Most of the best ones, as per league-wide trend, were crossed off the list well before puck drop. Or received juicy extensions mid-season.
The unrestricted free agent class of 2018 was set to include Carey Price, Cam Fowler, Bryan Little, Martin Jones, Craig Anderson, Marc Edouard-Vlasic and Mikko Koivu. But that group all inked long-term extensions with their current clubs in the off-season.
Message reinforced: If you have a good goalie, defenceman or centreman, keep him now and worry about the future later. (By then, he might be another GM’s problem.)
A second wave of forwards — Kyle Turris, Cam Atkinson, Jonathan Marchessault, Josh Bailey, Mikael Backlund, Patric Hornqvist — landed their paydays in-season.
The remaining impending UFAs of 2018 — a group headlined by Islanders face John Tavares — still have much to offer, and considering the cap situations or playoff chances of some of their current teams, fans have good hope for some movement.
It pains us to leave active legends such as the Sedin twins and Joe Thornton off our top 12, but age and injury won’t make them quite as desirable in 2018-19.
Summer 2018 will also provide a measure of fiscal relief for a few front offices, as hefty contracts belonging to Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Kari Lehtonen, and Ryane Clowe will come off the books.
Here is an early look at the NHL’s top 12 unrestricted free agents of 2018 and the rumours surrounding them.
1. John Tavares
Age on July 1: 27
2017-18 salary cap hit: $5.5 million
Bargaining chips: The best 20-something impending unrestricted free-agent centre to come along since Steven Stamkos (and we know how calm everyone acted in 2016). Islanders’ captain, best player and the reason they snapped their playoff series victory drought in 2016. Gold medalist at the Olympics, World Cup and world junior championship (twice). May hit 80 points for the third season. Improving on the defensive end, too. Did we mention the Spengler Cup gold?
The latest: Through good times and bad, Tavares and the Islanders have always maintained they’d like to extend their marriage when the time comes.
Newsday‘s Arthur Staple reported way back in May that GM Garth Snow is likely to offer Tavares an eight-year contract worth upward of $10 million per season, and he’s certainly worth Jack Eichel if not Connor McDavid money.
Tavares is likely encouraged by the club’s trade for buddy Jordan Eberle, the development of Mathew Barzal, and his chemistry with Josh Bailey, who was extended in-season. The Isles’ securing of a new arena at Belmont Park can’t hurt, but that rink isn’t projected to open until 2021-22.
Thing is, Tavares is driven to win, and he’s had a stellar season personally — but the Isles will miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. He needs to believe the Islanders can win a Cup.
“To me, it’s separate — the season and my contract situation. I don’t really see them going hand-in-hand or having an effect on one or the other,” Tavares told The New York Post this week.
The loyal superstar is content to play the waiting game, and he’s earned the right to weigh his options. In the words of friend Matt Martin: “He knows his contract situation can be solved quickly, so he’s taking his time.”
Snow has come under fire for sitting on his hands at the deadline, Isles fans are restless, Montreal is ready to open the coffers, and coach Doug Weight even experimented with Tavares on the wing.
Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos recently said this situation is “snowballing” away from the Islanders, and the possibility of a sign-and-trade situation (in order to secure an eighth year and lower the cap hit) is frightening fans in Long Island.
Still, we have a list of five reasons why we think, ultimately, he’ll stay.
“I haven’t thought about my situation maybe as much as I thought I would,” Tavares said. “Certainly over the last couple months when things aren’t going so well, it’s never easy no matter what. But it’s not something I try to think about a whole lot.”
2. John Carlson
Age on July 1: 28
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.97 million
Bargaining chips: World junior gold medalist. Member of Team USA. Washington Capitals‘ ice-time leader at a whopping 24:58 per game. Power-play threat. Put up between 32 and 55 points in seven straight full seasons. Chance to be a Norris Trophy finalist
The latest: A skilled and experienced puck-moving, right-shot defenceman under the age of 30? “Yes, please,” says the entire NHL.
While Carlson has been an important fixture in Washington since getting drafted in 2008’s first round, GM Brian MacLellan’s long list of contractual decisions in the summer pushed an extension to the back burner.
With the Caps a contender and Carlson the NHL’s most productive defenceman as of late March (61 points through 73 games), he’s shot to the top of Washington’s priority list.
“In the beginning, we were wondering where we were going to be as a team,” MacLellan told NHL.com on Jan. 11. “[Now], we’re going to want him back no matter what, so we’re going to make our best effort to bring him back.”
With the Ducks locking up Fowler and the Sharks committing to Vlasic, does Carlson pass up a chance to become the undisputed No. 1 UFA defenceman of 2018 and create a lucrative bidding war?
Carlson has said he’s not thinking too much about his next contract yet.
“There’ll be a time for all that, and that’s when I’ll deal with that,” Carlson told the Washington Post. “That’s what your agent does: find what the value should be and all that. I haven’t looked into any of that stuff.”
3. James van Riemsdyk
Age on July 1: 29
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $4.25 million
Bargaining chips: Second-overall pick in 2007. Member of Team USA. Four-time 20-goal scorer, two-time 30-goal man. Building off his most productive NHL season (62 points in 2016-17) with his greatest goal-getting burst (33 and counting). Big body, sick mitts. A power-play beast. Belief he can still improve.
The latest: The Maple Leafs’ most dangerous left wing survived the trade deadline and says he wants to remain with the team long-term, but with JVR’s next contract expected to be a monster, Toronto is unlikely to shell out knowing it will soon have to pony up big bucks for younger forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
“I’ve loved playing here ever since I came here. How I’ve been treated is great. It’s a place I want to play for as long as I can,” van Riemsdyk told us. “Where that takes things, we’ll see what happens. I love playing here. I want to be here.”
The Leafs offered van Riemsdyk as part of a failed trade package for then-Islanders defenceman Travis Hamonic at the draft, and Toronto’s investment in LW Patrick Marleau essentially sealed van Riemsdyk’s fate in 2017.
Van Riemsdyk is still integral to the Leafs’ potent first power-play unit but is otherwise seeing third-line minutes. On another squad — Carolina? Vegas? New York? Jersey? San Jose? — he’d be a top-six fixture again.
Extension talks are nonexistent, and JVR, as Chris Johnston reported, is doing his due diligence by consulting with fellow players about how best to approach free agency.
4. Ilya Kovalchuk
Age on July 1: 35
Position: Left wing
Bargaining chips: 2018 Olympic champion. KHL champion. Led KHL in scoring in each of past two seasons. Wicked shot — his .511 goals per game place him 12th all-time in NHL scorers with a minimum of 400 goals. Inspired to become a member of the Triple Gold Club.
The latest: Kovalchuk was interested in an NHL return last summer, but as property of the New Jersey Devils, there was too much red tape to slice through. This coming off-season, he’s free and clear. And with an Olympic medal and Gagarin Cup to his name, there’s nothing left to accomplish in his homeland.
The New York Rangers are reportedly the best bet to sign the sniper, but after seeing Alexander Radulov’s success in Montreal and Dallas, there will be other suitors.
“Kovy is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Martin Brodeur told Larry Brooks of The New York Post this month. “And I’m not talking about just his play on the ice.
“He was one of our most engaged guys in the room. He was great that way. He really cares about winning, and he cares about guys on his team. Away from the rink, and I think it’s unusual in the NHL for someone from Russia, but his wife organized dinners and was great with the team.
“If he comes back, and it sounds like he might — I think he would have this year if it weren’t for the Olympics — he’s going to be a very good player for whoever signs him.”
5. Paul Stastny
Age on July 1: 32
2017-18 salary cap hit: $7 million
Bargaining chips: Top-nine centre on playoff team. Great face-off man and penalty killer. Defensively responsible. A lock for 50 points if healthy. Will travel to win.
The latest: Stastny hit pay dirt as one of the best UFA forwards in 2014, but there’s no way he commands another $7 million per year deal with a no-trade clause. The Quebec native has a knack for great timing when it comes to contract years, because if Tavares re-ups on Long Island, Stastny suddenly becomes the best centreman on the free market.
By dealing Stastny to the Jets, Doug Armstrong continued a pattern of letting his veterans go — Kevin Shattenkirk, Troy Brouwer, David Backes — in favour of youth when payday comes knocking.
After his surprise deadline deal, Stastny put up 10 points through his first 10 games in Winnipeg. A great fit.
Having already committed big bucks and heavy term to Bryan Little, and with RFAs Jacob Trouba and Connor Hellebuyck knocking for long-term deals, Stastny might be too expensive for the Jets to keep beyond the rental stage.
6. Evander Kane
Age on July 1: 26
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $5.25 million
Bargaining chips: The youngest UFA forward in 2018, period. In 2016-17, enjoyed his most productive season — 28 goals, 43 points — since 2011-12 and has followed it up with 36 points before the all-star break. Deadly shot. Common belief that he still hasn’t reached his ceiling.
The latest: Kane’s future is a compelling subject because his off-ice track record isn’t the most positive and he’s already battled through several injuries, yet his skills and athleticism are top notch. We’ve seen many an NHLer mature with age, so there is potential for a steal of a deal here.
Rookie Sabres GM Jason Botterill tried to fetch as much as possible for Kane before the deadline — one report had his asking price at four pieces — but the return from San Jose was underwhelming.
That trade will get slightly more favourable for the Sabres if Kane inks an extension with the Sharks or wins a Cup in San Jose — a 2019 second-round pick gets upgraded to Round 1.
Still in the honeymoon period, Kane has excelled in California, registering his first four-goal game. The Mercury News went into detail on why keeping Kane in the Bay Area makes sense, and Doug Wilson will have the cap space to make it happen.
“We haven’t talked about [an extension]. I really haven’t thought about it much,” Kane told Sportsnet 650. “I’m just trying to take it one step at a time here.”
7. James Neal
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $5 million
Bargaining chips: Ten straight seasons as a 20-goal man. Named to 2018 All-Star Game. Wicked shot.
The latest: Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos has suggested that Neal will be asking for as much as $6.5 million or $7 million per season on a long-term deal. Despite having the cap space to make that work, the belief is that Vegas is hesitant to commit long-term to players 30 and older.
Golden Knights GM George McPhee already made extending 27-year-old Jonathan Marchessault ($5 million times six years) his priority. Neal is older and will be more expensive.
McPhee had initially considered flipping Neal at the trade deadline for futures, but plans changed once Vegas became a contender. Neal suffered an upper-body injury in late February, but a strong showing in the post-season can only boost his value on the open market.
8. David Perron
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.75 million
Bargaining chips: In the midst of a career season. Strong-on-the-puck winger with enviable possession metrics. A beast in the corners. Ability to draw penalties.
The latest: Of Vegas’s two stud UFA wingers, Neal has the more familiar resume, but Perron is actually enjoying the more productive season — crushing it with career-highs in assists (50) and points (66).
McPhee is keeping mum publicly with his plans for these veteran wingers. There is value in keeping Perron beyond 2017-18, but the temptation to let Perron walk and use his cap space on younger, cheaper talent will be tempting. There’s no guarantee Perron produces this well again.
”I’m looking for eight years, $10 million a year,” Perron told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He was joking. “I don’t really want to touch on [my next contract]. I think it would be unfair for everyone to talk about that. I don’t want to jinx anything.”
9. Zdeno Chara
Age on July 1: 41
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.58 million
Bargaining chips: Captain. Norris winner. Stanley Cup winner. Has 600-plus points over 1,300-plus games played. Licensed to sell real estate in Massachusetts. Logged the Bruins’ most minutes in the 2017 post-season and is still logging a team-high 23 minutes per night. That shot. That reach. Plant-based diet paying off.
The latest: Interestingly, Chara’s salary this season will be the cheapest of his seven-year deal. He’s “only” making $4 million in real money, and has been a stud.
Chara has been on record multiple times saying he wants to keep playing for Boston beyond this season, and GM Don Sweeney sees value in the tall man. Extension talks have already begun, and with Boston looking like a force, we don’t see why a deal won’t be worked out.
“Maybe he’ll play forever,” says Bruins rookie Charlie McAvoy. “He’s going to be the next Jagr. He’s in tremendous shape. He takes care of his body like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
The Bruins would reportedly prefer to give Chara one year but will go to two out of respect.
10. Mike Green
Age on July 1: 32
2017-18 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Named to 2018 all-star game. Experienced, durable top-four right shot who can log 24 minutes a night. In his prime, he had a 30-goal season and two 70-point seasons from the blue line.
The latest: Coming off a 36-point campaign as the best defenceman on a bad Red Wings team, Green came out of the gates flying, only to cool off considerably (33 points in 66 games). To be fair, he suffered a neck injury in February and Detroit has had little to play for down the stretch. Green’s season was shut down on March 22.
With the draft lottery in the Wings’ future and cap problems firmly in their present, Green appeared like an obvious trade chip but was retained at the deadline despite reportedly being open to waving his no-trade protection for Tampa or Washington.
On April 5, Green is scheduled for surgery on his cervical spine in New York City. His recovery time is estimated at two months minimum.
11. Michael Grabner
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $1.65 million
Bargaining chips: Experienced. Fast. Cap hit so low, it’ll make your eyes pop. Sweet scoring touch. Kills penalties.
The latest: Grabner’s production has cooled since being traded over the bridge from the Rangers to the Devils at the trade deadline (two goals and three points through his first 12 games in the new uni).
Still, the speedy winger’s dependable production over the past couple of seasons and his low starting salary should make him an interesting summer target.
Plenty of clubs want speed and versatility on the wings, and the fact Rangers GM Jeff Gorton did Grabner’s family a solid by trading him close to home means we should rule out a return to the Blueshirts.
12. Rick Nash
Age on July 1: 34
Position: Right wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $7.8 million
Bargaining chips: Two-time Olympic gold medalist. World championships gold medalist and MVP. Rocket Richard Trophy winner. Just celebrated his 13th 20-goal season. Good hands. Improved defensively.
The latest: An emotional Nash departed New York as part of the Rangers’ dramatic February fire sale and now has a chance to make a deep playoff run as an integral part of the Bruins’ top six after he recovers from his upper-body injury.
There is some speculation that Nash would be open to returning to either of his former teams this summer, Columbus or New York, but we don’t expect any contract chatter to heat up until we see how much of an impact he can have on the B’s in the post-season.
Nash is already the 16th-highest-paid NHLer and enjoying an $8.2-million base salary this season. Unlike most on this list, he’s in for a pay cut.
The power forward, who has never hit unrestricted free agency, told NHL.com he feels young and inspired.
“I don’t have a contract for next season, so that’s what I’m playing for,” the winger said. “It’s a huge season for me personally.”
More notable UFAs of 2018: Riley Nash, John Moore, Thomas Vanek, Joe Thornton, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Brian Gibbons, Toby Enstrom, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hutton, Cam Ward, Derek Ryan, Brandon Manning, Greg Pateryn, Jaroslav Halak, Tyler Bozak, Calvin De Haan, Dan Hamhuis, Leo Komarov, Patrick Maroon, Tomas Plekanec, Kari Lehtonen, Antti Raanta, Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Ryane Clowe, Jannik Hansen, Derek Grant, Jaromir Jagr