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.

The Buzzer: First place Coyotes; Zuccarello leads Wild to another win

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Three Stars

1. Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. After a pretty miserable start to the season the Wild are starting to get back on track and picked up their fifth win in a row on Thursday by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4. Zuccarello was the big star for the Wild with three points (his first three-point game of the season) including the game-winner in the third period. His goal came just eight seconds after Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn had tied the game. Things looked bleak for the Wild’s playoff chances in the first month of the season, but their win on Thursday moved them — at least temporarily — into the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.

2. Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes. And which team sits on top of the Pacific Division after Thursday’s action? It is none other than the Arizona Coyotes thanks to their 3-1 win in Philadelphia. They have been road warriors this season and now own a 10-3-3 record over their first 16 away games. They used a two-goal effort from Kessel — as well as another great goaltending performance — on Thursday to get their latest win. Kessel has yet to make the big offensive impact the Coyotes were hoping for this season, but he tends to score goals in bunches and maybe this is the start of one of those runs. Arizona is back in action on Friday when Kessel makes his first return to Pittsburgh since the Penguins traded him over the summer.

3. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin scored the game-winning goal in his return to Columbus, but the biggest difference maker for the Rangers in their 3-2 win was their goalie. Georgiev was sensational, stopping 45 out of 47 shots in helping to steal one for the blue shirts. Read all about that game here.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Petr Mrazek had an eventful night for the Carolina Hurricanes in their 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks. He stopped a lot of shots, picked up a shootout win, and got punched in the face. Read all about it here.
  • Joe Pavelski scored the overtime winner for the Dallas Stars in their 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks let a 3-0 third period lead slip away in Boston against the Bruins, but Jonathan Toews bailed them out in overtime with the game-winning goal.
  • Milan Lucic was finally able to get his first goal of the season for the Calgary Flames. It turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Matt Calvert had a goal and an assist for the Colorado Avalanche in their 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Highlights of the Night

The Wild looked like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Lightning looked like the Washington Generals on this Jason Zucker goal.

The Colorado Avalanche have their top line back together, and Gabriel Landeskog wasted no time in making an impact in his return to the lineup.

Maybe this is the shot that gets Johnny Gaudreau rolling for the Calgary Flames.

Blooper of the Night

Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk accidentally hip-checked a referee in their 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.

Factoids

  • It was a highly competitive night around the league with eight of the nine games being decided by a single goal, including four overtime games. The only game decided by more than one goal was Arizona’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia, and even that was a one-goal game until a late empty-net goal from Kessel. [NHL PR]
  • Thanks to Ryan Pulock‘s overtime goal the New York Islanders extended their point streak on home ice to 12 games. [NHL PR]
  • Jonathan Toews’ overtime goal in Boston was the 14th of his career in the regular season, moving him into a tie for 10th place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]

Scores

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 3, Montreal Canadiens 2
Minnesota Wild 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 4
New York Islanders 3, Vegas Golden Knights 2 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Carolina Hurricanes 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (SO)
New York Rangers 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2
Dallas Stars 3, Winnipeg Jets 2 (OT)
Calgary Flames 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

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.

Mrazek gets punched in mask by Thornton; leads Hurricanes to win

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It was an eventful night for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek.

When it comes to the important stuff — stopping pucks to prevent goals and get a win — he was about as good as he could have possibly been by turning aside 28 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime, as well as all three shots he faced in a shootout, to help lift his team to a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks and bust out of a mini-slump that had seen them lose three of their previous four.

He also had a run-in with Sharks forward Joe Thornton that saw him get punched squarely in the mask.

It all started mid-way through the second period when Thornton attempted to jab at the puck that Mrazek had covered in the crease. Mrazek, taking exception to that jab, then chased after Thornton, swung his stick at the back of Thornton’s leg, stood up to get in his face … then got punched.

There were penalties handed out here, with Thornton getting two minutes each for roughing and slashing, while Mrazek was given a two-minute minor for slashing.

Mrazek was asked after the game if it is tough getting back into the game and maintaining focus after a scrum like that, and he was quick to say that’s actually better for him because it makes him feel like he is in the game.

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.

 

Panarin scores in return to Columbus, helps Rangers steal one

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Artemi Panarin was back in Columbus on Thursday night for the first time since leaving the Blue Jackets to join the New York Rangers in free agency this past summer.

After hearing some early boos from the local crowd, Panarin ended up getting the last laugh and was the difference maker by scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win.

Panarin was the Blue Jackets’ best player for two years and one of the biggest reasons they made the playoffs both years, finally winning their first playoff series a year ago when they upset the heavily favorite Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1.

This is the video tribute the Blue Jackets had prepared for Panarin on Thursday.

So far his time with the Rangers has been everything the team’s management could have hoped for, and with his goal on Thursday is now up to 13 goals and 34 points on the season in his first 27 games.

What has to be especially frustrating for the Blue Jackets in this one isn’t just the fact that Panarin came back to haunt them by scoring the game-winning goal, but they were probably the better team in this game and played well enough to win. They ended up dominating the pace of the game and outshot the Rangers by a 47-19 margin and spent the entire night taking up residence in the Rangers’ end of the rink.

The problem was Alexander Georgiev was a rock in the Rangers’ net.

They also gave up a crushing goal to Brendan Lemieux in the closing seconds of the first period, erasing what had been a 1-0 lead and squandering what was a tremendous start to the game.

The win allowed the Rangers to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race and leaves them just three points back of a Wild Card spot.

The Blue Jackets fall to 11-13-4 and are already eight points back.

Related: Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

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.

 

Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi leaves game after scary fall (Video)

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Scary scene in Montreal on Thursday night during the first period of the Canadiens’ game against the Colorado Avalanche.

Second-year forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi had to leave the game after an ugly fall that resulted in him hitting his head off the ice. He remained on the ice for a few moments before being helped off the ice by teammates with his head slumped over.

The Canadiens announced that he was out for the remainder of the game due to an “upper-body injury.”

You can see the sequence in the video above.

It all happened after Kotkaniemi was pinned against the boards by Nikita Zadorov, and then fell backwards. There are a lot of problems with Zadorov’s hit, including the fact it looked to be very late (the puck was long gone from Kotkaniemi when Zadorov initiated the hit) as well as the fact he appeared to lift his right leg and swing into the back of Kotkaniemi’s, knocking him backwards. That doesn’t really qualify as a slew-foot, but everything about the play itself seemed unnecessary.

There was no penalty called on the play.

The Canadiens are already playing without two key forwards in Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron.

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.