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.
It pains us to leave active legend Joe Thornton off our top 12, but age and injury won’t make him 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 with the negotiating window opening up in just a few weeks.
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 medallist 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.
Tavares is likely encouraged by the club’s 2017 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 in late March.
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.”
GM Garth Snow has come under fire for sitting on his hands at the deadline, Isles fans are restless, teams like Montreal, Toronto and San Jose will be ready to open the coffers, and coach Doug Weight even experimented with Tavares on the wing.
Still, we have a list of five reasons why we think, ultimately, he’ll stay.
The Islanders’ hiring of Lou Lamoriello to run all things hockey is a great sign for retaining Tavares. The two met last Wednesday face-to-face in New York, according to Elliotte Friedman.
A “league source” told Newsday Tuesday that Lamoriello’s hiring has pleased Tavares.
2. John Carlson
Age on July 1: 28
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.97 million
Bargaining chips: World junior gold medallist. 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. Led all D-men in 2017-18 with 68 points.
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 reaching the conference final and Carlson the most productive playoff defenceman in the East (15 points through 18 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.
“I’ve got enough to worry about right now,” Carlson told NHL.com on April 30. “I don’t need to be worrying about that, that’s for sure.
“I would like to think that I play my best hockey now, and pride myself on when it’s needed most to do whatever it takes.”
$8 million per year is not out of the question.
3. James van Riemsdyk
Age on July 1: 29
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 (36). Big body, sick mitts. A power-play beast. Belief he can still improve.
The latest: The Maple Leafs’ most dangerous left-wing 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.
Affordable bottom-six wingers Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen should push to move up the lineup, and Toronto would be wise to spend its cap space on defencemen.
“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 was integral to the Leafs’ potent first power-play unit but was otherwise seeing third-line minutes. On another squad — Carolina? Vegas? New York? New Jersey? San Jose? — he’d be a top-six fixture again.
Extension talks are nonexistent, and JVR, as Chris Johnston reported, has long been doing his due diligence by consulting with fellow players about how best to approach free agency.
“I enjoy everything here: this city, this team, all of it has a lot to offer. It’s been great for me, and just having the unwavering support of the fans and the city of Toronto. There’s lots of different emotions there now,” van Riemsdyk said at the Leafs locker cleanout.
“Definitely a weird feeling, possibly walking out of here for the last time.”
4. Paul Stastny
Age on July 1: 32
2017-18 salary cap hit: $7 million
Bargaining chips: Second-line centre on the Western Conference finalist. Great face-off man, passer 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. Is there?
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 15 points through 17 playoff games. He was the smartest deadline pickup.
Regarding his future, Stastny told me, “It’s always good to keep everything open. Every time you think something is going to happen, life throws a curveball at you.”
Having already committed big bucks and heavy term to centre Bryan Little, and with RFAs Jacob Trouba and Connor Hellebuyck knocking for long-term deals, Stastny will likely be too expensive for the Jets to keep beyond the rental stage.
“There’s a lot of good players here. A good mix of veterans, young guys, skilled guys, hardworking guys, scorers, playmakers, checkers,” Stastny told Winnipeg reporters upon elimination.
“From what I’ve seen, if they just watch a guy like Wheels [Blake Wheeler], day in and day out, watch guys like Scheif [Mark Scheifele]… then they’re going to be fine.”
They, not we.
“It was a great experience talking to [Stastny] in the exit meeting and hearing about his decision-making process in coming here, and his thought process after being here and moving forward,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “First and foremost, we have to wait for the [NHL salary] cap to be set. We have a lot of work ahead of us from the business side.”
5. Ilya Kovalchuk
Age on July 1: 35
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 and GM Jeff Gorton has already reached out to Kovalchuk, 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.”
With Lamoriello taking over the Islanders and Kovalchuk preferring to return to the Big Apple, the Isles have suddenly emerged as a speculated landing spot.
6. Evander Kane
Age on July 1: 26
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 an even better 2017-18 (29 goals, 54 points). Deadly shot. Common belief that he still hasn’t reached his ceiling.
The latest: Sportsnet’s Irfaan Gaffar dropped a Twitter bomb Tuesday when he tweeted that Evander Kane and the San Jose Sharks were nearing an agreement that would pay the shooter nearly $49 million over seven years. (The Associated Press doubled down.)
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 reasonable 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 indeed inks an extension with the Sharks — 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 and notching four goals in nine playoff games. 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.
“He’s fit in well,” teammate Logan Couture told reporters. “You don’t listen to what people say about him before. Getting to know him over these last few months, he’s a great teammate. He cares and he wants to win. He was fun to play with.”
7. James Neal
Age on July 1: 30
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. 2018 Stanley Cup finalist.
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 (nine points and counting) in the post-season will only boost his value on the open market.
“I just try to stay in the moment,” Neal told NHL.com. “It’s hard, for sure. You don’t want to look too far ahead, but I’m just so excited to be back here. It was so hard last year to lose it. You get that taste of winning, and you just want to come back and you want to win. You want to win. No better group of guys to do it with, and we’ll see what happens.”
8. David Perron
Age on July 1: 30
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.75 million
Bargaining chips: Sixty-six points marked 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 actually enjoyed 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 there.
There’s no guarantee Perron produces this well again, and he’s still looking for his first playoff goal. He does have seven assists in 11 games and was dealing with an illness.
”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. 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 a rebuild 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.
Health is an issue.
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.
10. John Moore
Age on July 1: 27
2017-18 salary cap hit: $1.67 million
Bargaining chips: Plays nearly 20 minutes per night. Entering prime. First-round, stay-at-home D-man with size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and smarts. Bronze medallist for Team USA at 2015 IIHF World Championship.
The latest: A slick skater who likely has, um, more room to grow his all-around game, Moore was relied upon heavily in his third full campaign in New Jersey and contributed some clutch overtime goals.
His possession metrics (below 50 per cent Corsi) and production (18 points) don’t do him favours, especially when he’s placed in more than a fair share of offensive situations.
Top-four, under-30 defencemen on playoff teams don’t hit the market often, however, which means you’ll hear Moore’s name in the rumour mill as July 1 nears.
Moore will double if not triple his salary.
“I want to [stay]. It’s not up to me. I haven’t really talked to Ray [Shero],” Moore told NJ.com on locker cleanout day. “Just in our meeting now, we said we’ll get together and talk. I really like it here, my family likes it here. It’s a good team, a lot of good guys and I want to be here.”
11. Riley Nash
Age on July 1: 29
Position: Centre / Right-wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $900,00
Bargaining chips: Plays a position in which UFAs are scarce. Solid third-line centre on a contending team. First-round pick. Posted career-highs in goals (15), assists (26), points (41) and plus/minus (plus-16).
The latest: The Bruins’ other R. Nash enjoyed a career season in the bottom six but failed to produce in the second season. Nash only managed a single assist (no goals) in nine playoff contests.
That said, centres — especially those under the age of 30 whose best hockey may still lie ahead — will be in high demand this summer, and Nash could well be had for a three- or four-year commitment.
“Haven’t definitively ruled anybody out,” Bruins GM Don Sweeney said, regarding his UFA crop.
“We would like to bring everyone back, but that’s not realistic in cap environment.”
12. Rick Nash
Age on July 1: 34
2017-18 salary cap hit: $7.8 million
Bargaining chips: Two-time Olympic gold medallist. World championships gold medallist and MVP. Rocket Richard Trophy winner. 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 put up five points as a complementary piece of the Bruins’ two-round post-season run.
There’s been some speculation that Nash would be open to returning to either of his former teams this summer, Columbus or New York.
Nash is already the 16th-highest-paid NHLer and enjoyed a whopping $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, failed to wow in his new uniform. He’ll bring a concussion history to the open market.
“It was disappointing with having a concussion, and having some effects during it, and only playing a certain amount of games, and then coming back for the playoffs,” Nash told reporters on break-up day. “But everything was positive. The organization was great, guys were awesome, so it was a great chapter here and hopefully it can continue.”
More notable UFAs of 2018: Michael Grabner, Thomas Vanek, Joe Thornton, Brian Gibbons, Toby Enstrom, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hutton, Cam Ward, Derek Ryan, Brandon Manning, Greg Pateryn, Jaroslav Halak, Kari Lehtonen, Tyler Bozak, Calvin De Haan, Dan Hamhuis, Leo Komarov, Patrick Maroon, Tomas Plekanec, Kari Lehtonen, Ryan Reaves, Jannik Hansen, Anton Khudobin, Derek Grant, Luca Sbisa