Joe Thornton

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NHL Free Agency: Five UFAs who could provide value

The dust has settled on free agent frenzy and many of the best players on the board are now off it.

But there are always some stragglers, players who are quite good at their craft who haven’t signed with a team just yet. Whether it be term, money, or doubt, or a combination of all three, several players remain ready to be plucked off the board.

Below is a list of five players who would provide teams with solid players. Not all of these players come out of the bargain bin, but all would make teams better in the right environment. Some have been left out entirely, guys like Joe Thornton who is probably only going to re-sign in San Jose, or Patrick Marleau, who seems to only have one team in mind. Ditto for Niklas Kronwall.

Honorable mentions: Derrick Brassard

5. Patrick Maroon

Ah, yes. The prototypical “room guy.” The one who plays the role of a hype beast and can also bring it on the ice. Maroon is that guy. He was a centerpiece of the St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup run, combining timely on-ice contributions with off-ice stuff that equally important, according to his teammates. He’s been a pretty decent possession player over the course of his career and puts up some OK points. He’s reliable. He boosts his team’s morale. He’s a perfect fit for St. Louis in that he’s the hometown guy, but not a perfect fit given the salary cap.

4. Ryan Dzingel

Dzingel is coming off a season where he recorded career highs in goals (26), assists (32) and points (56) but has yet to be signed by a team. Perhaps recency bias is playing some part in that. He didn’t exactly light the world on fire once traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets from Ottawa at the deadline. For a player who averages a little over a half-point per game, he was around that with 12 points in 21 regular season games. He was basically invisible in the playoffs, however, scoring just once in nine games. His possession numbers don’t jump off the page, but he played on a very bad Senators team. He hovered around 50 percent on a good Senators team from a couple of years ago.

Evolving Wild’s salary projection has him signing a four-year deal worth $4.25 per annum. Dzingel’s issue, at this point, is that teams who might want him may not be able to pay that. Still, teams like Chicago and Edmonton could certainly use a top-six guy like that with a little finagling.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

3. Micheal Ferland

Ferland is an interesting player, one who still combines a physical game with one is also tailored to the modern way of playing. In short, he’s an increasingly rare specimen that possesses the puck well, scores goals and will take your head off if afforded the opportunity. Ferland’s knocks are his durability. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule. And he can be inconsistent. He had 11 goals by the third week of November last season and then went 11 games without one. He closed out the regular season without scoring in the final 17 games he played. He then went goalless in the playoffs — seven games — and was also injured for a time as the Hurricanes marched to the Eastern Conference Final. Much like Dzingel, recency bias could be playing a part here. Evolving Wild has him making $4.1 million per year over a four-year deal. It’d not outlandish money, but there’s some risk attached to it.

2. Justin Williams

The 37-year-old isn’t getting any younger, but even at his age, he’s still producing 20-goal and 50-point seasons with relative ease. If you’re looking for durability, he’s your man having missed just three games in the past six years. If you’re looking for leadership, he’s got that, too. He’s a three-time Stanley Cup winner and has a Conn Smythe Trophy bearing his name. His possession numbers are incredible as well — elite over the past two years, including a 57.89 CF% last season. Since 2007 (as far back as Natural Stat Trick goes, Williams has never had a season below 50 percent.) Nearly 1,250 games into his NHL tenure, Williams isn’t aging the same way many do.

Evolving Wild’s metric has Williams signing a three-year contract worth just shy of $6 million a season. It seems absurd for a man of his age, but the numbers don’t lie. He puts up Kevin Hayes points and possession numbers rivaled by few others, boosting his teammates along the way. It works in Carolina and it seems as if Williams is Hurricanes or retirement at this point.

1. Jake Gardiner

Yes, there’s a top-four defenseman still on the list of UFAs yet to have a deal. That ugly playoff game from a couple years back became old news when the Maple Leafs were without Gardiner for 20 games last season. His absence showed that they missed him and his 50-point capabilities and 50-point defensemen earn many millions of dollars in today’s NHL. Perhaps that’s holding up proceedings. It shouldn’t be. Over the past three seasons, Gardiner has only become a better defenseman. His goals above replacement during that span is ninth in the league in all situations at 35.6 (fifth at even strength)

There are many more graphs and other things that show that Gardiner is a solid player. He’s looking for $7 million a season, according to reports. It’s probably a sticking point that shouldn’t be, but cash-strapped teams like the Winnipeg Jets, who might otherwise be interested in replacing Jacob Trouba with a player that’s showed just as well, are priced out unless they commit to some serious (and further) roster surgery. Perhaps the New Jersey Devils should make a play. Already having traded for P.K. Subban, Gardiner would only make that backend more formidable.

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

Sharks’ Labanc bets big on himself with team-friendly extension

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For all the talk of potential offer sheets this summer, if you were making a list of prime candidates to sign one and ensure a big raise Kevin Labanc of the San Jose Sharks would be on it.

The 23-year-old Labanc is coming off his third NHL season, one in which he increased his goals and points totals yet again. He’s gone from 8 to 11 to 17 goals and 20 to 40 to 56 points since breaking into the league in 2016-17. He also played well under the spotlight during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs scoring four times and recording nine points in 20 games. Entering restricted free agency this summer, you figured he wasn’t going to break the bank but he was certainly going to earn a nice bump from his $742,500 salary this past season.

Instead, Labanc decided to bet on himself for a one-year term worth $1 million. It’s a head-scratcher of a deal every time you read it. Just last week Timo Meier, who has 108 points in 193 games with the Sharks, signed a four-year, $24 million extension as an RFA. Labanc has 116 points in 214 games and is taking a big risk not cashing in now. Another strong season and he’ll certainly get a longer-term, bigger-money extension next summer as he’ll remain an RFA with arbitration rights, but one year? One million dollars? Just odd.

“It was, I think, just the best decision for myself and for the team,” Labanc said on Monday. “I’m just looking forward to the enhanced role and the upcoming season, and I believe my best hockey is ahead of me.”

“The combination of betting on himself with the situation he’ll be in next year, and the belief he has in himself, that’s exciting to us,” said Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. “We have no problem taking care of our own guys as they grow and evolve.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Stranger was the fact that Labanc, who said he was “comfortable” and “confident” with the contract, added that he was not approached by any NHL teams about signing an offer sheet. He would have had to have been interested in signing one, of course, but surely you would have thought many teams would have been calling his agent to offer a contract with a longer term and bigger dollars. 

According to the 2019 offer sheet compensation requirements, a deal signed with an average annual value of between $2,113,717 and $4,227,437 would require a team to surrender only one second round pick. An AAV offer in the $4,227,438 to $6,341,152 range would cost one first-round pick and one third-round pick. Labanc would have surely fallen somewhere between those two areas if a team really want to try and pry him out of San Jose.

As we wait to see if Joe Thornton will decide to come back on another one-year deal, the Sharks are a little more than $5 million under the salary cap ceiling, per Cap Friendly. Take Jumbo’s AAV, add that to the likely deals for RFAs Dylan Gambrell and Antti Suomela, and the probable return of Patrick Marleau, and it’s going to be a tight fit. Labanc’s team-friendly deal helps a lot here.

“It’s an important contract for us, but also a great opportunity for a guy whose game is just going to grow,” said Wilson.

With Joe Pavelski off to Dallas and Gustav Nyquist heading to Columbus, the opportunity is there for more ice time for Labanc. He averaged 14:01 a night last season and he’s part of a young core of Sharks forwards who will continue to develop together.

“I definitely see myself taking a bigger role,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity up there, and I think last year was a stepping stone for me to kind of prove myself that I can handle that top-six role. I’m looking forward to next season and I’m looking forward to be one of the top players on the team.”

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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.

Sharks re-sign RFA Labanc to one-year deal

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The San Jose Sharks announced on Monday afternoon that they have signed restricted free agent forward Kevin Labanc to a one-year contract.

The team did not announce the financial terms of the deal, but Kevin Kurz of the Athletic reports it is worth only $1 million.

Both the one-year term and the low salary are a little bit of a surprise given how much progress Labanc made this past season and how much consistent improvement he has shown over his first three years in the league.

He will once again be a restricted free agent following the 2019-20 season and have arbitration rights.

“Kevin took a big step forward in his production last season and has grown into an important part of our team here in San Jose,” said general manager Doug Wilson in a team statement. “He’s always had a dangerous shot but really stepped into a playmaking role for us last season and improved his 200-foot game as well. We think he still has even more potential to tap into and we’re excited to see what he can do with an elevated role with this talented group.”

The 23-year-old Labanc appeared in all 82 games for the Sharks this past season, scoring 17 goals to go with 39 assists, setting career highs in both categories.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

His production, in terms of goals and points as well as his possession numbers, have increased every season he has been in the league.

If that progression continues during the 2019-20 season (and if he gets the bigger role he is hoping for, it should) he could be in line for a significant contract extension next summer.

It is difficult to call this one-year deal a “prove it” contract for Labanc because he has already shown he can perform at a top-six level, but it still kind of has that feel to it. Almost as if the Sharks want to see him do it again, and in a bigger role, before they really invest in him long-term.

With Labanc’s deal now completed, the next order of business for Wilson and the Sharks will be working out a new contract with Joe Thornton and re-signing restricted free agent Dylan Gambrell.

There is also the possibility of a Patrick Marleau reunion after his contract was bought out this summer by the Carolina Hurricanes (following a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs).

After re-signing Labanc the Sharks have around $5.5 million in salary cap space, so it is possible another roster move will have to be coming this summer.

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.

Mixed emotions for Sharks as Meier re-signs, Pavelski leaves

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — For San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, the start of free agency was a day of mixed emotions.

The joy of locking up forward Timo Meier with a four-year, $24 million contract Monday was tempered by the loss of Joe Pavelski to Dallas because the Sharks didn’t have the salary cap room to keep their captain after handing out a $92 million contract to Erik Karlsson last month.

”It’s emotional,” Wilson said. ”You have a heart, you have a head, and you understand these decisions have to be made and they get made. You have mixed emotions. Very excited for Timo, very excited for the opportunities that are coming for the rest of the team. But you love what Joe Pavelski and Sarah brought to this organization for so many years. It’s a reality of this business and this system. That part doesn’t make it any easier.”

Pavelski developed from a unheralded seventh-round pick in 2003 to one of the greatest players in Sharks history, ranking second in team history in goals (355), third in points (761) and fourth in games played (963).

Pavelski, who turns 35 this month, also was a leader as captain the past four seasons and favorite of both the fans and his teammates. Never was that more evident than this past postseason when he suffered a bloody concussion following a cross check in Game 7 of the first round against Vegas.

After he was helped off the ice, his teammates rallied for their fallen leader by scoring four goals on the ensuing major power play to advance to the second round. Pavelski got a thunderous ovation during Game 5 the following round when he came out waving a towel during a break in the third period and then returned to the ice for Game 7 when he scored the first goal.

The Sharks now must replace Pavelski’s scoring (38 goals last season) as well as his leadership.

”When you have a player like that leaving, it’s a chance for young players to step up in a bigger role,” Meier said. ”That’s my mindset, to come into the next season and hopefully get a spot on the first power play, get some more playing time. I want to take full advantage of that opportunity.

Meier, who turns 23 in October, is coming off a breakthrough season when he became a fixture as a top six forward in San Jose. He had 30 goals and 36 assists in 78 games, making a major jump from his first full season when he had 36 points in 81 games.

Making Meier even more valuable was the fact that he did almost all of his damage at even strength, tying for second on the team with 24 goals and ranking second with 55 points in those situations. Meier added five goals and 10 assists in the playoffs.

”When you see players like that play a man’s game and have a great scoring touch, I don’t think you can put a ceiling on where he can get to,” Wilson said. ”The opportunities that will be coming to both him and Tomas Hertl will be very exciting for this franchise.”

The Sharks also re-signed defenseman Tim Heed to a one-year deal. The 28-year-old Heed had two goals and 11 assists in 37 games last season and should slot in to replace Justin Braun on San Jose’s third pairing.

San Jose also lost forwards Gustav Nyquist to Columbus and Joonas Donskoi to Colorado in free agency but could still bring back two franchise icons before long.

Wilson said he hopes to have a deal with forward Joe Thornton finalized in ”due time” after Thornton expressed a desire to return for another season at age 40.

Forward Patrick Marleau also could return two years after leaving for Toronto in free agency. Marleau had the final year of his contract bought out by Carolina last month and has expressed a desire to return to the Sharks. Marleau is the franchise’s all-time leader in goals, points and games played.

Sharks get steal in re-signing Timo Meier

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If you crave drama, and thus have a list of possible offer sheet candidates going, it sounds like you can cross emerging San Jose Sharks winger Timo Meier off of that list.

Meier and the Sharks have come to terms and it’s an absolute steal: just $6 million per year, with a four-year term.

That’s incredible value for a forward who’s rapidly rising on the list of the Sharks’ best forwards – not young forwards, just forwards, period – especially since he’s made such a difference without getting the sort of power play time you’d expect a younger scorer to need. With Joe Pavelski out, Gustav Nyquist removed from the picture, and Joe Thornton examining his future, the odds are high that Meier will ascend to that larger role, probably as soon as 2019-20. Don’t be surprised if eye-popping numbers come with that … in fact, close that offer sheet list, and put Meier on your fantasy hockey sleepers list.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

If you watched Meier during the Sharks’ deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, you saw a guy who could bull his way to scoring chances and generally make life miserable for opponents. My guess is that Meier will massively outpace that $6M cap hit, probably right away.

It’s actually pretty stunning Meier didn’t try to squeeze out more value here. You know it’s a good deal for the Sharks when you see tweets like these:

Now, some might note that the 22-year-old is only locked down for four years. You can be concerned about the future, but it’s remarkable that the Sharks would maintain some RFA power over Meier. Granted, there are elements that work in Meier’s favor, too:

Overall, this is fantastic stuff for the Sharks. Yes, they’ve had to say some painful goodbyes, but in retaining Meier and re-signing Erik Karlsson, San Jose seems keen to find a way to stay in contention. If that window’s open even longer than expected, it will be because Meier can really carry the torch once Karlsson and Brent Burns inevitably slow down.

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.