A week into free agency, the vast majority of PHR’s Top 50 Unrestricted Free Agents are under contract. Unsurprisingly, many of those left unsigned are on the wrong side of 30 or even at or approaching 40. Veterans tend to be later additions in free agency, as teams aren’t rushing to sign them to long-term deals to be core pieces, but rather seek to use them to plug holes in the lineup after the fact. As of now, there are nine names in the Top 50 that are legitimate candidates for retirement. Some have offers on the table and are taking their time to make a decision, while other may not have much of a market and could have to choose between a PTO or calling it a career. How many will choose retirement this summer?
Justin Williams, 37, enjoyed a tremendous 53-point season with the Carolina Hurricanes this past season and looked far from done. GM Don Waddell hinted that the captain will return next season, but until pen meets paper it remains a question mark. Williams was a key piece of the Hurricanes’ run to the Eastern Conference Final last season and would be a major loss for the team. However, he could opt to go out on top as a player who has seen very little drop-off in production through his 30’s and hit his highest point total since 2011-12 last season. Williams can still play, but the question is whether he wants to.
Joe Thornton, 40, not only wants to play next season, but wants to play several more years. The future Hall of Famer has already had an illustrious career, but has yet to win that elusive Stanley Cup. Thornton would like to return to the San Jose Sharks, one of only two teams he’s played for in his 21-year career, and the Sharks should be able to find the space to bring him back after moving out salary via trade and free agency departures. However, Thornton’s asking price will play a part – he did top 50 points again last season – as will the Sharks’ interest in bringing back another retirement threat. Patrick Marleau, 39, left San Jose two years ago to join the Toronto Maple Leafs, but has since been bought out and all signs point to a desire to return to the Sharks. These two legendary Sharks are both capable of continuing their NHL careers, but can San Jose fit them both and are either willing to sign elsewhere at this point in their careers?
Brian Boyle, 34, enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2018-19 and netted a second-round pick at the trade deadline. He clearly still has value as a big, smart two-way forward, but the lack of attention he has garnered thus far in free agency is curious. Boyle did not make as much of an impact in Nashville post-trade as he did in New Jersey and teams may be skeptical of his production moving forward. Between a cold market and recent health concerns, Boyle may be considering calling it a career while he’s still considered an elite defensive forward. However, it would be a surprise if there isn’t a team in the NHL who could still use Boyle’s ability.
Dion Phaneuf, 34, is fresh off of a buyout and should be available at a bargain rate as he continues to cash paychecks from the Los Angeles Kings. Phaneuf stated earlier this off-season that he would be happy to land with a contender, but is also open to taking on a mentor role with a young team. That would seemingly make him a candidate to join a number of D-needy teams. Yet, a week into free agency there has been almost no noise surrounding Phaneuf. The veteran still plays a strong checking game, but his offense and mobility fell off a cliff last season, resulting in drastic career lows in production and ice time. Teams may be hesitant to invest at his current asking price. Phaneuf may be looking at a decision between a short-term, minimum deal or walking away.
Ben Lovejoy, 35, is also coming off an uninspiring season. The Dallas Stars still felt he was worth a deadline gamble, but Lovejoy failed to make much of an impact offensively with either the Stars or Devils pre-trade. An experienced journeyman defenseman, Lovejoy still plays a strong defensive game and has great awareness in his own zone. However, when it comes to moving the puck he can be prone to turnovers and when asked to contribute offensively, he offers little. At this point in his career, Lovejoy is an ideal No. 7 or 8 defenseman. However, does he want to continue his playing career only to be used sparingly as a depth player? That’s the question.
Thomas Vanek, 35, is a tricky case. While his 36 points this season marked a career low, it also came in just 64 games and was one of the top marks for the Detroit Red Wings. Vanek has been a tough player to get a read on in recent years because he has moved around so much and played in a variety of roles. The eye test, combined with a plethora of rumors so far this summer, suggest that he can keep playing. But does a decorated veteran really want to continue being a hired gun and deadline deal year after year? If Vanek can find some security in a short-term contract, he will stick around in the NHL and likely continue to be a great value as a player capable of 50 points. However, the respected veteran may also be ready to call it a career if the right fit doesn’t exist.
Niklas Kronwall, 38, and Deryk Engelland, 37, are both in the same boat. They will either return to their current teams – the Red Wings and Golden Knights respectively – or they’ll retire. Neither is looking to move at this point in their careers, nor can they command salaries that their teams cannot pay. Instead, the duo are both valued for their leadership and loyalty and can still play well enough in a regular role or, more likely, thrive in a depth role. The question for both is simply how much they have left in the tank and whether it’s time to quit while they’re ahead.
So what do you think? Nine players, all with good reason to retire but also to keep playing, with various market factors at work. How many suit up in the NHL next season and how many make a final announcement in the coming weeks?