PHT Power Rankings: Top NHL free agents to sign, and ones to avoid

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It almost upon us.

Those few days in early July where 31 NHL general managers prepare to dive head first into the free agency pool looking to add the final missing piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle. It can be an exciting time, until everyone realizes less than a year later that the pool was too shallow for such a dive and everyone is left with a bunch of headaches because they are paying top dollar for players that have almost always played their best hockey for someone else.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the 20 top free agents available and try to separate them into the players that are going to be worth the big money they are going to get, the players that might get overpaid but still be useful, and the players that are going to carry a significant amount of risk and should probably be avoided.

To the rankings!

Best values

1. Artemi Panarin He will not be cheap but he is a superstar talent, one of the most productive players in all of hockey since he arrived in the NHL, a game-changing player, and still at an age where he should have several years of elite production ahead of him. If you can sign him, you should definitely sign him because you will not regret it.

2. Joe Pavelski During his peak Pavelski was one of the best goal scorers in the league and a criminally underrated player. As he started to get further into his 30s the goal-scoring started to decline because, well, that’s what happens when you get older. That aspect of his game saw a resurgence this past season with 38 goals in 75 games for the Sharks. That is great. What is not great is that resurgence was driven almost entirely by a 20.2 shooting percentage that was not only the highest of his career, but also way above his career average (12.5 percent). If you are expecting him to duplicate that in his age 35 season you are going to be in for a massive disappointment. Still, if he averages the same number of shots per game this upcoming season and simply shoots at his career average you are looking at around 25 goals. Combined with everything else he brings to the ice you are still getting a hell of a player, and because he is not likely to get a 5-7 year contract given his age, there is still probably a lot of value to be had here.

3. Jake Gardiner A couple of bad Game 7s will ruin his reputation among some in Toronto, but it would be idiotic to define his career (or define him as a player) based on that. He is the top defender on the market now that Erik Karlsson has re-signed in San Jose.

Boom or Bust

4. Sergei Bobrovsky We need to put Bobrovsky on a tier all to himself because he has the potential to be a worthwhile signing, while also maybe being an overpayment that also carries some significant risk. I just don’t feel strongly enough about any of those tiers to comfortably put him in one.

He has been one of the best goalies of his era and has two Vezina Trophies and an elite save percentage to prove it.

He has, at times, carried the Columbus Blue Jackets through the regular season.

He has also flopped spectacularly in the playoffs and is going to be 31 years old at the start of the 2019-20 season.

He is the best goalie available (and one of the best players available) and is probably going to end up in Florida with a HUGE contract.

His career probably is not going to just immediately crumble because he is 31 years old, but how many more years of elite play does he have in him? It is a worthwhile question to ask.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Potential overpays (but still good)

5. Matt DucheneDuchene might be the second biggest “name” on the market after Panarin, and if this were a ranking of just pure talent and who could make the biggest impact this upcoming season he would probably second or third on the list. But when you sign a free agent you are not just getting that player’s current level of production. You get the contract, the age, the likely decline, and everything that comes with it.

My biggest issue with Duchene is he seems likely to get a $9 or $10 million salary on a long-term contract and I am not sure he is a $9 or $10 million player for another six or seven years. Or even for one season. He does not drive possession, he has never really been an elite point producer, and he is not a cornerstone player that your team will be built around. He is still an excellent player and a great complementary piece, but will probably have a contract that is a tier above what he actually is (and will eventually be in the future) as a player. Such is life in free agency.

6. Gustav Nyquist — He was still a great possession-driving player on some forgettable Detroit teams the past couple of years and he is going to score 20-25 goals for you. Will you pay more than you want for him? Probably, but he is also going to help your team.

7. Mats Zuccarello He is coming off a productive season when he was healthy, and he is still a creative playmaker, but he is set to enter his age 32 season and anytime you are dealing with players on the wrong side of 30 on the open market you run the risk of overpaying both short-term and long-term, especially when they are not truly elite in any one area.

8. Anders LeeAn outstanding net-front presence on the power play and a total wrecking ball around the crease. But how confident are you in a seven-year (or eight-year if it is the Islanders that re-sign him) contract for a 29-year-old forward that plays a physically demanding style and may not age gracefully given his skillset? You might get a couple of 30-goal seasons out of him but he also might be a buyout candidate before the contract ends.

9. Robin Lehner He was never as bad as his final season in Buffalo looked, but if you pay him based on the season he had this past season for the Islanders you might be setting yourself up for disappointment.

10. Justin WilliamsAge is obviously a concern but you know what you are getting. What you are getting is great two-way play, 20-goals, 50-points, and a durable player that is going to be in your lineup every night. Eventually father time beats everyone, but Williams has not really shown any sign of slowing down. Yet.

11. Ryan Dzingel It all depends on the term. He should be a good second-line player and does not turn 28 until March, so you are still getting a player that is somewhat closer to his peak level of performance than most of the free agent forwards available.

12. Micheal Ferland He is more than just a big body that delivers hits; he can play and he can score some goals and he can do a lot of really good things on the ice. But there is at least one team out there that is going to look at the St. Louis Blues and think they have to pay a premium to get bigger and more physical just for the sake of getting bigger and physical.

13. Brett Connolly A good player coming off a career year in a free agent class where he will be somebody’s Plan B once the top players get signed. That is a recipe for a bad contract.

Risky signings

14. Marcus Johansson If he is healthy you are getting a productive top-six forward, but injuries have derailed his career the past two years. The recent history of head injuries is concerning.

15. Anton Stralman At one time, not that long ago, he was the perfect shutdown, defensive-defender for the modern NHL. But he is going to be 33 years old and coming off an injury-shortened season. How much does he have left in the tank?

16. Wayne Simmonds During his peak he was probably one of the two or three best power forwards in the league. He is no longer that player and the decline is very real. If you can get him for a cheap price to be a bottom-six depth player you might still be able to squeeze some value out of him.

17. Corey Perry — The Ducks pretty much had no other choice but to buy out the remainder of his contract this offseason. He is a shell of his former self and is coming off an injury-shortened season where his production completely disappeared. Is there any chance for a rebound? Maybe, but do not expect much of one.

18. Alex Chiasson He scored 22 goals, but almost all of them came as a result of getting some significant ice time alongside Connor McDavid and/or Leon Draisaitl. They are not coming with him to his new team.

19. Tyler Myers He is not a bad player, but he is the exact player that a desperate general manager trying to save his job with a bad team will give a long-term contract to in free agency, leaving it for the next general manager to try and get rid of.

20. Patrick Maroon Always beware of the free agent role player coming from the current Stanley Cup champion that scored a few big goals during that playoff run.

Current team or bust 

Joe Thornton Thornton still has something to offer a team, but let’s be honest, there is only one team he is going to be playing for (the San Jose Sharks) so it really does not make much sense to rank him with the rest of the class given that there is virtually zero chance he plays for somebody else.

Niklas Kronwall Take everything we said about Thornton and simply replace “San Jose” with “Detroit.”

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.

Hischier set to face pressures of contract year

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

The guys at the Spitting Chiclets podcast did an excellent interview last week with Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

Why are we talking about MacKinnon on Devils Day at PHT? Just keep reading.

MacKinnon spoke about his sophomore season being a tough one with just 14 goals after winning the Calder Trophy a year before.

It took him two more seasons before he’d flip a switch in his head, one that would take him from a mid-50-point guy to the near-100-point player he’s been for the past two seasons.

MacKinnon said he was starting to feel like he was a bust after being taken first overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

Now, I’m not saying that Hischier feels the same way. Both are different players. But both are first-overall picks with a tremendous amount of expectations levied upon them, ones that will last throughout their respective careers.

So if MacKinnon was battling mental demons, one could come to the conclusion that Hischier may do so at some point as well.

Hischier dealt with injury in his second year, much like MacKinnon, and was limited to 17 goals and 47 points — down from the 20 goals and 52 points in his rookie season. That said, his points per game rose in his second campaign even if the overall number didn’t.

And none of this is to say that Hischier has been a bust at all. He’s far from that and an excellent two-way center who, now given some tools around him, a great candidate to have a breakout season.

But the pressure is, nevertheless, going to be there for the Swiss kid. There’s a lot of money waiting on the table for him next offseason when his entry-level deal comes to a close.

Hischier remains a massive piece for the Devils moving forward.

The team now has him and Jack Hughes as their 1-2 punch down the spine of the team, a better defense with the addition of P.K. Subban and a greater supporting cast with Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds.

And while the point totals may not jump off the page, the fact is the Devils outscore opponents and create more high-danger scoring chances when Hischier is on the ice.

Hischier is far from being labeled a bust, much like MacKinnon was.

The pressure is on, however, as he enters a season where a big impact could lead to a bigger contract next summer.

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


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

Will Taylor Hall re-sign long-term?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Devils:

1. Has all the offseason work enticed Taylor Hall to re-sign?

In early June, a report from The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta suggested that Hall had no interest in re-signing with the club.

Fast forward a month, and the team that managed just 74 points in a dismal regular season now had Jack Hughes, the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft, P.K. Subban, one of the league’s best defensemen, and were about to embark on adding Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev before August hit.

Ray Shero needed to do something to convince Hall that the Devils were heading in the right direction and perhaps it has worked, although there is still no long-term extension in place for the former Hart Trophy winner.

Hall’s agent, for what it’s worth, says there’s no rush. As does Shero.

And while that may be true, these sort of things only become distractions as the regular season hits in 2019-20. The Devils would certainly need to know by the trade deadline so they could avoid a John Tavares incident.

Two first-overall picks in the past three seasons and a genuine attempt to make the team better has to sit well in Hall’s camp. But there’s always going to be that allure of having the world at his feet with truckloads of money and the ability to chose his destination next summer.

2. What role will Mackenzie Blackwood take on this season? 

Cory Schneider went more than a calendar year without a win and he was horrific to start the season, posting a 0-7-2 record before finally getting that elusive ‘W’ in the middle of February.

From there, he went 6-6-2 with a .927 save percentage down the stretch as he finally looked like the goalie sans the hip issue that had plagued him (and was surgically repaired in May 2018.)

Schneider’s injuries and Keith Kinkaid not being very good allowed the Devils a chance to see what Blackwood could do. And 22-year-old didn’t disappoint, even with the mess in front of him.

In 21 starts he went 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

While Schneider appeared to begin his bounceback from surgery in the last half of the season, Blackwood should see increased time (even if the former is making $6 million a season.) Blackwood appears to be the future in New Jersey and the Devils shouldn’t be married to Schneider being their de facto No. 1.

3. What, if anything, will Shero do the rest of his cap space? 

There’s roughly $8 million still sitting in his kitty, although the team still needs to sign restricted free agent Pavel Zacha.

Evolving Wild’s model has Zacha coming in around the $2 million mark in terms of annual average value, which gives the Devils $6 million-ish to work with they want to strengthen the team further.

Of course, the unrestricted free agent pool has shrunk over the summer, but you wonder if a guy such as Patrick Maroon might make for a good addition in terms of grit and experience.

What about a Ben Hutton on defense to make another improvement on the blue line?

There still may be some bargains out there and the Devils appear to have assembled a team worthy of playoff talk.

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


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

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

2018-19
31-41-10, 74 pts. (8th in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Jack Hughes
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Nikita Gusev
Connor Carrick
John Hayden

OUT
Kurtis Gabriel
Brian Boyle
Keith Kinkaid
Ben Lovejoy
Kenny Agostino
Stefan Noesen
Drew Stafford
Eric Gryba
Eddie Lack

RE-SIGNED
Will Butcher
Mirco Mueller

2018-19 season review

Season grade: F
Offseason grade: A+

Yes, it appears it can all change that quickly for some teams.

Much like the Florida Panthers, who I wrote about last week, the New Jersey Devils can rest easy knowing that last season is going to feel like a distant memory after the summer Ray Shero and Co. put together.

The Devils were very bad last season, so bad that, for the second time in the past three seasons, they were rewarded (thanks to a bit of luck) with the first-overall pick back in June.

They came into the draft lottery with the third-best odds but moved up to spots for the honor of selecting Jack Hughes.

They then shook up the hockey world, dropping a massive trade bomb on the second day of the draft as they acquired P.K. Subban to fortify their blue line.

Getting Hughes and Subban in the same weekend helped take the sting off a poor season where they couldn’t score much and couldn’t stop the puck a whole lot at the other end of the ice.

Just two players cracked the 20-goal plateau, only one player hit 50 points and their goaltending was abysmal. It didn’t help that Taylor Hall was limited to just 33 games because of injury and then there were the rumors of his long-term future not being in East Rutherford.

Some of those questions still remain, especially between the pipes, but there’s a reason for optimism after such a big summer.

Aside from Hughes and Subban, the Devils also added some grit in Wayne Simmonds. It’s a one-year ‘prove it’ sort of deal that will keep Simmonds hungry as he goes searching for a longer-term deal next off season.

And they added a player some consider the best who wasn’t playing in the NHL in Nikita Gusev, a former Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick who was then signed by the Golden Knights last year and then traded to New Jersey in July.

A lot of good has happened since the Devils played their final regular-season game of 2018-19. They’ve had to keep up in an arms race across the Hudson River as the New York Rangers took Kaapo Kakko right after New Jersey took Hughes and added Artemi Panarin in free agency and signed Jacob Trouba to a long-term deal.

Either way, gone should be the days where the Devils aren’t considered a perennial playoff contender.

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


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

Golden questions for Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Let’s examine three key questions for the Predators next season …

1. Is this really a better winning formula?

The Predators could have a deeper offense by adding Matt Duchene, while still having one of the best defense corps in the NHL if Dante Fabbro can make up for enough of what Nashville lost in P.K. Subban. By subtracting from a strength in hopes of bolstering a weakness, maybe the Predators will find a perfect balance.

There’s an uncomfortable possibility that David Poile might have outsmarted himself here, though.

For one thing, what if the Predators sold low on Subban, whose struggles were a bit exaggerated in 2018-19, and was a Norris finalist as recently as 2017-18? It’s difficult to ignore that Subban’s still someone who wins the shot share battle, while Duchene’s possession numbers have regularly been negative/average.

It’s possible that Fabbro might stumble considerably, considering he’s only played in four regular season and six playoff games at the NHL level. It’s also possible that the Predators have overrated both Duchene as a difference-maker and Roman Josi as a defenseman.

One must also wonder if this team’s just made too many changes over the years. They’ve traded for Subban and traded him away, brought in Kyle Turris in a big trade, were fairly bold in trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, and so on. If you’re a stickler for “chemistry,” aren’t you a touch worried?

Duchene hasn’t been on a ton of winning teams during his career, but this is the best roster he’s ever joined … so we’ll see if this works out. At least you can’t accuse the Predators of being too timid.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What kind of goaltending will they get?

Pekka Rinne‘s had his critics over the years, yet he’s shut most of them up. But speaking of years … Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, so there’s a real threat for a decline.

If that drop-off comes in a dramatic way, will promising young goalie Juuse Saros be able to hold down the fort? The 24-year-old was fine in 2018-19 (.915 save percentage), but did stumble a bit at times. Where Rinne is a towering presence, Saros bucks the trend by being a smaller goalie. Might that get exposed with more reps?

If you forced me to choose a duo to roll with in 2019-20, this one would be one of the top options, but as we’ve seen with goalies, that doesn’t mean strong play is a guarantee. With Subban gone and Duchene not exactly a perennial Selke pick, the Predators goalie job could be tougher than ever, and there have been certain stretches where the Predators’ defense already depended upon their goalies more than some might think. (Example: they were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed in 2018-19.)

3. Did they fix their power play?

Duchene changes the Predators’ personnel options, and they changed to a new power play coach in Dan Lambert.

Ideally, those tweaks will modernize a Predators’ man advantage that relied far too much on point shots from defensemen, and sputtered to the tune of a league-worst 12.9 percent success rate.

With Subban gone, that’s one less force pressuring the Predators to play that way, and maybe lean more toward a three-forward, two-defensemen setup, compared to the wider league trend toward four forward, one defenseman setups.

Will those changes be enough to improve that woeful unit? Maybe positive regression would have taken care of some of that bad production, anyway?

The Predators might flat-out need a better power play if their new-look team isn’t as impressive at even-strength, so we’ll see.

***

There are a lot of questions swirling around Nashville, but the most fascinating one is: are they actually better than they were last season? The Predators certainly are gambling a lot on that being the case.

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.