Why enjoy the Canada Day long weekend outdoors in the sun when you can hunker over your computer and refresh Twitter in hopes of John Tavares news?
With Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk deciding on the L.A. Kings and the league’s top-scoring defenceman, John Carlson, re-upping in Washington over NHL’s draft weekend, and power forward Rick Nash taking himself out of the running this week, an already thin market of unrestricted free agents just got trimmed further.
So all eyes are on J.T.
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 (already finding work as an ECHL coach) will come off the books.
Here’s a look at the NHL’s top 12 unrestricted free agents of 2018 and the rumours surrounding them.
Woo hoo! July 1 is only a few hours away.
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). 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 Calder champ Mathew Barzal, and his chemistry with Josh Bailey, who was extended in-season. The Isles’ securing of a new arena at Belmont Park and 20 home dates in 2018-19 at his beloved Nassau Coliseum can’t hurt.
Thing is, Tavares is driven to win, and he had a stellar season personally — but the Isles have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. He needs to believe the Islanders can win a Cup. Finding a goalie wouldn’t hurt.
“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 may be further encouraged by the hiring of Cup winner Lou Lamoriello to run all things hockey and Cup winner Barry Trotz to coach.
Still, he’s earned the right to take meetings in L.A. this week alongside agent Pat Brisson.
Toronto and the Islanders pitched in two-hour meetings Monday. Boston and San Jose followed on Tuesday. Dallas and Tampa Bay were granted an audience Wednesday. And that’s it.
Tavares flew back to Toronto, where he spends his summers, to finalize a decision that could arrive any moment now.
Word is, the Sharks, Maple Leafs and Islanders have the inside track. The clock is ticking…
2. 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 (36). Big body, sick mitts. A power-play beast. Belief he can still improve.
(UPDATE: JVR expected to sign with Flyers)
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, he’d be a top-six fixture again.
Extension talks have been 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.
Evander Kane‘s signing for seven years times $7 million in San Jose means the more productive JVR needs to send him a gift basket or something.
“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.”
Speculated fits include New Jersey, New York, Columbus, Vegas, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. The Coyotes are one of a dozen teams to have made a pitch, and the Sharks may take a run at JVR if they miss out on Tavares.
3. 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. Best centre available once Tavares decides.
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 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.
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 Sportsnet, “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 originally appeared too expensive for the Jets to keep beyond the rental stage.
Then, on Saturday, the Jets traded anchor Steve Mason and RFA Joel Armia to Montreal in a pure salary-dump deal. This frees up enough cap space to make a Stastny re-signing plausible.
4. James Neal
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $5 million
Bargaining chips: 10 straight seasons as a 20-goal man. Named to 2018 All-Star Game. Wicked shot. Stanley Cup finalist in 2017 and 2018.
The latest: Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos has suggested that Neal will be asking for as much as $6.5 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 (11 points) in the post-season will only boost his value on the open market.
“I love a lot of things here [in Vegas], so it’s tough the way we go out, but like I said, we’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Neal told reporters after the Cup Final. “Hopefully I can be part of this for a long time.”
Neal rejected a five-year, $25-million offer from Vegas.
“Until further notice, James prefers to keep things quiet,” agent Pat Morris told the Review-Journal. “All I can tell you is he loves Vegas and he wants to stay…. Common sense says that if he’s not signed by July 1, he’s probably not coming back.”
James Neal spotted last night downtown Vancouver. let the UFA courting period begin! #canucks
— (@jammyrft) June 24, 2018
5. David Perron
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Left wing
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.75 million
Bargaining chips: 66 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 résumé, but Perron actually enjoyed the more productive season — crushing it with career-highs in assists (50) and points (66).
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 only scored one playoff goal (off his rear end). His healthy scratch in Game 4 of the Cup Final raised eyebrows. To be fair, he did contribute eight assists in 15 post-season games and was dealing with an injury.
Perron, who is great friends with Marchessault and finds comfort in the number of French-speaking players on the Knights, said he “absolutely” would like to return to Vegas. In-season contract talks, however, lost traction and McPhee’s recent (presumably low) extension offer was rejected.
“There’s been significant interest in David today. David has loved his time in Las Vegas. He loves his teammates. It’s a very special group. But he’s forced to look at other opportunities,” agent Allan Walsh told the Las Vegas Review-Journal Sunday.
As of Saturday, Perron had as many as five non-Vegas teams vying for his services, including the Coyotes.
6. 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). Granted, he suffered a neck injury in February and Detroit 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 was scheduled for surgery on his cervical spine in New York City. His recovery time is estimated at two months minimum.
The Athletic‘s Craig Custance reports Detroit made two separate offers to extend Green, a one-year and a two-year deal.
Green is reportedly inking a two-year pact worth $5.375 million per season to stay put, although he likely could’ve fetched four years elsewhere. That Carlson is off the board made Green the most valuable right-shot defenceman on the open market.
7. 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 (six-foot-three, 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.
With a minimum eight teams interviewing him during negotiation week, 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.”
8. 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. He wants term.
“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.”
Teams missing out on the Tavares Sweepstakes — St. Louis, Vancouver — may bid for a second-tier guy like Nash.
“[The Canucks’ rebuild] is not something I would be scared of, and I’m looking forward to talking to them,” Nash told The Province. “We’ve done our research and it’s pretty interesting. We’re obviously aware of what’s going on in Vancouver, and I think they have a pretty good future ahead of them.
“[The turnaround] might come faster than a lot of people think. Boeser had a great year until he got hurt and proved he could put up a lot of goals and points. Pettersson is obviously a world-class talent, and I’ve heard a lot of good stories on him.”
9. 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. Consecutive 27-goal (!) seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
The latest: Grabner’s production went ice cold once he was traded over the bridge from the Rangers to the Devils at the deadline: two goals and three assists through 21 regular-season games and nothing in two playoff appearances.
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.
Devils GM Ray Shero, who will have an excess of $20 million to spend this summer, is non-committal.
“It’s easy to go south just with cap space,” Shero told NorthJersey.com. “Cap space is one of the greatest assets in the league. Once you lose it, you better be a good team that’s pushing to win a Cup or something. So we want to do that the right way. Nothing has changed since Day One for me when they gave me this green light.”
Several teams — including the Flyers, Bruins, Coyotes and Penguins — had been reportedly in the mix for Grabner as late as Saturday.
10. Calvin de Haan
Age on July 1: 27
2017-18 salary cap hit: $3.3 million
Bargaining chips: Double world junior silver medal repping Team Canada (2010, 2011). World championship silver in 2017. Top-12 draft pick. Well under 30 years old. Plus-32 rating over past four seasons on Long Island. Projected to be fully recovered from shoulder injury in time for training camp.
The latest: The 2009 first-round pick and the Islanders finally appear to be parting ways, following a season that began by scheduling an arbitration and ended early once a December injury forced the defenceman into shoulder surgery.
De Haan posted one goal, 11 assists, 12 penalty minutes through 33 games. More important, he was a rare positive force (plus-11) on a squad with epic struggles on the defensive side of the puck.
Montreal, Vancouver and Boston are among several teams reportedly kicking tires on the left-shot blue-liner who should take full advantage of a weak UFA defence crop. De Haan is young enough that a longer-term deal would make some sense. The Penguins have been linked to Jack Johnson, but de Haan would also fit their needs.
On Monday, Isles insider Arthur Staple reported that New York may take a second look at de Haan: “New regime, new perspective,” he tweeted.
“It’s all I’ve ever known,” de Haan told Elliotte Friedman this week. “I know people talk about the arena situation. It is what it is. The ice surface is 200 feet regardless. Great people. The worst part about being injured was watching my teammates, my buddies, not succeed. When you score as many goals as we do, you should make the playoffs. You want to be out there.”
11. Tyler Bozak
Age on July 1: 32
2017-18 salary cap hit: $4.2 million
Bargaining chips: Went from an undrafted prospect to the longest-serving active member of the Maple Leafs. One-time 20-goal man. Only one year removed from his most productive NHL campaign (55 points in 2016-17). A beast in the face-off circle and a whiz in the shootout.
The latest: Newport Sports has been busy fielding offers for Toronto’s third-line centre. Although Kyle Dubas isn’t willing to completely close the book on the longest-tenured Maple Leaf, he is busy chasing Tavares and RFA William Nylander may be ready for a permanent centre job.
Bozak told Sportsnet’s Vancouver radio station last week that he’s open to all offers, but Sportsnet’s Ian McIntyre has reported the Canucks are not interested.
The Flyers and Avalanche are among the clubs who reportedly kicked tires. Bozak’s asking price may need to come down a notch if his reported $6-million-per-year request is accurate.
12. Joe Thornton
Age on July 1: 38
2017-18 salary cap hit: $8 million
Bargaining chips: Slam-dunk Hall of Famer. One of the greatest passers to ever pick up a hockey stick. World Cup champion and Stanley Cup finalist. Dope beard. Our pick for the 101st greatest player of all time.
The latest: Regardless of what happens with Tavares, and despite San Jose’s forthcoming $64-million commitment to centre Logan Couture, we would be shocked if Thornton doesn’t sign another one-year pact with San Jose.
Yes, he’ll have to take less than $8 million this time, but Jumbo’s ability to put up 36 points in 47 games last season proves he can still contribute. Even if he’ll be 39 when the pucks drops on the 2018-19 season, his presence won’t make the club any weaker.
More notable UFAs of 2018: Robin Lehner, Petr Mrazek, Thomas Vanek, Valtteri Filppula, Tobias Rieder, Anthony Duclair, Brian Gibbons, Toby Enstrom, Jack Johnson, Thomas Hickey, Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hutton, Cam Ward, Derek Ryan, Brandon Manning, Jay Beagle, Greg Pateryn, Jaroslav Halak, Kari Lehtonen, Dan Hamhuis, Leo Komarov, Patrick Maroon, Tomas Plekanec, Ryan Reaves, Jannik Hansen, Anton Khudobin, Derek Grant, Luca Sbisa, Nick Shore, Alex Burrows, Rick Nash
Bonus Hot UFA Rumours (please consume with a grain of salt):
Ryan Reaves —> VGK
Carter Hutton —> BUF
Jack Johnson —> PIT
Cam Ward —> CHI
Jonathan Bernier —> DET
Derek Ryan —> CAL
Leo Komarov —> NYR
Greg Pateryn —> MIN
Tomas Plekanec —> MTL
Valtteri Filppula —> DET
Kyle Brodziak —> EDM
Thomas Vanek —> DET