NHL’s Top 10 UFAs of 2018: The best centres available

New York Islanders' John Tavares skates with the puck. (Seth Wenig/AP)

With the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the books, the NHL’s 31 general managers have turned their attention to building a winner in 2018-19. Step one comes on July 1 when the league’s free-agency period officially gets underway. Sportsnet.ca has all you need to know on the top 10 UFAs at each position likely to be available.

First up: the centres.

In a league that continues to trend towards skill and speed, with more clubs opting to roll out as many scoring lines as they can, strong depth down the middle reigns supreme. Those who have it continue to do damage throughout the year. Those who lack it watch that absence become painfully obvious as the season progresses. Unfortunately, acquiring a top-tier pivot is no easy task. That could change for one team this year, however, as the 2018 class might offer a chance at a genuine superstar.

Let’s take a look at the top UFA centres who could hit the market this summer…

Top 10 UFAs by position: C | LW | RW | D | G

1. John Tavares

2017-18 Team: New York Islanders
2017-18 Cap Hit: $5.5 million

The unequivocal cream of the 2018 UFA crop, John Tavares would be the biggest name to hit the free-agent market in quite some time if he does indeed get to July 1 without a contract. That’s a big ‘if,’ of course, as he has stated his desire to remain with the Islanders, while the team’s recent hiring of Lou Lamoriello helps as well. But if he does choose to move on, Tavares has enough pure skill, leadership potential, and good years left in his prime to singlehandedly transform a franchise.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Toronto, San Jose, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Vegas, New Jersey, St. Louis, NY Islanders

2. Paul Stastny

2017-18 Team: St. Louis Blues/Winnipeg Jets
2017-18 Cap Hit: $7 million

Paul Stastny is the consolation prize for a team that strikes out on the Islanders captain. The two pivots aren’t comparable (Stastny is five years older than Tavares), but the Quebec native is the next-best centre option available with some good years still left in the tank. A strong showing with the Jets (13 points through 19 regular season games and 15 points through 17 playoff tilts) should help bring suitors to the table as well.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Toronto, San Jose, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Vegas, New Jersey, St. Louis, NY Islanders

3. Joe Thornton

2017-18 Team: San Jose Sharks
2017-18 Cap Hit: $8 million

He isn’t the all-world scorer he once was, but even at 38 years old, Jumbo Joe remains one of the premier playmakers in the game. Injuries hampered his 2017-18 effort, but he still managed 36 points in 47 games, a year after posting a 50-point season. He won’t help clubs hoping for Tavares, but if Thornton opts to move on from San Jose, he’s as good a temporary solution at centre as you could hope for.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, San Jose

4. Tyler Bozak

2017-18 Team: Toronto Maple Leafs
2017-18 Cap Hit: $4.2 million

A resurgent pair of seasons this year and last saw Tyler Bozak amass 98 points for Toronto over his past 159 games, which should help convince teams that the 32-year-old can still contribute in a primarily offensive role. He’s proven he can perform with skilled linemates, though suiting up as a reliable third-line pivot to bolster a team’s centre depth might be a better fit.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, San Jose, NY Islanders, New Jersey, St. Louis

5. Riley Nash

2017-18 Team: Boston Bruins
2017-18 Cap Hit: $900,000

Riley Nash proved himself as a versatile weapon for the Bruins this season, posting a career-high 41-point effort in primarily a third-line role. He hinted at the fact that he may be capable of more, however, performing admirably as Boston’s top-line pivot while Patrice Bergeron was sidelined. Clearly set for a raise, the 29-year-old could be an intriguing signing for a club able to offer him a bigger role.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Vancouver, Buffalo, Chicago, Minnesota, Ottawa, Boston

6. Mark Letestu

2017-18 Team: Edmonton Oilers/Columbus Blue Jackets
2017-18 Cap Hit: $1.8 million

About as useful a depth pivot as you can find, assuming his game doesn’t decline over the course of his next deal, the 33-year-old Mark Letestu can kill penalties, help out on the power play, and hold his own in a shutdown role at 5-on-5. While he struggled in Columbus’ system, he proved his ability to dutifully chip in from the bottom six during his tenure in Edmonton.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Vancouver, Buffalo, Chicago, Minnesota, Ottawa, Boston

7. Derek Ryan

2017-18 Team: Carolina Hurricanes
2017-18 Cap Hit: $1.425 million

After a trio of one-year deals, and three years of steady progression, the late-blooming Derek Ryan is another well-rounded depth option for teams looking to beef up their third or fourth line. He can drive possession, win faceoffs, and contribute offensively, having posted a career-high 15 goals and 38 points this year.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Ottawa

8. Tomas Plekanec

2017-18 Team: Montreal Canadiens/Toronto Maple Leafs
2017-18 Cap Hit: $6 million

A mediocre run with the Maple Leafs didn’t help Tomas Plekanec’s free-agency stock much, but the veteran two-way pivot still has much to offer in a limited role. He likely won’t bring the consistent offensive contributions he did for much of his NHL tenure, but he can contribute on the penalty kill and lead a shutdown line, and still has enough pure skill to chip in on the scoreboard here and there.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Ottawa

9. Valtteri Filppula

2017-18 Team: Philadelphia Flyers
2017-18 Cap Hit: $5 million

Valtteri Filppula had his moments during the 2018 playoffs, particularly in Game 5 of Philadelphia’s first-round series — one of only two wins for them — when the veteran pivot posted three points and lead the forward corps with 20 minutes of ice. The 34-year-old’s 20-goal days appear to have passed, but the skillful centreman still serves as a good depth pickup for a club looking to add some offence to its bottom six.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Ottawa

10. Jay Beagle

2017-18 Team: Washington Capitals
2017-18 Cap Hit: $1.75 million

He isn’t flashy, but Jay Beagle has proved valuable amid the grind of the Capitals’ 2018 run, helping Washington push through to claim their first Stanley Cup. The veteran likely won’t add much outside of a fourth-line pivot role, but he brings an indomitable work ethic, special teams experience, and the ability to mentor a club’s young players, as he’s done with Washington’s Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd.

Potential Fits: Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Buffalo

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