NHL’s Top 10 UFAs remaining: Latest rumours, reports

Artemi Panarin (through voice of translator) discusses his reasons for choosing the New York Rangers in free agency; Meanwhile head coach David Quinn is confident this move will provide swagger to his squad. Credit: SNY.

Three weeks after the madness, here we sit.

National Hockey League general managers will need to dig deeper, and jobless players may need to lower their asking prices, but there are still a few gems — or at least some worthy gambles and depth additions — to be unearthed from 2019’s UFA class after the July 1 frenzy.

We round up the rumours and assess the value of the free agents who are taking a more patient approach this summer (in some cases, that’s even by choice) and are still up for grabs a week in mid-July.

1. Jake Gardiner

Age: 28
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.05 million

Gardiner, a Minnesota native, enjoyed being a Maple Leaf, and despite his defensive lapses — which can be magnified — the Leafs weren’t happy to let him walk.

The Canada Day acquisition of Tyson Barrie, however, officially brings Gardiner’s tenure in Toronto to a close. (Rumour had it, the defenceman was partly waiting to see if there was a way Kyle Dubas could make room for a return.)

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 a solid power-play quarterback, an excellent skater and passer, and a 50-point defender when healthy. He should be trying to fetch a long-term deal in the ballpark of $6 million to $7 million annually, using Tyler Myers’ deal in Vancouver as his base.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens were rumoured to be interested in Gardiner, while the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons reported 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.

Now that Habs GM Marc Bergevin swung and missed on the Sebastian Aho offer sheet, does Gardiner become his next serious target? Or will lefty Ben Chiarot — signed last week — suffice?

The New Jersey Devils certainly have the cap and roster space to take a run here.

How much of the delay is based on Gardiner carefully selecting his next home versus clubs being wary of the puck-mover’s injured back?

For our money, he’s the best talent still unclaimed.

2. Joe Thornton

Age: 40
Position: Centre
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5 million

When the ageless Jumbo Joe announced at the NHL Awards that he was keen to keep playing, GM Doug Wilson described the news as “a pleasant surprise.”

The cap-crunched Wilson let UFAs Joonas Donskoi and captain Joe Pavelski walk for more money elsewhere on July 1 as he made re-signing RFAs Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc (a steal!) his priority.

A popular theory: Labanc was convinced to accept a $1-million deal in part to save money for Thornton.

“I think you know the relationship we have with Jumbo. He and I have had conversations and talk every couple days. We’ll get that resolved in due time,” Wilson said of Thornton’s inevitable extension.

“Just getting Timo done as recently as we did was where most of my focus was. We’ll start exploring whatever else we may do.”

Question: If an active Jim Rutherford can be elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame, why can’t we just slide Jumbo in there already?

3. Ben Hutton

Age: 26
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $2.8 million

Of all the UFAs still floating out there, none averaged more time on ice than Hutton (22:21). The left-shot defender is coming off a nice little bounce-back season after a dismal 2017-18 but was curiously not qualified by the Vancouver Canucks, and they lost a 26-year-old defenceman for nothing.

No doubt, Jordie Benn is a decent replacement for Hutton, and he should slide in as a third-pairing guy in Vancouver. So would Montreal (Benn’s former club) take a look at Hutton, or is Ben Chiarot enough?

The L.A. Kings also reportedly expressed interest here.

We wonder if the Ottawa-area native would consider the Sens, who have plenty of cap space and could use more experienced NHLers.

If you’re a believer in plus/minus, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture here: Hutton has been a dash-21 or worse in three of his four NHL seasons. He’s a fifth-rounder who took a step last season, and at 26 his best days should still lie ahead. Next to Gardiner, he’s the most intriguing defenceman available.

4. Justin Williams

Age: 37
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.5 million

Age ain’t nothin’ but a number. Mr. Game 7 enjoyed his most productive season (23 goals, 53 points) in seven years last winter with the Hurricanes, captaining Carolina to its best season in a decade. Teammate-turned-coach Rod Brind’Amour called Williams the club’s most important player, and not just because he invented the Storm Surge.

The three-time Stanley Cup winner will be 38 when the puck drops on 2019-20, so it’s understandable that he’s seriously weighing retirement. Incredibly, Williams has missed just three games total over his past eight seasons — that includes six deep playoff runs.

“We’ve been in contact with Justin here recently,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said on July 2. “He hasn’t given us 100 per cent yet which way he’s going to go. I think he potentially could be leaning toward playing, but I think in the next few weeks it will shake out.”

Williams built a house in Raleigh and would prefer not to move his family again.

“I’m going to take my time and make sure I make the right one, right?” Williams said upon season’s end.

“Because if I’m all in, I’m going to be all in. If I’m not quite all there, then I have to reassess the situation. I’m not going to be good if I’m 85 per cent all in. I’ve got to be all in. That’s the only [thing] that’s fair to me, fair to the teammates, fair to everybody.”

5. Derick Brassard

Age: 31
Position: Centre
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5 million

Brassard put up a career-best 60 points with the Rangers in 2014-15. The following season, he rang up 27 goals. Since then, he’s gradually been on a downward slide, playing with four franchises over the past two seasons and failing to stick.

Bad fits? Player in sharp decline?

Brassard is a centre who has shown in the past he can both check and score, and yet he’s nowhere near a $5-million asset anymore. Until he proves otherwise, he’s a third-liner.

Available centremen are scarce, however. This feels like a case of a player needing to lower his asking price, and we wouldn’t rule out a return to Columbus or New York, where Brassard enjoyed his most success.

The Oilers are also in the market for affordable veteran forwards.

Montreal has been aggressive in its hunt for centre depth. Would Bergevin give Brassard a look?

6. Pat Maroon

Age: 31
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $1.75 million

Maroon took a one-year, bet-on-himself deal at this time last summer to be able to spend more time with his son, Anthony. (Hometown discounts still exist!) And he was rewarded with some quality family time and a Stanley freaking Cup.

Now, he’s right back to square one.

Not the fleetest of foot, Maroon is a big body who can crash the crease and is well-suited to playoff hockey. The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are among the clubs who have expressed interest.

A return to the Blues — who have several key RFAs to sort out — cannot be completely ruled out but appears doubtful.

The Blues’ top beat writer, Jeremy Rutherford, reports that Maroon’s offers are all for one year, again.

7. Brian Boyle

Age: 34
Position: Centre / Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $2.55 million

Mostly we wanted to include Boyle here because of his incredible July 1 tweet (see below), but it helps that the veteran role player is still an effective centreman who can do all the little things (kill penalties, win faceoffs, block shots, provide leadership) coaches and teammates respect.

Boyle would be a nice add for the Oilers’ culture, so it’s intriguing that Edmonton is one of the clubs reportedly on his list.

8. Deryk Engelland

Age: 37
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $1.5 million

Two days prior to free agency’s opening, it appeared Engelland’s re-signing with Vegas on a one-year deal was inevitable. So, it is a bit curious that by July 8 an announcement on the veteran has yet to be made. He’s been remarkably durable in his mid-30s and, birth certificate be damned, is arguably the best right-shot defender still out there.

Yes, Engelland is getting up there in, um, experience and down there in foot speed, but on a cheap, one-year term, he can still munch a lot of blue-collar minutes (19:52) and provide the kind of hard defence that should make him worth every penny.

9. Jason Pominville

Age: 36
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5.6 million

Welcome to Pominville, where the unemployment rate is 100 per cent… for now. The 1,060-game veteran certainly isn’t worth the $5.6 million he was raking in Buffalo last season, but he’s put together consecutive 16-goal, 30-point seasons, could contribute on a second PP unit and won’t take foolish penalties. If he wants to keep the dream alive, Pominville might have to earn a spot on a PTO or take a third-line role on a club in need of wing depth.

10. Ben Lovejoy

Age on July 1: 35
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $2.67 million

As soon as Erik Karlsson re-signed in San Jose, right-shot defenders became the weakest position among this summer’s free-agent class, and it’s not even close. A stay-at-home veteran like Lovejoy could land a decent contract simply based on a lack of available talent. After Lovejoy, we’re talking about names like Dan Girardi.

Buyers know what they’re getting in Lovejoy: a stay-at-home, experienced, durable defender who can kill penalties and log minutes. Dallas liked the Reverend enough that they traded New Jersey the younger Connor Carrick plus a third-rounder to rent him for its 13-game playoff run.

More notable UFAs of 2019: Marc Methot, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf, Andy McDonald, Patrick Marleau, Ryan Spooner, Marcus Kruger, Adam McQuaid, Devante Smith-Pelly, Magnus Paajarvi, Riley Sheahan, Dmitrij Jaskin, Troy Brouwer, Tobias Rieder, Marko Dano, Andrei Markov

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