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Early Look: Top 15 Impending NHL Free Agents And Where They Might Sign

Free agent season is always a fun time for hockey fans. After the Stanley Cup has been handed out and the Entry Draft is over and done with, it’s pretty much the last entertaining week of the NHL season.

While free agent season 2018 is still seven months away or so, it’s never too early to look at the pending free agents and try to guess where they may end up come September 2018. A quick glance at the class of 2018 suggests it will be one of the deepest UFA pools in recent history, so there’s reason for fans to get excited.

It can be difficult to hypothesize where any given player will choose to sign in the offseason, but you can still make educated guesses based on team need and a player’s situation. Is the player approaching 30 years old and still without a Stanley Cup ring? There’s a good chance he’s going to a contender.

What if a player has already won a few championships? Well, he might want to just chase the money—which can lead to some pretty horrific contracts if a bidding war starts.

Today we look ahead to free agent season 2018, and the big names that might be on the table come July 1. While surely a handful of the names who appear here may sign extensions with their clubs prior to the bug day, this list assumes they don’t.

Without further ado, here they are: the top 15 pending UFAs—and where they’ll sign.

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14 Leo Komarov - New York Rangers

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Leo Komarov is adored in Toronto by the fan base and the organization. His offensive numbers aren’t too impressive, but judging by how he’s deployed there are fewer forwards on the Maple Leafs that coach Mike Babcock trusts more. He’s used in all situations, and often is matched against the opponent’s top line.

Komarov currently carries a cap hit of just shy of $3M per season, and it’s likely he’ll earn a similar dollar amount on his next deal. The question is, where? Komarov is a legitimate third line center with the capability of playing in your top six in a pinch. If he hits the open market, rather than re-signing with Toronto, he’ll get a pay raise. A pay raise that the Rangers will happily give him.

13 Patric Hornqvist - Ottawa Senators

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Patric Hornqvist is currently in his fourth season with the Penguins, having arrived at the start of 2014-15 after a trade that sent James Neal to Nashville. He’s been stellar for the Pens ever since—a fixture in their top six when he’s healthy, and also fairly productive for spurts here and there. He hasn’t ever signed a contract with the Penguins, as he’s playing out the final year of a deal he signed in Nashville in 2013.

His current deal come with an annual cap hit of $4.25M, which is likely what he would get on another contract with Pittsburgh. That said, with the Penguins’ young guns soon to be exiting their entry-level deals, there’ll only be so much money to go around. Do the Pens have the cap space to commit that type of money (and probably a little term, too) to a 30-year-old winger? Doubtful.

The Sens on the other hand, are looking to load up, as evidenced by trading for Matt Duchene. They'll be looking for a winger to fill out their top six.

12 Patrick Maroon - Columbus Blue Jackets

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Patrick Maroon has enjoyed the cushy gig as Connor McDavid’s left-hand man pretty well ever since his arrival in Edmonton late in 2015-16. He’s enjoyed great success in the role, and he’s scored at an unprecedented rate for him, notching 40 tallies through the first 115 games as an Oiler. His current cap hit is a friendly $2M, and we know he’s earned a raise on that.

With Connor McDavid’s $12.5M AAV contract to kick-in next season, the Oilers pretty much cannot afford to retain Maroon, full-stop. That is unless they find a way to shed the Milan Lucic or Kris Russell contracts in the meantime, but that’s a difficult proposition. Of course they could send Ryan Nugent-Hopkins away for pennies on the dollar to clear space, but we’re seeing how well that works in Edmonton this season with the Eberle/Strome deal. Spoiler: not well at all.

The Jackets may have to get creative, but Jack Johnson's contract will be up this summer, which should give them some room to acquire Maroon.

11 Josh Bailey - Florida Panthers

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It’s funny how this seems to happen so often, but Josh Bailey has sure picked a hell of a time to have a career season. The 28-year-old demolished his career high in points last season with 56 (previously it was 41), and this season he’s off to a blistering start, with 18 points through his first 17 games.

Bailey is just finishing up the five year deal he signed with the Isles back in 2013—a deal that carried with it a $3.3M cap hit. If Bailey continues at anywhere near the pace he’s set for 2017-18, he’s in line for a big raise and will likely garner decent term as well. The Islanders have some big roster decisions to make next summer, and Bailey will certainly be near the top of the list of priorities. Can they retain him? It depends on a lot of things, but we’d bet against it.

The Panthers will have plenty of cap space in the offseason and will need to find some help for their core of young centers. They're unlikely to retain Radim Vrbata so that should leave room to upgrade and bring in Bailey.

11. Joe Thornton - Retire

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Jumbo Joe! There's no question that one of the best passers in NHL history has lost a step or two, and he signed a one-year deal with the Sharks this past offseason for $8M. That's a high cap hit for a 38-year-old, and it's of course possible that Thornton calls it a career upon the completion of the deal.

However, if the veteran center decides to play at least one more year, teams will certainly be interested. Surely Thornton won't be expecting another $8M to play for the year, and it's also possible that he has no desire to leave the Bay Area, where he's had his roots since a trade sent him there over a decade ago. Thornton has made it pretty clear he has no intention of playing elsewhere.

10 Mikael Backlund - Calgary Flames

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Calgary’s Mikael Backlund will play his 500th game with the club this season—barring an injury of course—and he’s taken a few steps forward over the past few years. It’s unusual for a forward to take strides at the age of 27 like Backlund did last season by recording a career high 53 points, and with 11 through 18 games in it looks like Backlund’s found the secret potion.

The current deal that Backlund is on—which expires at season’s end, obviously—pays him just north of $3.5M per season, and seeing as that was signed back in 2015 after a 27 point, injury-riddled season, it’s safe to say that Backlund will receive a pay bump come July 1. He's found a good home in Calgary and there's no reason the Flames would let him walk.

9 James van Riemsdyk - Anaheim Ducks

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
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The Maple Leafs are a team that knows how to put the puck in the net, and perhaps flying a bit under the radar in T.O. is veteran winger James Van Riemsdyk. The one they call JVR established a new career high in points in 2016-17, registering 29 goals and 62 points playing predominantly on a line with Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner.

JVR has picked up where he left off, notching 16 points through the first quarter of the 2017-18 season. The Leafs will soon need to start paying their big three (Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander) real money, so it’s doubtful they can afford to re-sign JVR for much north of the current $4.25M he currently costs them. We’ll wait, but smart money has JVR walking.

The Ducks only have five forwards signed beyond 2018, so that'll give them plenty of room to make a spot for JVR on the wing.

8 John Carlson - Los Angeles Kings

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

John Carlson will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career upon the completion of the season, and he will be a hot commodity on the open market. Carlson is a powerplay quarterback for the Caps, and he is playing over 27 minutes a night in the nation’s capital. Needless to say, he’s in line for a hefty raise on his current cap hit that falls just shy of $4M.

Indeed, a minute-munching defenseman who puts points on the board could potentially be the rock star of the offseason, and with the salaries that the Capitals already have committed to the books, I simply can’t see the situation in which they’re able to retain Carlson, so smart money has the American rearguard wearing a different jersey come 2018-19. Carlson would be a great signing to round out the Kings' six D and set them up for Cup contention once again.

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7 Tyler Bozak - Colorado Avalanche

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Tyler Bozak has been a mainstay in Toronto for close to a decade now, making his debut with the blue and white back in 2009-10.During that time he’s played in over 500 games and put up over 300 points, demonstrating that he’s a reliable second-line center in this league. While he’s off to a bit of a slow start offensively this year, he set a career high of 55 points last season.

Toronto is a team that scores a lot, so Bozy finding his touch again soon could just be a matter of playing with the right guys and finding some chemistry. He’s finally back on a line with Mitch Marner and James van Riemsdyk—a trio that enjoyed lots of success last season—so the turnaround could be coming soon. If it does, he’ll get a bump on his $4.2M cap hit.

While the Avalanche are a young team and still building their pieces, they need a veteran presence down the middle and Bozak could provide that, as their true franchise players keep developing.

6 Rick Nash - New York Rangers

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Of all 15 players you’ll find on this list, Rick Nash currently makes the second most money of them all. However, he’s one of just a few players who should expect a pay decrease when he signs this upcoming offseason, and to be frank his pay decrease will be substantial. Nash’s current cap hit is $7.8M, and this contract was signed eight years ago when he was still a Blue Jacket.

While Nash’s point production has fallen off by quite a bit since his days where he could be consistently counted on for a good 65-70, he’s still a dangerous player out there, and the veteran has turned into a pretty reliable two-way option at this stage of his career. One thing is clear: he’s happy in New York, and they like him too. That will be the deciding factor in the end.

5 James Neal - San Jose Sharks

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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With how the season has started in Vegas, I wouldn’t be too surprised if James Neal decided to stay there. He’s always been known to enjoy a party every now and then, and he’s one of the offensive rockstars in the deep-yet-not-top-heavy Golden Knights forward group. At the time of writing Neal has pitched in 10 goals in his first 18 games, leading the expansion club in that category.

Neal’s in the final year of a six-year pact that comes with a $5M cap hit, and his next contract will fall somewhere in that ballpark as well—if he decides to re-sign with Vegas prior to July 1. If Neal elects to take the UFA route—which I would guess that he does—there’s really no telling how much he’ll get paid, but we know it will be too much. With Thornton's contract coming off the books in San Jose, that will give them the cap room needed to sign the real deal, James Neal.

4 Evander Kane - Arizona Coyotes

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

I still can’t decide if Evander Kane is an elite NHL player. Sometimes he looks like he’s capable of potting 40 goals a year, but he’s never been able to put it all together. With that said it can be easy to forget just how young he is, as he’ll still be 26 when July 1 rolls around. I can all but guarantee he’ll be moving on from Buffalo, and there will be suitors.

The question really is, how much will a team throw at Kane? His current cap hit is $5.25M, and he’s talented enough to earn far north of that. The real question with Kane is his maturity. Has he grown up enough for a team to throw a long term, high-value deal at him? Whether he has or he hasn't, the Coyotes are absolutely depleted of talent and even with his troubles, he's too much of an upgrade for them to pass up.

3 Mike Green - Buffalo Sabres

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Mike Green was once a top-tier offensive defenseman, but his production has been on the steady decline lately—until this season, apparently, which is also conveniently a contract year for the 32-year-old. After finishing the last two seasons with 35 and 36 points, Green has shot out of the gate in 2017-18 and has 17 points in his first 19 contests.

Surely Green will slow down a bit, but what if he doesn’t? Teams will line up long for a point-per-game defenseman, even if he’s on the wrong side of 30. Green will likely go with the club that offers him term over dollars, so it’ll be interesting to see where he ends up. He could stay in Detroit, but that’s doubtful considering their cap situation. The Sabres on the other hand, will be looking for some veterans on the back end and with Josh Gorges off the books this summer, that cap space could be used for Green.

2 Paul Stastny - Philadelphia Flyers

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Even if he’s not putting up big points, Paul Stastny is a great all-around hockey player and GMs understand that. As such Stastny will be highly sought after this offseason as he likely looks for the last big contract of his career. He’s 31 years old now, so a contract with term attached could potentially take him to retirement.

The question that leaves us with is just how much will he garner on the open market? His days in St. Louis will likely come to an end, unless Stastny is interested in a hometown discount. His current contract carries a hefty cap hit of $7M, and I’d actually expect that to dip a bit—but only by a bit. Don’t be surprised if he stays north of $6M. The Flyers are unlikely going to keep impending UFA Valtteri Filppula and Stastny, being much younger, is an ideal replacement.

1 John Tavares - Toronto Maple Leafs

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John Tavares is hands-down the biggest name set to hit the open market in the summer of 2018. The 2009 first overall pick has played over 600 games with the Islanders and has put up 560 points in the process. Tavares is just finishing a deal that pays him a team-friendly $5.5M per season, and whichever team inks Tavares is going to be paying him nearly double that, in all likelihood.

The Islanders would like nothing more than to hang onto Tavares, who is the face of the franchise. But there’s really one thing standing in the way: are the Islanders ready to contend? Tavares will be 28 when next season starts, and assuming he signs a contract with term attached, it could be the last big contract of his career. He wants to win, so he’ll ink with a contender.

It's a bit of a reach, but it seems the stars have aligned for Tavares to return to his hometown, as the Leafs are ready to roll and would be set up to contend with a tandem of Matthews and Tavares up the middle.

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