NHL’s top 12 unrestricted free agents of 2018: A sneak peek

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin talked to the media after their first round loss to the Rangers about the possibility of signing Carey Price to a long-term contract.

The primary attraction of this summer’s hockey signings will be an intriguing 2017 free agent class, but it’s never too early for general managers to plan ahead (or for fans to start dreaming about which stars might become available).

July 1 is also a circled date for 2018’s free-agents-in-waiting, who have the opportunity to ink long-term extensions with their current teams for a maximum of eight years.

Last summer we saw jewels like Tampa defenceman Victor Hedman and Dallas centre Jamie Benn ink extensions almost immediately, opting for security over a bidding war.

More interesting for observers of the game, failure to sign a franchise star — like the dozen detailed below — triggers trade speculation and contract-year pressure.

Sharpen your pencils, GMs. This group brings strength up the middle. The impending UFA Class of ’18 features arguably the world’s best goaltender, three No. 1–calibre defencemen and a handful of top-six centremen.

It pains us to leave active legends such as the Sedin twins and Zdeno Chara — 2018’s oldest scheduled UFA, until Jaromir Jagr signs another one-deal pact somewhere — off this list due to age. And the fact we chose less-proven forwards over solid but aging scorers like James Neal, Mikko Koivo and Rick Nash shows the league is trending toward youth and speed.

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

Due to financial constraints or contending windows, some of the top 12 players listed below must be traded or let go; others should be retained at (almost) any cost.

Here is a very early peek at the NHL’s top 12 unrestricted free agents of 2018.

1. John Tavares
Age on July 1, 2018: 27
Position: Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $5.5 million
Bargaining chips: The best twenty-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?
What the future holds: Tavares and the Islanders have always maintained that they’d like to extend their marriage when the time comes.

Newsday‘s Arthur Staple reported in May that GM Garth Snow is likely to offer Tavares an eight-year contract worth upward of $10 million per season.

Tavares, who is recovering from surgery on his right hand and should be ready for the season, is likely encouraged by the club’s signing of Doug Weight as head coach. The two have a close relationship. But Tavares is driven to win, and the Isles failed to make the playoffs in 2017. He needs a sniper on his wing, and this franchise needs arena certainty.

“I’ve known John since he came into the league. He lived with me for a couple years. I trust him. I trust his extension of our coaching,” said Weight recently, citing Tavares’ desire for championships.

“We have to prove to him that we’re gonna be the team to do it, and I’m the coach to do it.”

2. Carey Price
Age on July 1, 2018: 30
Position: Goaltender
2017-18 salary cap hit: $6.5 million
Bargaining chips: Gold medallist at the Winter Olympics, World Cup and World Junior Championship. Most important player on the Montreal Canadiens. Winner of the William M. Jennings, Vezina, Ted Lindsay and Hart trophies, as well as the Lou Marsh Award. Career .920 save percentage with 270 wins in 509 appearances.

What the future holds: Re-signing Price and surrounding his franchise goaltender with more potent offensive weapons, starting with a true No. 1 centre, puts a ton of pressure on Habs GM Marc Bergevin to build a championship team and not waste Price’s best years.

“I love playing here. I’m sure we’ll figure something out,” Price reassured the club website on June 6. “Like I said, I want to stay here. I know we’ll figure out a way to make all of the pieces fit and bring a championship here.”

After getting ousted in the first round of the 2017 playoffs due to lack of scoring, Bergevin emphatically said he would not be trading Price.

“We’ll find the means to get [an extension] done,” the GM asserted. “Carey is a main piece to our team.”

Henrik Lundqvist currently carries the highest cap hit for a goaltender at $8.5 million. The starting point of Price’s negotiations should be higher than that.

3. Cam Fowler
Age on July 1, 2018: 26
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: Selected to 2017 All-Star Game. Posted a career-high 11 goals. Led all Ducks in ice time (26:30) and all Anaheim D-men in points (nine) in the 2017 post-season despite missing the first four games with injury.
What the future holds: Fowler was showered with trade rumours last summer. So much so, he spun the uncertainty into motivation and delivered his best NHL season.

As the youngest impending UFA of 2018, Fowler will still have suitors because he doesn’t hold a no-trade clause and the Ducks are facing a financial quandary with their blue line. But the belief is Fowler has played his way into a long-term contract extension instead. Preliminary negotiations are reportedly underway already.

4. John Carlson
Age on July 1, 2018: 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 six straight full seasons.

What the future holds: 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 has his hands full with the 2017 UFA class first. Decisions must be made this summer on Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov … with Carlson’s next contract in back of mind.

If the Ducks do lock up Fowler, does Carlson pass up a chance to become the undisputed No. 1 UFA defenceman of 2018 and create a lucrative bidding war?

5. James van Riemsdyk
Age on July 1, 2018: 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. Coming off his most productive NHL season (62 points). Big body, sick mitts. Belief he can still improve.

What the future holds: Rampant speculation 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 said at the end of 2016-17. “Where that takes things, we’ll see what happens. I love playing here. I want to be here.”

Do the Leafs trade the underpaid JVR at some point 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 next summer?

“I don’t know what more we could’ve asked of them,” said GM Lou Lamoriello, when we asked about JVR and Tyler Bozak. “They bought into what was being asked of them. They bought into a culture, and they embraced it. They embraced the young players and have tremendous respect for their talents and worked with them.

“The veterans are here for a reason. We went through 45-some players last season, and the players who are here belong in that locker room and are part of the future.”

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Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
James van Riemsdyk: It only gets harder from here
Originally aired May 11 2017

6. Kyle Turris
Age on July 1, 2018: 28
Position: Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.5 million
Bargaining chips: Hit 20 goals and 55 points in every season as a Senator with a minimum 60 games played. No. 1 centre for the Eastern Conference finalists. His 27 goals topped all Sens in 2016-17. Showing maturity and improvement with age. Beloved in community.

What the future holds: In a perfect world, the underpaid Turris would love to see his salary reach the heights of teammate Bobby Ryan’s $7.25 million average annual value.

But Ottawa is known to shy away from the cap ceiling, and raises are on the horizon for a number of core players in the next three summers. Between 2017 and 2019, Mark Stone, Cody Ceci, Derick Brassard, Marc Methot, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson could all make cases for a pay bump.

We see Turris as a great fit for a long-term extension here, but the negotiations could be interesting.

7. Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Age on July 1, 2018: 31
Position: Defence
2017-18 salary cap hit: $4.25 million
Bargaining chips: Olympic and World Cup gold medallist with Team Canada. One of the best all-around D-men in the world. Second to Brent Burns in Sharks’ time on ice. Makes $3.15 million less than Burns.
What the future holds: Tough decisions for GM Doug Wilson.

Not only must Wilson make calls on 2017 UFAs Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who are beloved in San Jose, but Vlasic’s next big deal will coincide with free agency of one of the best goalies in the biz (see below).

“I love it here,” Vlasic told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman earlier this year. “I’m not really a guy who wants to play for three or four teams. I like the city, I like the organization, we’re always competitive. What’s not to like? I want to play my whole career in San Jose.”

Vlasic is younger than Burns, and his stay-at-home, penalty-killing ways complement the Bearded One nicely.

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Marc-Édouard & Martine Vlasic on providing a peak into their private lives
Originally aired June 07 2017

8. Cam Atkinson
Age on July 1, 2018: 29
Position: Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.5 million
Bargaining chips: Production has increased every season. Scored a career-high 35 goals and 62 points in 2016-17. Played in 2017 All-Star Game.

What the future holds: Atkinson has delivered excellent bang for the Blue Jackets’ buck since he inked his three-year, $10.5-million contract extension in 2015. Columbus is one of the teams most under salary-cap pressure this summer, and the expiration of Atkinson’s contract coincides with that of teammates Boone Jenner, Matt Calvert, William Karlsson, Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray. Something will have to give.

9. Martin Jones
Age on July 1, 2018: 28
Position: Goaltender
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3 million
Bargaining chips: In two seasons as a starter, Jones has a pair of 35-win campaigns. Career .917 save percentage. Appeared in 2016 Cup Final and 2017 All-Star Game.

What the future holds: With a .935 save percentage and a shutout in the 2017 playoffs, he can hardly be blamed for the Sharks’ early elimination.

Jones is the youngest No. 1 goalie on track to turn UFA in 2018, and GM Wilson says extending the goalie — who would like to stay long-term — is a priority.

Look at Ben Bishop’s recent six-year, $29.5-million contract with the Dallas Stars as a comparable starting point.

10. Mikael Backlund
Age on July 1, 2018: 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. Rivals Sean Monahan as the Flames’ best centre.
What the future holds: A lovely raise.

All due respect to Matt Stajan, Freddie Hamilton and Lance Bouma, 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.

We bet 2007 first-rounder Backlund re-ups with the team that drafted him well before the rumour mill gets churning.

11. Paul Stastny
Age on July 1, 2018: 32
Position: Centre
2017-18 salary cap hit: $7 million
Bargaining chips: No. 1 centre on perennial playoff team. Alternate captain. The Blues’ best faceoff man at 55.7 per cent in 2016-17. Defensively responsible. A lock for 50 points if healthy.
What the future holds: 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. That said, the Quebec native is still the best pivot on a strong team. The Blues should be able to keep the playmaker in the fold if both sides want to make a deal. A point of concern: Stastny hasn’t played 75 games in a season since 2011-12 with Colorado.

12. Evander Kane
Age on July 1, 2018: 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. Deadly shot. Common belief that he still hasn’t reached his ceiling.

What the future holds: A trade, probably.

Speculation is running rampant that Kane, whose trade value hasn’t been this high in years, has fallen out of favour with Buffalo Sabres ownership and could be moved before his contract expires. The Los Angeles Kings, Friedman reports, are one team interested, and they could use the scoring.

Kane’s next contract (and next team?) 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.

Other notable UFAs of 2018: Mikko Koivu, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, James Neal, Rick Nash, Toby Enstrom, Bryan Little, Jack Johnson, Patric Hornqvist, Craig Anderson, Tyler Bozak, Zdeno Chara, Matt Read, Dan Hamhuis, Leo Komarov, Andrew Cogliano, Jannik Hansen, Patrick Maroon, Antti Raanta, Michael Grabner, Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Green, Tomas Plekanec, Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi, Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Ryane Clowe