Unlike the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos saga of this past summer, the San Jose Sharks have spared hockey fans the drama and re-signed the top free agent on the market well before the trade rumors or free agency speculation could begin. Brent Burns inked an eight-year, $64MM extension earlier today, removing one of hockey’s most dynamic players from play next summer. So where does that leave the rest of the market?
With the Las Vegas expansion team joining the NHL this year by way of an expansion draft and some special free agency privileges, the 2017 off-season was already shaping up to be unique and unpredictable. However, the one constant that many agreed upon was that if Burns hit the open market, he would be the most sought after player this summer. The Sharks put an end to that potential narrative early on and what’s left is a free agent market filled with mostly question marks.
Regardless of Burns availability, the forward market was already lacking in excitement. Burns’ San Jose teammates Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are likely the biggest names available, but both are way past their prime at 37 years old. Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla qualify for the “future Hall of Famer with little upside” group as well, and Patrick Sharp and Radim Vrbata may as well join the old-timers too. With Burns gone, is it possible that T.J. Oshie is now up for best player available?
Perhaps goalie Ben Bishop now claims the title of top free agent. He was the only one who could realistically give Burns a run for his money, and now faces little competition. The 30-year-old Tampa Bay keeper is set to hit free agency with his team seemingly committed to the young Andrei Vasilevskiy. With one less player out there to command a top contract, Bishop will now likely cash in with a deal close to the $8.5MM yearly pact given by the New York Rangers to Henrik Lundqvist. Without another all-world player like Burns available for teams to weigh against Bishop, expect him to be signed early, leaving money and interest open for the likes of Brian Elliott, Thomas Greiss, Steve Mason and potentially this season’s early surprise star, Peter Budaj.
Where the Burns signing really makes an impact is among the free agent defenseman. Suddenly Kevin Shattenkirk has been thrust into the position of best available blue liner and will be able to command whatever salary he likes. However, reports this past summer indicated that Shattenkirk only had eyes for the Eastern Conference, specifically Boston and New York. So where do the other 28 teams look? Like the majority of big-name forwards, Andrei Markov presents limited upside at 37 years old, and Mark Streit even more so at 38. Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, Ron Hainsey: same thing. Burns absence from open competition is likely to instead benefit some younger defenseman who have yet to establish themselves as bona-fide top pair guys. Dmitry Kulikov, who was traded from Florida to Buffalo this summer, has yet to score a point for his new team but may just end up being the most sought-after defenseman. Injury-prone risk/reward players like Michael Del Zotto and Michael Stone will also draw more interest. Even players who have struggled for a couple seasons now, like Dennis Wideman or Cody Franson, could be in a position for a pay day this summer.
What it boils down to is this: take a weak free agent market and remove it’s best player and things are likely to get messy. With the expansion process removing talent from every NHL roster, the 2017 off-season will be one where nearly every team has a need to address. The re-signing of Brent Burns just changed the free agency market dynamics completely and teams will likely be scrambling to make additions (with several overvalued contracts guaranteed). With a dearth of talent available to sign, there will likely be an active trade market this summer as well. This off-season was already going to be crazy, but the San Jose Sharks just took it to the next level with their massive extension for the best impending free agent.