We’re just over two months into the 2019-20 season and Taylor Hall Watch is in full swing, with the latest reports indicating that the Devils’ lines are open and ready for your best offers well ahead of the trade deadline.
But this year’s class of unrestricted free agents extends far beyond Hall and the intrigue surrounding the biggest fish in this year’s free agent pond.
Here’s a look at the top UFAs-to-be of 2020, which we’ll continue to update over the course of 2019-20 as the season — and all the rumours and reports that come with it — continues.
1. Taylor Hall, LW, New Jersey Devils
2019-20 cap hit: $6 million
After the Devils stumbled out of the gate in a crucial season, the biggest question was whether New Jersey could dust itself off and push for the playoffs with Hall – kind of like the New York Islanders’ approach two years ago with then-pending UFA John Tavares.
It’s now safe to say that ship has sailed, with the team firing head coach John Hynes, conceding that they weren’t as far along in their rebuild as many initially believed, and opening up the bidding on their best player.
“It sounds as though the conversations so far have largely been one-sided,” Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported over the weekend. “The Devils are encouraging teams to step forward with offers, not so much of a back and forth.”
The odds of Hall being moved well before the trade deadline are looking pretty strong.
“The feeling in the industry … is that the Colorado Avalanche are the favourites right now pushing to try to get Taylor Hall; perhaps as soon as the Christmas break, which starts Dec. 19,” Johnston said.
Who else might be a potential landing spot? The Arizona Coyotes are in good playoff position and need a scoring boost, and the same goes for the Dallas Stars. Might Montreal make a run? A return to Edmonton hasn’t been ruled out — Hockey Twitter might actually implode if that happened – and there’s no doubt going to be other clubs trying to land the star winger in the coming weeks, though it’ll cost them “as many as four pieces” in return, according to Johnston.
And so the bidding begins.
2. Nicklas Backstrom, C, Washington Capitals
2019-20 cap hit: $6.7 million
The only thing more startling than seeing Alex Ovechkin put on another team’s sweater would be Nicklas Backstrom doing the same. Backstrom has made it clear he’d like to remain a career Capital, and the two sides began negotiating late last month to try to make that happen.
As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported at the time, Backstrom is working without an agent, representing himself.
“I would think that would probably be a good sign for the player and the team that they feel they can get something done together,” Friedman said.
Backstrom, who has registered four goals and 18 points in 23 games this season, has been sidelined with an upper-body injury since mid-November, but is expected to be back in the lineup Monday against Columbus.
It won’t be easy for general manager Brian MacLellan to keep his core four — Backstrom, Ovechkin, John Carlson and Braden Holtby — together. Carlson is on the books long-term after signing an eight-year, $64-million extension in June 2018 and McLellan can wait another year before treading into talks with his captain, whose 13-year pact expires after 2020-21. Managing to get both Backstrom and Holtby, who’s also a pending UFA (more on him later), under the cap will require a lot of work.
3. Alex Pietrangelo, D, St. Louis Blues
2019-20 cap hit: $6.5 million
Last December, with the Blues in the league’s basement and the Maple Leafs shopping for defence, the hottest name in Toronto trade rumours was Pietrangelo.
One year and one St. Louis Stanley Cup run later, here we are again talking about whether the veteran rearguard might be the missing piece to solve the Maple Leafs’ blue line woes.
Both teams are tight to the cap, which makes signing (or re-signing) Pietrangelo a tricky prospect. A trade would make sense for Toronto, which could clear a little space, but considering the Blues are atop the Central and looking poised to run it back, it doesn’t make sense for them to trade away their captain right now.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said bringing (and extending) defenceman Justin Faulk and locking up forward Brayden Schenn back in October doesn’t affect his pursuit of signing his captain long-term, but it’ll take some serious finesse to lock up the GTA native considering he’s expected to count for around $8 million per year.
4. Braden Holtby, G, Washington Capitals
2019-20 cap hit: $6.1 million
Holtby’s contract year started with a few hiccups but it was never in doubt that the veteran No. 1 would right the ship.
This will be an interesting case to watch, considering the performance of rookie backup Ilya Samsonov, whose strong play (7-2-1, 2.42 GAA, .917 SV%) will surely give GM Brian MacLellan plenty to think about – especially with the 2021 Seattle expansion draft potentially complicating matters.
5. Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins
2019-20 cap hit: $5.25 million
He’s one of the league’s best offensive defencemen with plenty of sandpaper in his game. In other words, should Krug hit the open market, there would be a mile-long lineup of GMs vying for his services. Only, it feels like it won’t get to that point — Krug told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan back in September that he’d be “interested in” taking less money to remain in Boston.
“How much less — that’s a question that will be answered at a certain time,” he told Kaplan. “I think something that’s fair will be able to be worked out both ways. As long as they want me, I think something could be done, realistically.”
Like the Capitals and their goaltending, the Bruins could find themselves in a tough spot with expansion draft considerations among skaters – especially considering they locked up forward Charlie Coyle last month.
6. Mike Hoffman, RW/LW, Florida Panthers
2019-20 cap hit: $5.1875 million
After a tumultuous ending to his Ottawa tenure, Hoffman seems happy in Florida — just look at his stats. He had the best season of his career in 2018-19, leading the Panthers in goals (36) and tallying 70 points in his first year with the club. With 11 goals and 21 points through 29 games this year, he looks poised for similar results in 2019-20.
The Panthers made a big splash last summer by bringing in goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and essentially announcing to the league that they’re ready to be taken seriously (for real this time). It’s hard to see general manager Dale Tallon letting 70-plus points walk out the door on July 1.
7. Evgenii Dadonov, RW, Florida Panthers
2019-20 cap hit: $4 million
Ditto for Dadonov. He quietly put up back-to-back 28-goal campaigns down in Florida, tallying 65 and 70 points in his past two seasons, and is on pace for more of the same in his contract year.
8. Tyson Barrie, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
2019-20 cap hit: $5.5 million (this AAV is split between Colorado and Toronto)
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported last month that teams had started calling the Maple Leafs.
“He (Barrie) has not asked for a trade, however, I think there is an understanding that so far it hasn’t worked,” Friedman said at the time.
Twenty games into a season of struggles for the Maple Leafs, Barrie was still without a goal. He saw a surge in offence when Sheldon Keefe took over for Mike Babcock last month, finally potting his first goal as a Maple Leaf on Nov. 21 and following it up with a goal in each of his next two games, too, but his overall numbers are still far from what was expected from him.
9. Jake Muzzin, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
2019-20 cap hit: $4 million
The good news: Muzzin has been the Maple Leafs’ best defenceman and brings some much-needed physicality to the speedy team.
The bad news: Should he continue on this trajectory, he might price himself out of the Maple Leafs’ budget.
Considering how difficult it was to lock up their core four up front, general manager Kyle Dubas has quite the puzzle on his hands over on the blue line. Let’s just see how many contracts are locked u–
10. Erik Haula, LW, Carolina Hurricanes
2019-20 cap hit: $2.75 million
Loved by every fanbase he plays for, Haula was a huge part of Vegas’ success during the franchise’s inaugural campaign in 2017-18. He didn’t get a chance to top his personal bests (29 goals, 26 assists, 55 points) of that season last year, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury just 15 games into the 2018-19 campaign.
After being dealt to the Hurricanes, he started 2019-20 on pace for another solid season with perhaps a few more personal bests — and a healthy raise as a reward – but has been hindered by injury once again. Haula suffered a setback last month and hasn’t played since Nov. 16. Word is, he’s not expected to be back in the lineup until Christmastime.
11. Tyler Toffoli, RW/LW, Los Angeles Kings
2019-20 cap hit: $4.6 million
Toffoli had a down year in 2018-19 with 13 goals and 34 points on a floundering Kings squad and he’s struggled early on in 2019-20, too, with 13 points through 30 games and a short stint as a healthy scratch in November. Considering how early the trade rumours began, it’s a bit surprising he hasn’t already been moved. He’s young, affordable, and capable of being a 30-goal scorer. And, most importantly, he knows what it takes to win it all.
12. Mikael Granlund, C/RW, Nashville Predators
2019-20 cap hit: $5.75 million
The foundation is there, as Granlund continues to build chemistry with the club he joined at last year’s trade deadline, but the points simply are not — he has just four goals and 11 points through 26 games so far, and also saw a 12-game scoreless streak in there. Granlund’s numbers look even worse when you note the only two active pending UFA forwards with higher current cap hits than his are Nicklas Backstrom and Taylor Hall. The Predators started the season with high expectations but currently sit three points outside of the wild card window, which means you’ve got to believe GM David Poile is looking to make some adjustments.
13. T.J. Brodie, D, Calgary Flames
2019-20 cap hit: $4.65 million
The most important thing for Brodie has not been his contract status as a soon-to-be UFA — it’s been his health. Brodie missed two weeks after a scary incident during practice that saw him collapse on the ice. Extensive tests afterwards pointed to a fainting episode, with Brodie cleared to resume skating soon after and return to the lineup late last month.
14. Robin Lehner, G, Chicago Blackhawks
2019-20 cap hit: $5 million
Last year’s Masterton Trophy winner thrived as part of an excellent tandem with the New York Islanders and then completely stole the show in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now paired with veteran (and fellow pending UFA) Corey Crawford, he’s bringing that same game-saving consistency to Chicago’s crease with stops like this:
15. Travis Hamonic, D, Calgary Flames
2019-20 cap hit: $3.857 million
Hamonic logs big minutes on a nightly basis and his stay-at-home style complements the Flames’ offensive-minded group of blue liners. He missed two weeks with an injury but played a season-high 26:11 upon his return as the Flames attempt to turn their season around.
16. Alex Galchenyuk, LW/C/RW, Pittsburgh Penguins
2019-20 cap hit: $4.9 million
So far, the Galchenyuk-for-Kessel experiment hasn’t yielding strong results for Pittsburgh — the 25-year-old has just two goals through 21 games as a Penguin. We’ve seen glimpses of excellence in years past — take his 30-goal, 56-point campaign in Montreal in 2015-16 — but have yet to see him thrive over the course of a full (and fully-healthy) season at his preferred position as a centreman. It sounds like his days in Pittsburgh might be numbered, with GM Jim Rutherford telling The Athletic’s Josh Yohe that it’ll be tough for Galchenyuk to get into the top 12.
“The fact of the matter is, when we’re totally healthy, he’s going to have to work very hard just to get in the top 12,” Rutherford said. “That’s just the way it is, because we have a lot of guys playing well. So, that’s the good news and the bad news.”
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman spoke about Yohe’s report over the weekend and said he believes the Buffalo Sabres have looked into him.
17. Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers
2019-20 cap hit: $4.625 million
He matched his personal-best in goals last year (28), but it’s unclear where Kreider fits into the Rangers’ rebuild. He was a part of plenty of trade rumours around the draft last season and should be there again if the Rangers aren’t competing for a playoff spot.
18. Jacob Markstrom, G, Vancouver Canucks
2019-20 cap hit: $3.67 million
The question here will be the development of next-man-up Thatcher Demko, whose $1.05-million cap hit this season and next affords the Canucks a little more time in deciding the future of their crease.
19. Jaroslav Halak, G, Boston Bruins
2019-20 cap hit: $2.75
Signing Halak to a two-year, $5.5-million deal in July 2018 proved to GM Don Sweeney’s best move of the off-season, as his presence brought load management to the Bruins’ crease and has other teams attempting to build similar one-two punches in net. It paid off in the playoffs, with starter Tuukka Rask fresh and healthy and at his best all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
20. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, C, Ottawa Senators
2019-20 cap hit: $3.1 million
Throughout so much change in Ottawa, Pageau has been the one constant for the Senators. The team’s leader in goals (15) and points (22) is on pace for his best statistical season yet. Plus, he’s got enough experience to be a leader on this young rebuilding club but is still young enough for a long-term commitment with his hometown team.
Other notable pending UFAs to keep an eye on: Corey Crawford (CHI), Kevin Shattenkirk (TB), Cody Eakin (VGK), Zack Kassian (EDM), Sami Vatanen (NJD), Wayne Simmonds (NJ), Chris Tanev (VAN), Cody Ceci (TOR), Justin Schultz (PIT), Michael Frolik (CGY), Vladislav Namestnikov (OTT), Marco Scandella (BUF), Erik Gustafsson (CHI), Pat Maroon (TB), Zach Bogosian (BUF)