With the NHL salary cap flat for the near future, a lot of pending free agents are kicking themselves. (Sorry, Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo.)
But the “free agent frenzy” can still inspire teams to open their wallets. Heck, the Wild just handed $42M to defensive defenseman Jonas Brodin.
You know what gets the wallets cracking even more? Thoughts of adding that clutch piece. That logic can really fly out the window when a player drives his team’s playoff success, especially when that ends with a raising of the Stanley Cup. Let’s look at top free agents from the remaining teams in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs: which Dallas Stars, New York Islanders, and Tampa Bay Lightning free agents might be bumping up their value?
Of course, Anton Khudobin is as prominent as a sliding Semyon Varlamov here. Let’s start with the team we already know is headed to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
Key Stars free agents heading into Stanley Cup Final
Even Khudobin’s boosters would’ve been surprised to see him share headline space with Mathew Barzal, but here we are.
As covered recently, Khudobin’s built an impressive resume as something of a super backup. It’s difficult to place what kind of contract would be appropriate, and even what contract Khudobin should set his sights on.
While it’s not ideal that he’s 34, he at least wouldn’t count as a dreaded 35-plus contract. His save percentage with the Stars is impeccable (.926 in 71 games played over two regular seasons), and his career save percentage is better than most hand-picked NHL starters (.919).
You may have heard this during various broadcasts as Khudobin’s workload piled up, but he also hasn’t really carried a big burden very often in his career. Khudobin set a career-high with 41 games played with Dallas in 2018-19, and he boasts four other seasons of 30-plus appearances (including a stout showing this season).
So, the ideal fit is probably still a platoon situation. Could that boil down to staying with the Stars? Ben Bishop is on the hook for about $5M in cap space per season through 2022-23, so that would entail a lot of money wrapped up in goalies. (Khudobin falling anywhere near his current $2.5M cap hit would be a fireable offense for his agent.)
With quite a few names likely to hit the free agent market, it’s that much tougher to forecast what’s ahead for Khudobin. Except you’d almost be certain it’s a raise.
[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
Young restricted free agents such as Hintz, Faksa
After Roope Hintz made a splash during the 2019 postseason, many pictured a breakthrough for the occasionally bulldozing forward. But like with Denis Gurianov and other young forwards, the Stars have been reluctant to take the training wheels off of Hintz, including dropping the 23-year-old’s postseason ice time considerably from last year (16:06) to this run (14:02).
If you’re a Stars fan who’s been frustrated by this, that’s understandable, especially since Hintz managed 19 goals this season despite tepid use. But at least that might keep his earning power down?
- At the other end of the spectrum, Radek Faksa is a low-scoring, high-leverage forward, and has been for some time for the Stars. The 26-year-old is arbitration-eligible, so that could be interesting to watch.
- Speaking of Gurianov, he’s an RFA, as well. Gurianov followed a 20-goal (albeit with just nine assists) regular season with what’s been a productive postseason. As hot-and-cold as his production has been, Gurianov sits at 17 points (8G, 9A) in 21 playoff games.
- Corey Perry suffered through a lousy regular season, and his playoff numbers don’t jump off the page. Yet, even so, it wouldn’t be surprising if Perry, 35, gets snatched up by a team looking for a scrappy veteran who can draw penalties.
- Speaking of scrappy veterans, Andrej Sekera may be over his significant, career-threatening injury issues. We’ll see if he’s done enough to get another look as a depth piece in the NHL.
Closing Stars salary cap thoughts
All things considered, the Stars are in a fascinating spot to possibly exploit a chaotic market, much like their pals in Colorado. Having an estimated $15.5M in cap space might encourage them to overextend to keep Khudobin, which is understandable since this team is very goalie-reliant. (Also: Bishop gets hurt about as often as he plays extremely well, which is a real bummer.)
But if the Stars decided to try some bold moves? That would be awfully interesting.
Islanders face challenges in fitting in restricted free agents Barzal, Pulock
Setting a high Barzal
If you look at Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool, a $9.581M cap hit would be appropriate for eight years of Mathew Barzal’s services. While it wouldn’t be surprising if that projection tool received a(nother?) post-pandemic revision, it wouldn’t be outrageous to actually give Barzal that kind of money. He’s a special player, and would make gobs of dough on an actual free market.
But Barzal is a restricted free agent at 23, and Lou Lamoriello is likely to be about as yielding as a brick wall here. One can only speculate about the threat of an offer sheet, especially in this financial climate.
As of this writing, the Islanders hold about $9M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly. There’s certainly room for wiggling (ever visited “Robidas Island,” Andrew Ladd?), but this won’t be easy. And it might make Lamoriello’s GM of the Year work feel like Belt Tightening for a Decade.
That’s because the Islanders have more than just a superstar to wrap up …
Not just Barzal, either
The Islanders have a fascinating salary structure.
Forwards: Tons of term, varying degrees of quality.
Defensemen: Very little term, with Scott Mayfield being the “lifer” with three years remaining at $1.45M per.
Goalies: Semyon Varlamov for three more years, Ilya Sorokin as his understudy.
So, there are some key decisions looming.
- Two very valuable RFA defensemen need new deals: Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews. Pulock is the Islanders’ leader in average ice time (22:31) this postseason, while Toews has been a key contributor during this push (20:27). Locking those down, whether via “bridge” deals or contracts with term, will be tricky.
- The Islanders paid a pretty penny to “rent” Andy Greene, and at 37 amid cap challenges, that’s probably it. Right?
- You’d also think that they can’t make Matt Martin or Derick Brassard fit, but Lou and Barry Trotz both love Martin-type players, so who knows?
- Thomas Greiss is virtually certain to be gone, and being that he’s provided Khudobin-like value for much of his career, could end up being dearly missed. (If I were a GM, I’d cross my fingers that Greiss slips under the radar and becomes an affordable platoon option.)
More dark salary cap arts from “Loophole Lou?”
Being that Lamoriello has had almost creepy tendency to “make things work,” I’m sure he has a plan. Frankly, I’m elated to find out what that is, because this is going to require some Houdini-like maneuvering.
Free agent losses likely for Lightning as they continue playoff push
Cirelli and Sergachev: biggest Lightning concerns
- Most importantly, they need to find a way to fit Anthony Cirelli under the cap. The good news for the Lightning is that a) they keep getting bargains, over and over, and over and … b) Cirelli isn’t scoring like the star he could end up being.
The Lightning want to save every penny they can, but Evolving Hockey’s projection ($5.8M at a six-year term) would run parallel to Cirelli’s ascent to becoming recognized like Selke winner Sean Couturier (whose similar contract is a boon to the Flyers).
This is probably a good time to mention that you can file many Lightning problems under “problems almost every other NHL teams would like to have.”
- It sure feels like Mikhail Sergachev could enjoy a breakthrough one of these seasons. That said, Tampa Bay’s bringing him along relatively slowly, which might help them suppress his value.
Even so, it wouldn’t be obscene if Cirelli and Sergachev commanded the Lightning’s cap space each. So yeah.
Cernak and others
- There are other interesting players, chiefly another RFA in Erik Cernak. Don’t expect him to fall into a lofty range, but he’s a valuable young defenseman.
- Beyond the bigger names, there are youngsters (Mitchell Stephens, Carter Verhaeghe) and veterans (Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrick Maroon) who only add to the complications. OK, some do. It’s hard to imagine Shattenkirk not costing significantly more than $1.75M.
Closing Lightning salary cap thoughts
Cap Friendly places the Lightning’s cap space at $5.33 million. Uncomfortably, that’s based on $76.16M going to just 15 roster spots.
Clearly, the Lightning are going to need to shift some units here. Considering the circumstances, they might need to go beyond the obvious, such as moving Tyler Johnson‘s $5M.
Much like “Loophole Lou,” the Lightning keep finding ways to make this work. Even when it hurts, like seeing J.T. Miller thrive in Vancouver. (Though that first-rounder will soothe some wounds … or maybe help them buy their way out of some problems?)
Either way, players like Barzal, Khudobin, and Cirelli face more chances to up their value even more as the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs go on. One of them will even get to mention that they’re Stanley Cup champions, pandemic-permitting.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.