Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Top 10 Potential Pool Worthy Unrestricted Free Agents

Now that we've finally made it to the summer, we can finally start talking about free agency and what an amazing class we're going to have this year... okay, amazing is selling it a little too high.  No, it is going to be a very interesting group of players, especially the ones noted here, the top 10 pool worthy players, in order of their scoring numbers.

Last year, the biggest interest was going to be in what the Vegas Golden Knights were going to do in their first free agency period and they did some, but this year, there are a couple of Knights on the list of potential free agent list and they could be playing a role in how the summer shakes out for a number of teams.

In total, there are 30 unrestricted free agents, who finished in the pool worthiness conversation, which is the top 200 forwards, top 100 defensemen and top 50 goalies.  These will be the headlining players, when we head to the free agent frenzy in July.  For now, we'll look at the top 10 from those 30 players and maybe we'll offer some predictions.

There's no bigger prize heading to free agency right now, than John Tavares of the New York Islanders.  The Islanders do have a few weeks to try and nail down their franchise player, but as we inch closer and closer to July 1st, the hope for re-signing him to a long-term contract shrinks considerably.

With 37 goals and 84 points in 82 games for the Islanders last season, he's far and away the top player on this list and teams are going to line up to talk to Tavares, hoping to lock him down and build a contender around him.

Tavares is now 27 years old and 1st overall pick in 2009 has offered up some of his best years already to the Islanders, but I would say that there is more to come from him, given a better opportunity and since he hasn't re-signed yet, he might be thinking the same.

How does one get Tavares?  We're looking at long-term, eight years, likely in the $8.5 million range, Steven Stamkos money.  There are lots of teams that could potentially fit him in, but the Islanders re-signing him is still a possibility, while the Maple Leafs might kick the tires, as well as the Rangers, Red Wings and maybe even the Golden Knights.  Where he signs is anyone's guess.

There's no better add to one's resume than a Stanley Cup, especially at the time of free agency.  The NHL's top scoring defenseman, John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, will qualify for unrestricted free agency and if you read yesterday's Pool Outlook for Washington, it would have been hard not to notice how important he is and how unlikely it will be for the Capitals to re-sign him, given their current cap situation.

The 28-year old defender finished 2018 in 49th overall in pool scoring, scoring 15 goals and 68 points in all 82 games, in somewhat of a down year for defensemen scoring.  Carlson is a quarterback on the power play and has turned into a very dependable player in his own end as well, so he will be commanding some top dollars.

What are we expecting to see for Carlson this summer?  This will be another long-term deal and he has an argument to be paid among the best defensemen in the league, really setting the table for some of the other big ticket contract extensions, which we could see soon.  Eight years will be a must and he'll hover around Victor Hedman or Brent Burns money, $7.875 million (Hedman) or more.  This will be hard for the Capitals to stomach, if they can, so I can see him hitting the market in July.

The first of the darlings from Las Vegas is forward David Perron, who had a bit of a resurgence under the bright lights and the theatrics of Sin City.  Perron was a solid influence on the young team, as they shocked everyone in the hockey world, making it to the Stanley Cup Finals.  Perron wasn't healthy through the entire playoff stretch, even found his way up to the press box as a healthy scratch too, but when we look at his numbers from the regular season, he's certainly worthy of being on this list.

The 30-year old forward finished the season with 16 goals and 66 points in only 70 games, good enough for 59th overall in hockey pool scoring.  That will likely mean that he is up for a decent raise from his $3.75 million that he counted against the cap last season.

Given his age, a long-term deal will only likely last four or five years, which isn't too bad, but the money will be a tough negotiation, unless someone sees some real potential to keep those scoring numbers up.  I could see his total hit $5 million per season on a new deal, but anything more is a real gamble.  Vegas would do well to re-sign Perron, possibly getting a discount to do so, but there will be teams looking to boost their offense and Perron could be that guy.

Thomas Vanek has been fairly well-traveled in the last few years and when the Vancouver Canucks signed him to a 1-year deal last summer, he was offered some pretty good minutes to play and he did well with them.  The Canucks were able to sell him at the trade deadline, offering him up to the Columbus Blue Jackets, where they were hoping that he would come in and help them into the promised land.  Sadly, Vanek wasn't enough and the Jackets couldn't get out of the opening round.  Still, Vanek's numbers were good and here he is on the list.

Vanek finished 103rd overall in hockey pool scoring, scoring 24 goals and 56 points in 80 games between Vancouver and Columbus, improving upon his 2017 numbers and now the 34-year old should have a reasonable lineup of teams to talk to him about a new deal.

The expectation here will be another 1-year deal, but a team could swoop in with a 2-year contract, trying to squeeze whatever offense he has left to give.  Last year's deal was in the $2 million range and I could see a team give him a slight raise for a 1-year deal or about the same for a 2-year pact.  It will be all about the opportunity to win, in a best-case scenario, but we'll have to see what's out there for him.

The youth movement in Toronto is going to start costing a whole lot more money in the next year or two, so it comes as no surprise that the Maple Leafs are going to be parting ways with 29-year old forward James Van Riemsdyk.  The gritty forward has been a decent goal scorer in recent years and he'll bring a great net-front presence to any team in need of one, but it will certainly come at a cost.

It wasn't Van Riemsdyk's best season in recent memory, but 36 goals and 54 points in 81 games isn't anything to sneeze at, especially that goal total.  He was good enough for 113th in pool scoring overall, 82nd among all forwards and if he was to find a really good fit, that total could bump back up to 60 or more points.

I think the competition for a goal scorer like Van Riemsdyk could make for an interesting bidding war, which could land him a pretty solid (and overly expensive) deal.  The team that takes him on will probably throw both term and cap space at him and he's the kind of guy that a team will overspend on.  Seven years?  $6.5 million per?  I'm not sure that I'd pay that much, but someone might.

Another one of those rental players at the deadline, the Winnipeg Jets got a really good stretch out of Paul Stastny in the 2018 season, after acquiring him from the St. Louis Blues.  Stastny had a monster cap hit in the 2018 season, but the Jets had just enough room to sneak him in and he nearly fit the bill to its entirety, helping the Jets to the Western Conference Finals, but that was all.  He's still a very serviceable offensive option, but he still hasn't done enough to lift a team above and beyond yet.

Between St. Louis and Winnipeg, Stastny played in all 82 games, scoring 16 goals and 53 points, which was good enough for 118th overall in pool scoring, 86th among all forwards.  That isn't quite good enough for his $7 million cap hit last season, so he might have to swallow some pride and take a close listen to all the offers that he'll receive in this off-season.

Stastny is already 32 years old, which means that the offers could be in a wide array of possibilities.  A short-term richer deal, all the way to a 4-year deal, which could be a little easier to stomach in the cap hit department, maybe the $4.5 million range.  It's not going to be a bad deal, but he's not a $7 million man anymore.

The 2018 season wasn't supposed to feature nearly as much of Cam Ward in Carolina as it did, but Scott Darling didn't have the year that the team's management was hoping for, when they signed Darling to a new starter's deal.  No, Ward had to come in and try and salvage what he could of this season and that gave him some pretty decent numbers for the end of the year and it gave him inclusion to this list.

The 34-year old keeper is the top goalie on the list, having appeared in 43 games last season, winning 23 and collecting 50 points in total.  He was the 24th ranked goalie on the overall list, but I'm sure there are still plenty of questions out there about what he has left to give.

There are not a lot of teams in need of more goaltending, but teams like Buffalo, Chicago or Long Island could take a chance on a guy like Ward, especially on a short-term, 1-year deal.  All three of those teams have plenty of question marks about how they'll proceed with their crease workers, so a $2 million deal to Ward could at least bridge the gap, before they find someone who can take the crease for the long-term.

The cap hit that James Neal had in 2018 made him a keen candidate for poaching by the Vegas Golden Knights at the expansion draft last year, as the Nashville Predators were growing faster than what that lump of salary could allow for, so off he went.  The Golden Knights made very good use of the 30-year old and he was a great leader for this young team and he was able to put up some decent numbers at the same time.

Neal potted 25 goals and 44 points in 71 games for the expansion club and was very helpful in the playoffs, as the Golden Knights made it all the way to the Finals. 

Vegas still has plenty of salary cap room at the start of this off-season and trying to convince Neal to stay could be one of their top priorities, but what they offer him to stay may not be what he could get on the open market.  I'm sure Neal has moved more than enough times in his career, so term will likely be very important, getting to that 5-year range, possibly still in the $5 million range as well.  That might be a bit steep for the Golden Knights, but that could be what he lands for before the end of the summer.  The guy knows how to win, so he's got that working for him.

The third trade deadline rental player on the market is rugged forward Patrick Maroon, who was shipped out of Edmonton to head to New Jersey and join the refreshed Devils.  Maroon really cut his teeth with the Ducks, on a pretty good team, but when he arrived in Edmonton, he really couldn't translate his game to the fast pace that the Oilers were playing with, so he was a good candidate for a move at the deadline this year.  With the Devils, he didn't add much of an added dimension, especially in the playoffs, so the free agent market seems very likely for him in a few weeks.

It wasn't like Maroon had a bad year, he's on this list, right?  The 30-year old finished with 17 goals and 43 points in 74 games between Edmonton and New Jersey, which is still alright.  He will have to find a team that suits his style of play, which could be difficult in the NHL, which has really moved to a speed game.

I don't think Maroon has the legs to stand on, when it comes to looking for a long-term deal, so I'm thinking that if he can get himself a new deal, it may only top out at two years, still down around the $2 million range. 

Much like Van Riemsdyk above, Tyler Bozak is also getting squeezed out of the picture in Toronto, especially as a guy that carried a cap hit north of $4 million last season and the production and ice-time has really started to fall off.  The 32-year old Bozak isn't going to be a part of the youth movement and a trip to the open market seems exceptionally likely in July.

Bozak finished with 11 goals and 43 points in 81 games this season, down from a 55-point season the year before, but it was still good enough for 140th among all forwards.  With the youth movement in Toronto already taking away his ice-time, it would be very interesting to see what he could do on a team that offers him some 2nd line minutes.

Given his age, it will be a shorter-term deal that gets the pen to paper on his new deal and it could possibly pay him back in the $3.5 to $4 million range.  Since there are limited options out there on the open market, Bozak ends up being one of the top forwards to land and someone is bound to give him a good deal.
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