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. These rankings are based on votes from writers Gavin Lee, Brian La Rose, Zach Leach and Holger Stolzenberg. We ran the top-10 yesterday, and spots 11-20 a few days ago.
Today, we’ll look at those names that just missed the cut but will still be interesting options this summer. All of these players were included on at least one ballot, but did not accumulate enough points to crack the top 20.
Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers — Included on two of the four ballots and sitting as high as 15th, Zuccarello would probably make it into the top-20 most years. Unfortunately he hasn’t really been able to take advantage of the increased opportunity in New York this season, recording just 24 points in 35 games through the first part of the year. The versatile forward has always been a reliable presence in the Rangers’ attack, but he hasn’t looked the part of a 20-goal scorer for several years and this year has just 13 even-strength points. A foot infection has come at the worst time for both player and team, as Zuccarello was working on a five-game point streak through the middle of January and was improving his trade stock greatly. A strong finish on a playoff contender could certainly help his free agent market.
Alex Edler, Vancouver Canucks — It’s hard to vote for Edler as a free agent, given how adamant both sides have been about the potential of the veteran defenseman ending his career in Vancouver. Still, he made it onto one ballot all the way up at #14 earning him a place on our honorable mentions. The oft-injured Edler has been good again this year when in the lineup, but is about to turn 33 and has been clear about his desire to stay with the Canucks. If they can’t find a middle ground, there will be teams hoping Edler can find a way to stave off his decline a few more years—look for a deal similar to the ones Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley signed in 2017.
Robin Lehner, New York Islanders — 15-7-4, .931 save percentage and a 2.02 goals against average. Still only good enough to get Lehner onto a single ballot. The former Buffalo Sabres starter has turned heads this year, but given that he’s only played in 27 games there should still be plenty of doubt over whether he can handle the load. If Lehner continues to find success down the stretch and leads the Islanders back to the playoffs—and perhaps a series win—someone will find the room to make him a starting goaltender offer in the summer. Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello is notorious for finding a premiere goaltender to start as frequently as possible. Whether he believes Lehner can be that is still to be seen.
Derick Brassard, Pittsburgh Penguins — Hard to believe that last season Brassard was one of the most sought after assets at the trade deadline, and now can’t even get on more than a single ballot. A year in Pittsburgh has not been good for the veteran center, as he has recorded just 27 points in 66 games including a dismal performance in the playoffs. Brassard is obviously not a fit in Pittsburgh, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be interest in him should he reach free agency. The question is how many years is a team willing to offer for a player who will be 32 before the 2019-20 season begins and is likely coming off his worst season in the NHL.
Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings — On just a single ballot, Howard is another player overshadowed by the talent available at his position. A warrior for the Red Wings for parts of the last 13 seasons, it’s hard to imagine that a team will be willing to pay up for a 35-year old goaltender. Re-signing in Detroit as a part-time starter might make the most sense, especially since they obviously value him quite highly. Howard is still playing well enough to take a team to the playoffs, but betting he’ll be able to do that again going forward is a pretty risky gamble.
Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay Lightning — Overlooked for basically his whole career, Stralman was another who received just a single vote. Despite seeming like he’s been in the league for decades, the veteran defenseman won’t turn 33 until August and is still playing excellent hockey for the best team in the NHL. Sure, his game has slowed a bit since he was a 30+ point defenseman, but teams are always looking for right-handed depth on the blue line and Stralman brings over 100 games of playoff experience. If the Lightning can bring home a Stanley Cup it would only further cement his place as a viable free agent option for any contender.
Brandon Pirri, Vegas Golden Knights — It’s not often that a player who has spent much of the season in the minor leagues receives a vote as one of the top free agents, but Pirri has been an unusual case for his entire career. The simple fact is that he can flat out score, has shown by his eight goals and 13 points in 14 games for the Golden Knights this year. No one is going to be handing out a long-term big money deal, but Pirri has done enough work to improve his game away from the puck that there will be interest. That is, if the Golden Knights don’t extend him themselves.