After an exciting 2018 NHL Entry Draft that saw hundreds of players enter the league’s system as well as multiple blockbuster trades (see here and here), all eyes turn to the NHL free agents. The highly-anticipated market opens July 1st, and some extremely polarizing names remain available.
The most intriguing group is always that of the Unrestricted Free Agents, as the top UFA guys have the most flexibility to move. Expect to see some massive bidding wars, as usual, for these players.
Below is our list of the top 10 UFA forwards available to sign on July 1st. Included is some speculation and rumors regarding the places they might end up, or at least where they would be good fits. These guys will be the most sought-after, and we’ll soon see what kinds of contracts they can each entice.
Top 10 NHL UFA Forwards
#1 – John Tavares – C
Previous cap hit: $5.5 million, New York Islanders
Undoubtedly the top UFA this year, John Tavares is the best name available on July 1st in years. Previously thought to be a franchise player for the New York Islanders, Tavares is rumored to be in discussions with as many as five suitors. His last contract, a six-year deal for $5.5 million per season, definitely qualified as a hometown discount. A perennial all-star, there are probably only five or six teams in the entire NHL on which Tavares wouldn’t be the best player. Whoever lands him this time around will be spending north of $9 million at the very least, and probably for a minimum of four years term-wise.
Tavares scored 84 points last season, composed of 37 goals and 47 assists, across 82 games. In nine seasons, he’s never scored less than 24 goals and has broken the 30 goal plateau four times. He’s racked up 621 points in 669 career games, as well as 22 points in 24 playoff games, all with the Islanders. One potential fit could be the San Jose Sharks, who have created a lot of cap space recently possibly to chase Tavares (or another free agent should this fall through).
#2 – James van Riemsdyk – LW
Previous cap hit: $4.25 million, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs faced some criticism when they signed James van Riemsdyk to a six-year deal that paid $4.25 million per season back before the 2012-13 season. After all, he had just three years of experience at the time and scored a point roughly every other game. However, that contract appears to have gotten better with time, as JVR has a minimum of 27 goals in each of the seasons in which he’s played in full. The lockout and injury limited him to two shorter years, but even then he was productive. He’s posted 393 points in 609 games total, and just finished a career-year with 36 goals. He consistently scores 50 to 60 points and should continue to do so.
Once the Tavares sweepstakes end, anticipate seeing van Riemsdyk sign within minutes of Tavares. He’ll be the backup option for all those teams courting the Islanders captain, and will probably earn a hefty paycheck thanks to those circumstances. Whoever lands him will be pleased with his shot and powerplay ability. He likely will want to go to a playoff team. The New Jersey Devils would be perfect, as they could really use someone to help shoulder the weight Taylor Hall is carrying on his own.
#3 – James Neal – LW
Previous cap hit: $5.0 million, Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas General Manager George McPhee said in an interview with Bob McKenzie at the draft Saturday that they had “made an offer” to James Neal. Obviously, that offer has yet to be accepted, and it appears Neal will at least go to free agency to entertain other offers too. He possesses an incredible scoring touch, a tool made obvious by the fact that he’s never scored less than 20 goals in a season. With 263 goals and 232 assists in 703 career games, Neal will draw plenty of attention on July 1st.
The winger has tons of playoff experience too, and leadership is one of his strong suits. Although he doesn’t yet have a Stanley Cup, he led the Knights to the Finals one year after doing the same with the Nashville Predators. He wants to win, so unless another contender can offer more than whatever the Knights did, he’ll end up re-signing with Vegas. The toughest thing will be finding a different contender with the cap space to bring Neal in. Should he leave Vegas, it would likely be for a team like the Winnipeg Jets or Anaheim Ducks.
#4 – Paul Stastny – C
Previous cap hit: $7.0 million, Winnipeg Jets
Paul Stastny at one time scored at a point-per-game pace with the Colorado Avalanche. In the last year of his contract in Colorado, he scored 60 points in 71 games. This attracted the St. Louis Blues to sign him to a four-year deal worth $7.0 annually. Unfortunately, Stastny never topped 50 points with the Blues and was shipped to Winnipeg at the trade deadline this last season. An admirable finish with the Jets, and a playoff run that featured 15 points in 17 games for the centre, should reinvigorate interest in Stastny’s abilities.
In 82 games, Stastny scored 16 goals and 37 assists for 53 points in 2017-18. He likely will take a pay cut next year, and can slot in as a solid 2nd line center for most teams in the league. He could look for a homecoming opportunity with the Avs, but the price and term would have to be right for General Manager Joe Sakic to consider. He’d bring veteran leadership and give players like Tyson Jost and Alex Kerfoot more time to develop.
#5 – Thomas Vanek – LW
Previous cap hit: $2.5 million, Columbus Blue Jackets
Coming off his most productive year since 2013-14, Thomas Vanek put up 56 points through 80 games last season. The Blue Jackets acquired him from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline, and he continued to produce offensively while simultaneously turning his possession stats around in a great way. In 965 career games, he has 357 goals and 396 assists for 753 points. Earlier in his career, Vanek was a prime-time elite forward; unfortunately, things changed and his last big contract was bought out while with the Minnesota Wild.
While he isn’t the 40-goal scorer he once was, Vanek adjusted to maintain a force at the NHL level as his career ages. He’s become quite the playmaker and can bring a scoring touch and veteran leadership to a team’s middle six forward spots. He could fit well on the third line with a team like the New York Rangers or Calgary Flames.
#6 – David Perron – LW
Previous cap hit: $3.75 million, Vegas Golden Knights
Much like teammate James Neal, David Perron was given an offer he has yet to accept according to GM George McPhee. He’ll see what else is out there via free agency before making a decision. Unlike Neal, though, Perron should have more options simply because he won’t demand as high of a salary. While he has broken the 20 goal plateau before, he’s usually good for roughly 15 per season. He also potted a career-high 50 assists and 66 points with the Knights last year. This undoubtedly increased his value on the open market, and the physical forward also has 941 career hits. That combination of abilities is really hard to come by.
Being a stout, physical player who can also post 45 to 60 points makes for a tremendously versatile athlete. Perron fits anywhere in a team’s lineup: he can fight, hit and forecheck like a fourth liner, and create chances and make plays like a second liner. The Florida Panthers need a player like this. Ultimately, he might get his best offer from teams in the midst of a rebuild, as they can fork out a bit more money for Perron on a short-term contract while waiting for younger talent to develop. Perron could bring that leadership and help speed up the rebuild for a team like the Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes or Buffalo Sabres.
#7 – Rick Nash – LW
Previous cap hit: $7.8 million, Boston Bruins
For the thirteenth time in his fifteen-year career, Rick Nash eclipsed the 20 goal plateau in a season split between Boston and the New York Rangers. With 437 goals and 368 assists (805 points) in 1,060 career games, Nash is known for his large frame and killer shot. He’s coming off a massive eight-year deal signed with the Blue Jackets. This time around, however, it’ll be a much shorter term (and likely less money too). Although he scored 21 goals and 13 assists, Nash has been paid like the 40-goal scorer he was when that massive contract was first penned in 2010. His last three seasons are his worst statistically (besides his rookie season in 2002-03), and he was a non-factor for Boston in the postseason too, notching just five points in 12 games.
Now on the back nine of his career, Nash might still be a top UFA, but not with the same notoriety he would’ve garnered a decade ago. He’s been rumored to potentially be looking for a return to the Rangers, but given their current state as a rebuilding team, it’ll have to be a short-term and much lower cap hit. Given his recent production, this is likely what he’s to receive anyways. His career arch seems to be mirroring that of Jarome Iginla, who similarly slowed down dramatically in his 30’s. Just like Iginla, Boston gave Nash a shot at the playoffs, but he didn’t provide the team much support. He could very well sign with a rebuilding team as a filler until prospects are ready for the NHL level.
#8 – Patrick Maroon – LW
Previous cap hit: $2.0 million, New Jersey Devils
Compared to most other top UFA forwards aged 30+, Patrick Maroon is one of the only ones about to receive the best contract of his career. Despite earning just $2.0 million for the last two seasons, Maroon posted 44 goals and 41 assists for 85 points in that span. The 6’3, 225-pound power forward plays to his strengths: hitting, forechecking, and wearing down opponents. You can now add scoring to that list.
In 375 career games between Anaheim, Edmonton, and New Jersey, Maroon has 78 goals and 100 assists. His scoring has picked up dramatically in the last two years as mentioned above. Plus, his grit and tenacity are still there. His 451 career penalty minutes, as well as a whopping 760 career hits, prove that. He’s posted fantastic possession metrics in each of the past five seasons too. Maroon would be a perfect fit with the Florida Panthers, who need that grit badly. He’d be an awesome third line option for a team lacking scoring depth and tenacity.
#9 – Michael Grabner – RW
Previous cap hit: $1.65 million, New Jersey Devils
Michael Grabner has one of the more bizarre careers as far as year-to-year variation goes. He’s never been paid more than $3.0 million per season, despite having a few years in his career worth much more than that amount. Grabner and his agent will point to his back-to-back 27 goal seasons he just had as a reason for a significant raise. General managers will then counter with the fact that in the four seasons prior, Grabner scored less than 20 each year – with notably low years of eight and nine goals – and seven of his 27 last season were on an empty net, which led the league. In 553 career games, Michael Grabner has 158 goals and 91 assists for 249 points.
Ultimately, the most-recent performance should factor in enough to get him a better deal. Grabner skates with elite speed as one of the fastest in the NHL. As long as he can play creatively within a system that encourages that speed, He’ll be effective. The Penguins could be a really good fit for the right price. Another ideal location would be with the Edmonton Oilers.
#10 – Joe Thornton – C
Previous cap hit: $8.0 million, San Jose Sharks
Although he likely ranks higher on this list ability and value-wise, Joe Thornton is likely to retire if he chooses not to return to San Jose. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that those are his two options and anything can happen, but at 38 and with a family, Jumbo Joe probably isn’t too high on relocating at this point in his career. Should he return to the Sharks, anticipate his cap hit to be small but very bonus-heavy. The $8.0 million cap hit last season backfired to some degree, as Thornton only played 47 games due to injury.
That being said, he still holds undeniable value as a top UFA. Even dealing with injury, Thornton managed 36 points in those 47 games. He supported the team all year with his fantastic leadership inside the locker room too. He’s produced over a point-per-game with the Sharks over thirteen seasons. In 1,493 career games between San Jose and Boston, Thornton has 397 goals and 1,030 assists for 1,427 points. He isn’t getting any younger, but still finds ways to score and drive strong positive possession metrics season after season. One way or another, Thornton will go down as one of the best playmakers in NHL history.
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