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’ll run numbers 1-10 as well as an honorable mention group early next week.
11. Brock Nelson, New York Islanders — If this list had come out at the end of last season, there would be little chance that Nelson would rank as high as he does now. After posting an extremely disappointing 35-point season in 2017-18, Nelson has come back to life under new head coach Barry Trotz and already has 16 goals and 31 points through 49 games. The big center has seen increased minutes since the departure of John Tavares and is thriving in a two-way role, making him an easy fit for almost any team across the league. Nelson will still be just 27 when the 2019-20 season starts and likely coming off a career year. Like the other Islanders on the list, the team will try to retain his services if possible.
12. Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs — There are few more divisive figures in Toronto than Gardiner, who has drawn boos from the home crowd at times this season because of his high-risk style. Still, the 28-year old defenseman is logging nearly 22 minutes a night and is on pace for another 40-point season. The analytically-minded may point to his excellent possession metrics and say he should be ranked higher on this list, but his defensive ability and handedness may somewhat stifle his market. Still, defensemen are always in demand and he’ll have no trouble finding a multi-year deal if Toronto can’t find room to fit him into their crowded salary structure.
13. Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers — The do-it-all winger is one of the biggest names on the trade market as we approach the deadline, meaning he very well might not make it to free agency if an acquiring team can convince him to stay. Simmonds adds a little bit of everything a team would want, mixing toughness and physicality with real skill around the net and a history of producing on the powerplay. Set to turn 31 before the next season begins and with a lot of miles already on his body, there may be some who are scared off by the dropping point totals the last few years and refuse to give Simmonds a long-term deal.
14. Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings — Just when you thought you had Nyquist figured out as a 40-50 point winger, he breaks out in the first half for Detroit with 43 points in 51 games. On track to blow past his career highs of 36 assists and 54 points, there will be several suitors that believe he can be that missing secondary scoring piece that costs a little less than the top names. Nyquist has always had a ton of skill and ability, but is this season’s performance just a mirage formed by opportunity and lack of playoff expectations?
15. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders — It’s something of the opposite story for Eberle, who has failed this season to meet the lofty totals that he has reached with such consistency in the past. After six consecutive seasons with at least 20 goals (not counting the shortened 2012-13 campaign in which he tallied 16 in just 48 games), Eberle is at risk of not reaching that mark in 2018-19. With just 11 goals and 23 points in the first half, perhaps it is simply a buy-in to the more defensive structure of Trotz’ new-look Islanders. He’ll be 29 next season, but the idea of 30-goal upside and a history of clutch performances will certainly intrigue teams all around the league.
16. Ryan Dzingel, Ottawa Senators — While the Senators have turned into a circus over the last year given all the off-ice incidents, it’s easy to overlook the performances from some of their underrated players. Dzingel is the poster boy for that after a 23-goal season went almost unnoticed last year. This year he’s back at it with a little more fanfare, and now has 20 goals and 38 points through his first 48 games. All eyes are on Mark Stone and Matt Duchene at the trade deadline, but if the Senators don’t get Dzingel under contract he could be a valuable addition for any team. The fact that he’ll only turn 27 in March will be appealing to many teams looking for a cheaper option in the summer, but there’s no doubt Dzingel will get a raise on the $1.8MM cap hit he carries this year.
17. Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche — At the end of the 2014 season, Varlamov looked like he was going to take over the goaltending position in the NHL. He had just finished second in Vezina Trophy voting and fourth for the Hart after going 41-14-6 and posting a .927 save percentage. The Avalanche had certainly found their goaltender—at least so they thought. Since then Varlamov has battled inconsistency and this season has just a .908 save percentage through 31 starts. Colorado has Philipp Grubauer in place and look like they’ll move on, making a soon to be 31-year old Varlamov one of the most interesting names in free agency. Does a team trust him enough to hand over the starting role on a multi-year deal, or will he have to prove himself again in a tandem?
18. Micheal Ferland, Carolina Hurricanes — Ferland had the fortuitous opportunity to get his career on track beside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in Calgary before eventually getting moved to the Hurricanes as part of the blockbuster deal last summer, and now faces some tough questions about his future. It looks like the Hurricanes aren’t going to be able to convince him to stay, meaning he’ll head into free agency as sort of a question mark. Though he has 13 goals on the season, Ferland has tickled the twine just twice in his last 20 games dating back to November and has dealt with concussion issues. While he’s an extremely attractive asset at the deadline because of his low cost, investing big money in him this summer could be dangerous despite his relative youth.
19. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild — It may say 34 years old on Staal’s birth certificate, but he hasn’t played like a declining asset since arriving in Minnesota. The long-time Carolina captain scored 65 and 76 points in his first two years with the Wild and is on pace for another 60-point performance this season. That kind of production from a center long known for his capable defensive play is extremely valuable, though his age will obvious cause teams to pause before handing out the dough. Another trade deadline candidate if the Wild fall out of the playoffs, he’ll have to perform better down the stretch than he did for the New York Rangers in 2016 if he wants to secure one last big payday.
20. Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks — It’s been a tough year for almost every Ducks forward and Silfverberg is no exception. With just 19 points through his first 42 games and now dealing with an injury, there’s a chance he may post his lowest point total since 2013-14 when he played just 52 games. Still, a winger that earns Selke votes every season and can chip in around 20 goals isn’t worth nothing and there should be plenty of interested parties come July 1st. A strong second half by the Ducks or a new address at the trade deadline could really give Silfverberg’s market a boost, especially given his history as an excellent playoff performer.