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PHT Power Rankings: The top 20 NHL free agents

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The start of the NHL’s free agent signing period is less than a week away and already two of the biggest names available have been taken off of the list, thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk‘s signing with the Los Angeles Kings and defenseman John Carlson re-signing with the Washington Capitals.

That does not mean there are not still quality players ready to hit the open market on July 1.

In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the top-20 free agents available, starting with what could be — potentially — one of the biggest UFAs to hit the open market in recent history.

1. John Tavares, C — This is a no-brainer for the top of the list. Tavares is not only by far the best free agent available this summer, he is one of the best players in the NHL. Whether or not he actually gets to the open market remains to be seen. Usually players like him end up re-signing right where they are, and the New York Islanders still seem to be the favorite to get him back. But he has a lengthy list of teams he is speaking with during the open interview period and he would help make any of them an instant contender. (Signed: seven years, $77 million – John Tavares signs with Maple Leafs to live ‘childhood dream’)

2. James van Riemsdyk, LW — van Riemsdyk does one very important thing and he does it really, really well — he scores goals. A lot of goals. He is coming off a career-high 36-goal performance for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017-18 and over the past two years has been one of the top-15 goal scorers in the entire league. Along with that he has also scored at least 27 goals in four of the past five seasons (he scored 11 in 40 games in the other year). Not a superstar, not a player that is going to change the fortunes of your franchise, but there are not many players in the league that can put the puck in the net the way he has over the past five years. That is a valuable commodity. (Signed: five years, $35 million – James van Riemsdyk signing could spell end for Simmonds with Flyers)

3. Paul Stastny, C — Stastny ended up being one of the most impactful players to change teams at the trade deadline and is going to be a popular player on the open market. The Winnipeg Jets would love to keep him but they have a lot of work to do under the salary cap to make that happen. He is going to turn 33 this season but he has still been a remarkably steady 20-goal, 50-point center that posts strong possession numbers in recent years. He is not a No. 1 center, but if he is centering your second or third line your team is in pretty good shape. Given the lack of depth on the free agent market after Tavares and van Riemsdyk he is in a great position to get one more big pay day in his NHL career. (Signed: three years, $19.5 million with Vegas Golden Knights – Paul Stastny smart addition for Golden Knights)

4. Joe Thornton, C — This is a challenging one. Big picture, Thornton is one of the best players of all-time and a truly dominant two-way center. A slam dunk Hall of Famer. I would argue he would probably should have won the Hart Trophy two years ago when the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup Final. Now that he is just days away from turning 39 his play has obviously declined from that level and he is coming off of an injury-shortened season in 2017-18. The injury is going to be a concern. The age is going to be a concern. But here is the thing about Thornton: When he was healthy this past season he was still really good. He was on a 62-point pace over 82 games, still driving possession at an elite level, and still making an impact all over the ice. He would almost have to be a one-year deal at this point because anything more than that would probably be too much of a risk, but he can still help somebody right now. Health permitted. (Re-signed: One year, $5 million with the San Jose Sharks.)

5. James Neal, LW — Very similar to van Riemsdyk, only maybe not quite as productive. In the end you are going to get 25 goals and a forward that “plays with an edge.” Edge” meaning that he is probably just one shift away from taking a bad penalty or doing something that flirts with crossing the line into dirty territory. Good, productive player that has a lethal shot and will add some offense.

6. Rick Nash, LW — He had another difficult postseason showing in 2018, this time as a member of the Boston Bruins, but he is still a really good two-way player that can help in all phases of the game. He is probably only a 20-goal winger at this point but he can kill penalties, drive possession and just be a solid all-around player. You can knock his playoff production in recent years if you want — and you wouldn’t be wrong, it is what it is — but he is going to help somebody a lot this year. (Nash unsure about NHL return next season)

7. Mike Green, D — He is not a top-pairing defenseman anymore but he can still help your power play and add some offense from the blue line. The drawback: You have to assume he is going to miss at least 10-15 games and while he was never as bad defensively as his critics have always wanted you to believe, he probably gives up a little more in the defensive end than he once did. Now that Carlson has re-signed with the Capitals he is probably the most attractive option for a team looking to add some scoring punch from its defense. (Re-signed: two years, $10.75 million with Detroit Red Wings.)

8. David Perron, LW –– Based on the way he played in 2017-18 as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, he would be one of the top players available this summer (and to be fair — he still kind of is). But when you’re signing a free agent you’re not signing them for what they did a year ago, you’re signing them for what they are going to do for you this season. There is very little to suggest that Perron is going to duplicate his 66-point in 70-game performance. In other words, he is probably not as good as his regular season point production from this past season would indicate, and not as bad as his postseason struggles (resulting in him being a healthy scratch on occasion would indicate. (Signed: four years, $16 million – Blues bring back Perron yet again)

9. Thomas Vanek, LW — Vanek has entered the point of his career where he has pretty much become a short-term hired gun, having played for five different teams over the past three seasons. During that time he has scored at a 28-goal, 54-point pace per 82 games. (Signed: one year, $3 million with Detroit Red Wings.)

10. Tyler Bozak, C — Bozak’s career is an interesting one to look at. In the beginning he was viewed as a center that was mostly just riding shotgun along Phil Kessel and only racking up points because he played alongside an elite goal-scorer. To a point, that was kind of true because his production away from Kessel was barely that of a fourth-liner. But over the past few years he has become a much better player and even had some of his best years in the NHL over the past two seasons. (Signed: three years, $15 million with St. Louis Blues.)

11. Calvin de Haan, D — He was limited to just 33 games this past season for the Islanders. Do not expect a lot of offense from him, but he is a reliable defensive player that can move the puck out of his zone and be a steady player on defense.

12. Carter Hutton, G — The free agent goalie market is incredibly thin but Hutton is probably the one that is going to get the most attention. He was great for the Blues in limited work this season, finishing with a league-best .931 save percentage. That is the good news. The questionable news is he only played in 32 games. The other question mark: He turns 33 years old this season and we still don’t really know how good he actually is given that he has only played 138 games in the NHL. (Signed: three years, $8.25 million with Buffalo Sabres.)

13. Robin Lehner, G — Lehner was added to the unrestricted free agent market when the Buffalo Sabres decided not to tender him a contract as a restricted free agent. Could be a nice bounceback candidate for a team in need of goaltending help. He is coming off of a brutal 2017-18 season for the Sabres but in his first two years with the team was quite good while playing behind a terrible team.

14. Patrick Maroon, LW — Maroon is the type of player that can appeal to both old school hockey types and the analytics crowd. He is a big, physical player that also posts consistently strong possession numbers and pretty decent second-line production. He is probably never going to repeat his 27-goal effort from two years ago in Edmonton (and he didn’t this past season) but he still managed to finish with more points in fewer games in 2017-18.

15. Ian Cole, D — Cole played a fairly big role on two Stanley Cup winning teams in Pittsburgh but that probably did more to overrate him than anything else. He is really good third-pairing defenseman, a fearless shot-blocker, and a solid, if unspectacular player. If you go in with those expectations you will not be disappointed with what you get. If you expect him to significantly alter your defense or be anything more than that you will almost certainly be wondering what happened. (Signed: three years, $12.75 million with Colorado Avalanche.)

16. Michael Grabner, RW — When the New York Rangers went into rebuild mode this past season and started selling off their veterans Grabner became one of the most sought after players on the trade market. There is a lot to like about what he brings to the table. He is one of the fastest players in hockey, has scored 27 goals in each of the past two seasons, and can kill penalties. He will also probably be a source of frustration because based on the number of breakaways and odd-man rushes he helps create with his speed you will probably walk away from him wondering how he didn’t score 35 or 40 goals. (Signed: three years, $10.05 million with Arizona Coyotes.)

17. Riley Nash, C — A depth player for his entire career, Nash was fortunate enough to have a career year (15 goals, 41 points) in what was a contract year for him. He has consistently posted strong underlying numbers throughout his career so even though his goal-scoring spike this year mostly due to a spike in shooting percentage, there is still reason to believe he can be a useful depth player. (Signed: three years, $5.2 million with Columbus Blue Jackets)

18. Jonathan Bernier, G — While Nathan MacKinnon received a lot of attention for Colorado’s turnaround, one of the more underrated aspects of it was the simple fact their goaltending situation was not a raging dumpster fire all year. Bernier helped solidify the position by appearing in half of the team’s games and giving them league average goaltending, something he has done throughout his career. At this point that is pretty much what he is; a solid veteran that can be a good backup or platoon partner with another goalie that can get you through a season and fill in as a starter for extended periods of time. (Signed: three years, $9 million with Detroit Red Wings.)

19. John Moore, D — A thin crop of blue liners on the open market is going to probably be beneficial for players like Moore. The Devils leaned on him as a top-four defender the past three years, including for more than 20 minutes per night in 2017-18. He was solid in that role, but is probably best served as a third-pairing defender. (Signed: five years, $13.75 million with Boston Bruins.)

20. Derek Ryan, C  — Ryan didn’t make his NHL debut until he was 29 years old but he has managed to begin carving out a nice career for himself. His underlying numbers are tremendous (he was a 57 percent Corsi player this season for the Carolina Hurricanes) and he has scored 26 goals over the past two seasons, including 15 this past season. (Signed: three years, $9.375 million with Calgary Flames.)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Report: Jets’ Byfuglien believed to be contemplating NHL future

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Dustin Byfuglien, currently taking a personal leave of absence away from the Winnipeg Jets, is believed using his time away from the team to contemplate his NHL future, according to a report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

There is currently no timetable for his decision.

Neither the Jets or Byfuglien’s representation were willing to comment.

When it was initially revealed by the team that Byfuglien would not be with them at the start of training camp, head coach Paul Maurice said there was nothing “sinister” at play and that Byfuglien and his family were healthy.

Byfuglien has two years remaining on a five-year contract that pays him $7.6 million per season.

He has been a member of the Jets organization since the franchise was based in Atlanta and has become one of the most impactful defenders in the league due to his physical play, booming shot, and overall production. He had 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in only 42 games a year ago for the Jets. In 869 career games with the Jets/Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks he has 177 goals and 525 total points.

The Jets’ defense is already facing a lot of issues this season following the offseason departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot. If Byfuglien decides to step away from the game the Jets would almost certainly need to make a trade to address another massive hole on a unit that wouldn’t even resemble the defense the team put on the ice a year ago.

Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen and Carolina’s Justin Faulk are two of the bigger name defenders that apparently available for trade. Both would be a downgrade from Byfuglien.

Along with the uncertainty regarding Byfuglien, the Jets are also still dealing with the fact two of their top forwards — Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor — remain unsigned as restricted free agents. Laine recently told a reporter in Finland that his linemates and usage are a factor in the ongoing contract negotiations.

MORE:
Byfuglien leave of absence adds more uncertainty for Jets

• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: Marner rejected offer sheets; CBA talk

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Mitch Marner rejected a couple of offer sheets because he only wanted to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (NHL)

• Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney is expecting to have some conversations with defender Torey Krug, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. (NBC Boston)

• Did the players hand Gary Bettman a victory already? (The Hockey News)

• Cooler heads prevailed with the NHL’s CBA extensio. (Edmonton Journal)

• Just one game in and Jack Hughes is already flashing his potential. (Nj.com)

• Zamboni with Whalers logo is sold to scrap yard. (WFSB)

• How the Vancouver Canucks should deploy rookie defender Quinn Hughes. (Daily Hive)

• The New York Rangers prepare to start a new era of hockey on Wednesday. (Elite Sports NY)

• The Canucks and Brock Boeser were able to compromise, but difficult days are ahead. (Sportsnet)

• The Edmonton Oilers could really try Connor McDavid‘s patience. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Can Max Domi maintain his offensive impact in a move back to the wing? (Habs Eyes On The Prize)

• Jim Montgomery and the Stars will use the preseason to adjust to some rule changes. (Dallas Morning News)

• Alex Nylander makes strong first impression with Chicago Blackhawks. (NBC Chicago)

• Top-five key players to a successful season for the Washington Capitals. (Stars and sticks)

• Dylan Larkin by the numbers (Red Wings)

MORE:
• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Most underrated player

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NHL players love Aleksander Barkov.

That’s what we learned during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. When we asked a number of the attendees who, in their eyes, is a player who deserves more love and attention, the Florida Panthers star was a popular choice. (Does this no longer make him underrated?)

We tried to push the players to give us an underrated choice away from their own teams, but a few broke the rules, and that’s OK. 

Here’s who we were told is most underrated around the league when we asked, “Who’s an NHL player who deserves more recognition?”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “He’s starting to come into that light but Aleksander Barkov — a lot of guys would probably say him. His skill is unbelievable. I remember last year he battled one out of the air against us on his backhand, puck was probably going three, four feet wide but somehow he came across and tipped it in. He’s just an all-around solid player.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “There’s more and more undercover guys that are starting to get recognition. I think a guy like Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Barkov. These guys are getting more but I believe that they should be getting more than that. On the other side of it, a guy on my own team that I’m a little biased with that doesn’t get as much is Nik Hjalmarsson. He’s a very underrated defensive defenseman that maybe doesn’t as much credit because his stats don’t really show up on a gamesheet afterwards other than blocked shots.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “I like Barkov. He had a great season, doesn’t really get talked about that much. I don’t know if it’s the Florida market or whatever, but he was one of the best players in the league last year and you don’t really hear about him too much.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “My answer to this is usually Mark Giordano, but now he’s won the Norris so he’s not underrated anymore.”

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: “Jordan Staal is a pretty underrated player in the league. Playing against him in the playoffs and playing against him in the Metro, I don’t think I’ve beat him on a faceoff in two years. He’s tough to play against and has got a great skillset for a big guy. He’s a really good player.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “A player that jumps out at me is Josh Anderson on Columbus. He’s a guy that battles hard, plays hard, is tough, but can score goals as well.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “Barkov in Florida. He’s very, very good.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Brayden Point. He’s a really good player and he deserves to be talked about.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Probably this guy [pointing to Jonathan Marchessault]. He’s kind of a sick player, eh? I would say him or Nick Backstrom.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “Obviously Barkov, Huberdeau, I think you don’t hear [about] them enough. They’re super good in Florida.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “Probably Kyle Connor. I was with him in Winnipeg and he’s an elite player. He’s really good.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think Roman Josi. We only play against them twice a year so we don’t see much of them. I was able to skate with him a couple weeks ago for four or five days in Florida. He’s a guy that probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves even being the captain for Nashville. Just being on the ice against him, being on the ice with him, he’s a really special player and he does it all out there.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “One guy I’ll talk about and I think he’s going to get there is Thomas Chabot. I think he’s got a Norris Trophy in his future. Because of the way things finished in Ottawa last he kind of flew under the radar. Start of the season he was top-two in scoring for defenseman for the first third of the year. I think he’s a guy we’re going to hear a lot about coming up.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Mark Stone. People know he’s good but I think people don’t realize how good he is because maybe he’s not as silky as Matthews and those guys. When you look at everything he does out there it’s special. The takeaways he does. The way he plays in his own zone, the way he plays in the offensive zone. Those are the special things that not many players have in this league.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “He’s got it now, but a guy that I thought was a good player but I didn’t know he was this good was Ryan O’Reilly. He’s put up numbers, for sure. This year he took himself and the team to a whole new level and he’s a big part of what they did last season. He’s doing well.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “Probably my boy Mikael Granlund. I definitely know his skill and how talented he is. Obviously you have to earn that and earn that ability to play more and have that new trust with a new team. I think they’ll see, they’ll understand in Nashville what they got this year. This guy’s got vision. It’s fun to talk hockey with him.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’ll stay in-house and look at a guy like Miro [Heiskanen]. I think playing in a small market he didn’t get the respect that he deserved. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “It’s Barkov from Florida. He’s always underrated and I love how he plays.”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “Now he’s getting more, but Nathan MacKinnon is a very, very good hockey player. In my opinion, he’s been in the top five forwards in the league for a little while. I’d like to see him get a little bit more. I just appreciate his work ethic, how he plays the game, and the way he impacts the game. It’s very difficult to do it the way he does it, with the speed, the skill, his power, [the way] he protects the puck, his ability to make guys around him better. There’s only a few players in the league like that that have that big of an impact. We know about [Connor] McDavid, we know about [Sidney] Crosby, but MacKinnon makes everybody on the ice better. I’d like to see him get some more love.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.