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.

The fury and frenzy of National Hockey League free agency goes down in only a matter of hours.

The summer of 2019 is delivering no shortage of star power, as a two-time Vezina winner, a Calder winner, a finalist for three major 2018-19 trophies, and a few clubs’ top scorers are all racing toward July 1’s open market.

Big shakeups and monster paydays are on the horizon, and off-season buyouts have added a few familiar names to the list.

While recent big tickets awarded to Erik Karlsson ($11 million AAV), Jeff Skinner ($9 million) and Kevin Hayes ($7.14 million) scratch some key names off the board, those paydays only increase the worth of an extremely Columbus-heavy UFA class.

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

As of June 23, these players have been free to start meeting with their suitors. Rumour SZN is in full effect.

1. 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: Bread Man gets paid.

Panarin is 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.

“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 million to $11 million per season prior to the start of the playoffs.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon has been explicit about his plan to open the coffers on Canada Day. He can flex a tax-free state as part of his leverage.

He met with Colorado brass in Denver Sunday, according to Adrian Dater, sat down with Tallon on Monday, then flew to New York City for meetings.

The Rangers, Islanders and Devils all have the salary-cap space and desire to add an elite winger, and the latest buzz is that Lou Lamoriello will be aggressive.

2. 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: “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 played so well in his walk year that he silenced those who questioned his abilities as a playoff performer. His July 1 suitors will be plentiful, and centre Kevin Hayes’ handsome deal with the Flyers should only jack up his price.

Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that Ottawa offered an eight-year, $64-million extension to Duchene prior to his deadline trade to Columbus. Duchene should fetch at least that much.

By trading P.K. Subban in a salary-dump deal to New Jersey over draft weekend, the Nashville Predators are poised to take a healthy run at Duchene, a country music fan they’ve long coveted.

Duchene and agent Pat Brisson also visited Marc Bergevin in Montreal, a city long-starved for talent up the middle and one that needs to take advantage of Carey Price and Shea Weber while they’re still in their prime.

3. 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 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.

The front-running Panthers, Islanders, Flames and Hurricanes should be among the teams kicking tires when Bobrovsky hits the open market.

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

The goaltender finally got over his post-season woes, backstopping the Jackets to a sweep over Tampa — the first series victory in franchise history. Then he immediately put his Columbus condo up for sale.

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

Bobrovsky and Panarin both met with the Panthers as Monday, after which Goalie Bob flew to New York. Without a deal in place for Lehner, the Islanders have to be interested.

Roberto Luongo’s decision to retire further improves Florida’s cap situation, suggesting the Cats could offer Bob the most take-home pay.

4. 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 Doug 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 Karlsson’s monster extension and breakout forward Timo Meier’s RFA status. Joonas Donskoi and Kevin Labanc also need raises, and UFA Joe Thornton announced he wants back too.

There is zero reason to believe Pavelski and the Sharks wish to part ways, and Wilson said last week that a deal is still possible, but simple math makes this one tricky.

Pavelski wants term on his next deal, which will prove to be a hurdle in San Jose, so he has begun shopping his talents elsewhere.

The Arizona Coyotes recently met with Plante, according to Craig Morgan of The Athletic, but it’s doubtful that interest is mutual.

Pavelski also reportedly gave Columbus the Heisman pose.

The Dallas Stars and cap-strapped Tampa Bay Lightning are said to be the front-runners here, while the Wild and Blackhawks are rumoured long shots.

5. 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.

Yet he’s still hunting for a long-term deal in the ballpark of $7 million annually.

“For certain players, a top-four position on the Canucks could be a good spot,” Gardiner’s agent, J.P. Barry, told Sportsnet 650 on Friday. “Vancouver’s definitely one of the teams that’s gonna be in the mix, and we’ll see. I mean, they have to step up.

“Free agency’s a moving target. You got these trades moving, and we could arrive at the draft and Vancouver’s got two new defencemen so they’re out of the picture. But obviously it’s a team that has some opportunity in the top four, so they’re definitely going to be on the list.”

The Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens are also rumoured to be interested in Gardiner, while the Toronto Sun‘s Steve Simmons reports Florida, L.A. and hometown Minnesota as some of the player’s preferred destinations.

I made a case for Detroit’s Steve Yzerman to inquire.

Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
NHL super-agent J.P. Barry: Vancouver in mix for Gardiner, Myers
June 14 2019

6. 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 remaining once Karlsson signed. 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, Ben Chiarot, Brandon Tanev…

“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.”

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

That Cheveldayoff traded Jacob Trouba to the Rangers last week — and is listening to trade offers for winger Nikolaj Ehlers — frees up salary space on the back end, so don’t rule the Jets out just yet.

On Sunday evening, Myers and agent J.P. Barry met with the Vancouver Canucks brass, who are aggressively pursuing several blueliners even after the re-signing of Alex Edler.

7. 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 entered the off-season with a number of decisions to make up front. He already re-upped Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson, and Valtteri Filppula is 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 is the major sticking point.

Until recently, the player sounded certain he would remain an Islander long-term, and even with the Nelson and Eberle extensions, Lamoriello has the cap space to make it happen.

“This was never an intention,” Lee told NHL.com Saturday. “I’ve learned a lot throughout all of this, and I’m hopeful that things will work out.

“I didn’t think we’d get to this point. The process hasn’t… I haven’t enjoyed it, but it is what it is. We want to make sure that everything is done right and it’s right for both of us, for both sides. I hope it works out. They’re working on it right now.”

Lamoriello maintained on draft weekend that he wants Lee back, but the players must consider other options.

The Blackhawks, Wild and Avalanche are among the rumoured clubs interested.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman suggests the Preds could take a run at Lee if they miss out on Duchene.

8. 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: Stralman’s understated talents get overshadowed by the brand names (Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh) on Tampa’s blue line. He 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 was re-signed on June 18; Dan Girardi is 35), and the cap-tight club has to pay RFA Brayden Point first and foremost.

Injuries and the emergence of young defencemen of the future caused Stralman to miss 35 games this season. As solid as his reputation has been, it levelled 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, especially if he waits for the Gardiner and Myers dominos to fall.

Stralman’s agent, Marc Levine, has conducted series of interviews.

9. Robin Lehner
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Goaltender
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: Career-best 25 wins, six shutouts and .930 save percentage in regular season, the latter a franchise record. Improved to a .936 save percentage in post-season. Backstopped Isles to first playoff series victory in three years. Gambled on himself last summer and overdelivered on his one-year contract. William Jennings Trophy and Bill Masterton Trophy winner. Vezina finalist.

The latest: Lehner has been effusive in his happiness with his situation on the Island but is also in search of some stability after making good on a one-year prove-it deal and bouncing between three franchises over the past five seasons.

“I like the people there. I love my teammates. I love the organization. So obviously I want to be back,” Lehner told reporters at the NHL Awards Tuesday. He added that he’d be open to a short-term or long-term option. “I know the team knows where I stand, and I just hope something works out.”

Lamoriello does have Lehner’s battery mate, Thomas Greiss, under contract for 2019-20, but would need to strengthen his crease if he allows Lehner to walk.

“I’ve got no plans to talk to another team at this point,” Lehner told Newsday on Sunday. “From my understanding, that’s not Lou’s intention either. Hopefully, it will work out so we can finish what we have started.”

A popular theory: Lamoriello’s first choice is Bobrovsky, but if the best UFA goalie ends up in Florida, he’ll circle back on Lehner.

10. Gustav Nyquist
Age on July 1: 29
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.75 million
Bargaining chips: Coming off back-to-back 20-goal seasons and first-ever 60-point campaign. Extremely durable — has only missed six games in past six seasons. 500 games of NHL experience. Excellent complementary scorer who can boost a power play and play with pace. Solid possession metrics. Skilled playmaker.

The latest: By signing Karlsson to an $88-million whopper, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has limited funds available to take care of UFA Joes Thornton and Pavelski and RFAs Timo Meier and Kevin Lebanc. Nyquist, a deadline rental from Detroit, would appear to be of low priority at this point — especially considering he mustered just one goal (plus a healthy 10 assists) in the Sharks’ 20-game playoff run.

Wilson traded defenceman Justin Braun to the Flyers for picks this week in order to clear more cap space, and yet we expect Nyquist to get (over?)paid on the open market by a team hungry for secondary scoring.

New Oilers GM Ken Holland knows the player well, and Edmonton needs wingers with finish. Nashville and Montreal are also desperate for goals, while Vancouver isn’t done trying to add top-six talent even after the J.T. Miller trade.

The Canucks, Stars, Sabres, Oilers and Blue Jackets are among the teams rumoured to have kicked tires on Nyquist.

11. 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, 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.

A comparable Dzingel could use is Jordan Eberle, who inked a five-year, $27.5-million deal to remain an Islander. Eberle is a more proven commodity, but Dzingel is younger and put up significantly more goals (28-19) and points (56-37) in 2018-19.

12. Mats Zuccarello
Age on July 1: 31
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.5 million
Bargaining chips: God in Norway. Four 50-point seasons. Heart too big for his five-foot-eight frame. Showed well for Dallas in post-season, putting up 11 points in 13 games upon return from a broken arm. More than 500 games of NHL experience. Teams are starving for reliable secondary scoring. Pesky.

The latest: A shrewd deadline rental by Jim Nill, Zuccarello’s transition from the Rangers to the Stars was seamless. The veteran playmaker made an immediate impact on the score sheet, boosted the power play, and helped turn Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson into scoring threats.

“I think he was a good fit,” Nill said on exit interview day. “A great fit in the dressing room. I think he loved it here. Now, we need to sit down with his representatives.”

Zuccarello sounded equally positive with his short stint in Big D, and yet he’s exploring options elsewhere too.

“This is my team now,” Zuccarello said. “I’m the kind of guy that when someone believes you and wants you, I usually like that. We’ll see.”

An interesting footnote here: If Nill does re-sign Zuccarello, the 2020 third-round pick he gave to New York to acquire him gets upgraded to a first-rounder.

“We’ve talked a little bit with his agent, but he wants to test the free-agent market, and he’s got that right,” Nill said at the draft.

The Minnesota Wild are reportedly going after forwards Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman.

More notable UFAs of 2019: Wayne Simmonds, Corey Perry, 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, Cam Talbot, Mike Smith, Marc Methot, Deryk Engelland, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, Brett Connolly, Dion Phaneuf, Alex Chiasson, Andrew MacDonald, Colin Wilson, Ben Lovejoy, Ben Hutton, Patrick Marleau, Luke Schenn, Tyler Ennis, Valeri Nichushkin, Ryan Spooner

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