Sunday, June 04, 2017

Top 10 Potential Pool Worthy Unrestricted Free Agents

This whole off-season doesn't quite have the same linear path that the last number of years have had on the blog site, especially since it has been 17 years since we've had any expansion into the NHL, but here we are, awaiting the arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights and they too, will have a serious effect on everything in this off-season, including unrestricted free agency.

So, when we're taking players and their possible destinations into consideration, even today, everything does get a bit cloudier with the open nature that the Golden Knights will provide, having an extra window to negotiate deals and use those deals as their picks in the expansion draft.

Now, these top 10 players are based on their hockey pool scoring numbers, not quite their perceived value in the market place, where it could go just about any which way.

Peter Budaj split time between the Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2017 season and got the bulk of the work when Jonathan Quick went down with his serious lower-body injury, giving him plenty of opportunity to play, win games and pick up points, to which he did a pretty good job.  Getting dealt at the deadline to the Lightning put a kibosh on to his string of starts, but he still finished with more than enough points to take top spot on this list.

Even with 30 wins and 75 points last season, 9th among all goalies, there are very few places that even would consider him for a starting role, which will likely keep him from getting that big pay day that you would think a goalie with those sort of numbers would get.

There's no doubt that he was a bargain at $600,000 last season, but if he's looking for that big pay day, like starting money, my guess is that he'll be heading back to Europe to find it.  Even a team like Buffalo, Calgary or Vegas, all of which need goaltending today, won't likely spend the big bucks to have him in their net.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $1.25 million

The up-and-down career of Steve Mason has fairly well-documented and as much as he has shown some flashes of brilliance, he certainly hasn't shown the steadiness of a goalie that is going to give a team confidence through the long haul of the regular season and into the playoffs.

The 2017 season was much of the same, as he split time with Michal Neuvirth and was kind of spotty, when his platoon partner went down with injury for an extended stretch, leading to the Flyers not being in the playoffs at the end of the year.

Mason is now coming off of a deal, which paid him $4.1 million per year over three seasons and he provided no value in there, as the Flyers only made the playoffs once, in 2016, losing in the 1st round, in that time.  This will certainly hurt Mason's market value and maybe even hurt his possibility of finding a job where he can be a number one as well.

Last season, he was still good for 26 wins and 59 points, but I would suggest that those numbers, much like Budaj's, are about to take a tumble with whatever new assignment he finds.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $2.5 million

The top forward of the bunch on this list, could be considered one of the top prizes of the summer, if someone was to land T.J. Oshie.  He leads the unrestricted free agent pool, as it can happen today, with 33 goals and had 56 points in 68 games for the Washington Capitals.

Oshie has hovered in the low-to-mid 50's in points over the last three seasons, also dealing with minor knocks and injuries as well in that time, playing between St. Louis and Washington.  There is just something about his game, however, that screams, "he should be putting up much better numbers than he actually does."

When the Capitals brought him to town in the summer of 2015, we were all thinking that the offensive system could really tap his potential as a scorer, but all we have really seen is the same ol' thing for the last two seasons.

His numbers make him one of the more highly sought after players, surely, in this off-season, and some team is likely going to improve upon his $4.175 million cap hit he had last season with the Caps, but I would question whether or not that team is going to get real value for their investment.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $5.5 million

The top rental player possibly available, come July 1st, is defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who the Washington Capitals paid a pretty penny to have come in and help anchor their blueline for a playoff run this spring.  Of course, as we all know, Shattenkirk did not provide the offense that was expected of him, which may or may not have lifted the Capitals past the Penguins in the 2nd round of the playoffs, and here he sits, awaiting his fate in the marketplace.

There is very little doubt that Shattenkirk is a very gifted puck moving defenseman, but his numbers, although trending in the right direction, are not exactly showing that he is among the elite scoring defenders... yet.  He has publicly argued that he needs a spot on a team, where he can have those top minutes and then his numbers should improve, and that is what he'll be looking for in negotiations with teams in this off-season.

His 2017 campaign between St. Louis and Washington saw him score 13 goals and 56 points, which was good enough for 4th among all defensemen in scoring, but he was still 20 points behind Brent Burns and 16 points behind Erik Karlsson for elite scoring numbers.  Vegas would do quite well to have him tapped as a possible UFA to talk to and give him a contract offer, as they don't have any defensemen yet, let alone a stud for Shattenkirk to play behind, and it would give the player the minutes that he needs.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $5.75 million

There are nine pool worthy goaltenders, potentially hitting the free agent market, but Brian Elliott is the last of them to be in the top 10 for scoring among all players.  The goaltending market is going to be a bit crowded and it will be more like a game of musical chairs, before it is all said and done.

Elliott had a pretty rocky start to the 2017 with the Calgary Flames, but his game and his familiarity with his new team came around at the right time and the guy who was signed on to be the number one in Calgary, did just that and helped guide them into the playoffs.  The hard-working style of Elliott is going to make him into one of the more sought-after goalies on the market, if he makes it, but it won't -necessarily mean he's going to get a number one job, unless it is in a city like Buffalo, Vegas or he re-signs in Calgary.

The underappreciated 32-year old keeper doesn't have the flash of some of his fellow crease monkeys, but he can get the job done when called upon.  Elliott was good for 26 wins and 56 points in 49 appearances for the Flames, also dealing with injury and cold spells throughout, which did hinder his numbers, but he still finished 80th overall in pool scoring, 21st among all goalies.

Teams that need goalies, often have the need for a better blueline corps as well, but the Flames were certainly coming around, so I could certainly see him re-sign for a bit more than last season, especially since he finally did come around and feel more comfortable with the team.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $3.5 million

We could be seeing a fair bit of Radim Vrbata on these lists over the next couple of years, as the 36-year old is now getting to the point of his career that it will be a lot of 1-year deals.  Any potential deal that would give him term, would be a risky cloud that overhangs over a team's cap budget, as the 35+ deals are hard to shake, if anything was to happen to his game.

Nevertheless, Vrbata did see a resurgence in his game in the 2017 season, when he rejoined the Coyotes in the off-season, doubling his point total from a year ago and finishing with 20 goals and 55 points in 81 games with the desert dogs.

Arizona has some money to spend and some learning curves to still manage in their lineup, so a return would be most favourable to both player and team, giving them some much needed veteran leadership, as long as the price is right.  Vrbata took a solid pay cut to join the Coyotes last season, only signing for $1 million for the season, but he showed that he still has some game left and could be a serviceable player to any team in the NHL, if used appropriately.

I don't necessarily see him as one of the first players to come off the list on July 1st, but his 20 goals is tied for 5th among UFA's this summer, so he won't be on there too long.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $3 million

The return of Alexander Radulov to the NHL was a much to-do story line, as the Montreal Canadiens were able to sway his services their way, offering up a very significant package for a 1-year deal to see if he could play in the North American style and succeed after his failed attempts in Nashville.  The style and systems that the Canadiens offered up to him were quite beneficial to his game and he was able to make an impact with the club, scoring 18 goals and 54 points in 76 games, good enough for 92nd overall in pool scoring.

Sure, those aren't the kind of numbers that he saw while playing in the KHL, where he was among the league leaders in scoring, but they were impacting numbers in a league that is arguably much tougher to play in.

The negotiations between Radulov and the Habs have been made semi-public, as the 30-year old forward is looking for an extended term on a new deal and his potential cap hit is going to be fairly significant, likely more so than the $5.75 million he had last season.  Although, with Vegas in the picture and the Golden Knights already luring a top end Russian to their side in this off-season already, Montreal may have some real competition in putting pen to paper with this enigmatic player.  Only time will tell.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $6.25 million

Another rental player set to hit the open market in July is forward Patrick Eaves, who split his 2017 season between the Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks.  Eaves was a huge contributor to both teams in the season, but he couldn't carry the Stars to any sort of success, so they dealt him away for futures to help Anaheim move forward in the playoffs.  Unfortunately for the Ducks, injury struck and he was of very little help, even though the team made it all the way to the Conference Finals, eventually losing out to the Predators.

Eaves scored 32 goals in the 2017 season, ranking him just behind Oshie in the category for UFA's, but the 33-year old doesn't quite have the youth behind him like his fellow free agent goal scorer, although it isn't by much.  Eaves finished 113th overall in pool scoring with 51 points in 79 games, so no matter where he lands, he should be good enough to contribute at a reasonable level and if he can see those 2017 numbers again, he could be a great pick-up this summer.

At 33 years old, however, he'll likely be looking for a deal that gives him some security in years and his numbers should dictate a good raise over his $1 million deal from last season, but will a team overpay to get his services?  Probably.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $4 million

The Columbus Blue Jackets took a measured gamble on forward Sam Gagner, giving him a very cheap deal (1 year at $650,000) after a 2016 campaign split between the Flyers and their AHL club and the gamble paid off.  Gagner found a team and a system that he could play in and he became relevant once again at the top level.

Gagner rewarded the Jackets' gamble with 18 goals and 50 points in 81 games, still playing his streaky ways, off and on, but helped the club excel in the Metropolitan Division in the regular season, but he may have disappeared in the playoffs, which isn't too surprising, given his history.

Nevertheless, given that he is on this list, he had himself a pretty good year and if I were him, I wouldn't let it get to his head too much, because it can come and go, just like that for him, as we've seen in the past.  There's lots of talent there, but desire and consistency is one thing he desperately lacks.  I think the Jackets would do well to bring him back, but only at a cost that makes sense to them.  If Gagner is going to take the money and run, it will likely be somewhere else and it would be fair to guess, that it would come with far poorer results.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $2.5 million

There will be lots of eyes on the San Jose Sharks and their potential free agents this summer and with Joe Thornton still being among the top 100 forwards in pool scoring as a 37-year old, he may still have some relevance in the league, of course you will likely be arguing "how much?" throughout the summer.

Thornton only put up 7 goals in the 2017 season and it wasn't until the midway part of the season until he was actually able to score a goal on an actual goaltender, so his playmaking abilities were what kept him afloat in this conversation, as a whole.

The Sharks have been showing that they are moving in a direction of youth over the last couple of seasons, appointing Joe Pavelski as captain and lessening the ice-time of both Thornton and Patrick Marleau, so it is very likely that they won't be interested in signing either of them, if either intend to return for another twirl.

Thornton has yet to win the big prize and a chance to do so would be in his best interest, even if it isn't with the Sharks, who are not that far away.  If I had to guess, I would think that Thornton could be a late summer signing for a competitive team, who is good with taking his leadership on and giving him a limited role for a reasonable dollar, as I just don't see the cap-strapped league giving him big dollars for a large role on a playoff-bound team.

Estimated cap hit for the 2018 season (and beyond): $2 million
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