Alex Chiasson

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.

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.

Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom set for return

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The Washington Capitals best center and one of the best set-up men in the NHL will make his debut in this season’s Eastern Conference Final on Thursday.

After taking the morning skate, getting rotated in on line rushes and working with the top power-play unit, Nicklas Backstrom will make his return to the Capitals lineup after a two-week layoff with a hand injury he sustained in Game 5 of second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Backstrom’s return comes at just the right time as the Capitals look to bounce back from a Game 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and earn a split at home. The Capitals lead the best-of-7 series 2-1.

It appears Alex Chiasson will make way for Backstrom’s return.

Backstrom’s usage will be front and center in the game.

He didn’t skate with his familiar second line during line rushes and could get someone else to take faceoffs as to not put his hand through any more stress than it needs to, per the Washington Post.

Even without Backstrom in the dot, his return is only slightly less of a boost than it already was.

Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin together again on the power play could spell disaster for the Lightning if they’re undisciplined in the game. And Backstrom’s overall vision and passing skills, even at less than 100 percent, are elite.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


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 Ottawa Senators day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa’s 2014-15 campaign was one for the record books.

Thanks to a remarkable 23-4-4 run down the stretch, the Sens staged a furious comeback to make the playoffs, becoming the first team in NHL history to qualify for the postseason after sitting 14 points back.

“It was special,” said Kyle Turris, per Sportsnet. “So many things happened and so many guys stepped up. It was a real special run and we won’t forget and we’ll learn from ultimately going forward.”

It was a special run indeed, and one filled with emotion. The Sens dealt with adversity throughout the way; GM Bryan Murray was diagnosed with colon cancer, assistant coach Mark Reeds passed away just before the playoffs and owner Eugene Melnyk was gravely ill before a successful liver transplant.

From that adversity, some new stars came shining through.

Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond went from obscure backup goalie to one of the NHL’s best stories, posting a 20-1-2 record with a .929 save percentage. The rookie tandem of Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone carried the club offensively at times, with Stone finishing the runner-up for the Calder. Erik Karlsson won his second career Norris trophy, and Turris continued to emerge as a bonafide No. 1, playmaking center.

In light of all that, Ottawa’s season had to be considered a success, even with its disappointing opening-round playoff loss to Montreal.

Off-season recap

It was a quiet summer in Ottawa. All of the club’s young skaters — Hammond, Stone, Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Alex Chiasson — were re-signed, and Murray did little in free agency.

At the draft, Murray sent goalie Robin Lehner to Buffalo (along with David Legwand), which gave him two first-round picks; the Sens then proceeded to select Quebec League d-man Thomas Chabot, and USNTDP product Colin White.

Arbitrator awards Sens’ Hoffman one-year, $2M contract

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The Ottawa Senators went two-for-two in arbitration cases this summer.

Senators forward Mike Hoffman requested a salary of $3.4 million from an arbitrator while the Senators countered at $1.75 million. The ruling came down this afternoon largely in favor of Ottawa as Hoffman will earn $2 million in 2015-16, per the team’s Twitter feed.

This comes after forward Alex Chiasson asked for $2.475 million against Ottawa’s $1 million and was ultimately awarded a $1.2 million deal. Chiasson had 11 goals and 26 points in 76 contests last season, down from 35 points in 79 games with Dallas in 2013-14.

Hoffman was coming off of a considerably stronger season offensively though as he scored 27 goals and 48 points in 79 contests. However, the 25-year-old had only participated in 29 NHL contests prior to the 2014-15 campaign, so he still needs to prove that he can maintain or build upon his recently established career-highs.

Ottawa has now settled with all of its restricted free agents, although the stage is set for the Senators to renegotiate with Chiasson and Hoffman again next summer as they’re scheduled to become restricted free agents again. If Hoffman has another strong season and Chiasson is able to bounce back, then Ottawa will be in a considerably more difficult negotiating position.

For now though, the Senators are getting both forwards at close to the price they wanted.

Report: Hoffman seeking $3.4 million, against Sens’ request of $1.75 million

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Assuming his arbitration hearing goes forward Thursday, Senators forward Mike Hoffman will be seeking almost double what his team will be requesting in salary.

According to CBC Sports’ Tim Wharnsby, Hoffman’s ask is $3.4 million against the Sens’ $1.75 million.

Hoffman had 27 goals and 21 assists in 2014-15. The 25-year-old winger finished sixth in the voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy.

The large majority of arbitration cases get settled before a hearing is even held. However, it’s worth noting that Hoffman’s teammate, Alex Chiasson, required a verdict to be handed down.

So far this offseason, Chiasson’s is the only case to actually be decided by an arbitrator.

Related: Hoffman unsure about long-term deal with Sens