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

Renaud Lavoie joined The Jeff Blair Show to talk about what teams he sees coming out of the Western Conference and why that list doesn’t include the Calgary Flames.

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.

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: Erik Karlsson has been a monster since serving a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head, putting up 15 points in six games and moving into third in the D-men scoring race. After weathering a sluggish start in teal, everything’s clicking.

Although he’s been eligible to re-sign with San Jose since Jan. 1, Karlsson can’t ink an eight-year extension until the trade deadline passes on Feb. 25.

Agent Don Meehan and Sharks GM Doug Wilson plan to discuss Karlsson’s contract shortly after the all-star break. The two sides would reconvene after [the All-Star game on Jan. 26].”

“We look at Erik much like we looked at Evander [Kane in May], 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 John Tavares a year ago, will be the most coveted UFA if he goes to market. The Lightning, Rangers and Stars would likely be interested in opening the coffers.

2. Mark Stone
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $7.35 million
Bargaining chips: Leads all Senators in goals, points, plus/minus, game-winners, power-play points and shorthanded points. Unofficial captain of the team. On target for fourth 20-goal, 60-point showing. Brady Tkachuk’s landlord. Takeaway master. Has been loyal to Ottawa through troubled times.

The latest: Stone told local reporters that his agent, Craig Oster, and GM Pierre Dorion will sit down in late January to open serious discussions on an extension.

Stone’s trade value is sky-high, so if the Sens can’t keep him — and they should do their best to do so — they’ll have the best rental on the market.

“This is the only place I’ve ever played,” Stone said. “I’ve loved living in the city of Ottawa, I love playing for this team, so that’s all I can say to that. I’ve loved my time here and, hopefully, it can continue.”

When I sat down with Stone at training camp, he wanted Sens fans to know that the sides tried hard to knock out a long-term deal last summer when he was an RFA but it just couldn’t come to fruition prior to the arbitration deadline.

Watching the Tavares saga in 2018 did get his mind churning, though.

“Every player on July 1 wonders what it’d be like to be a free agent,” Stone said. “You’d be crazy to say that on July 1 every year you don’t wonder what it’d be like to go through that. I don’t think about it during the season by any means.”

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 and points. 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: While purveying theory has Panarin leaving Columbus for the open market — and a bigger city with a larger Russian community — on July 1, the winger’s agent, Dan Milstein announced during a Dec. 29 radio appearance that he would meet with GM Jarmo Kekalainen during the all-star break to discuss the Bread Man’s future.

“As far as the contract, he’s genuinely happy right now in Columbus, things are going well for the team and for him,” Milstein said on-air. “He’s having a good time, he obviously likes the organization, great coaching.

“Everybody will have to wait just a little bit longer, but we’ll get together at the end of January and we’ll have a serious conversation.”

Having never won a playoff series, Columbus would be loathe to trade its top scorer heading into the post-season but is at risk of losing an elite talent for nothing.

“I just want to be up front that he likes it in Columbus,” Milstein said. “He’s extremely competitive, he wants to help the team to win. We’re going to be looking at rosters, looking at teams, looking at the possibilities and the future role that he may have on the team and he’ll basically make a decision.

“Hopefully he’ll play through the end of the season, will help them get deep into the playoffs and perhaps help them win the Stanley Cup. That’s the immediate goal.”

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.

View this post on Instagram

Hey, @artemiypanarin …. we’re ready for you. Come dine with us anytime! Make Columbus your home for the next few years, or extend it long term, we don’t care! You’ll have High Bank for life and that’s our promise!!! #SaveTheBread #CBJ

A post shared by High Bank Distillery Co (@highbankdistillery) on

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: Extension talks between Duchene and the Senators, which were nonexistent over the summer, cooled off again in December, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, and the sense is that agent Pat Brisson isn’t in a rush.

Dorion paid a handsome price to acquire Duchene in 2017, and with Ottawa amidst a rebuild, the GM cannot afford to let him walk. He’d love to retrieve a first-rounder (plus), even if it isn’t the (potentially No. 1) lottery pick he gave up to secure Duchene in the first place.

“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.”

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 the halfway mark, his save percentage (.906) 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, is 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 Flyers, Islanders, Flames and Hurricanes would be among the teams interested if/when Bobrovsky becomes available.

And then this happened…

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

The latest: While there appears to be little financial incentive for Skinner to sign soon — his stock is only rising — Sabres GM Jason Botterill and agent Don Meehan are reportedly set to meet this month.

Buffalo finds itself in a playoff race 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 infuriate Sabres fans and devastate the dressing room. We see this one playing out in the off-season.

“We’re happy with how he’s progressed,” Botterill told the Buffalo News on Dec. 19. “We’ve stayed in touch with his agents. We haven’t decided to talk about contracts because it’s working now. There will be plenty of time down the road to do that.”

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 kinda 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 goes.

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. Back-to-back 50-point seasons within reach.

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 recently described Gardiner as “a key part” of the club.

But!

He’s due a significant 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 and lefty Travis Dermott progressing well, it’s difficult to envision Gardiner getting properly compensated after super RFAs 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.”

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. Leads all Rangers in plus/minus. Contributes to both special teams. Trade value may never be higher.

The latest: After signing a one-year deal 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 this month, Hayes’ suitors should be plentiful.

“The standard late first-rounder plus a reasonable prospect does not seem nearly enough,” writes Rangers beat man Larry Brooks, who mentions forward-starved Carolina as a potential landing spot.

“Ideally, the Rangers would be able to pick up a non-playoff team’s first-rounder plus a young player who could play in the NHL next season as either a top-nine forward or top-four defenceman, perhaps plus another pick or player if there is enough interest.”

Hayes has zero trade protection. Winnipeg, Nashville, Boston and Colorado should all be interested.

“I have no say in it. It’s [GM Jeff Gorton’s] ultimate decision. Whatever he wants to do. I’m not expecting anything, but we’ll see in a couple days. That’s why I have an agent. I just play hockey,” Hayes told The Athletic on Dec. 28.

“Gorts probably has a plan that he probably has set in stone.”

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.

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.

He’s not getting 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.

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. Sixty-point potential when healthy and given a prominent role. Tough as nails. 800-plus 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 have an obvious need to invest more money into their goaltending and blue line.

Now, with the Flyers plummeting to obvious seller status, Simmonds should fetch a nice return as a rental for a contender. The Maple Leafs, Predators, Blue Jackets and Bruins are among those that should inquire.

Simmonds is skating through a swirl of rumours, and we’d be shocked if he’s not moved.

“Playing in the league a long time, you’ve been through it before. You bring up the trade deadline — this is my 11th year — you get used to things like this. It just is what it is,” he recently told reporters.

“You’ve just got to be a professional on and off the ice. You’ve got to come to work and do your job.”

More notable UFAs of 2019: Tyler Myers, Jimmy Howard, Jordan Eberle, Eric Staal, Mats Zuccarello, Gustav Nyquist, Brock Nelson, Zdeno Chara, Alexander Edler, Michael Ferland, Semyon Varlamov, Jakob Silfverberg, Joe Thornton, Ryan Dzingel, Brian Boyle, Jason Pominville, Nick Jensen, 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, Mikko Koskinen, Niklas Kronwall

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