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Breaking Down the NHL’s Top 10 Unrestricted Free Agents

Top 10 Unrestricted NHL Free Agents - Sergei Bobrovsky, Erik Karlsson and Artemi Panarin

The calendar has flipped to June, and despite the offseason right around the corner, June happens to be one of the busiest off-ice NHL months of the season.

Once the Stanley Cup Final is complete, the NHL Entry Draft follows on June 21st from Vancouver before the free agent frenzy begins on July 1st. The NHL has added a June 23rd negotiation window where every unrestricted free agent come July 1st can meet with potential suitors so the two sides can gauge what it may take to sign that player once the signing window opens on July 1st.

With that, there are some interesting names on the pending unrestricted free agent list here in 2019.

Let’s take a look at some of the top names as well as what they bring to the table before listing some potential suitors for that player’s services come on the first of July.

1. Artemi Panarin – LW

  • 2018-19 Team: Columbus Blue Jackets
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $6M

Teams looking for an impact offensive upgrade won’t do any better than Panarin who is all but certain to move on from the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency this summer.

Panarin is coming off his second consecutive 80-point season with his 87 from last season representing a career-high for the 27-year-old Russian.

Many thought Panarin’s offense would decline some after spending the first two seasons of his NHL career playing on a line with Patrick Kane in Chicago and tallying 151 points through 162 games as a Blackhawk in the process.

Panarin put that notion to rest in his two-year Blue Jackets tenure as he posted 169 points in 160 games as a Blue Jacket and added another 11 points in 10 postseason games this spring.

There’s little doubt that Panarin will get much more than the $6M cap hit he played for last season, likely in the $8M range over a long-term deal in the six-year range. At 27, he’s still young enough where such a deal would take him right through his prime and likely set him up for another sizeable contract by the time he turns 33.

There will be countless teams in on the winger as offense is at a premium while players producing at a point-per-game clip certainly hold a ton of value in today’s game.

Potential Suitors: Stars, Devils, Avalanche, Flyers, Rangers, Islanders

2. Erik Karlsson – D

  • 2018-19 Team: San Jose Sharks
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $6.5M

It’s been an eventful calendar year for Karlsson as his long-awaited departure from the Ottawa Senators finally came to fruition in September just prior to the opening of the 2018-19 season.

Since then, he initially struggled to find his game in his new digs in San Jose, went on a record-breaking assist binge in the middle of the season, missed 27 games late in the season with a groin injury, returned to play a key role in the Sharks’ march to the Western Conference Final and just underwent offseason surgery to repair said groin issue.

Now, Karlsson is a free man and will get his choice of destination, but he may be going closer to home than once thought. Apparently, Karlsson is looking to return north of the border to perhaps the Montreal Canadiens or even return to the Ottawa Senators as his wife is from the Montreal/Ottawa area and wants to remain close to family.

It would certainly be an interesting turn of events to see Karlsson return to where it all began considering all the hoopla surrounding his final months as a Senator.

Nonetheless:

Whoever gets the 10-year veteran would be getting the best offensive defensemen on the market, one that has seen him produce at or near a point-per-game pace for each of the last eight seasons.

His best season came back in the 2015-16 campaign where he notched 82 points in as many games and he’s a proven playoff performer with 16 points over 19 games this spring and 53 points in 67 career postseason contests.

The groin injury will be of concern to some clubs, however, there’s plenty of reason to believe Karlsson is in line for a deal hovering around the $10M mark on a five or six-year term.

Potential Suitors: Canadiens, Senators, Rangers, Islanders, Sabres

3. Sergei Bobrovsky – G

  • 2018-19 Team: Columbus Blue Jackets
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $7.43M

Without question the best goaltender on the market, Bobrovsky is set to become an even wealthier man before too long.

He endured a rocky final season with the Blue Jackets – both on and off the ice – as his .913 Sv% from this past regular season was the lowest since the 2015-16 campaign while he was even disciplined by the team and sat out a January game as a result.

However, this is a goaltender with a strong resume. He owns a career 2.46 goals-against average and .919 Sv% and is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, once in the 2012-13 season and again in the 2016-17 campaign.

Also fresh in the minds of potential suitors is the 2.41 GAA and .925 Sc% he put together in the postseason this spring – something that could certainly help his next contact as he had previously struggled in the playoffs, posting a 3.14 GAA and .902 Sv% in his playoff career.

All that said, it’s quite possible Bobrovsky’s free agent destination is already known. The Florida Panthers are likely to make a huge bid for the Russian’s services and are apparently set to pay him money in the $8-$10M range on a long-term deal – a dicey investment for a goaltender to be sure.

Nonetheless, teams with goaltending needs will make their pitches as well.

Potential Suitors: Panthers, Islanders, Devils, Sabres, Hurricanes, Sharks, Flames

4. Matt Duchene – C

  • 2018-19 Team: Ottawa Senators / Columbus Blue Jackets
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $6M

The top center on the market, Duchene has quite the interesting season as well.

He began the season posting career-best numbers with the Ottawa Senators – 58 points in 50 games – before being dealt with the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s all-in bid at the trade deadline.

Duchene initially struggled in Columbus, posting just 12 points in 23 regular season games before starring in the playoffs. Duchene racked up five goals in 10 points in as many postseason contests this spring, just his third visit to the postseason and first since the 2013-14 season while with the Avalanche.

Point-producing centermen that can play up and down the lineup while helping a power play are going to get paid big dollars in this league. Duchene certainly fits that bill, although he’d likely slot in as a number two center, or a 1B on most contenders’ depth charts.

I don’t expect Duchene to blow past the $6M cap hit he made on his previous deal as he’s a very good, but not elite point producer and has never eclipsed a point-per-game clip in his 10-year career. In total, he has notched 547 regular season points in 727 games, good for a 0.75 points per game, although his point-per-game clip this spring could help.

I’d expect a contract in the $7-$8M range on a term exceeding five years for the 28-year-old pivot.

Potential Suitors: Blue Jackets, Devils, Sabres, Hurricanes, Stars, Canadiens

5. Jeff Skinner – LW

  • 2018-19 Team: Buffalo Sabres
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $5.75M

Skinner certainly picked a good year to set a new career-high in goals with 40 as he skated alongside Jack Eichel on a productive Sabres top line.

That said, Skinner’s production has been anything but consistent in his career.

Skinner scored 31 as a rookie, and just 20 as a sophomore. He scored 33 in the 2013-14 season but followed that up with just 18 the next season. He would go to set a new career-high with a 37-goal season in the 2016-17 campaign but followed that up with just 24 goals in his final season in Carolina.

Skating with Eichel no doubt allowed Skinner to break out last season, but teams are certainly wary about his up-and-down production in his career. It would appear he would need the right center to allow him space and time to use his shot to produce offense.

If I were a courting GM, I would expect somewhere in the range of 30-33 goals from the 27-year-old, a nice total to be sure. I would keep in mind he scored 40 on a career-high 14.9% shooting percentage last season

Skinner is certainly getting a raise on the $5.75M cap hit he incurred in his last deal, and 30-goal scorers are getting paid handsomely these days. Of the players so far on this list, I would expect Skinner to get the shortest term on his deal, perhaps somewhere in the 3-5 year range at a cap hit around $7M annually.

Potential Suitors: Sabres, Devils, Oilers, Canucks, Islanders, Stars

6. Anders Lee – LW

  • 2018-19 Team: New York Islanders
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $3.75M

Lee has been one of the biggest bargains in hockey over the last three seasons as he’s scored 102 goals in that time including 40 in the 2017-18 season. Only 12 players have scored more goals than Lee over the last three seasons, most of which are making more than twice what Lee has pulled in over that time.

Lee scored 28 goals last season, his fewest since the 2015-16 season, however, that was certainly due to a new philosophy instilled by Barry Trotz where the offense wasn’t the only priority as it appeared to be in recent seasons.

Still, he’s one of the best net-front presence players in the game today and his 33 power play goals over the last three seasons ranks 10th in the league, just one goal behind the likes of Tyler Seguin and Evgeni Malkin.

As a power forward who can score, help a power play and possess strong leadership qualities, Lee will be in high demand come July 1st. I would rule out a reunion with the Islanders, however, as it appears they have both the cap space and despite to keep last season’s captain around for the long haul. Lee has also made off-ice roots in that community and it would frankly be awkward to see him in another jersey next season.

However, crazier things have happened, but considering his goal-scoring ways in recent years, Lee should have no problem netting $7M annually on a deal of at least five years in length.

Potential Suitors: Islanders, Stars, Flyers, Sabres, Oilers, Devils, Penguins

7. Tyler Myers – RD

  • 2018-19 Team: Winnipeg Jets
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $5.5M

Myers is going to have a long list of suitors as he posses plenty of qualities than front offices across the league highly value.

He’s big at 6’8”, he’s a right-hand shot, he chips in offensively, he’s strong defensively, he’s still just 29 years old – prime years for a defenseman – and he has plenty of experience under his belt including postseason experience.

Myers notched 31 points last season and was a +11, the second straight year he posted at least 31 points after tallying 36 the prior year. That’s solid production from second-pair blueliner who can log between 20 and 23 minutes a night.

Myers has 39 games of playoff hockey under his belt in his 10-year career including 22 games over the last two seasons while with the Jets.

Winnipeg would surely like to bring him back, but he may be price out of their range. Considering the trade rumors swirling around Jacob Trouba, they may have to spend uncomfortably to keep the right side of their defense in check.

That said, they may very well be outbid by suitors with more cap space at their disposal. Myers is almost surely going to get north of $6M on his next deal, not a huge raise from his previous contract but six years at $6M annually seems like a reasonable deal for the 29-year-old blueliner.

Potential Suitors: Jets, Sabres, Blackhawks, Canucks

8. Joe Pavelski – C/RW

  • 2018-19 Team: San Jose Sharks
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $6M

After a down 2017-18 season when he scored just 22 goals, Pavelski bounced back with 38 last season at the age of 34. He’s most productive when used on the wing as his down season two years ago came when he played most of his games at the center with Joe Thornton down with a season-ending knee injury.

Talk about having trouble seeing a player in another jersey, it’s hard to imagine Pavelski landing anywhere but San Jose. With Joe Thornton’s future up in the air coming off a Conference Final appearance, I really wonder if Pavelski will take Thornton’s decision into consideration of his own free agent decision. If Thornton decides to retire, I bet the chances increase that Pavelski moves on from the Sharks.

Nonetheless, we’re talking about a very productive player despite the advanced age. He’s scored at least 37 goals in four of the last six seasons and at least 29 in five of the six. He’s tallied at least 64 points in all six of those years.

Now, his 38 goals from last season came with a sky-high 20.2% shooting percentage, so we should probably view him as more of a 28-32 goal man moving forward than the 40-goal guy he was a season ago.

He showed plenty of strength and resilience in the postseason where he scored four goals and nine points in 10 games. He’s always been a potent playoff producer with 48 goals and 100 points in 134 career playoff games.

The length of contract is likely going to be in the three-year range, although if his market gets hot it may cost teams a fourth year which would take him through his age 38 season as he turns 35 shortly after free agency opens.

I would expect the dollars to be somewhere in the $5-6M range with a four-year, $20M contract likely getting the job done.

Potential Suitors: Sharks, Stars, Avalanche, Blues, Bruins

9. Mats Zuccarello – RW

  • 2018-19 Team: New York Rangers / Dallas Stars
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $4.5M

Zuccarello was a trade deadline acquisition of the Stars and he proved to be a fruitful one.

He was injured in the first game of his Stars tenure but had three points in two regular season games in Dallas before going on to record an impressive 11 points in 13 postseason games – a happening that certainly helps his cause in the free agent market.

Teams in need of a reliable playmaker up front will have an interest. He has recorded at least 34 assists in each of his last five fully healthy seasons and tallied 28 helpers in just 48 regular season games last year as he actually had his best point-per-game clip of his career last season with a 0.83 mark.

Please Note:

He can put the puck in the net, scoring at least 15 goals in each of his last five fully healthy seasons and he was in pace to blow past that mark last season. However, he’s cracked the 20-goal barrier just once and is firmly entrenched as a play-making right winger.

At 31 years old he isn’t the youngest player on the market, but Zuc has plenty of steam left and he showed that last season.

I can see Zuccarello l landing at least a four-year deal and quite possibly a five-year contract for at least $5M. He picked a good season to post career-high averages and he will be rewarded as such.

However, his contract value will be capped as he’s not a goal-scorer. Playmakers just don’t get paid the same as goal-scorers do and the fact that Zuccarello has eclipsed 60 points just once in five full NHL seasons will limit his value.

Still, perhaps a contract at $5M for five years gets it done, and maybe he slides closer to $5.5M thanks to his excellent season and postseason this spring.

Potential Suitors: Stars, Blue Jackets, Penguins, Islanders, Devils, Sabres

10. Marcus Johansson – RW/LW

  • 2018-19 Team: New Jersey Devils / Boston Bruins
  • 2018-19 Cap Hit: $4.58M

There might not be a player on this list that has increased his free agent value more over the last few months than Johansson who has played a pivotal role for the Bruins in these playoffs.

Johansson has teamed up with fellow trade deadline acquisition Charlie Coyle on the Bruins’ third line to post 11 points in 19 playoff games, but he’s been extremely clutch as well.

At his best, Johansson is a roughly 50-55 point player who can play on a top power-play unit and certainly a second group. He’s topped out at 58 points while with the Capitals in the 2016-17 season, but on the back of 19 power play points with Ovi and company. Still, Johansson did well to tally 27 points in 48  games on an anemic New Jersey offense last season.

One thing perhaps diminishing his free agent value is the fact he’s suffered a couple of concussions that have cost him time over the last two seasons. Current teammate Brad Marchand was the reason Johansson played in just 29 games in the 2017-18 season and a second concussion sustained this past season held him to just 58 games between the Devils and Bruins.

At 28, he’s young enough where he should be able to land a medium-term deal in the 3-4 year range, perhaps for a similar hap hit to the $4.5M-ish he made on his recent deal. He’s hovered around 45 points a season for most of his career and the dual concussions won’t help, but there should certainly still be a market for the nine-year veteran.

Potential Suitors: Capitals, Devils, Hurricanes, Avalanche, Blues, Stars

Author Details
Brenton Kemp

Brenton is a lifelong sports fan who resides in Ontario, Canada. Brenton is a fan of most all sports but specializes in hockey, baseball, football, basketball, and golf. He’s a fierce researcher with a strong appetite to deliver accurate and relevant facts that in turn have led to past success with picks and DFS advice across the board. Brenton’s biggest goal is to deliver readers with the picks and advice that can build their bankroll. He takes great pride in his success and loves nothing more than to share that success for the benefit of everyone involved.

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