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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.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

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.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

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The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

————

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

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Marner mum on contract negotiations

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It’s not much, but for Toronto Maple Leafs fans willing to hang on anything said by still-unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner, it was at least something.

When Marner stepped in front of a crowd of reporters on Thursday, he did undoubtedly knowing what the first line of questioning would be. And the second, and the third.

When is he going to sign?

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marner said. “I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then.”

From there, Marner steered those questions toward his agent as he threw on his best pair dancing shoes and showed he could sidestep with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt slogan, “You have to ask my agent” is right up there with the best of them in Toronto these days.

 

“My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” Marner said.

One thing Marner made pretty clear is he wouldn’t be at training camp without a contract.

“Probably not,” he said. “There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”

What about an offer sheet?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Marner whipped out the agent line once again, while saying he’s trying to stay out of all of that “stuff.”

So the uncertainty hasn’t affected you?

“None,” he said, before once again talking about his agent’s role in the negotiations.

What about fans’ concerns that you may not sign a contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I’m leaving all of that to my agent right now,” he said.

Those agents, man. Ruining Toronto’s summer for the second year in a row.

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Marner seemed unfazed by it all and appears to be enjoying his summer.

Why wouldn’t he? He’s about to get paid in a major way, but the Maple Leafs or any number of teams that would be willing to lavish cash upon him if given the chance.

Marner’s situation is one of several playing out this summer. He’s not the only big-ticket RFA without a deal so far.

Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado are just a few others. It’s become commonplace for big names without arbitration rights on the RFA list to let negotiations span the summer, if not further.

Marner’s contract is only illuminated better because of where he plays. Dominating two national TV broadcasters on a daily basis in Canada.

And the fear in Leafs Nations is made only worse knowing all-too-well where this path can lead.

William Nylander‘s contract last summer dragged right into the regular season and Nylander and the Maple Leafs felt those effects throughout the season.

The same scenario with Marner would be worse, given he’s the team’s leading point-getter from last season.

A Toronto native, Marner said he’s well-accustomed to the media and said his phone has been shut off for much of the summer.

Like he said, his agent is running the show. Marner’s merely the main protagonist who has yet to be revealed in a complex script.

When he will is anyone’s guess.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck