When it comes to an NHL career, it pays to be a forward. Not only are forwards raking in the six biggest salaries this season, but they benefit from the most employment opportunities of any position in the sport. On the average 23-man active NHL roster, teams will typically carry seven or eight defensemen, two goaltenders and 13 or 14 forwards. If applied across the whole league, that means forwards occupy about 60% of all NHL jobs.
Now, not all forwards are alike. For starters, those who play up front are grouped into three positional segments: centre, right wing and left wing. Lines will almost always be constructed to allow for one of each to be represented, ideally to best facilitate chemistry. Beyond the positional intricacies of those three, most rosters also boast a balance between high end skill players (usually manning the top two lines) and gritty, physical, defensive-minded types. It probably goes without saying that the high end skill guys, who are harder to find, are the ones who occupy those top six slots.
Being part of the largest positional fraternity in the league also means more movement among your forward brethren. The TSN Trade Bait list currently has six forwards among its top 10 and 24 of The Hockey News' top 30 2018 NHL free agents play up front. And all that speculation came before 22-year-old left wing Anthony Duclair demanded a trade out of Arizona. With forwards of all shapes, sizes and positions potentially on the move, here are five big names from all three spots on the front end who could very well be on the move in 2018.
15 Evander Kane (LW)
The top name on the TSN Trade Bait list is no stranger to trade rumours. An undeniably talented winger, Kane has been marred by character questions and suggestions that his chemistry-threatening ego isn't worth his knack for goal scoring. For his part, the 2009 fourth overall pick probably wouldn't fight too hard against a chance to move on from a club that currently sits dead last in the Atlantic division.
Even with Kane's reputation widely known throughout the league, opposing GM's will have at least some curiosity over a 26-year-old who is already approaching 200 career goals. Though the speculation has been on-going for the former Winnipeg Jet, something will have to give soon with Kane becoming an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Look for a contender like St. Louis or even Vegas to make a move for him.
14 John Tavares (C)
Ever since Steve Stamkos decided to stick in out in Tampa Bay after dipping his toe into free agency, popular fan speculation and turned to the future of pending UFA John Tavares. For his part, the New York Islanders franchise centre hasn't exactly quelled that buzz, lending credence to the suspicion by admitting that the club needed to identify a long-term plan before he'd re-sign.
You can't blame Tavares for his stance. Aside from Josh Bailey's career season this year, the Isles have failed to compliment the 26-year-old with supportive talent. Even more concerning has been a future clouded by the team's toxic relationship with their Barclay's Center landlords. Oh, and Bailey becomes a free agent that day too. Fans would love for Toronto to dive in for the skilled Centre.
13 Mark Stone (RW)
Despite a barrage of headlines to the contrary, the big questions facing the struggling Ottawa Senators don't actually all come from a bad place. As the big club has stumbled in following up its surprise Eastern Conference Finals run last spring and owner Eugene Melnyk has even sparked concerns about the franchise's long-term future in Ottawa, the pressure to perform has also been compounded by the standout efforts within a deep farm system.
This group of young, NHL-caliber talent might provide a window into why we're hearing names like 25-year-old winger Mark Stone on the trade market. The former Brandon Wheat King will be a restricted free agent at season's end, posing what could be a challenge for a club stuck in a tight financial situation, particularly with Erik Karlsson's 2019 free agency looming large.
12 Thomas Vanek (LW)
One year after getting burned by awarding a massive contract to Loui Eriksson, Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning took another approach this past summer by dishing out one-year deals to a group of solid veterans. Vanek is already closing in on his scoring numbers from a year ago and has found nice chemistry with Vancouver's rookie phenom Brock Boeser.
It is that production alongside Boeser that will make Vanek tough for Benning to trade, even as dealing the 34-year-old seems the obvious path to take. Benning and the Canucks organization will have to determine how much of Boeser's development they attribute to the former 40-goal scorer. Though a revelation this season, it just doesn't seem like a youth-oriented future in Vancouver has much room for Vanek.
11 Tyler Bozak (C)
As he gets set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, prepare to hear some reflection on the sneakily successful nine-year career of Tyler Bozak. Once a whipping boy in the pressure cooker of Leafs Nation for failing to live up to his miscast No. 1 centre role alongside Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, Bozak's consistent production for the Leafs has helped him arguably emerge as the best collegiate signee in NHL history.
The 31-year-old may not factor into the plans of the only NHL club he's ever suited up for, with Toronto needing to manage their cap space with an eye on extensions to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Bozak does, however, occupy an interesting space as part of the second tier centre market. The University of Denver product might find himself in demand among suitors who miss out on the John Tavares sweepstakes.
10 Patric Hornqvist (RW)
Ask the average NHL fan to explain the back-to-back Stanley Cup championships of the Pittsburgh Penguins and you will invariably get an assortment of answers that cite Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel or Matt Murray. You won't hear many folks mention Patric Hornqvist, even if they probably should. Hornqvist's gritty, in-the-trenches game gets little attention on a club teeming with high end talent but has helped enable his bigger-named teammates to thrive.
The Pens certainly understand his value, having given up sniper James Neal for Hornqvist back in 2014. The organization would love to keep the 31-year-old around, but may not be able to offer the kind of money he can get from rival executives well aware of what he brings to the table. If Hornqvist leaves this summer, he'd leave a bigger hole in the Pens' lineup than some might expect.
9 Mike Hoffman (LW)
As a professional athlete, you do your best to block out the irrelevant white noise, but it isn't always easy. Hoffman would know, finding himself subject to plenty of whispers recently as a movable asset on the disappointing Ottawa Senators.
Just 28, coming off of back-to-back seasons in which he has tallied 55 goals and 120 points and locked into a reasonable contract for two more years, the Kitchener native would surely be a coveted trade piece if made available. While it does beg the question of why Senators GM Pierre Dorion would be anxious to move Hoffman, the front office won't simply give him up for peanuts. It remains to be seen whether Ottawa will get an offer they deem worthwhile for the former QMJHL superstar, but where there's smoke there's fire and there just might be something to all this speculation.
8 Vladislav Namestnikov (C)
For as long as the NHL's salary cap structure is in place, success will invariably breed financial headaches for even the most well-managed of clubs. No NHL franchise knows this better than the Chicago Blackhawks, but the Tampa Bay Lightning could be one of the many organizations to find out the hard way soon.
Take Vladislav Namestnikov. Though often over-looked in favour of superstar teammates Steve Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, the 25-year-old has emerged as an indispensable part of one of the top lines in hockey alongside Stamkos and Kucherov. Now, Namestnikov hits restricted free agency at an interesting time for the league's top team. Stamkos and Hedman have already earned big pay days and Kucherov should get his after next season. This may mean Namestnikov will be on the move.
7 Jaromir Jagr (RW)
Things could soon be getting awkward when it comes to prolonging the illustrious career of Jaromir Jagr. Now 45, the Czech legend has made noise about playing to 50 and is currently closing in on Gordie Howe's NHL record for career games played. All that might stand in the way of Jagr achieving these incredible milestones is interest from the league's 31 clubs.
You see, even the ageless Jagr slows down at some point. After struggling to find a home this past summer, the low risk, one-year deal he signed in Calgary during training camp has produced just one goal amidst a roster loaded up front with young talent. There will surely be a sentimental push to get Jagr to Howe's mark, but will there be anywhere for the greybeard to go after that?
6 James van Riemsdyk (LW)
While most of the focus in Leafs Nation centres on the exciting crop of young guns who have quickly transformed Toronto into an Eastern Conference threat, some fans remain anxious over the futures of a trio of popular veterans in the last year of their contract. While Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov certainly have their supporters, no Leafs free agency looms larger than James van Riemsdyk. JVR is following up a career-best 62-point campaign with another statistically brilliant season, but the better he plays, the more likely he may be to don another jersey next year.
Such is the puzzle of a club that must remain mindful of the pending restricted free agencies of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Van Riemsdyk is a virtual greybeard compared to the kiddie corps and is most certainly less of a long-term priority than some of his fresh-faced teammates.
5 Tomas Plekanec (C)
If Tomas Plekanec stays healthy for the rest of the season, he could become one of just six players to play 1,000 games for Les Habitants. Plekanec will be a free agent at season's end and may not hold much interest for a struggling franchise that could be seeking a fresh start.
Sad as it may be, there just doesn't seem to be much hope of the Habs' relationship with Plekanec lasting into next season. More interesting, however, is what becomes of him in the months to come. A locker room leader and high character guy would carry value on a playoff-bound team and Montreal and beleaguered GM Marc Bergevin would do well to get a future asset for the aging veteran ahead of the trade deadline.
4 Rick Nash (RW)
Believe it or not, this summer will mark Rick Nash's first ever foray into free agency. Unfortunately for the 34-year-old, it comes at a time when he will almost certainly be expected to take a pay cut from the $7.8 million that he is owed this year. What awaits Nash on the open market remains a mystery.
It's unclear how much interest the New York Rangers have in retaining the veteran winger whom they've employed for the last six seasons. The Blueshirts do appear to be retooling and might soon face a full-on rebuild, but could be amenable to a reunion for the right price. If Nash, however, is seeking either one last lucrative payday or a shot at the Stanley Cup, he may need to look elsewhere. At this point, he might be best viewed as a third-line depth guy and mentor to young forwards.
3 Max Pacioretty (LW)
Recent struggles could bring a sea of change to the Montreal Canadiens organization, one that might even include their current captain. No shortage of playoff-bound teams will be anxious to gain experienced leadership and Pacioretty has actually recorded more goals than just three other players - Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Joe Pavelski - between the 2011-12 season and last year's campaign.
Now, the 2011-12 Masterton award winner won't come cheap. One persistent rumour suggests a one-for-one trade to Edmonton with the Oilers sending Ryan Nugent-Hopkins the other way. The deal doesn't make much sense for an Oilers club that is also outside the playoff picture and would likely prefer to keep the productive RNH, but it does highlight the major question in Montreal's long-term approach over whether to pursue immediate help or plan for the future.
2 Tyler Seguin (C)
Still just 25, it feels as though Tyler Seguin has been around forever. There's his eight seasons in the league and over 550 games played, but there's also his two teams and involvement in two separate mega-deals. Looking beneath the surface at both the Dallas Stars organization and their franchise centre reveals a relationship that might be nearing its end.
For starters, there's the fact that all the Stars have to show for their offensive potency is one playoff series win in their past nine seasons and a losing record last year. As far as Seguin goes, the former No. 2 overall pick has seen his goal and point totals decline over the past four full seasons. Seguin's contract will expire after next season and, no-trade clause or not, both sides would surely opt to move on if things aren't going as planned.
1 Patrick Kane (RW)
If Tavares was the name that everyone expected to see at the top of this list, Patrick Kane surely represents something of a puzzling, out of left field choice. While Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman and the entire organization have done plenty to earn the benefit of the doubt, the club's first round exit in a sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators last season and subsequent struggles this season seem to point to a club in decline.
Change has been a constant in Chi-town over a successful stretch of elite play, largely owing to the constant presence of cap concerns. The club's three Stanley Cups in recent seasons don't happen without the superstar duo, so suggesting that they are unwelcome albatrosses is beyond disrespectful. But a rebuild could soon be coming in the Windy City, and the 29-year-old would surely bring the biggest return in a deal. Perhaps from a young team with cap space like Arizona.