Jamie Benn leads NHL’s top 12 free agents of 2017

Hockey Central at Noon discusses the apparent demands by Stars captain Jamie Benn, who’s unwilling to play next season in an unrestricted free agent mode, like Steven Stamkos had to endure this season.

The main attraction in this summer’s hockey market, of course, is Steven Stamkos and the 2016 free agent class. But July 1 is also an important date for 2017’s free-agents-in-waiting, who have the opportunity to ink long-term extensions with their current teams this summer.

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

As with 2016, the class of Summer ’17 runs deep. Some of the players must be let go; others must be retained at (almost) any cost.

Here is a very early peek at the NHL’s top 12 unrestricted free agents of 2017, led by one the top three players in the league, plus a few quick observations about the next class.

1. Jamie Benn
Age on July 1, 2017: 27
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.25 million
Bargaining chips: Where do we start? Won the 2014-15 Art Ross Trophy. Earned an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada in 2014 after not even getting an invite to tryout camp. A finalist for the 2015-16 Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award. Better than a point per game in his playoff career.
What the future holds: “This is where I want to play, this is where I want to be,” Benn told reporters after the Stars’ season ended. “I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”

Benn and the Stars don’t want the contract distraction Steven Stamkos and the Lightning endured this season. Expect GM Jim Nill to lock up his captain for eight more years this summer and ensure the offensive triple threat of Benn-Seguin-Spezza stays in tact at least through 2018-19.

I’d take Stamkos’s annual salary this summer as Benn’s closest comparable. Outside of Jason Spezza‘s pricey $7.5-million deal, no Stars skater is exorbitantly paid. Best guess: $9 million per.

2. Victor Hedman
Age on July 1, 2017: 26
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: Capable of putting up 50 points from the back end while shutting down the opposition’s stars. One of those dominant blue line horses every team craves.
What the future holds: Money. Lots of it. One of the world’s five best defencemen hitting free agency in his mid-20s should spell a P.K. Subban type of payday. Problem is, Tampa already has 18.3 million tied up in four defencemen for 2017-18; Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison and Anton Stralman all have no-trade clauses. Yzerman will have to get fancy — trades, buyouts — to make this work, and we believe he will. Imagine if the GM lets Stamkos and Hedman walk for nothing in back-to-back summers?

3. Brent Burns
Age on July 1, 2017: 32
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.76 million
Bargaining chips: Hot off a 27-goal, 48-assist season (both career highs) and a dominant playoff performance. Norris Trophy finalist. Arguably the most lovable man in the sport.
What the future holds: A sweet payday. Burns is already the top-paid Sharks defenceman (Paul Martin is second at $4.85 million). He should be locked up over the summer. Just a guess: six years, $48 million.

4. Ben Bishop
Age on July 1, 2017: 30
Position: Goaltender
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.95 million
Bargaining chips: A Vezina Trophy finalist for the second time in three seasons. Set a franchise record with his .926 save percentage in 2015-16 and is regarded among teammates as the club’s MVP.
What the future holds: This is a tough one. As all-world as Bishop has played, he also has a track record of injury and the Lightning have young goaltending prospects they’re high on in Andrei Vasilevskiy, 21, and Kristers Gudlevskis, 23. Bishop has a full no-move clause he’d have to waive to facilitate a trade, but he could be the key to a blockbuster. Otherwise, the Lightning core takes one more stab at Stanley in 2017 before the band breaks up.

5. Joe Thornton
Age on July 1, 2017: 37
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $6.75 million
Bargaining chips: Slam-dunk Hall of Famer. One of the greatest passers to ever pick up a hockey stick. Hart Trophy consideration at age 36. Dope beard.
What the future holds: The love affair between Jumbo Joe and San Jose should continue. Even after having his captaincy stripped, the man is comfortable playing where he is, thank you. Expect a short-term, bonus-laden deal with a full no-move clause at a reasonable rate, perhaps in the $5.5 million ballpark.

6. Brian Elliott
Age on July 1, 2017: 32
Position: Goaltender
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.5 million
Bargaining chips: An NHL-best .930 save percentage this season, followed by an excellent post-season that got the Blues over the hump. Deserved more consideration for the 2016 Vezina, seriously.
What the future holds: How badly does Elliott want to remain a Blue? Is he truly happy sharing double duty with the younger, cheaper Jake Allen, who hits restricted free agency in the same summer? If he’s willing to take a hometown discount, Elliott could re-sign for a nice raise. If he wants to cash in and become a certain No. 1 elsewhere, July 1, 2017 is his chance.

7. Brad Marchand
Age on July 1, 2017: 29
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4.5 million
Bargaining chips: A Stanley Cup champion and pest supreme coming off arguably his best individual season: career-high 37 goals and making a strong case to be added to Team Canada.
What the future holds: Marchand has a limited no-trade clause and should be subjected to trade rumours right until the deadline. Boston believes its a playoff team despite not making the post-season two years running, so we expect the Bruins will hold on to the winger until the deadline. They’ll keep him if they’re in playoff position. Trade him if not. Precisely the type of rental many contenders adore.

8. Kevin Shattenkirk
Age on July 1, 2017: 28
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4.25 million
Bargaining chip: U.S. Olympian. Entrenched as a top-four D-man on one of the league’s best blue lines. Good for about 45 points if healthy.
What the future holds: A trade, possibly as early as the 2016 draft. Shattenkirk, who has no protection, has been rumoured trade bait for months now. The Boston Bruins were one reported suitor during the 2015-16 season. Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are locked up at high rates. Carl Gunnarsson is taxing the Blues’ payroll until 2019. But it’s surging 23-year-old Colton Parayko who makes losing Shattenkirk palatable.

9. Alexander Steen
Age on July 1, 2017: 33
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.8 million
Bargaining chips: Four-time 20-goal scorer who can be counted on for 60 points in a full season. Olympic silver medallist for Sweden in 2014.
What the future holds: Whom the Blues choose to build around Vladimir Tarasenko up front will be interesting. Between the summers of 2016 and 2017, core forwards David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Troy Brouwer, Jaden Schwartz, and Steen are all due new contracts. Unless he wants to swing for the fences in free agency, we think the Blues would like to keep Steen for, say, three more years around $5.2 million per.

10. Martin Hanzal
Age on July 1, 2017: 30
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.1 million
Bargaining chips: A big top-two pivot (6-foot-6, 226 pounds) who creates plays and provides a threat on the power play. Free agent centres aged 30 and under will hard to find.
What the future holds: The Coyotes have a grand total of zero forwards signed past 2017-18. This roster is essentially a clean slate but won’t contend in 2017. Management needs to rent Hanzal out mid-season to a playoff team, perhaps with an agreement that he can re-sign as a free agent. See: Vermette, Antoine.

11. Patrick Marleau
Age on July 1, 2017: 37
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.1 million
Bargaining chips: Eighteen years as a Shark star. Still scoring 25 goals when most his age are retired.
What the future holds: Marleau’s full no-move clause means he’s the master of his own destiny, but he has wanted out in the past. We’re guessing San Jose tries to work out a trade that pleases the veteran. Failing that, he is not re-signed: 2017 Marleau is the 2016 Eric Staal, except he has more goals left in his stick.

12. Patrick Sharp
Age on July 1, 2017: 35
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.9 million
Bargaining chips: 2014 Olympic gold medallist. Three-time Stanley Cup champion (2010, 2013, 2015) with Chicago. Four-time 30-goal scorer.
What the future holds: While Sharp is still producing on the backside of his career (20 goals this season), Benn’s raise makes him difficult for Dallas to retain. Sharp’s full no-movement clause and high cap hit make a trade unlikely. Guessing he takes one last run at a Cup with Dallas in 2017, then goes to the highest bidder — a contender looking for championship experience — in the summer.

Observations on the Class of 2017

    • The UFAs of ’17 feature plenty of fading stars whose contracts their respective teams should be happy are coming to an end. Pavel Datsyuk ($7.5 million cap hit), Thomas Vanek ($6.5 million), and Jarome Iginla ($5.33 million) lead that category.



    • This class is weak at centre and right wing, but deep on defence and the left side.



    • Most of the elite 2017 UFAs — nine of my top 12 — reside in the Western Conference. If a few of those sign eastward, the balance of power could shift slightly.


    • The Lightning, Sharks and Blues — three of the four conference finalists in 2016 — will face some difficult (and expensive) roster decisions in 2016-17, lending further proof to the theory that you must pay to win in this league.


    • The looming expansion draft could help facilitate more trades and earlier signings as GMs try to get a handle on their rosters in advance of the inevitable shakeup.


    • Forever injured Chris Pronger (Arizona, $4.94 million cap hit) and Marc Savard (Florida, $4.03 million) will finally come off the books at ages 42 and 39, respectively.


  • Meanwhile, Jaromir Jagr might still be the best right wing available in 2017, at age 45.

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