The 2017-18 NHL season has been one of the most fascinating in recent memory. The Vegas Golden Knights were expected to finish near the bottom of the standings, but the exact opposite has happened; the team is a powerhouse in the Western Conference, is nearly unbeatable at home, and has proven itself as one of the best teams in the league. Oddsmakers are even predicting the Golden Knights as Stanley Cup favorites, which is remarkable considering the success – or lack thereof – of past first-year expansion teams like Atlanta, Nashville, Columbus, Minnesota, Ottawa, and Anaheim. Beyond Vegas, there has been a plethora of interesting stories circulating around the NHL this season.
The Western Conference, as usual, is a competitive battleground as is the Metropolitan Division, where a few points separates first place from last place. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Division is comprised of three quality teams – Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto – and the rest are utter garbage. While we should take a minute to appreciate how exciting this season has been, it doesn’t hurt to look ahead and examine what kind of season we could have in 2018-19. By our estimation, there’s going to be several high-profile players to retire and even more to change teams.
15. Change Teams: Duncan Keith
Let’s start out with one of the biggest bombshells on this entire list – Duncan Keith. The 34 year old former Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe recipient is nearing 1,000 games played with the Chicago Blackhawks and, while he’s still a quality defender, he’s not quite the player he once was. Keith was never regarded for his goal-scoring abilities, but he tallied at least six goals in each of the past four seasons. This year, he has zero goals and 23 assists through 49 games.
Even with that production, the Blackhawks wouldn’t mind holding onto Keith for the duration of his contract – he has a reasonable cap hit of $5.5 million until the end of the 2022-23 season – but they have other contracts, like Brent Seabrook’s, that are simply unmovable. In order to retool and remain competitive, they’ll need to cut ties with one of its longstanding veterans and Keith would yield a much better return than Seabrook.
14. Retire: Jaromir Jagr
This has essentially already happened, although it hasn’t been made official. The Calgary Flames signed veteran Jaromir Jagr to a one-year contract prior to the start of the 2017-18 NHL season, but he only played 22 games and recorded seven points with the team before being put on waivers. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Flames turned a corner on their season and began having sustained success once Jagr was dropped.
He’s expected to go back to the Czech Republic to play out the season. When he does officially retire from the NHL, he’ll do so as the second-leading scorer in league history behind only Wayne Gretzky with 1,921 points in 1,733 games. He’s also a five-time Art Ross Trophy winner and three-time Lester B. Pearson Trophy winner as the league’s MVP as voted by the players.
13. Change Teams: Evander Kane
This is rumored to happen before the trade deadline, but regardless of whether it does or not, it’s unimaginable that Evander Kane plays for the Buffalo Sabres next season. The Atlantic Division team has been a mess for the past few seasons and Kane hasn’t helped. While his play hasn’t been awful – 36 points in 49 games this season – he hasn’t been the physical, game-changing force the Sabres anticipated when they acquired him from the Winnipeg Jets.
If Kane is to be dealt prior to the trade deadline, it will likely be to a team in the Metropolitan Division or the Western Conference. Even then, unless he establishes himself as a perfect fit for that franchise, he’ll likely seek a long-term contract in free agency. He’s making $5.2 million this season and should get at least that on the open market, if not significantly more.
12. Retire: Matt Cullen
We could have included this name in similar lists for the past five years or so, but veteran Matt Cullen continues to prove himself an effective player in the league, even at 41 years old. The native of Virginia, Minnesota was originally selected by the Anaheim Ducks in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft and has since played 1,414 career regular season games between the Ducks, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, and Pittsburgh Penguins.
He won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins last season and registered nine points in 25 playoff games, which earned him a one-year contract from the Wild. Because of his impressive skating ability, he’s still a relatively effective checking-line center and penalty killer for the Wild, but he’ll be turning 42 years old early next season and it’s unlikely they want to bring him back with an impressive group of prospects coming through their system.
11. Change Teams: Patrick Maroon
Edmonton Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot made one of the most ridiculous statements of the year recently when he said he still believes his team will make the playoffs. The Oilers have been a tire fire this season and currently sit 11 points back of the Calgary Flames for third place in the Pacific Division. It’s much more likely that the team trades some of its core pieces at the trade deadline in an effort to retool for next year.
One player who could garner some interest in power forward Patrick Maroon, who scored a career-high 27 goals last season and has 13 in 47 games this year. He currently makes $2 million and, even if he isn’t traded, he’s going to command much more on the open market. And there’s no way the Oilers will be able to afford his price tag with so much money tied to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
10. Retire: Roman Polak
Roman Polak probably should have retired three seasons ago, at least that’s the consensus you would get if you asked any fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The hard-hitting Czech Republic defenseman joined the Maple Leafs in 2014 after a successful seven-year run with the St. Louis Blues and, while he was effective in his first two years with the team, he has become a whipping boy in the past two seasons.
Polak recorded 11 points in 75 games for Toronto last season and actually looked decent in the two playoff games he played against the Washington Capitals, but he had offseason surgery on his leg and he hasn’t looked comfortable at all in 2017-18. He routinely misses assignments in the defensive zone and simply doesn’t have the skating ability to keep up in a league that is getting faster and faster every year. It’s unlikely the Maple Leafs, or any team for that matter, tenders him a contract in the offseason.
9. Change Teams: John Carlson
John Carlson leaving the Washington Capitals has been speculated all season and, unless the team figures out a way to further alleviate its cap stress, it’s likely the pending free agent signs elsewhere in the summer. Some have suggested Washington might trade its top defenseman, but that’s unlikely given the team is pursuing another opportunity to come out of a crowded Eastern Conference with no real favorite minus the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Last offseason the Capitals dealt Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils so they could re-sign T.J. Oshie, but there’s no real options this year to make space to re-sign Carlson, especially since he’s going to want a significant upgrade on the $4 million he’s making this season. Expect teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers to show interest.
8. Retire: Zdeno Chara
Zdeno Chara himself has stressed his desire to play another season and his play this year could warrant it, but it’s just hard to see the big man continue to play at this level for another season, especially if the Bruins enjoy a deep playoff run. At 40 years old, the Slovakian blueliner is still an imposing presence due to his 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame, and decent skating stride. He has 13 points this season and is an impressive plus-25 through 47 games.
Chara was signed to a $4 million, one-year contract prior to the start of the 2017-18 season and it’s likely he could ask for that again next year. It would be a low-risk move for the Bruins, but there’s no guarantee he would play more than bottom-pairing minutes with the rise of Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, and Brandon Carlo. It might be best for Boston to invest that money elsewhere, and if they do, it’s unlikely Chara wants to play elsewhere.
7. Change Teams: Max Pacioretty
A first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Max Pacioretty has been one of the franchise’s most valuable players for nearly a decade. A consistent scoring threat, he produced at least 60 points in each of the past four seasons, but has struggled – as have the Canadiens – this season with only 16 goals and 15 assists through 49 games.
Montreal has been a disaster this season. They’ve been so bad that even Carey Price is among the worst goaltenders in the league, at least statistically speaking. The franchise needs a drastic overhaul beginning with the firing of general manager Marc Bergevin and the first thing his replacement needs to do is restock the prospect cupboards as the team’s organization depth is paper thin – trading Pacioretty for picks and prospects would be a wise move.
6. Retire: Patrick Sharp
Be honest, without checking, do you even know what team Patrick Sharp plays for this season? If you guessed the Chicago Blackhawks, you’re either a fan of the team or haven’t watched hockey since 2014-15 and assumed he was still with the Central Division team. Sharp actually spent the past two seasons with the Dallas Stars and, after an impressive 2015-16 season, registered only 18 points in 48 games a season ago.
He signed a one-year contract with Chicago prior to the 2017-18 season, but has been passed on the depth chart by young players like Alex Debrincat, Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman, and Vince Hinostroza. The 36 year old is only making $800,000 this season, but even at that price it’s unlikely the Blackhawks bring him back next year as his game doesn’t fit well on a checking line.
5. Change Teams: James van Riemsdyk
James van Riemsdyk is a pending unrestricted free agent and, while he has maintained he would like to return to the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s becoming harder and harder to imagine him doing so. The Maple Leafs would love to retain the talented American winger as the team doesn’t have much of a net-front presence beyond JVR, but he’s due for a raise from his $4.25 million cap hit. Teams have been known to make terrible decisions on July 1 and giving JVR more than $6 million per season wouldn’t even be that ridiculous by past standards.
If he wanted to stay with the Maple Leafs, he would need to sign for his current cap hit or take a slight raise, and that wouldn’t satisfy his agent. Toronto has both Mitch Marner and William Nylander coming off of their entry-level contracts and both players will earn at least $4 million and considerably more depending on the length of contract.
4. Retire: Roberto Luongo
Roberto Luongo has played the third-most games among goaltenders in league history and is only 48 starts away from passing Patrick Roy for second. He also ranks fourth in wins and 11th in shutouts. The 38 year old Montreal native had a decent season last year with the Florida Panthers, but shared the net with James Reimer as his age started to catch up on him. That’s become even more evident this season as Luongo has played only 15 games and missed significant time due to a lower-body injury.
It’s unfortunate that he’ll likely never get to hoist the Stanley Cup as he’s one of the nicest players in the league and definitely one of the most humorous on Twitter. He’s still signed through the 2021-22 season, but there’s zero chance he can play at a high level until then. He would be benefiting himself and the Panthers organization if he retired and had his $5.3 million cap hit removed from the books.
3. Change Teams: Erik Karlsson
The inclusion of Erik Karlsson on this list would have been ridiculous a few seasons ago, but the landscape has changed in Ottawa. Attendance has been an issue for awhile, but the team’s owner, Eugene Melnyk, ignited a you-know-what storm when he criticized the fans for not coming to games and suggested it might affect how the team spends its money on its players. That triggered thoughts from media wondering if Erik Karlsson could be on his way out of Ottawa and Karlsson didn’t do much to alleviate the situation by stating he was going to make sure he earns what he’s worth when his contract expires at the end of next season.
At this point, it seems rather likely that Karlsson doesn’t re-sign in Ottawa. And if that’s the case, it would be silly for the team to let him walk without getting any assets back. That’s why it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see the skilled Swedish defenseman dealt this offseason, perhaps even at the 2018 NHL Draft.
2. Retire: Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton is similar to Zdeno Chara in that he’s a player most expect to retire every offseason, but continues to play, and at an effective level at that. The 38 year old veteran of 1,493 career regular season games had a down year in 2016-17 with only 50 points in 79 games, but has surprisingly improved his play this season with 36 points in 47 games. He’s also on pace for his highest goal total since 2008-09, when he scored 25 goals.
Thornton isn’t a great skater, but he has continued to play at a high level due to his size and ability to slow the game down. He does keep himself in decent shape, but he’s not Jaromir Jagr and it’s unlikely he plays into his 40s. The Sharks have been pretty mediocre this season and don’t appear to be set up for success next season, so it’s reasonable to imagine Thornton giving up the chase for the Stanley Cup and calling it a career.
1. Change Teams: John Tavares
It doesn’t take a hockey expert to know that John Tavares is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has been talked about since two seasons ago when Steven Stamkos decided to stay in Tampa Bay instead of testing out the market. Unlike the NBA, star players in the NHL almost never change teams via free agency, but the potential of Tavares leaving Long Island is very real.
While the team has been pretty decent this year and there’s finally an agreement for a new arena in development, Tavares still has a chance to make much more from other teams than he would from the Islanders. He might be a notch below Connor McDavid in terms of talent, but there’s teams already better than the Islanders that would give Tavares $11-plus million per season and he would be foolish not to examine those options.
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