With the halfway point of the season now behind us and the trade deadline fast approaching, the All-Star break seemed like the perfect time to take a preliminary look at the UFA Class of 2019. Here is the first half of our top-20 rankings, based on votes from writers Gavin Lee, Brian La Rose, Zach Leach and Holger Stolzenberg. We ran spots 11-20 a few days ago, and will publish the honorable mentions tomorrow afternoon.
1. Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks — Karlsson was the unanimous choice for the top spot and it is easy to understand why. Even after an apparent slow start, the 28-year old defenseman is having one of the most dominant seasons of his career and now has 43 points through 47 games with the Sharks. Acquired for a huge package of assets just before the season began, he makes San Jose one of the most dangerous contenders in the quest for the Stanley Cup. Karlsson has been reported to be looking for a deal approaching Drew Doughty’s eight-year, $88MM extension in free agency and could only sign a contract of that length with the Sharks after this season’s trade deadline. If he doesn’t put pen to paper quickly after the deadline passes though, you can bet 30 other teams—well, perhaps not Ottawa—will be drooling over the idea of adding him in the offseason.
2. Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets — Panarin was ranked no lower than fourth by any of the writers, and that is only because of the other incredible talents at the top of the list. The 27-year old winger is a dominant offensive force that ranks seventh in scoring since entering the league in 2015-16. Once believed to be a byproduct of Patrick Kane in Chicago, Panarin has shown that he can be the one driving the offense even while helping along a rookie forward in Pierre-Luc Dubois. Agent Dan Milstein is set to speak with Panarin one final time before letting Columbus know if he’s willing to negotiate an extension with the Blue Jackets, but looks like he’ll remain with the team through the trade deadline regardless. If the Blue Jackets can’t get him to sign, Panarin could very well cause a bidding war in the offseason that results in one of the biggest winger contracts in league history.
3. Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators — The first of several Senators to grace this list, Stone trailed Panarin just barely in our voting for the second spot. That’s a credit to how far his star has risen over the past few seasons, and how well-rounded his game has become. The 26-year old will be one of the younger players to hit free agency this year and will likely do so after a career-high in points. Already sitting with 50 in 50 games, Stone brings more than just offensive production to the table. One of the best two-way wingers in the league, he routinely strips opposing players of the puck and gives the Senators a chance for a counter attack. He has received Selke votes in each of his four full seasons and will undoubtedly do so again this time around. There’s no doubt that the Senators want to keep Stone around and that he’s willing to listen to an extension offer, but the closer it gets to July 1st the more tempting free agency becomes.
4. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres — You can understand why Skinner has publicly stated several times that he would love to stay with the Sabres. All he’s done since arriving in Buffalo is score, notching 30 goals through his first 48 games this season. That’s the fourth time the smooth-skating winger has reached the 30-goal plateau in his career, and a mark that is sure to drive up his price to a point where the Sabres may not be able to accept it. Remember that the team already has Jack Eichel locked in long-term for $10MM per season and could be worried about putting themselves in a situation similar to Edmonton where too much of the cap is tied up in a few players. Kyle Okposo’s deal is already looking troublesome and the team will have work to do on players like Sam Reinhart and Casey Mittelstadt after the 2019-20 season. That’s not to say Buffalo won’t fight to keep him though, as Skinner has been a big part of rejuvenating a frustrated fan base this year.
5. Matt Duchene, Ottawa Senators — You would think a 28-year old center scoring at more than a point-per-game rate in his contract year would rank even higher on this list, but there are likely still concerns about Duchene after his actions the last few years, deserved or not. Forcing a trade out of Colorado hasn’t done him any favors as he found himself on a struggling Ottawa team, but there is nothing wrong with his production since arriving in Canada’s capital. With 47 points in 41 games this season he has a chance to break his previous career-high of 70 points, and almost all of his damage has come at even-strength. Always one of the best in the league in the faceoff dot and a responsible enough player in his own end, you can bet a long-term deal is coming for Duchene. The only question is will he sign it with Ottawa over the next few weeks, or does a team spend big to get him at the deadline and try to extend him before the end of the year.
6. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets — Buyer beware with the first goaltender on our list, as long-term deals for goaltenders over 30 don’t always work out. If there’s a goalie you would want to put your chips on though, Bobrovsky may be it. The Blue Jackets netminder is a two-time Vezina winner who came into this season with a career .920 save percentage and showed his durability with 128 starts over the last two years. This year hasn’t been up to his standards, but there is reason to believe he’ll bounce back in the future. Still, if Bobrovsky is expecting a deal approaching Carey Price’s eight-year, $84MM extension there won’t be a ton of teams lining up for him. Not many can afford to inject that kind of goaltender contract into their salary structure, meaning Bobrovsky will need to find the right fit—or perhaps desperate team—to squeeze that much juice out of his next deal.
7. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks — Just when you think Pavelski might be reaching the age where he starts slowing down, the 34-year old gets off to perhaps the best start of his career. The San Jose captain scored 25 goals in his first 43 games this season and now sits with 45 points through 52 contests. A reliable, versatile forward that can play in basically any situation, Pavelski would also add an incredible amount of leadership and experience to any team in the league. The idea of him leaving San Jose still doesn’t feel right though, especially when you consider GM Doug Wilson’s loyalty to his veteran players in the past. Still, Patrick Marleau left San Jose in the summer of 2017 to chase a Stanley Cup—and $18.75MM—in Toronto and Pavelski would likely draw an even bigger offer from someone around the league. His game won’t last forever, but 194 goals since the start of 2013-14 speaks for itself.
8. Kevin Hayes, New York Rangers — Hayes wants to stay with the Rangers, but the New York front office will have to make a decision on whether he fits into their competitive timeline. If they happen to send him packing at the deadline, you can bet there will be plenty of teams calling. He’s missed time due to injury this season but there is still a very good chance that Hayes ends up with a career-high in points given that he already has 33 through 39 games, and teams are always on the lookout for size up the middle. It’s not that Hayes is a very physical player, but adding a 6’5″ center who can contribute in all situations is basically goal number one for almost any contender. Still, Hayes could very well be a player who gets a little more money than perhaps he deserves, thanks to the huge opportunity he’s had in New York this season during their rebuild.
9. Anders Lee, New York Islanders — Lee arrives on our list in the top-10 given his performance again this season, but it is unlikely that he will actually reach free agency in July. The Islanders have been confident with their approach to an extension with Lee, and felt secure enough to hand him over the captaincy even with just a single year remaining on his current contract. You can bet GM Lou Lamoriello will be putting on the full-court press to get Lee under contract in the coming weeks, but if for some reason the big forward decides to follow John Tavares out the door he’d be a hot commodity. While he might not hit 40 goals this season, there’s still a good chance he will notch his third consecutive 30-goal campaign and with it establish himself as one of the best all-around goal scorers in the league. A big powerplay presence who has demonstrated great leadership in the new-look Islanders locker room, he’s in for a huge raise on the $3.75MM cap hit he’s carrying this year.
10. Tyler Myers, Winnipeg Jets — If it weren’t for Karlsson’s existence at the top of the list, more people might be talking about Myers’ impending free agency. The massive defenseman’s worth is boosted simply by him being right-handed, but he’s also proven to be an effective player for the Jets over the last few years. Though his responsibility and ice time have declined with the emergence of Jacob Trouba, Myers is still young enough—29 in just a few days—to be worth a long-term deal in free agency as a solid top-4 option. The right-handed variety of those get paid big bucks in free agency, making it a tough sell for Winnipeg in a year that they already have so much work to do in the offseason. Simply put, the team likely can’t afford to retain Myers if they plan on extending all of their key restricted free agents, a group that includes Trouba, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. If Karlsson is locked up before free agency starts, you can bet a ton more will be written about Myers and where he could possibly fit in.