NHL’s Top 12 UFAs of 2019: Latest rumours, reports

From becoming a father, being traded and parachuting into the Columbus Blue Jackets’ late playoffs push, it has been a whirlwind few months for Matt Duchene.

Did John Tavares and his $77-million sweepstakes open his UFA followers’ eyes for what might be possible if you peek beyond the curtain?

The summer of 2019 could deliver no shortage of star power, as a two-time Norris winner, a two-time Vezina winner, two Calder winners, and a few clubs’ top scorers are all racing toward July 1’s open market.

Big shakeups and monster paydays are on the horizon.

While a chunk of key UFAs are still focused on lifting the Stanley Cup, some clarity on the question of “Will they stay, or will they go?” is taking shape with those whose teams have been eliminated.

Here’s a look at the NHL’s Top 12 unrestricted free agents of 2019 and the freshest rumours surrounding their futures.

1. Erik Karlsson
Age on July 1: 29
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6.5 million
Bargaining chips: Two-time Norris Trophy champ (2012, 2015). Four-time NHL First All-Star Team. Under 30 years old. Olympic silver medallist and winner of Olympic best defenceman award in 2014. Skates like a deer. Once dragged Ottawa to within a goal of the Cup Final on one ankle. Six 60-plus-point campaigns. Looks like he just stepped out of a salon.

The latest: After weathering a sluggish start in teal, everything’s clicking for Erik Karlsson and the Sharks.

Although he’s been eligible to re-sign with San Jose since Jan. 1, Karlsson was ineligible to ink an eight-year extension until the trade deadline passed.

Agent Don Meehan and Sharks GM Doug Wilson had some preliminary discussions regarding a potential Karlsson contract in January, but this thing won’t be revisited seriously until the Sharks complete their playoff run.

“We look at Erik much like we looked at Evander [Kane last season], as a guy who fits now and in the future age-wise, style of game,” Wilson told NBC Sports California upon trading for him. “We’re in the mode of trying to win right now, and I think that’s something that’s attractive to him.

“You have to make it be a place the player wants to play, filling in all of the ingredients that they’re looking for in their decision-making process. He’s expressed that to us, that we are a place he’d like to be, and same thing [for] us back to him. We’d love him to be here long-term.”

Karlsson controls his destiny and, like Tavares a year ago, will be the most coveted UFA if he goes to market. Count the Lightning, Rangers, Golden Knights, Flyers and Stars among a slew of teams who might be interested in opening the coffers.

Does he pass up an opportunity that tempting?

“Tough to say,” a noncommittal Karlsson told After Hours on Feb. 16. “Right now I’m focused on getting back to my former self and getting rid of this injury and playing at the standard that I’m used to.”

Karlsson has been sidelined multiple times this contract season with a groin injury that doesn’t require surgery (yet) but throws a yellow flag at his future.

2. Artemi Panarin
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Led all Blue Jackets in assists (59), points (87), game-winners (eight) and power-play points (18). Now leads in playoff scoring. Memorably beat out Connor McDavid for the 2016 Calder Trophy. Crushed back-to-back 80-point seasons in Columbus after starting his NHL career with back-to-back 70-point seasons in Chicago. Magician on ice.

The latest: All signs point to Panarin leaving Columbus for the open market — and a bigger city with a larger Russian community — on July 1.

Having never won a playoff series, Columbus was loath to trade its top scorer heading into the stretch run, as brassy GM Jarmo Kekalainen risked losing an elite talent for nothing.

The whole city pitched in on the “Keep Panarin” campaign. Columbus-based High Bank Distillery took out a billboard offering him free booze for life if he re-signs.

“I say it’s harder for me to keep talking about my free agency because I see how people want me to stay in Columbus, and it’s harder,” Panarin told reporters in February.

“But it’s my life. We only have one life and I want to, like… it’s 10 per cent of my life, seven or eight years, you know? I want to stay happy every day and I want to see more options.”

The Florida Panthers — the presumed front-runner here — have cleared cap space and hired coach Joel Quenneville (a Panarin fan) to make a splash in July. The Blackhawks, Rangers and Kings are also rumoured to be in the hunt.

“Seriously, guys, I don’t have a team. Not one team where I want to go,” Panarin said. “But I have many teams. We’ll see what happens in the summer, but right now I don’t know what I want.

“I’m ready for that situation. I know in the summer how hard that will be for me. I’m ready. Still positive.”

Panarin was reportedly seeking a deal worth $10-11 million per season prior to the start of the playoffs.

3. Matt Duchene
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Centre
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Best UFA centre under 30. Seven 20-goal, 50-point seasons. Gold medallist for Team Canada at Winter Olympics, world championships (twice), and World Cup. Coming off career-best 31-goal, 70-point campaign. Point per game in 2019 playoffs.

The latest: Senators GM Pierre Dorion paid a handsome price to acquire Duchene in 2017, and with Ottawa amidst a rebuild, the GM could not afford to let him walk. So, he traded Duchene to Columbus for prospects Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson, a first-round pick in 2019 and a conditional first-rounder in 2020.

“It’s a situation of constant information-gathering whenever you’re in a contract year,” Duchene told me at training camp.

“Johnny [Tavares] is a good friend of mine. We’ve come up together: same agent, same trainer, same equipment company, same draft, same everything. It’s a guy I’m very familiar with and have a really good relationship with. I thought he handled the situation with extreme class and respect for everyone involved. I definitely took notes.”

Duchene is playing so well that he’s silenced those who questioned his abilities as a playoff performer. His July 1 suitors will be plentiful.

Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that Ottawa offered an eight-year, $64-million extension to Duchene prior to the trade. Can he fetch that much from Columbus or another franchise?

“It’s not far away from home for him up in Ontario. Everything’s a fit to this point,” Jackets president John Davidson told Prime Time Sports. “We’ll just let it play out, see where it goes, and let them enjoy the city.”

As long as the Jackets are playing hockey, that’s the only thing on Duchene’s mind.

“I couldn’t give a hell about what’s going to happen in the summer right now, for me,” Duchene told reporters during Round 2. “I know that other guys are feeling the same way and, if they’re not feeling the same way, they’re definitely playing like they don’t care about that stuff.

“They’re playing like this is the be-all and end-all, and it is.”

4. Sergei Bobrovsky
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Goaltender
2018-19 salary cap hit: $7.425 million
Bargaining chips: Two-time Vezina Trophy winner. Franchise record-holder for most wins, best goals-against average and save percentage in a season. Gold medallist for Team Russia at world championships. Bona fide No. 1 goalie.

The latest: “I don’t like to do any games, any mind games,” Goalie Bob, who holds a full no-move clause, said at the outset of camp. “After last season, I told the situation to the management of the Blue Jackets, so they know everything. They know my plans for the season. They know my plans for the future. They know everything.”

Bobrovsky endured an up-and-down season. His save percentage (.913) was his lowest in a healthy season since he came to Columbus from Philadelphia seven years ago.

In mid-December, NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes (who shares an agent with Bobrovsky, Paul Theofanous) labelled the situation untenable.

“Based on what I’m told from the Bobrovsky camp, and not Sergei himself, this relationship has really deteriorated,” Weekes said.

“So now the challenge for the Jackets is: Can they repair that? Is it possible or is it irreparable damage at this point? Are they able to salvage that relationship? Can they find a common path going forward, or does it continue going… down the path of no return.”

The Panthers, Islanders, Flames and Hurricanes would be among the suspected teams interested if Bobrovsky hits the open market as expected.

His asking price come July 1 has been said to be in the ballpark of $10 million per season.

Even though a return to Columbus in the fall ranks somewhere between unlikely and impossible, the goaltender has been spectacular this post-season, backstopping the Jackets to a sweep over Tampa.

Panarin switched agents to Theofaneous in the first week of February, leading some to believe the Russian Blue Jackets could be a package deal.

5. Jeff Skinner
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5.725 million
Bargaining chips: Calder winner. Hot off his first 40-goal and third 60-point season. Trade to Buffalo resulted in the most productive campaign of his career. Quick chemistry with franchise centre Jack Eichel. Hasn’t missed a game in two-plus seasons.

The latest: Sabres GM Jason Botterill and Skinner’s agent, Don Meehan, touched base in January and agreed to let the season run its course.

Despite missing the playoffs again, Buffalo finds itself on the upswing for the first time in years — thanks in part because the Skinner trade has worked out so well — and would be wise to keep Skinner in the fold. The winger has noted that he enjoys being closer to home with Toronto just a two-hour highway cruise away.

Skinner also, however, has endured nine straight NHL seasons without skating in a single post-season game. Getting to July 1 means Skinner has a say in where he wants to win.

Flipping Skinner before Feb. 25 would have infuriated Sabres fans and devastated the dressing room, and yet the struggling Sabres need to get back on a roll to make the dance.

Mark Stone‘s new salary of $9.5 million in Vegas certainly won’t harm Skinner’s leverage. Both wingers are the same age.

During his news conference to address the firing of coach Phil Housley, Botterill said there was a “100 per cent” chance a deal with Skinner could be completed. The Sabres have $23 million in cap space and could comfortably fit Skinner’s next AAV (approximately $8 million?) into their budget.

“If there were any doubts about Skinner’s interest in Buffalo, he used the word ‘we’ on several occasions when asked about the Sabres’ prospects for 2019-20,” according to Lance Lysowski of the Buffalo News.

6. Joe Pavelski
Age on July 1: 34
Position: Centre / Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Most goals per game (38 in 74) among all impending UFAs. One of the world’s best tippers. Equally effective as a wing or a centre. Olympic silver medallist for Team USA. Ten 20-goal seasons and running. Captain America. Won’t be slowed by head staples.

The latest: After a slight production dip in 2017-18, “Little Joe” over-delivered in his platform year, to the point where we’d have him a few spots higher on this list if he wasn’t going to enter 2019-20 at the age of 35. Forwards are supposed to decline then, right?

That appeared to be GM Wilson’s logic when he shelled out big bucks to Evander Kane and made certain to lock up the younger Logan Couture last summer but played the wait-and-see approach with Pavelski. In September, agent Dan Plante described extension talks as “nonexistent” to The Athletic‘s Kevin Kurz.

Complicating matters for the captain’s future within the Sharks’ financial puzzle is that breakout forward Timo Meier will be an RFA. Ditto Joonas Donskoi and Kevin Labanc. Karlsson is the biggest fish in the UFA pond (and certainly looks like the kind of guy you want to keep). And who knows if Jumbo Joe’s knees want one more year?

Note: Pavelski and Meier out-produced Kane, a $7-million player.

There is zero reason to believe Pavelski and the Sharks wish to part ways, but this is shaping up to be a decision best made after we see how deep San Jose goes in the playoffs.

7. Tyler Myers
Age on July 1: 29
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5.5 million
Bargaining chips: The most attractive and highest-producing under-30 UFA defenceman not named Erik Karlsson. Logs more than 20 minutes nightly. Solid power-play option. Big body. Shoots right.

The latest: Myers is one member of a long list of Jets who are headed to free agency and looking for a raise: Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot, Brandon Tanev, Kevin Hayes….

“We have some tough decisions to make this summer, a lot of them,” GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said, following his player exit meetings. “This year, there’s certainly going to be some changes.”

The bet here is that Myers has priced himself out of town, and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently reported no traction on extension talks.

Myers will have a bevy of suitors to choose from. Vancouver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal are among the speculated clubs with interest.

8. Jake Gardiner
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.05 million
Bargaining chips: Solid power-play quarterback. Excellent skater and passer. A 50-point defender when healthy. Still managed 30 points and a plus-19 rating in 2018-19 despite a serious back injury and reduced power-play opportunity.

The latest: Gardiner, a Minnesota native, enjoys being a Maple Leaf, and despite his defensive lapses — which can be magnified — the Leafs are high on Gardiner. Coach Mike Babcock trusts him. GM Kyle Dubas has described Gardiner as “a key part” of the club.

But!

He’s due a major raise and would likely need to take a significant “hometown” discount to remain a Leaf. RFA Mitch Marner is GM Kyle Dubas’s No. 1 priority, and with left-shot prospect Calle Rosen already earning a new deal, lefty Travis Dermott progressing well, and lefty Jake Muzzin acquired in January, it’s nearly impossible to envision Gardiner getting properly compensated in Toronto.

“We would like [Gardiner] to be here. It’s not as simple as it sounds,” Dubas said. “You only have a certain amount that you can divvy up, and it’s trying to make that all work and keep our team on the right path moving forward.”

Unless Dubas can pull a rabbit out of his salary cap, Gardiner walks. During Toronto’s locker cleanout, the player got emotional speaking as if it was his last public appearance as a Leaf.

That Gardiner’s back ailed him during the post-season and he considered surgery should serve as a yellow flag for pursuant teams.

9. Kevin Hayes
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Centre
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5.175 million
Bargaining chips: Built on 2017-18’s 25-goal campaign with a career year in points (54). Contributes to both special teams. His stock may never be higher.

The latest: After signing a one-year deal with the Rangers in the off-season, theoretically to jack his trade worth and bide time for younger centres in the system to develop, Hayes excelled in all situations and elevated his all-around game.

Despite a nagging injury that flared up in January, Hayes lured several trade suitors and was dealt to Winnipeg on deadline day — for Brendan Lemieux, a 2019 first-round pick and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2022 — to become the Jets’ Paul Stastny 2.0.

The Jets’ first-round playoff disappointment and impending cap crunch, however, leads us to believe re-signing in Winnipeg is a no-go. Nashville, Boston, Colorado, Buffalo and the Islanders could all be interested in signing Hayes if he reaches July 1.

The Jets have decisions to make on several impending free agents, however. Like Stastny before him, Hayes will be difficult to afford.

10. Anders Lee
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $3.75 million
Bargaining chips: Three consecutive 50-point seasons. Led all 2018-19 Islanders in goals (28), game-winners (five) and shots (204). Strong defensively and a stud on the power play. Inherited captaincy once Tavares departed. In his prime.

The latest: The way Lee has performed this season should put to rest the faulty notion that he’d been riding Tavares’s coattails.

Do the Islanders risk losing their captain for nothing two summers in a row, or is an extension in the works?

“We’re not at a point right now where things need to be said either way. The conversations [with GM Lou Lamoriello] have been good, and I’m looking forward to continuing those and we’ll go from there.” Lee told Newsday mid-season.

“There is a different feeling here and that just comes with all the changes made and the way Barry [Trotz, head coach] and Lou have taken over.”

Lamoriello has a number of decisions to make up front, with Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson and Valtteri Filppula also set to hit the open market. Lee — the top priority and currently one of the NHL’s biggest bargains — won’t be cheap.

Term will be the major sticking point.

“Things are still good,” Lee told Newsday on Feb. 17.

The player believes he will remain an Islander long-term.

“There’s nothing to be worried about at this point. It still needs to get done and all that stuff. But there’s nothing that’s worried from either side. Status quo.”

The New York Post reported on March 2 that Lamoriello isn’t rushing into serious negotiations with Lee, Nelson or Eberle.

11. Anton Stralman
Age on July 1: 32
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.5 million
Bargaining chips: Reliable, top-four defenceman with 700-plus games of experience and two trips to the Cup Final under his belt. World championships gold medallist for Team Sweden. A minutes horse content to stay at home and kill penalties. A plus defender eight years running.

The latest: Some might place Vancouver’s Alex Edler in this spot, but we believe Stalman’s understated talents get overshadowed by the brand names (Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh) on Tampa’s blue line. (Plus, he’s younger than Edler.) Stralman is a trusted, smart right shot who does all the things coaches love and plays the type of game that could age well. Which is why he did not get traded ahead of Tampa’s playoffs.

But as much as Tampa loves him, Stralman is the priciest of three Bolts’ D-men on expiring deals (Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi), and the cap-tight club has to pay RFA Brayden Point first and foremost.

Injuries and the emergence of young defencemen of the future cost Stralman to miss 35 games this season. As solid as his reputation has been, it leveled off in 2018-19. A fresh start could do wonders here.

We like Toronto as a potential destination, but Stralman’s suitors will be plentiful.

12. Ryan Dzingel
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Centre / wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $1.8 million
Bargaining chips: Increased his production every year since breaking into the league in 2015-16. Back-to-back 20-goal, 40-point campaigns. Versatile, speedy forward who can play any position up front. Younger than some of the other high-scoring wingers in the class (Zuccarello, Eberle, Simmonds, Johnasson).

The latest: Dzingel’s healthy-scratching by John Tortorella during the Blue Jackets’ playoff run may have harmed his standing slightly, or at least reinforced the theory that he’s unwilling to pay a physical price for his goals, but he’s a late bloomer whose most productive days might still lie ahead.

Prior to being traded to Columbus from Ottawa at the deadline, Dzingel reportedly turned down a five-year extension offer worth in excess of $20 million. His free agency has flown under the radar in both Ottawa and Columbus due to higher-profile UFA teammates, but Dzingel could represent a nice value buy for clubs unable to afford the bigger fish available this summer.

More notable UFAs of 2019: Jordan Eberle, Mats Zuccarello, Gustav Nyquist, Wayne Simmonds, Alexander Edler, Micheal Ferland, Semyon Varlamov, Joe Thornton, Brian Boyle, Jason Pominville, Joonas Donskoi, Jason Spezza, Marcus Johansson, Valtteri Filppula, Derick Brassard, Justin Williams, Ron Hainsey, Patrick Maroon, Jay Bouwmeester, Robin Lehner, Cam Talbot, Mike Smith, Marc Methot, Deryk Engelland, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, Brett Connolly, Alex Chiasson

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