Top 10 NHL unrestricted free agents of 2017: Burnziepalooza

David Amber sat down with Brent Burns and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks to talk about their experience at the World Cup of Hockey, the team pranksters, and why they've settled on having huge beards.

While we don’t anticipate the frenzy surrounding NHL’s free agent class of 2017 reaching Stammergeddon heights, Burnziepalooza should provide some fun speculation nevertheless.

Potential summer of ’17 UFA bank-breakers Jamie Benn, Victor Hedman and Brad Marchand all inked max-term extensions this past summer, opting to remain with their clubs for eight more seasons.

That still leaves a compelling mix of mid-prime defencemen, No. 1 goaltenders, and stud forwards embarking on critical contract years, plus the trade rumours and financial pressure that comes part and parcel with it.

Some of these stars will move on due to salary cap restraints, younger talent and the looming expansion draft. Others will be retained at any cost (but, y’know, within reason).

Here is an early look at the NHL’s Top 10 unrestricted free agents of 2017, plus a list of some of the other household names who will be playing for their next job this season.

1. Brent Burns
Age on July 1, 2017: 32
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.76 million
Bargaining chips: Hot off a 27-goal, 48-assist season (both career highs) and a dominant playoff performance. Norris Trophy and Stanley Cup finalist. World Cup and IIHF World Championship gold medalist. Arguably the most lovable man in the sport.
What the future holds: A sweet payday. Burns is already the highest-paid Sharks defenceman (Paul Martin is second at $4.85 million). There’s no reason to believe San Jose and Burns would not want to continue their relationship. Look at the extension signed by the NHL’s other defenceman/forward hybrid, Dustin Byfuglien, in 2016 ($7.6 million times five years) as a comparable here.

A pure guess: Burns stays in San Jose for seven years and about $52 million.

“You know how we feel about Brent. Phenomenal year,” GM Doug Wilson said back in June. “There’s no doubt he’s important to us. We want him. I think he loves being here. Those conversations will take place shortly.”

Burns, however, told us he is in no hurry to put pen to paper.

“I don’t even think about it, to be honest,” Burns said of his next contact in late September. “I got another year left. I’m excited for the year.”

2. Ben Bishop
Age on July 1, 2017: 30
Position: Goaltender
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.95 million
Bargaining chips: A Vezina Trophy finalist for the second time in three seasons. Set a franchise record with his .926 save percentage in 2015-16 and is regarded among teammates as the club’s MVP.
What the future holds: This is a tough one. As all-world as Bishop has played, he also has been injured in the past two post-seasons and the Lightning have young goaltending prospects they’re high on in Andrei Vasilevskiy, 22, and Kristers Gudlevskis, 24. Bishop has a full no-move clause he’d have to waive to facilitate a trade, but he could be the key to a blockbuster. Otherwise, the Lightning core takes one more stab at Stanley in 2017 before the band breaks up.

Tampa GM Steve Yzerman said he could see keeping both Bishop and Vasilevskiy for the duration of the year. These comments were made after he nearly traded Bishop to the Calgary Flames in June.

“It was up to me. They were on my no-trade [list] or whatever, so that kinda has to get worked out. It was one of those things where at the draft it could’ve happened,” Bishop told us in September. “Obviously, it’s not that close if it didn’t.

“I’m not going to go into a game thinking, Oh, it’s a contract year. I’m not going to change the way I play or the way I prepare. I’ve been doing the same thing for five or six years. Nothing’s going to change.”

Let’s revisit at the trade deadline.

SNEAK PEEK: NHL’s Top 12 Restricted Free Agents of 2017

3. Joe Thornton
Age on July 1, 2017: 37
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $6.75 million
Bargaining chips: Slam-dunk Hall of Famer. One of the greatest passers to ever pick up a hockey stick. Legitimate Hart Trophy consideration at age 36. World Cup champion and Stanley Cup finalist. Dope beard.
What the future holds: The love affair between Jumbo Joe and San Jose should continue. Even after having his captaincy stripped, the man is comfortable playing where he is, thank you. Expect a short-term, bonus-laden deal with a full no-move clause at a reasonable rate, perhaps in the $5.5 million range. After putting up 82 points in 82 games last season, the durable hobo lookalike still has plenty of juice in the tank.

4. Kevin Shattenkirk
Age on July 1, 2017: 28
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4.25 million
Bargaining chip: U.S. Olympian. Entrenched as a top-four D-man on one of the league’s best blue lines. Good for about 45 points if healthy.
What the future holds: A trade. Shattenkirk, who has no protection, has been rumoured trade bait for months now. (The Boston Bruins were one reported suitor during the 2015-16 season.)

Surely GM Doug Armstrong would like to keep Shattenkirk around in a perfect (read: non-salary cap) world, but the Blues’ blue line is too expensive. Captain Alex Pietrangelo ($6.5 million cap hit) and Jay Bouwmeester ($5.4 million) are locked up at high rates. Carl Gunnarsson ($2.9 million) is taxing the Blues’ payroll until 2019. But it’s surging 23-year-old Colton Parayko (RFA in 2017) who makes losing Shattenkirk palatable.

If Armstrong doesn’t trade Shattenkirk, he’ll walk for nothing in July like David Backes and Troy Brouwer did this summer.

5. Brian Elliott
Age on July 1, 2017: 32
Position: Goaltender
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.5 million
Bargaining chips: An NHL-best .930 save percentage in 2015-16, followed by an excellent post-season that got the Blues over the hump and won the veteran goalie a No. 1 job in Calgary—no more crease sharing with Jake Allen. Elliott deserved more consideration for the 2016 Vezina, seriously.
What the future holds: A multi-year extension. Provided Elliott plays well in Calgary, we should expect the Flames to make a pitch to keep in him in the fold for, say, four more years. There is some belief that an inability to extend Bishop helped kibosh that near-deal, so one has to believe Elliott is open to the idea of staying with a Flames roster on the rise. GM Brad Treliving doesn’t really want to go goalie shopping again next summer, does he? No. Especially with new kid Las Vegas hunting for a starting goalie.

6. Martin Hanzal
Age on July 1, 2017: 30
Position: Centre
2016-17 salary cap hit: $3.1 million
Bargaining chips: A big top-two pivot (6-foot-6, 226 pounds) who creates plays and provides a threat on the power play. Free agent centres with first-line expereince aged 30 and under will hard to find.
What the future holds: The Coyotes have a grand total of three forwards signed past 2017-18, and one of those is Dave Bolland, who’s unlikely to play again. This roster is essentially a clean slate but won’t contend in 2017.

Dylan Strome, 19, and 20-year-old Christian Dvorak (a mellow 121 points in 59 games for the OHL’s London Knights last season) are poised to become the centres of the future here.

Management needs to rent the injury-prone Hanzal out mid-season to a playoff team, perhaps with an nudge-wink agreement that he can re-sign as a free agent come summertime (see: Vermette, Antoine). The man could fetch a great return of prospects or picks.

7. Alexander Radulov
Age on July 1, 2017: 30
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.75 million
Bargaining chips: Has put up 102 points in 154 career NHL games. Tore up the KHL scoring race during his prolonged overseas hiatus. A big body that should provide critical scoring punch to a Habs roster that needs it.
What the future holds: Intrigue. A reportedly matured and definitely well-compensated Radulov returns to North America for the first time since 2012 on a one-year, prove-it deal. If he performs as expected, Montreal will need him for a playoff race and he should earn a long-term contract from the highest bidder on July 1. Disappoint, and he could be hopping a plane across the Atlantic—which was the case for Alex Semin in this same market last season.

8. T.J. Oshie
Age on July 1, 2017: 30
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4.175 million
Bargaining chips: U.S. national team member. Recorded a career-high 26 goals in 2015-16 after being traded from St. Louis to Washington. Exploded for 10 points in 16 playoff games last spring. In a sport where loser points matter, Oshie’s status as a shootout master matters.
What the future holds: Top-six roles for Washington’s right wing will open up significantly after 2016-17. Trying to retain the services of Oshie seems like the smart play here, even if that means letting a veteran like Justin Williams (who’s six years older than Oshie) walk in free agency. And with the Presidents’ Trophy winners expected to be a Cup contender, a trade would be silly.

9. Patrick Sharp
Age on July 1, 2017: 35
Position: Left wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.9 million
Bargaining chips: 2014 Olympic gold medallist. Three-time Stanley Cup champion (2010, 2013, 2015) with Chicago. Four-time 30-goal scorer.
What the future holds: While Sharp is still producing on the backside of his career (20 goals in 2015-16), captain Jamie Benn’s raise to $9.5 million annually will make him difficult for Dallas to retain long-term.

Sharp’s full no-movement clause and high cap hit make a trade unlikely. We’re guessing he takes one last run at a Cup with Dallas in 2017, then goes to the highest bidder — a contender looking for championship experience — on a short-term deal in the summer.

10. Karl Alzner
Age on July 1, 2017: 28
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $2.8 million
Bargaining chips: Durable top-four defenceman on a good team for a relatively low wage. Hasn’t missed a game since becoming a full-time Capital in 2010. Fifth-overall pick in 2007. Broke NHL’s longstanding sunglasses barrier.
What the future holds: Uncertainty. An excellent Capitals roster was kept almost wholly intact over the summer, but come July 2017 there will be changes. Washington is a, um, cap team, but a handful of regulars —Alzner included — are entering contract years and will be looking for raises.

Evgeny Kuznetsov (RFA) should grab the biggest slice of pie, but is there room to keep the defensively responsible Alzer and the younger Dmitry Orlov (RFA again)? Does Washington consider buying out the pricey Brooks Orpik, 36, if health and speed become a concern by springtime?

We bet the Caps play the season out and reevaluate at that point.

Other notable UFAs in 2017: Patrick Marleau, Dmitry Kulikov, Shane Doan, Jaromir Jagr, Brian Gionta, Dennis Wideman, Andrei Markov, Ryan Miller, Alexandre Burrows, Drew Stafford, Steve Mason, Mike Fisher, Ales Hemsky, Ondrej Pavelec, Patrik Berglund, Thomas Vanek, Trevor Daley, Brian Campbell, Michal Neuvirth, Jonathan Bernier, Jarome Iginla

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