Top 10 NHL unrestricted free agents of 2017: Who’s left?

NHL insider Eric Francis says Chad Johnson has single-handedly saved the Flames season, and knows but won’t cave in on who the “idiot” GM was that Brian Burke singled out.

Here’s a two-pronged prediction for NHL business in 2017: The Feb. 28 trade deadline will be more frantic than it has been in recent years, as teams rejig their rosters in advance of the Las Vegas expansion draft, trying to make the Golden Knights as crappy as possible.

Conversely, the July 1 free agency class could be one of the weakest in years.

As we’ve seen with superstars Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, eight years of security with the devil you know always outweighs the uncertainty of going to the highest bidder.

Potential summer of ’17 UFA bank-breakers Jamie Benn, Victor Hedman, Brent Burns and Brad Marchand all inked maximum-term extensions with their current clubs months before becoming eligible to test the market.

So, who’s left?

Well, the 2017 UFA class should still offer a compelling mix of mid-prime defencemen, No. 1 goaltenders, and a few stud forwards, 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 decreased playoff hopes. Others will be retained at any cost (but, y’know, within reason).

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

1. 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 was 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.”

Vasilevskiy is still getting fewer starts than Bishop, but the workload is shifting in his direction and the younger goalie’s numbers are better.

Best bet: Bishop stays put this spring and gets paid big-time on July 1.

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

2. 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. Power-play beast. Good for about 45 points if healthy.
What the future holds: A trade… probably.

Shattenkirk, who has no protection, has been rumoured trade bait for months now. The Boston Bruins and New York Rangers have been reported suitors, and Shattenkirk’s agent was surprised his client never moved at the 2016 draft.

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.

Still, do you part with your second-highest scorer (Shattenkirk has 19 points and a team-high 12 on the man advantage after 25 games) when you’re trying to go all the way?

3. 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 experience aged 30 and under are nearly impossible 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. The future of this roster is essentially a clean slate, and a weak opening to 2016-17 points to a deadline deal for Hanzal.

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. The Montreal Canadiens would be a suitable trade partner here.

Hanzal holds a modified no-trade clause and a workable cap hit of $3.1 million.

4. Alexander Radulov
Age on July 1, 2017: 30
Position: Right wing
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.75 million
Bargaining chips: Has put up 123 points in his first 177 NHL games. Tore up the KHL scoring race during his prolonged overseas hiatus. A big body that is providing critical scoring a punch to a Habs roster that needs it. Sudden fan favourite.
What the future holds: Intrigue.

A matured and well-compensated Radulov returned to North America for the first time since 2012 on a one-year, prove-it deal. Montreal will need him for the playoffs, and he should earn a long-term contract from the highest bidder on July 1.

Radulov, the NHL’s most productive forward set to turn UFA this summer, cannot re-sign until Jan. 1, even if his agent is already thinking about it.

GM Marc Bergevin plans to exercise patience, but it will be difficult to let a player who creates so much offence walk away.

5. 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.

Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reports that Alzner is asking for $5.5 to $6 million per season from Washington in light of the hefty Burns deal. Elliotte Friedman expects Canada’s western clubs to take a run at Alzner this summer.

6. 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 still thinking of themselves as a Cup contender, a trade would be silly.

Oshie has put up eight goals and 12 points through his first 17 games this season, missing a stretch with an injured shoulder.

7. 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, likely at the expense of fellow UFA forward Patrick Marleau.

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 $4.8 million range. After putting up 82 points in 82 games last season, the durable hobo lookalike still has some juice in the tank. Fifteen points through his first 25 games.

8. Chad Johnson
Age on July 1, 2017: 31
Position: Goaltender
2016-17 salary cap hit: $1.7 million
Bargaining chips: Best save percentage (.930), goals-against average (2.05) and shutout total (three) of any UFA goalie this season. Wasted little time stealing Brian Elliott‘s No. 1 job in Calgary and Elliott’s place on this list.
What the future holds: Calgary’s early-season MVP, according to coach Glen Gulutzan, has been nothing short of spectacular en route to finally getting out from under the “reliable backup” classification.

The Flames brought in Elliott and Johnson in the summer, believing the former would be a good bet to re-sign for the future. It’s the more affordable Johnson, however, who has been a perfect fit in Alberta, where he developed as a youth.

We wouldn’t be shocked to see Johnson re-sign sometime after the new year and before July 1. It’ll depend how badly he wants to spin his hot play into a financial windfall.

9. Michael Stone
Age on July 1, 2017: 27
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $4 million
Bargaining chips: Right shot. Top-four minutes. Well under 30 years old. Should provide good value with his low name recognition.
What the future holds: A good candidate for a trade, and a sweet pay bump.

If you’re looking for a dependable right shot on your blue line and don’t want to dive into the Shattenkirk bidding war, Stone provides a nice consolation target.

As a non-contender for the post-season, Arizona must decide early if the Winnipeg native wants to stick around for the desert rebuild. If not, the Coyotes should move him.

Stone put up 36 points last season. He’s improved his plus/minus two years running and has reduced his penalties.

10. Andrei Markov
Age on July 1, 2017: 38
Position: Defence
2016-17 salary cap hit: $5.75 million
Bargaining chips: A top-pair defenceman since forever. On pace for his 11th NHL season scoring between 30 and 64 points.
What the future holds: Yes, Markov is old. But he still ranks second among all impending UFA D-men in points (18) and time on ice (22:03) through two months of action. Same number of total points as teammate Shea Weber — who’s in the very early Norris Trophy conversation — yet he has three more points at even strength.

We see no reason why the franchise that drafted him nearly 20 years ago wouldn’t re-sign him to a one- or two-year extension.

Other notable UFAs in 2017: Patrick Marleau, Thomas Greiss, Dmitry Kulikov, Patrick Eaves, Shane Doan, Jaromir Jagr, Brian Gionta, Dennis Wideman, Ryan Miller, Alexandre Burrows, Mike Ribiero, Steve Mason, Mike Fisher, Ales Hemsky, Ondrej Pavelec, Patrik Berglund, Thomas Vanek, Trevor Daley, Brian Campbell, Michal Neuvirth, Sam Gagner, Chris Kunitz, Brian Elliott, Jonathan Bernier, Jarome Iginla, Radim Vrbata, Kris Russell, Patrick Sharp

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