The season is over for all but four NHL teams, meaning free agents from the other 27 clubs are already focused on July 1st and the start of free agency. How many of those top free agents are still considering staying where they are versus testing the market? How many teams have the means and interest to re-sign them?
In January, PHR published our Mid-Season UFA Power Rankings: 1-10, 11-20, and honorable mentions. Mark Stone, Eric Staal, Jakob Silfverberg and Jimmy Howard – four of our top 25 – have already signed extensions. However, the other top names and their current squads have exactly seven weeks to decide whether or not they will follow suit.
The Columbus Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline and it paid off with the franchise’s first ever playoff series win, a shocking sweep of the President’s Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. Yet, the acquisitions of Ottawa Senators standouts Matt Duchene (No. 5) and Ryan Dzingel (No. 16) was not enough to get the team through round two, nevertheless to a Stanley Cup title. Now, the team faces the possibility that their new additions could walk in free agency alongside stars Artemi Panarin (No. 2) and Sergei Bobrovsky (No. 6), leaving them with major holes to fill. The latter duo have long been expected to test the market, perhaps even as a package deal. Additionally, the conditional 2020 first-round pick tied to re-signing Duchene would seemingly make it less likely that Columbus opts to extend him, especially given their lack of picks in the upcoming draft. None of those three have officially ruled out a return to the Blue Jackets, but it doesn’t look good. On the other hand, Dzingel, an Ohio State University alum, looks like he could be a more natural long-term fit, but it hasn’t prevented rumors that other teams are very interested in signing him.
Another free agent-heavy team that blew through round one of the playoffs only to be knocked off in round two are the New York Islanders. After losing John Tavares last summer, going through the same with top forward Anders Lee (No. 9) would be devastating for the Islanders franchise. Yet, the captain still remains unsigned. It’s fair to assume they will eventually figure it out, but that line of thinking if awfully reminiscent of last year. New York is reportedly pushing hard to retain enter Brock Nelson (No. 11) and winger Jordan Eberle (No. 15) as well, but they could be more inclined to test the market. There’s also the question of resurgent goalie Robin Lehner (No. 23). Will the Islanders lock up the young keeper who was so solid this season? Or will they refuse to pay market value for a player that has benefited from their system while splitting time with Thomas Greiss?
Another team of interest are the San Jose Sharks, who remain alive in the Western Conference Final. Superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson (No. 1) and respected veteran forward Joe Pavelski (No. 7) are both heading for free agency and the Sharks may be hard-pressed to sign both. There’s also deadline addition Gustav Nyquist (No. 14) to consider re-signing, as he has had a strong postseason with the Sharks. The Carolina Hurricanes are also one of four teams still playing and are definitely happy they held on to forward Micheal Ferland (No. 18). Ferland is reportedly expected to test the market, but after a deep postseason run he may be more open to extending his stay with the Hurricanes.
It was a difficult end to the year for the Winnipeg Jets, who were one-and-done this year, falling to the St. Louis Blues in the first round. Between rental center Kevin Hayes (No. 8) and big defenseman Tyler Myers (No. 10), the Jets have a pair of coveted free agents on the roster who they would surely like to keep, but that is the least of their worries as they face a daunting impending cap crunch. It could make bringing back even one of the two nearly impossible. The same goes for defenseman Jake Gardiner (No. 12) and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs will have a hard enough time keeping their roster together and re-signing their current restricted free agent, nevertheless managing to re-sign Gardiner.
Generally, playoff rentals proceed to hit the free agent market rather than re-up with their new teams. In addition to Duchene, Dzingel, Hayes, and Nyquist, Nashville’s Wayne Simmonds (No. 13), Dallas’ Mats Zuccarello (No. 21), and Colorado’s Derick Brassard (No. 24) could very well be headed to yet another destination. Simmonds and Brassard were disappointments in their short stays, but Zuccarello proved to be a nice fit with the Stars. However, the team would lose a first-round pick rather than a second-round pick to the New York Rangers if they were to re-sign the veteran forward. That may not be enough to stop them from extending him, though.
If there was any doubt that the Buffalo Sabres couldn’t re-sign Jeff Skinner (No. 4), one would think he would have been dealt at the trade deadline. However, he remains suspiciously unsigned and would be a massive addition to the free agent market if he does make it to July. Skinner has been a great match with Jack Eichel and certainly looks like a long-term fit in Buffalo, but the team’s second-half struggles could have Skinner re-thinking a long-term stay.
Vancouver’s Alexander Edler (No. 22) stated that his preference was not to be dealt at this year’s trade deadline and to instead re-sign with the Canucks. The two sides have been working toward an extension, but until pen meets paper he is still an impending free agent that will attract considerable attention. Similarly, Semyon Varlamov (No. 17) has expressed an interest in remaining with the Colorado Avalanche, but it’s unclear if the feeling is mutual. Varlamov would have to take a major pay cut to stay on as backup and may rather test a goalie market that has already lost Howard and could lose Lehner before free agency opens.
Compared to recent years, this impending free agent class does look to have fewer locks for extensions among top players. Any of these names could hit the market, although odds are they won’t all choose to do so. Regardless, this could be a healthy market come July 1st. Just how deep could it be? That’s for you to guess. How many of these top free agents will sign extensions?
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