some of their current teams, fans have good hope for some movement.

It pains us to leave active legends such as the Sedin twins and Joe Thornton off our top 12, but age and injury won’t make them quite as desirable in 2018-19.

Summer 2018 will also provide a measure of fiscal relief for a few front offices, as hefty contracts belonging to Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi and Ryane Clowe will come off the books.

Here is an early look at the NHL’s top 12 unrestricted free agents of 2018 and the rumours surrounding them.

1. John Tavares
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $5.5 million
Bargaining chips: The best 20-something impending unrestricted free-agent centre to come along since Steven Stamkos (and we know how calm everyone acted in 2016). Islanders’ captain, best player and the reason they snapped their playoff series-victory drought in 2016. Gold medallist at the Olympics, World Cup and world junior championship (twice). Twice hit the 80-point mark. Improving on defensive end, too. Did we mention the Spengler Cup gold?

The latest: Tavares and the Islanders have always maintained that they’d like to extend their marriage when the time comes.

Newsday‘s Arthur Staple reported way back in May that GM Garth Snow is likely to offer Tavares an eight-year contract worth upward of $10 million per season, and he’s certainly worth Jack Eichel if not Connor McDavid money.

Tavares is likely encouraged by the club’s trade for buddy Jordan Eberle, the development of Mathew Barzal, and his chemistry with Josh Bailey (also on this list). The Isles’ securing of a new arena at Belmont Park can’t hurt, but that rink isn’t projected to open until 2021-22.

But Tavares is driven to win, he’s enjoying a career year, has a shot to win the Hart, and the Isles are on track to miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. He needs to believe the Islanders can win a Cup.

The loyal superstar is content to play the waiting game, and he’s earned the right to weigh his options. In the words of friend Matt Martin: “He knows his contract situation can be solved quickly, so he’s taking his time.”

For now, he’s towing the company line.

“I hope to stay in Long Island,” Tavares told Staple on Jan. 15. “There’s a lot of positive things going forward with the organization and the team here. I haven’t thought about being anywhere else but with the Islanders.”

2. John Carlson
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.97 million
Bargaining chips: World junior gold medallist. Member of Team USA. Washington Capitals‘ ice-time leader at 22:42 per game. Power-play threat. Put up between 32 and 55 points in seven straight full seasons.

The latest: A skilled and experienced puck-moving, right-shot defenceman under the age of 30? “Yes, please,” says the entire NHL.

While Carlson has been an important fixture in Washington since getting drafted in 2008’s first round, GM Brian MacLellan’s long list of contractual decisions in the summer pushed an extension to the back burner.

With the Caps a contender and Carlson the most productive UFA defenceman (37 points through 48 games), he’s shot to the top of Washington’s priority list.

“In the beginning, we were wondering where we were going to be as a team,” MacLellan told NHL.com on Jan. 11. “[Now], we’re going to want him back no matter what, so we’re going to make our best effort to bring him back.”

With the Ducks locking up Fowler and the Sharks committing to Vlasic, does Carlson pass up a chance to become the undisputed No. 1 UFA defenceman of 2018 and create a lucrative bidding war?

Carlson has said he’s not thinking too much about his next contract yet.

“There’ll be a time for all that, and that’s when I’ll deal with that,” Carlson told the Washington Post. “That’s what your agent does: find what the value should be and all that. I haven’t looked into any of that stuff.”

3. James van Riemsdyk
Age on July 1: 29
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $4.25 million
Bargaining chips: Second-overall pick in 2007. Member of Team USA. Four-time 20-goal scorer, one-time 30-goal man on pace for another 30 goals. Coming off his most productive NHL season (62 points). Big body, sick mitts. A power-play beast. Belief he can still improve.

The latest: Conjecture and rumours, as always.

The Maple Leafs’ most dangerous left wing holds a 10-team no-trade list and says he wants to remain with the team long-term, but with JVR’s next contract expected to be a biggie, Toronto may be hesitant to shell out knowing it will soon have to pony up big bucks for younger forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

“I’ve loved playing here ever since I came here. How I’ve been treated is great. It’s a place I want to play for as long as I can,” van Riemsdyk told us. “Where that takes things, we’ll see what happens. I love playing here. I want to be here.”

The Leafs offered van Riemsdyk as part of a failed trade package for then-Islanders defenceman Travis Hamonic at the draft.

Do the Leafs deal the underpaid JVR before the Feb. 26 deadline to bolster their blue line, or do they take one more run with him as a dependable contributor in their top six and sort things out in the summer?

Extension talks are quiet, and JVR, as Chris Johnston reports, is doing his due diligence by consulting with fellow players about how best to approach free agency.

4. Josh Bailey
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.3 million
Bargaining chips: Second only to teammate Tavares among all impending free agents in scoring, with an incredible 54 points through 45 games. Chemistry with the face of the franchise. Ten years of loyalty to the club that drafted him in the first round of 2008. Good track record of avoiding injury. Earned invite to 2018 All-Star Game.

The latest: With Jaroslav Halak, Nikolai Kulemin and Jason Chimera all coming off the books, the Isles should be able to extend both Tavares and Bailey if the players are willing.

Bailey is on record saying he’d prefer to ink an extension well in advance of July 1 and wants to retire an Islander.

“It’s been 10 years now. It’s all I know,” Bailey told NHL.com.

“I’ve loved every minute of it. The highs and the lows I think make you stronger as a person and player and as an organization. I think it’s made us stronger, too. I’d like nothing more than to spend my entire career here. There’s still some work to be done, but that would obviously be my No. 1 priority.”

5. Mikael Backlund
Age on July 1: 29
Position: Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.58 million
Bargaining chips: Coming off a career season in which he posted 22 goals, 53 points, a team-high seven game-winners and entered the Selke conversation. A force on both special teams and the nucleus of the Flames’ shutdown line.

The latest: All due respect to Matt Stajan and Kris Versteeg, but the timing of Backlund’s free agency in 2018 shouldn’t conflict with too many other big-ticket extensions. Barring a desire on the player’s part to test the market and seek the most dollars available, Calgary is a fantastic fit in terms of being able to play a prominent role on a promising young team.

GM Brad Treliving revealed that initial conversations with Backlund’s agent, J.P. Barry, began in July.

“Term and money are the only two obstacles that we have to agree on,” Treliving told Sportsnet’s Calgary station.

“We think Mikael is a really good player, an important player here, and we’d like to see if there’s a way to get something done and we’ll explore that.”

We bet 2007 first-rounder Backlund re-ups with the team that drafted him and receives a nice raise well before the rumour mill gets churning, but he is the type of reliable, hard-battling centre teams can’t have enough of.

6. Paul Stastny
Age on July 1: 32
Position: Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $7 million
Bargaining chips: Top-two centre on perennial playoff team. Alternate captain. Great face-off man and penalty killer. Defensively responsible. A lock for 50 points if healthy.

The latest: Stastny hit pay dirt as one of the best UFA forwards in 2014, but there’s no way he commands another $7-million-per-year deal with a no-trade clause. Even with the addition of Brayden Schenn, the Quebec native still has a case as the most dependable two-way pivot on a strong team, and Stastny’s importance has been underscored will the litany of injuries St. Louis is dealing with.

The Blues should be able to keep the playmaker in the fold if both sides want to make a deal. Doug Armstrong, however, has recently begun to let his veterans go — Kevin Shattenkirk, Troy Brouwer, David Backes — in favour of youth when payday comes knocking.

Plenty of contenders would be interested in adding Stastny’s depth up the middle, but St. Louis is more likely to add than subtract before Feb. 26.

7. Evander Kane
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $5.25 million
Bargaining chips: The youngest UFA forward in 2018, period. In 2016-17, enjoyed his most productive season — 28 goals, 43 points — since 2011-12 and has followed it up with 36 points before the all-star break. Deadly shot. Common belief that he still hasn’t reached his ceiling.

The latest: Kane’s future is a compelling subject because his off-ice track record isn’t the most positive and he’s already battled through several injuries, yet his skills and athleticism are top notch. We’ve seen many an NHLer mature with age, so there is potential for a steal of a deal here.

With his team bound for the draft lottery, new Sabres GM Jason Botterill will try to fetch as much as possible for Kane before the deadline. One report had the asking price at four pieces. Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are among the clubs that have expressed interest.

Kane would welcome a trade out of Buffalo and a chance to skate in his first playoff game.

“I come into the season every year, as I’ve done since I’ve started, hoping to play in the playoffs and envisioning that,” Kane told reporters in Calgary this week. “For me, it’s taken a long time. I’m always looking forward to that opportunity. I think that’s my type of hockey. I think I’m built for that as a player. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to showcase that.

“For me, the prospect of that happening is obviously exciting.”

8. James Neal
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $5 million
Bargaining chips: Ten straight seasons as a 20-goal man. Among pending UFAs, only Bailey had more goals than Neal’s 22 at the all-star break. Named to All-Star Game. Wicked shot.

The latest: Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos has suggested that Neal will be asking for as much as $6.5 million or $7 million per season on a long-term deal. Despite having the cap space to make that work, the belief is that Vegas is hesitant to commit long-term to players 30 and older.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee already made extending 27-year-old Jonathan Marchessault ($5 million times six years) his priority. Neal is older and will be more expensive.

So, does McPhee trade Neal for a nice deadline haul or keep him for a Cinderella playoff run, knowing there’s a risk Neal goes to the highest bidder on July 1?

9. David Perron
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.75 million
Bargaining chips: In the midst of a career season. Strong winger with solid possession metrics.

The latest: Teams have called about both Neal and Perron. Neal has the better resume, but Perron is actually having the more productive season (40 points through 41 games), helped in part by a high shooting percentage.

McPhee is keeping mum publicly with his plans for these veteran wingers. There is value in keeping Perron to help with playoff gate and not disrupt Vegas’s magic chemistry, but the temptation to sell high on an aging player whose stock may never be greater could be tempting.

10. Zdeno Chara
Age on July 1: 41
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.58 million
Bargaining chips: Captain. Norris winner. Stanley Cup winner. Has 600-plus points over 1,300-plus games played. Licensed to sell real estate in Massachusetts. Logged the Bruins’ most minutes in the 2017 post-season and is still logging 23:30 per night. That shot. That reach.

The latest: Interestingly, Chara’s salary this season will be the cheapest of his seven-year deal. He’s “only” making $4 million in real money, and has been a stud.

Chara is on record saying he wants to keep playing for Boston beyond this season, and GM Don Sweeney sees value in the tall man. Extension talks have already begun, and with Boston looking like a force, we don’t see why a one-year deal won’t be worked out.

“Maybe he’ll play forever,” says Bruins rookie Charlie McAvoy. “He’s going to be the next Jagr. He’s in tremendous shape. He takes care of his body like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

11. Mike Green
Age on July 1: 32
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Named to 2018 All-Star Game. Experienced, durable top-four right shot who can log 24 minutes a night. In his prime, he had a 30-goal season and two 70-point seasons from the blue line.

The latest: Coming off a 36-point campaign as the best defenceman on a bad Red Wings team, Green is on pace to eclipse that in his contract year (26 points through 47 games).

With the draft lottery most likely in their future and cap problems firmly in their present, Detroit’s most obvious trade chip is Green.

It’s easy to picture a contender offering up futures to GM Ken Holland in order to secure an experienced right shot who can log big minutes and run a power-play before the deadline. The Islanders, Lightning and Maple Leafs are among the teams interested in renting a defenceman.

12. Michael Grabner
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $1.65 million
Bargaining chips: Experienced. Fast. Cap hit so low, it’ll make your eyes pop. Great scoring touch. Kills penalties.

The latest: Here’s something you may not know: Michael Grabner ranks fourth in even-strength goals since the start of last season. Only Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov and Vladimir Tarasenko have more.

Grabner’s production and price should make him a more viable commodity for GM Jeff Gorton than, say, teammate Rick Nash, but Grabner’s agent, Jerry Buckley, told the New York Post that the trade deadline is not being looked at as an extension deadline by either side.

“Jeff and I have had several conversations but we haven’t gotten into negotiations,” Buckley told Larry Brooks on Jan. 6. “I don’t have the sense that there’s urgency attached to this because of the deadline.

“There’s time between the end of the playoffs and [July 1] for us to talk and reach a deal. Michael loves New York and playing for the Rangers, and I have to believe the feeling is mutual. When the time is right, we’ll get down to negotiating.”

More notable UFAs of 2018: Aaron Dell, John Moore, Thomas Vanek, Joe Thornton, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Brian Gibbons, Erik Gudbranson, Toby Enstrom, Jack Johnson, Patric Hornqvist, Lars Eller, Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hutton, Cam Ward, Derek Ryan, Brandon Manning, Jan Rutta, Greg Pateryn, Jaroslav Halak, Tyler Bozak, Calvin De Haan, Dan Hamhuis, Leo Komarov, Patrick Maroon, Antti Raanta, Tomas Plekanec, Kari Lehtonen, Antti Raanta, Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Ryane Clowe, Jannik Hansen, Derek Grant, Jaromir Jagr

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.