Free Agent Frenzy: Top 10 NHL Free Agent Forwards

Top NHL Free Agents Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin talk mid-game.
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 27: Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Artemi Panarin (9) and Columbus Blue Jackets center Matt Duchene (95) discuss a face off in the offensive zone during Game 2 of the Second Round 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Boston Bruins and the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 27, 2019, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Now that the 2019 NHL Draft has passed by, fans turn their attention towards what will surely be an exciting summer. The 2019 free agent class is unprecedented, boasting a tremendous amount of star talent. While this year, many fans are paying mind towards the group of restricted free agents, the group of unrestricted is equally as exciting. Today, the team at Last Word on Hockey will list our top-10 unrestricted NHL free agent forwards.

Top 10 NHL UFA Forwards

#1 – Artemi Panarin (LW)

Age: 27

Previous Cap Hit: $6 Million with the Columbus Blue Jackets

Artemi Panarin topping this list is no surprise. The Russian winger has been the headline of many rumours as many teams look to bolster their top line. Panarin posted career-highs in both assists and points, falling three shy of his high in goals. With such a dominant season, Columbus thought there was no better time to go-for-broke. They traded for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, among others, hoping to bring in a great supporting cast for Panarin. The plan worked, to an extent. The Blue Jackets set a record of 12-8-1 after the trade deadline, with the three forwards combining for 41 points.

The dominant trio also helped the Blue Jackets sweep the first-overall Tampa Bay Lightning team in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They weren’t enough to trump an equally as offensively-dominant Boston Bruins team in round two, though. Panarin managed an impressive post-season nonetheless, netting 11 points in 10 games.

After such a dominant season, Panarin is the best bet for any team looking to find a star to build around. He’s netted over 75 points in all but one (74 points in 2016-17) of his four NHL seasons so far. He could fit in seamlessly with any team that can afford him. One exciting destination would be with the Florida Panthers. The team is expected to undergo a massive turnaround this summer and Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are expected to meet with them later this week.

#2 – Matt Duchene (C)

Age: 28

Previous Cap Hit: $6 Million with the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets

Duchene is expected to continue his journey around the league this summer. After being dealt to Ottawa by the Colorado Avalanche in 2017, he was then swapped again this past season. It now looks like he may be on his way out of Columbus, likely to receive a slew of offers this summer. To many, he’s seen as the cheaper star, projected to make less than what Panarin will bring in.

The decreased price tag is extremely attractive to many teams around the league. While EvolvingWild has projected Duchene to make roughly $6.8 million, he will likely be paid a lot more based on various insider rumours. It’s a widely known fact that centres make considerably more on the open market, especially one with Duchene’s skillset. He is also the only potential top line centre available as an unrestricted free agent, pushing up his value.

Duchene tied his career high in scoring, with 70 points, last season. 58 of those points came in only 50 games with Ottawa, despite only playing two minutes more than his average with Columbus. This was his seventh NHL season of scoring over 50 points. With Duchene likely headed to a contender, it’d be no surprise to see these high point totals continue.

Of the many teams in the mix for Duchene, the Nashville Predators are among the favourites. The Predators traded away star defenceman P.K. Subban, opening up plenty of cap space to reel in Duchene. With that said, bringing in Duchene would likely cut things very close for Nashville. The team currently has six free agents from their NHL roster, including Wayne Simmonds who isn’t expected to re-sign.

#3 – Mats Zuccarello (LW)

Age: 31

Previous Cap Hit: $4.5 Million with the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars

Mats Zuccarello is perhaps the most interesting player on this list. He was dominant last season, netting 40 points in 48 games. Yet, injuries held him back from play quite a bit. This was especially true in the latter half of the year. Zuccarello was dealt to the Dallas Stars by the Rangers, in exchange for a second-round pick in 2019 (used to pick Matthew Robertson) and a conditional third-round pick in 2020.

Zuccarello was on pace for 68 points this season, a big number for a winger that many casual fans underrated. He’s been projected to receive a modest salary of $6 million. For that fairly cheap price, the signing team receives one of the most dynamic free agents available. Zuccarello is a great offensive threat, who also boasts a pretty two-way game. He also served an alternate captain with New York for two years, likely meaning he’d also bring great leadership along with him.

All-in-all there’s not much more to say about Zuccarello. He had a very promising 2018-19 campaign, even if it was held short by injuries. While these injury issues could drive away prospective teams, they aren’t prominent enough to completely destroy his value. For teams looking to bolster both their top-six and veteran presence, Zuccarello would be a perfect signing.

#4 – Joe Pavelski (RW/C)

Age: 34

Previous Cap Hit: $6 Million with the San Jose Sharks

Plenty of older players are hitting the open market, with no intention of retiring. While names like Joe Thornton and Justin Williams may be more exciting, it’s the 34-year-old Joe Pavelski that would truly be worth signing. Pavelski just finished his 13th NHL season, all with the Sharks.

However, after the Sharks signed Erik Karlsson to an, arguably excessively, pricey deal, they don’t seem to have room to bring back Pavelski. Instead, the team’s captain since 2015 might finally be headed out of California.

It’s not uncommon to question signing a player this close to retirement but Pavelski is truly a special case. He’s recorded over 60 points in every year since 2010, excluding the lockout year of 2012-13. What’s even more unique is his goal-scoring ability. He netted 38 goals last season, only three shy of the career-high he set in the 2013-14 season. This was enough to tie him with Mark Scheifele and David Pastrnak for eighth in the league.

Pavelski’s point totals have been slightly decreasing over the past few years but he proved last season that he’s nowhere close to falling off. He’s projected to reel in around $7.4 million with his next contract, on a short-term deal. This sets him as one of the pricier options on this list but his defiant production makes him well worth the expense. There is an obvious worry about how the change of scenery will affect the long-time Shark but it seems teams are thinking rather optimistically about his move. He’s slotted to meet with multiple teams prior to free agency opening up on Monday, including the Chicago Blackhawks.

#5 – Anders Lee (LW)

Age: 28

Previous Cap Hit: $3.75 Million with the New York Islanders

The Islanders banded together after losing John Tavares last summer. They kept their cool in filling Tavares’ role and, in exchange, received dazzling seasons from a number of players, including Anders Lee. Lee, who was named New York’s captain after Tavares’ departure, recorded 51 points this past year. While this doesn’t shake a fist to the point totals of the aforementioned four players, it was enough to carry the Islanders to the second round of the playoffs.

It was also enough to bring in a healthy amount of interest in Lee, who could very well hit the open market as the cap-strapped Islanders fight to both keep their NHL lineup together, as well as improving it through free agency. It wouldn’t be a tremendous shock to see the Islanders once again lose their captain, instead looking towards a tremendous free agent pool to bolster their lineup.

With that said, Lee is still very much valuable. His modest point totals mean he’s projected to make around $6.5 million on his next year, although that’s very much a ballpark estimate. For prospective teams, Lee offers a well-rounded style of play, great leadership, and, most importantly, a tremendous goal-scoring ability. He tallied a measly 28 goals last season but set a career-high in goals two seasons ago, with 40. The year before that, he netted 34.

These are great numbers for teams that need the perfect scorer to compliment their great playmakers. Lee’s wavering price tag could be another attractor. While $6.5 million is a hefty load for a 50-point-scorer, offering roughly $1 million under that would make for a great contract for both sides. Of course, with general managers often overpaying players in free agency, $6.5 million could be easily achievable.

#6 – Gustav Nyquist (RW)

Age: 29

Previous Cap Hit: $4.75 Million with the Detroit Red Wings and the San Jose Sharks

The Detroit Red Wings conceded their season at the Trade Deadline. They knew they weren’t anywhere close to contending and, as a result, likely to lose pending free agent Gustav Nyquist. As a result, they dished him on the promising San Jose Sharks, in exchange for 2019 second-round pick (used to pick Albert Johansson) and a conditional third-round pick in 2020.

This was a great deal for the Sharks, even if Nyquist doesn’t re-sign. He tallied 11 points in 19 games with the Sharks to end the year, for a combined 60 points in 81 games. He scored another 11 in the 20 games he played in the post-season. While he wasn’t an MVP calibre player in the playoffs like Logan Couture was, he was still a very important addition to San Jose’s lineup.

Nyquist is a fairly modest player when compared to those on this list. He’s a great pickup for any prospective team, a reliable scorer, and is projected to cost a moderate $5.65 million. There’s not much to be said, as he simply fits perfectly in among the middle of this lineup; almost a perfect middle-ground among this pack.

#7 – Ryan Dzingel (C/LW)

Age: 27

Previous Cap Hit: $1.8 Million with the Ottawa Senators and the Columbus Blue Jackets

Dzingel, the most forgettable Columbus free agent, is one of the best supporting-role players in this year’s free agent pool. He is not unfamiliar with playing on a wing despite being listed as a centre. This flexibility is only one of many attractive qualities Dzingel has.

Of course, not everything that glistens is gold. Dzingel is a risky signing, to say the least. While he had a dominant 2018-19 campaign, it was heavily bolstered by the star-studded cast he had around him. He played his entire season on Duchene’s wing. The other wing was usually Bobby Ryan, in Ottawa, or players like Josh Anderson in Columbus. While the career-high 56 points are impressive nonetheless, it was heavily affected by the play of others around him.

For the team that signs Dzingel this summer, matching this star-studded surroundings will be crucial to continue the production he showed this past year. If they can’t, they simply acquire a mediocre middle-lineup forward in Dzingel. To put it simply, Dzingel is the match, not the light. While he has plenty of potential on his own and can be fairly promising, having strong linemates can take him to another level. Dzingel is only projected to pull in just over $4 million on his next deal as a result of the uncertainty. This is a great price for such a potentially explosive player.

#8 – Brett Connolly (LW)

Age: 27

Previous Cap Hit: $1.5 Million with the Washington Capitals

Brett Connolly came out of nowhere last year, netting 46 points in 81 games despite being on Washington’s bottom-six for almost the entire season. It was a fun season to watch, to say the least, with Connolly coming out of nowhere and netting 19 more points than he did in 2017-18, setting a career-high in every category.

Connolly’s dominant playing style is truly unprecedented. Facing off against opponents’ bottom-six, Connolly simply worked harder than anyone else on the ice. He didn’t rely on a strong skillset like any of the aforementioned players, instead using his elite work ethic to put up great numbers.

It’s that work ethic that makes Connolly a great target for, quite literally, any team in the league. Every team could undoubtedly use a bolster to their bottom-six and Connolly is the absolute best option for that role. Not only has he proven he can put up great numbers despite only playing 13 minutes a night, but he is also projected to make approximately $3.4 million. These two traits should result in Connolly being one of the most popular free agents when the market opens up on Monday.

#9 – Marcus Johansson (LW)

Age: 28

Previous Cap Hit: $4.58 million with the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins

Marcus Johansson joined Charlie Coyle as the newcomers to Boston following the trade deadline. The Bruins sent a 2019 second-round pick (used to select Nikita Okhotyuk) and a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Devils, in exchange for New Jersey’s star forward. The Bruins were clearly hoping that Johansson could be the spark to turn an already strong bottom-six into something truly special. Instead, Johansson only mustered three points in the 10 games he spent with the Bruins before the regular season ended. These three points brought his season total to 30, in 58 games played.

None of these numbers scream promising free agent. Johansson has had his fair share of injury issues and has not looked the same since suffering a traumatic injury during the 2017-18 season. Yet, he fought his way onto this list, and onto the radar of general managers around the league, with a great showing in the playoffs. Johansson tallied 11 points in 22 games. He combined with Coyle to make one of the best third lines the league has seen in a while, at least for the post-season. It was this return to form that could help Johansson tremendously as he receives offers this summer.

#10 – Micheal Ferland (LW)

Age: 27

Previous Cap Hit: $1.75 Million with the Carolina Hurricanes

Yet again, an interesting power forward comes to free agency in Micheal Ferland. He tallied 40 points in 71 games this season, missing 11 games with recurring concussion-related injuries. This was only one point shy of the total he set with the Calgary Flames in 2017-18. He played in six more games that year.

In his first year with the Hurricanes, Ferland was certainly a pleasant surprise. He managed to play his way onto the team’s second line for a while, although he typically conceded back to the third. He was, in short, another great depth player. His ability to work both ends of the ice, and compliment the ensemble around him, was put on full display as he marched his way to another great season. Unfortunately for Carolina, other cap issues are likely to leave Ferland open to the league.

It would be no surprise to see Ferland projected to rake in around $4 million on his next deal, although that may be a bit high. Recent, and prevailing, head injuries make Ferland a volatile player. He is undoubtedly prone to continued injury, as seen last year, and could certainly choose health over hockey at any point in his next contract. This could leave the signing team at a bit of a loss. They would lose what would surely be a great signing and a great role player. It’s almost certain that teams will take a chance on Ferland after two strong years in a row. The only question is if taking that chance will come back to bite them.

All contract projections are courtesy of the folks at Evolving Wild, who have again done great work with their expected cap hits for every UFA and RFA this summer.

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