Jake Gardiner

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

13 Comments

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.

Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

2 Comments

After the Sharks signed Erik Karlsson to that megalodon of an extension on Monday, the already-thin free agent market for defensemen dried up that much more. It’s tempting to depict that group as a tumbleweed rolling through a dusty town.

Of course, that’s not totally fair.

There are a few good defensemen available, at least if teams find the right combination of contract and role.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always so sober when demand simply can’t meet supply, as there simply aren’t a lot of great UFA options when it comes to defensemen. Scratch that: there simply aren’t a lot of passable UFA options, at least when you consider likely price tags.

With some help from Cap Friendly’s UFA tools, let’s look at the most prominent potential UFA defensemen, and try to get an idea regarding whether they’re worth splurging on.

Let’s start with Jake Gardiner, who in my opinion is the best option potentially available, and then contrast Gardiner with Tyler Myers, who stands out as a huge risk for less savvy NHL teams.

Also, a quick note: there’s a chance that some of these defensemen will just return to their current teams, rather than hitting the free agent market. So keep that in mind, too.

  • Jake Gardiner: The 28-year-old has been the Maple Leafs’ second-best defensemen for some time now, which may rank as a curse more than anything else. Every mistake is magnified, and every wart shines under the spotlight.

Overall, Gardiner is a very productive scoring defenseman – throwing out lockout seasons, he’s only failed to reach 30+ points once – and tends to check out pretty well from a possession standpoint.

Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he’s every good, particularly when you realize just how tough it is to land quality blueliners. If I were a GM who absolutely needed to get better on defense now, and couldn’t pull off a trade, Gardiner would be far and away my target. But, if he gets paid too much, then Gardiner will be a go-to scapegoat. Sadly, that’s just how sports work.

Looking at Evolving Wild’s salary projections spreadsheet, a potential Gardiner contract would clock in at seven years, with just less than $7 million in AAV. That term leads me to believe that Gardiner would eventually become a source of harsh scorn, but really, giving scary term away is just the nature of the beast. (I’m a huge proponent for Erik Karlsson, but that deal adds a huge block to what was already a wobbly Jenga puzzle that is the Sharks’ salary structure.)

I don’t know if $7M-ish is ideal for Gardiner, and big term would scare me, but teams could do worse, especially if they’re really opening up their wallets.

[More: Sharks’ salary cap challenges after Karlsson extension]

  • Tyler Myers: While Gardiner tends to shoulder too much blame, Myers sometimes gets a free pass from hockey people.

Those hockey people see a massive 29-year-old defenseman who can score, and who can skate remarkably well for his size. For whatever reason, many look away from Myers’ mistakes more than they would with Gardiner, and that’s a problem since Myers takes away more from the table than someone like Gardiner does.

The red flags become flashing neon signs the deeper you look.

Sean Tierney’s Visualization uses Evolving Wild’s GAR metrics to provide a snapshot of certain player values, and it’s eye-popping to see how poorly Myers checks out, including looking worse than Dmitry Kulikov, a defenseman the Jets should be eager to trade away for cap space:

Via Sean Tierney, with Evolving Wild data

To be clear: I’m not saying that Myers can’t be the type of player who would help a team. Instead, I’m saying that he profiles as someone who will cost way too much, and thus will be asked to do too much, and there’s a strong chance that an expensive mistake would be made.

Again, there are a lot of red flags, and I’m not alone in seeing them with Myers.

  • Alexander Edler: For the second season in a row, the veteran defenseman scored 34 points, and this last time he did so in just 56 regular-season games. The 33-year-old generally brings a respectable two-way game to the table, too, so there’s some appeal there.

Edler’s an interesting choice if a team can stomach forking over a fairly beefy cap hit, but doesn’t want to hand out the sort of term Gardiner-types likely will demand.

At 33, there’s definitely a risk of a plummet, especially if Edler mainly looks promising compared to a rough group of Canucks defensemen, and might not be that much of a difference-maker on a contender.

So, there are some worries … but Edler is one of the better options beyond Gardiner, at least if you’re talking about more prominent choices (assuming he makes it to UFA status).

  • Anton Stralman – There was a time when Stralman was underrated, but now the risk is that a team’s view of the Swede would be steeped in the past. Stralman’s not the same player at 32, and the projected cost of $4.5M AAV for three years is downright scary for a potential suitor.

Now, could Stralman be a reclamation project if he fell into a PTO-type situation? That would be a fair question to ask. Actually, most of the veterans on this list should be approached that way. If you like a guy, don’t splurge early and heighten your risks. Instead, hope for a tepid market, and strike. If not? Chances are, you saved yourself money and a roster spot.

  • Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth – On one hand, you could make bigger mistakes. On the other hand … are you sure that you can’t get similar value from a prospects climbing to the NHL?
  • Braydon Coburn – At 34, an older version of Benn/Nemeth.
  • Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf – Name recognition might let them hang around, but your team is likely better off looking elsewhere.
  • Ron Hainsey, Deryk Engelland – Two players who’ve generally exceeded low expectations lately. Unfortunately, that only means so much, and you can’t ignore just how old they are. Hainsey is 38, and Engelland is 37. Veterans like these can get a salary boost because of past accomplishments, and that could be enough to drop them from “Eh” to “Oh no.”
  • Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid – More former Rangers defensemen teams might ponder, and more “Meh.”

If you’re like me, you’ve grimaced at quite a few names on this list, or at best shrugged your shoulders.

To reiterate, not every hypothetical situation ends in disasters. PHT will monitor this offseason for that very reason: maybe a team will be creative in making something work, or conversely, make huge mistakes based on faulty assumptions.

As far as moves that can be truly substantial, Gardiner stands out as the most appealing option; even then, handing Gardiner big money and big term is pretty scary. So … the UFA route ultimately seems like a perilous one, at least for defensemen.

That’s just one person’s opinion, however. Would you want your team to go after any of the above defensemen, or other options on this list?

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.

Maple Leafs’ biggest question: Who will follow Kessel out the door?

7 Comments

When Phil Kessel was traded, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan called it a “recognition” that “what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.”

But for all that Kessel was criticized during his time in Toronto, he was only one piece of the core that “wasn’t good enough.” Hence, the trade speculation that continues to surround Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and many others.

Basically, if you played for the Leafs last year and your name isn’t Morgan Rielly, if you’re still on the roster, you may not be for long.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, it’s not a great time to be dumping salaries. They had to eat part of Kessel’s contract to move him to Pittsburgh. They’d likely be asked to do the same in any swap involving Phaneuf, Bozak, or Lupul, the latter of whom may be untradeable, period.

And remember that a team can only retain the salaries of three players. Kessel is on the books through 2022. Carl Gunnarsson is on there (for a paltry $200,000) through next season.

In addition to the veterans, there’s the younger guys like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Jonathan Bernier. They still have to show management that they can be part of the long-term solution.

To illustrate, here’s what Mike Babcock said when Kadri re-signed for one year: “I expect him to be an elite player. He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us.”

Gauntlet: thrown down.

A youngish player like James van Riemsdyk isn’t safe either, even after leading the Leafs with 27 goals last season. The 26-year-old has three years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. So, do the Leafs envision him re-signing? Because the way they’re talking, he’ll be closing on 30 when the team is ready to start contending.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that,” said Shanahan.

“We’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

In the meantime, expect the Leafs to be active on the trade front, as it’s out with old core and in with the new.

Related: Wings reportedly no longer interested in Phaneuf

Under Pressure: Mike Babcock

9 Comments

When you’re the highest-paid coach in the history of the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you take over the most valuable team in the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you go to work under the most media scrutiny in the league, well, you get the point.

Mike Babcock is fully aware that the Toronto Maple Leafs represent the biggest challenge of his career.

“Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map,” he said upon his much-ballyhooed hiring.

“I love to win. I have a burning desire to win.”

Smartly, he also bought himself some time to accomplish that goal.

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” he said. “This is going to be a long process. This is going to be a massive, massive challenge.”

So it’s not like the Leafs have to compete for a Stanley Cup next year. They don’t even have to make the playoffs.

But there has to be some semblance of progress, whether it’s from younger players like Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, or simply in terms of how the Leafs go about their business.

“Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up,” Babcock vowed at the draft. “We’re going to be a fit, fit team. We’re going to be a team that comes to the media everyday, after a win, after a loss, after practice, and owns their own stuff. Period.”

In other words, the Leafs can’t be a big ol’ tire fire again.

And remember, even with a Stanley Cup and a pair of Olympic gold medals on his coaching resume, Babcock still has his doubters. Not that he’s a good coach — pretty much everyone agrees that he’s a good coach — but that he’s as good as advertised.

The doubters point to the Red Wings team he won with in 2008, headlined by Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg. They point to the loaded 2010 and 2014 editions of Team Canada. They say those teams could’ve won with just about any half-decent coach behind the bench.

And let’s face it, they’ve kind of got a point.

But if he can win with the Leafs?

“I’d like to be the best coach in my generation,” Babcock said in a magazine profile before he took the job in Toronto.

That’s pressure.

Babcock lays down the law — ‘Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up’

22 Comments

SUNRISE — Mike Babcock has yet to meet in person with any of the Toronto Maple Leafs players. While he did speak to all of them over the phone, first he wanted to “get through the draft and see who was on our team.”

For now, Phil Kessel remains a Maple Leaf. As do Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer, and all the other Leafs who’ve had their names raised in trade speculation.

Whoever ends up staying, their new coach has a message for them.

“The number-one characteristic of a Toronto Maple Leaf is a good human being. Period,” Babcock said. “So if you don’t fit that, you’re not going to be here. Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up.

“We’re going to be a fit, fit team. We’re going to be a team that comes to the media everyday, after a win, after a loss, after practice, and owns their own stuff. Period.”

It should be noted that the media did not ask Babcock about the media. He was answering an open-ended question about his “expectations” for the players.

Related: Kessel admits ‘responsibility to talk’ to reporters…but ‘not every day’