With 2016’s free agency frenzy all but over, it’s high time to start looking at next year’s free agent crop. True, some of the following may sign extensions over the course of the year, but others may want to take advantage of the period before July 1st where players can talk with other teams. Another variable in the mix is the expansion draft, and teams may want to hold off of on signing players until after the draft to maximize protection slots. Here are the first five of our top-ten 2017 UFAs:
Brent Burns is peaking at just the right time. The versatile defenseman scored 27G and 48A in 82 games last season playing over 25 minutes a night. Burns continued his scoring prowess in the playoffs by potting an additional 7G and 17A in the Sharks’ Cup Finals run. It was his best season stat-wise to date, and hockey writers agreed as they placed him 3rd in Norris voting.
Elite defenseman are always a hot commodity in the NHL, and Burns will cash in no matter where he lands. His current expiring contract was a five-year deal worth $5.76MM a year, and he should receive a substantial raise. San Jose understands his value and should lock him up before he reaches free agency, but it is doubtful that Burns takes a hometown discount.
Kevin Shattenkirk is an interesting player to gauge because he plays on a team with two other excellent defenseman: Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. He scored 14G and 30A in 72 games last season and still managed to play over 21 minutes a night. The American defenseman may not receive all the accolades that Pietrangelo does, but Shattenkirk can hold his own. He has been the subject of trade rumors this offseason, so it will not be a surprise if he walks at the end of the season.
Shattenkirk’s last contract was for four years at $4.25MM a year. He’ll likely receive a nice raise as teams are always in the hunt for top-line defensemen. The market for blueliners precipitously drops after the first few names, so teams will be willing to shell out the big bucks to avoid missing out.
Brad Marchand had himself a career year last season, scoring 37G and 24A in 77 games. The Boston Bruins left-winger is looking to build off of that to garner a large contract next off-season, but it might not be with the Bruins. Boston already has four players—Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and David Backes—signed for $6MM and more each. The team may not be able to afford Marchand’s asking price, and signing Backes this summer may have been a backup plan in case they cannot come to terms.
Look for Marchard to receive Milan Lucic money next season somewhere with a more prominent playing role. Marchand’s a gifted scorer with a bulldog demeanor that excites old-school and new-school fans alike. His skills will be in high demand as long as he maintains his current production.
It is unclear whether Thornton will retire after this season, but if he returns his skill set will also be in high demand. The 37 year-old Sharks forward had his best season in years, scoring 19G and 63A while playing all 82 games. He continued to shed his (undeserved) playoff-choker role by potting an additional 3G and 18A in 21 games in the Shark’s Cup Finals run.
Thornton still had gas left in the tank, and any team looking for veteran help and superb playmaking skills would benefit from his presence. The forward is coming off a three-year deal worth $6.75MM a year, and will most likely command similar money for another two or three year deal. Some teams may be wary of Thornton’s age, however, as he is over 35 and any contract he signs remains on the cap if he retires early.
Ben Bishop enters this season as the top goaltender with an expiring contract. The Vezina Trophy runner-up had a 2.06GAA and a .926 SV% in 60 starts last season. He posted 8 wins and 2 losses in the playoffs before suffering a knee injury. That knee injury was key as it allowed Tampa Bay’s backup Andrei Vasilevskiy to shine. The Lightning go forward knowing that if they do not re-sign Bishop, they can rely on Vasilevskiy.
Bishop was also the subject of trade rumors this offseason, including a potential draft-day trade with the Flames. Top-notch goaltending is another hot commodity in the league, so look for Bishop to enter free agency with many suitors. Teams with perennial goaltending woes may overpay for a solid starter to provide stability.