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

Blue Jackets forward Matt Duchene explains why it wouldn’t have been fair for him and his family to sign long-term with the Senators midseason, even though the one offer they sent him was fair enough.

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.

With the passing of the trade deadline provided some movement and some clarity, we at least know which teams will face the critical “Do we re-sign him?” question.

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. On pace for his seventh 60-plus-point campaign. 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 has been 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 feels like it 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 and Stars among a slew of teams 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 [lower-body] 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. The Sharks are being extra cautious.

2. Mark Stone
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $7.35 million
Bargaining chips: Leads all Golden Knights in goals, assists, points and plus/minus. Quiet leader. On target for career-highs in goals and points. Takeaway master.

The latest: What Pierre Dorion in Ottawa had the opportunity to do for months but failed, George McPhee accomplished in the time it takes to have a pizza delivered: reach a long-term deal agreement with Mark Stone.

The best player traded at the deadline, Stone confirmed reports on Feb. 25 that he and the Golden Knights had agreed to a contract extension.

The paperwork could not officially be signed until March 1, so we await an official announcement on an eight-year, $76-million ($9.5 million cap hit) pact. The deal is expected to carry a major signing bonus as lockout protection.

3. Artemi Panarin
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Leads all Blue Jackets in assists, points, game-winners and power-play production. Memorably beat out Connor McDavid for the 2016 Calder Trophy. On pace for 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 loathe to trade its top scorer heading into the stretch run, but the Blue Jackets are on the playoff bubble and at risk of losing an elite talent for nothing.

The whole city is pitching 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 are clearing cap space 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.”

4. Matt Duchene
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Centre
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Best UFA centre under 30. Top pivot in Ottawa. On pace for seventh 20-goal, 50-point season. Gold medallist for Team Canada at Winter Olympics, world championships (twice), and World Cup.

The latest: 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 — on pace for his first 30-goal, 80-point campaign — that his July 1 suitors will be plentiful.

Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that an eight-year, $64-million extension had been offered 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.”

5. 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 GAA 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 has endured an up-and-down season. At 49 games played, his save percentage (.904) was pacing for his lowest 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/when Bobrovsky hits the open market.

Bob’s asking price come July 1 has been said to be in the ballpark of $10 million per season. A return in the fall is unlikely to impossible.

“Make an offer if you’re interested,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters on Feb. 13.

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

6. Jeff Skinner
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5.725 million
Bargaining chips: Calder winner. Set for his fourth 30-goal and third 60-point season. Enjoying the most productive campaign and highest plus/minus rating of his career. Quick chemistry with franchise centre Jack Eichel.

The latest: While there appears to be little financial incentive for Skinner to sign anytime soon — his stock is only rising — Sabres GM Jason Botterill and agent Don Meehan reportedly did touch base in January.

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; Toronto is a two-hour highway cruise away.

The player, however, has endured eight NHL seasons in Carolina 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.

Compared to others on this list, there is a lack of urgency here. We see this one playing out in the off-season.

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

7. Joe Pavelski
Age on July 1: 34
Position: Centre / Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Second-most goals 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.

The latest: After a slight production dip in 2017-18, “Little Joe” is over-delivering 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 are outperforming Kane, a $7-million player.

There is no 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 — now with 100 per cent more Gustav Nyquist — goes in the playoffs.

8. Jake Gardiner
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.05 million
Bargaining chips: The most attractive and highest-producing UFA defenceman not named Erik Karlsson. Logs big-time minutes. Solid power-play quarterback. Excellent skater and passer. A 50-point defender when healthy.

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. Extension talks are open, but 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 after Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews ravage the bank.

“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 hat, we’re slotting Gardiner into the 2018 Tyler Bozak and James Van Riemsdyk category. He’s an “own rental.”

Toronto’s blue line has taken a hit with Gardiner (week to week with a back injury) out of the lineup in March.

9. Kevin Hayes
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Centre
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5.175 million
Bargaining chips: Building on 2017-18’s 25-goal campaign with another career year. Should crack 50 points. 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 has excelled in all situations and taken another step in 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.

Winnipeg, Nashville, Boston and Colorado 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: Coming off a career-best 40-goal, 62-point season. Leads all Islanders in goals and shots. 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’s 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 on Dec. 29.

“There is a different feeling here and that just comes with all the changes made and the way Barry 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. Leads all Lightning in PK time (roughly 3:30 per game).

The latest: Some might place Vancouver’s Alex Edler or Boston’s Zdeno Chara 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 those guys.) 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 a legit Cup run.

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 mediocre play have seen Stralman miss 20 games this season, so as solid as his reputation has been, it has leveled off in 2018-19.

12. Wayne Simmonds
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $3.975 million
Bargaining chips: On target for his seventh 20-goal showing. Fifty-point potential when healthy and given a prominent role. Tough as nails. More than 825 games of experience. Power-play beast. Brings all the intangibles you want come playoff time.

The latest: When the Flyers signed James van Riemsdyk for $35 million on July 1 (another left-winger with power-play chops), it essentially sealed Simmonds’ fate.

Not many clubs can dish out big raises to wingers when they already have three carrying a $7-million-plus cap hit — and the Flyers need to invest more money into their goaltending and blue line.

“When he’s in a scrum, guys are a little bit more on their heels. He’s got that presence that he might get angry, and you don’t want to get him angry,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux told reporters. “Every time he’d get angry, I’d go up to the other guys and say, ‘You just messed it up. You got Wayne Simmonds mad.’ His presence, in a physical game, it’s not easy to miss.”

As painful as it was to trade him away to Nashville, Simmonds did fetch a younger forward, Ryan Hartman, and an fourth-round pick in return.

“He was a player on our list right from the get-go,” Preds GM David Poile said.

With Nashville also trading for Mikael Granlund — a big-bodied forward with term — the sides are expected to let the Simmonds rental play out before considering an extension.

More notable UFAs of 2019: Tyler Myers, Jimmy Howard, Jordan Eberle, Mats Zuccarello, Gustav Nyquist, Brock Nelson, Zdeno Chara, Alexander Edler, Micheal Ferland, Semyon Varlamov, Joe Thornton, Ryan Dzingel, 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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