With the halfway point of the season now behind us and the trade deadline fast approaching, it’s time to take a preliminary look at the UFA Class of 2018. Here is the first half of our top-20 rankings, based on votes from writers Gavin Lee, Brian La Rose, Nate Brown, Zach Leach and Holger Stolzenberg. We ran numbers 11-20 yesterday, and will release an honorable mention group tomorrow.
1. John Tavares, C, New York Islanders — There was never any doubt that Tavares would hold the top spot on this list, and he was ranked #1 on all five ballots. The superstar Islanders center will only be 27 on July 1st, and could challenge Connor McDavid for the largest cap hit in the league if a bidding war starts over his services. Even with all of his career success, Tavares may have not experienced a season quite like this one, as he is currently tied for second in league scoring with 54 points in 46 games. There is very little negative that can be said about him, and teams could legitimately change their franchise direction by landing the biggest fish on the market.
2. John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals — Though it’s a steep drop off after Tavares, Carlson is an elite free agent in his own right. It’s rare that a defender of his caliber hits the open market, and the fact that he only just turned 28 makes him a target for 31 teams in the NHL. Logging more than 26 minutes a night this season on a depleted Washington blueline, Carlson trails only John Klingberg in terms of scoring from defensemen with 35 points through 45 games. Though it’ll be a tough case to make at the end of the season, Carlson should get some Norris consideration and could land a huge long-term contract.
3. Evander Kane, F, Buffalo Sabres — Everyone’s favorite trade rumor is headed to free agency after the season, as the Sabres haven’t even approached him to discuss an extension. Unless he’s so enamored with his next team and signs a contract right away, he should be able to pick a landing spot from a dozen or more suitors in the offseason. How many years teams will offer him has been disputed at times, but at just 26 he’s one of the youngest free agents to hit the market and should provide several years of prime performance.
4. James van Riemsdyk, F, Toronto Maple Leafs — van Riemsdyk doesn’t carry the puck a ton, and doesn’t often score from far out, but might be the most dangerous scorer in the league within five feet of the net. He’s well on his way to another 30 goal season this year, even while playing the fewest average minutes since he was 21. Expected to ask for something around $36MM over six years, there will be no shortage of teams looking to add him to their powerplay.
5. James Neal, F, Vegas Golden Knights — Before this season, free agency or even the expansion draft, we looked at Neal’s incomparable consistency and how he was headed for a big contract on the open market. He’s never recorded fewer than 21 goals in a season, and already has 18 this year. Obviously a huge part of what the Vegas Golden Knights have done to start their franchise history, they’ll try to retain him on a reasonable deal. If they can’t, he might just end up scoring 20 for his fifth organization in 2018-19.
6. Josh Bailey, F, New York Islanders — It’s not just Tavares that the Islanders have to worry about leaving this summer, but Bailey (and de Haan below) too. He and Anders Lee have formed the perfect wing pair for Tavares this season, and Bailey is going to blow his career-high in points—set only last season—out of the water just at the right time. He’s 28, has 50 points in 42 games and is a lethal powerplay setup man. Who doesn’t want to add that on the open market?
7. Mikael Backlund, C, Calgary Flames — Maybe underrated because of his personality and lack of flash on the ice, Backlund is nevertheless one of the most valuable assets available this summer. Soon to be 29, he’s coming off back-to-back 20-goal seasons and is a legitimate long-term center option. Centers with 50-point upside and responsible defensive ability don’t hit the market that often, and Backlund should be able to cash in because of it.
8. Paul Stastny, C, St. Louis Blues — Speaking of centers, Stastny is in good position to cash in on one last multi-year contract. The 32-year old is still logging big minutes for the St. Louis Blues, and though he may not be the 70-point man of his youth is still an effective weapon at both ends of the rink. A decline is coming, but with 33 points through 47 games this season including 20 even-strength assists, he will still be able to command an audience on the first day of free agency.
9. Calvin de Haan, D, New York Islanders — That’s right, the third Islanders player in the top 10 is de Haan, who has steadily developed into an excellent all-around defenseman. While he doesn’t have the offensive upside of Carlson, his youth—he’ll turn 27 in May—and ability to plug into a top-4 will still have teams knocking down his door. Our writers had him placed everywhere from #7 to #16, but no one disagrees he’ll have plenty of options on the open market.
10. Mike Green, D, Detroit Red Wings — There was a time, nearly a decade ago, when Green was the shining example of an offensive defenseman. Two years in a row, starting in 2009, he finished second in Norris voting behind a more well-rounded player—first to Duncan Keith, then Zdeno Chara—despite point totals in the seventies. In 2008-09 he even recorded 31 goals, the highest total from a defenseman since Kevin Hatcher in 1992-93, and unmatched in the years since. At 32 years old he won’t be putting up 70 point seasons anymore, but is still an excellent puck mover and can quarterback a powerplay. He’ll likely be one of the stars of the trade deadline and free agent day.