Free agency is hardly an exciting time in the NHL anymore. Players used to change teams with great regularity - Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player of all-time, played with four different teams - but that is no longer the case. Teams have too much leverage over players early in their careers and that often leads to players signing long-term extensions well into their unrestricted free-agent years. Every time an All-Star is about to hit unrestricted free agency, he's quickly signed long-term by the team he's already with - Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Carey Price, etc. Patrick Marleau was one of the biggest free agent signings last year and, while he's still a productive player, he's nowhere near the player he once was. However, there's a belief that could actually change this offseason.
Both Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty are due to become free agents following the 2018-19 season and both have already stated they won't be taking home-town discounts. That could lead to one or both getting traded as their respective team would prefer not to lose them for nothing. There's also a decent crop of forwards available. The same can't be said for goaltenders, but expect to see some high-profile netminders dealt in the coming year as teams revamp their roster.
15 Forward: Paul Stastny
Paul Stastny is still a valuable player for the St. Louis Blues, but he's making $7 million this season and is set to become an unrestricted free agent as of July 1st. He has 23 points in 31 games for the Blues and is on pace for one of his best seasons in recent memories - he had under 50 points in three consecutive seasons - but that could be because it's a contract year. Naturally, if he reaches 50 or 60 points, he might seek a similar contract, especially if it's a weak free-agent class. However, the Blues won't be fooled into spending that much on a 31 year old who will probably be seeking a long-term deal.
The former second-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche could decide to stay in St. Louis for a discounted rate, but the Blues will also need to sign Robby Fabbri and might prefer to seek help on defense. Stastny would be a good fit in Vancouver, Calgary, or Las Vegas.
14 Defenseman: Oliver Ekman-Larsson
If it seems as though Oliver Ekman-Larsson is included in every one of these lists, it's because he deserves to get out of Arizona, even if he doesn't want out himself. The talented Swede is one of the best defenseman in the league, but doesn't get the credit he deserves because of where he plays. If he was in a bigger market like Toronto, Montreal, or New York, he would have likely already won a Norris Trophy by now.
Ekman-Larsson is signed through the 2018-19 season, but it would make absolutely no sense for the Coyotes to re-sign him, unless there's a drastic turnaround in the following year, which seems unlikely. If they dealt him now, they could easily get a package that would include a high-end prospect, first-round pick, and a young player that could contribute right now.
13 Goalie: Cam Ward
Cam Ward is one of the few free agent goaltenders who might actually be worth a gamble on the free-agent market this offseason and it would be reasonable to suggest the Carolina Hurricanes are ready to move on from the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native who will turn 34 in February. A former first-round pick of the Hurricanes, Ward has played in 633 games for the franchise and helped them win a Stanley Cup as a rookie. As of this writing, he is one win shy of 300 on his career and has a relatively decent 2.70 goals against average.
He's playing backup to Scott Darling this season and he might want a larger role next year. Ward is actually best suited as a back-up at this point in his career, but chances are he'll follow tradition and sign with the Calgary Flames to continue their goaltending carousel.
12 Forward: Rick Nash
You're probably surprised to learn that Rick Nash is still only 33 years old. The former first overall pick of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft has already played in 1,018 career games and has 423 goals and 363 assists for 786 points. While he hasn't been quite as productive in recent years as he was during his prime, there's no question he still has a few years of quality hockey left, not to mention the fact he wants to reach the 500-goal milestone.
At the current rate he's scoring, Nash would probably need to sign a two- or three-year deal to have any chance of reaching the mark. The Rangers could certainly afford to give him that, but they might opt to go in another direction. They were smart enough to rid themselves of Derek Stepan this past offseason and signing Nash long-term wouldn't fit in with the team's philosophy. It honestly wouldn't be crazy to see him return to Columbus.
11 Defenseman: Jack Johnson
One player that won't return to Columbus is defenseman Jack Johnson, whose contract is due to expire following the 2017-18 season. The former third overall pick of the Carolina Hurricanes has had a decent career with 272 points in 741 games, while mostly playing top-four minutes throughout his career. He has just five points this season, but has been a fixture in the Blue Jackets lineup. However, with his contract due to expire and a massive contract awaiting defenseman Zach Werenski, it seems unlikely that the Jackets and Johnson can come to terms on a new contract.
That would make the Indianapolis, Indiana native a prime target for teams seeking defensive help in free agency. He might not be the most coveted free agent, but he would be a great fall-back option for teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, and Ottawa Senators.
10 Goalie: Kari Lehtonen
As previously mentioned, the goaltending free agent class is fairly weak compared to recent years. Teams looking for an upgrade are going to have to trade for under-utilized backups like Edmonton and Toronto did with Cam Talbot and Frederik Andersen respectively. However, one free agent would could at least provide veteran depth and serve as a quality back-up is Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars.
Aside from having an unfortunate name for a goaltender, Lehtonen is still a decent goaltender. The 34 year old former second overall pick of the Atlanta Thrashers has maintained a save percentage above .900 for the past nine seasons with Dallas, which is impressive given the team's lack of defensive ability. He would make a great veteran backup on a team with a young starter like Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay.
9 Forward: James van Riemsdyk
If money wasn't an issue, the Toronto Maple Leafs would undoubtedly keep Middletown, New Jersey native James van Riemsdyk. In fact, the 28 year old has expressed a desire to remain a Maple Leaf often enough that it wouldn't be shocking to see him take a discount to sign long-term with Toronto following the season. However, at the end of the day, money talks. And there's going to be a boat load of it waiting for JVR if he continues to produce as he has in the past.
The pending unrestricted free agent has 14 goals through 30 games this season and scored 29 a year ago. A 30-plus goal season will make him one of the most coveted unrestricted free agent forwards in recent memory, so he will have plenty of suitors, including his hometown Devils, who will certainly be looking to contend in 2018-19.
8 Defenseman: John Carlson
While everyone is busy talking about Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty as potential free agents in 2019, John Carlson is quietly awaiting a massive pay day this offseason. The 27 year old former first-round pick has been a consistent point-producer and ice-time eater for the Washington Capitals over the past decade and is still in his prime. He has 22 points in 30 games this season and has produced at least 30 points in six of his past seven seasons (he had 22 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season).
The Capitals would obviously love to keep Carlson, but that might be a tough task given the team's commitment to its current crop of stars. The team already had to let go Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson last season just to fit under the salary cap - and they aren't even winning.
7 Goalie: Petr Mrazek
Goaltenders sometimes take longer to develop into stars and that's the hope with Petr Mrazek. The 25 year old Czech netminder once looked like the goaltender of the future in Detroit, but his numbers these past two seasons have been disastrous. He had a .901 save percentage and 3.04 goals against average last season and has a brutal .888/3.72 mark this season. He was supposed to be the team's starter, but his struggles have kept veteran Jimmy Howard relevant.
There are already rumors that the Red Wings are looking to move past the former fifth-round pick, but his recent struggles might make it hard for them to do so. However, Detroit has been awful as a whole in the past two years, so teams might be willing to ignore Mrazek's recent struggles. He would be a great fit with the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders or Vancouver canucks.
6 Forward: Evander Kane
The Buffalo Sabres are the biggest joke in the NHL. They're just as bad - if not worse - as the lowly Arizona Coyotes, and they've had even worse press. The team fired head coach Dan Bylsma following last season in a move that seemed to appease Jack Eichel, but nothing has changed this year. In fact, Eichel has struggled to live up to the massive contract he was awarded and the team is even worse than it was last year. One player who has thrived, however, is the often-troubled Evander Kane.
The 26 year old power forward has a team-leading 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points through 30 games. The Sabres are going nowhere fast and Kane is a pending unrestricted free agent. If he has any sense, he'll want to play somewhere else next year and, if the Sabres have any sense (they don't), they'll trade him at the deadline to a contender.
5 Defenseman: Mike Green
Once regarded as the best offensive defenseman in the game, Mike Green isn't the same player that produced back-to-back 70-point seasons with the Washington Capitals, but he's still an effective, if not underrated, defenseman. He hasn't really received much attention the past three years as he has been playing for a mediocre Detroit Red Wings team, but he scored 14 goals last year, which was his highest total since 2009-10, when he scored 19 with the Capitals. He also has back-to-back 35-point seasons and is on pace for 50-plus points this season.
At the very least, the 32 year old can still quarterback a power-play and move the puck well for a second-pair defenseman. He's an unrestricted free agent, but with Detroit unlikely to make the playoffs, he will definitely be traded at the deadline.
4 Goalie: Braden Holtby
We mentioned the Washington Capitals are due to drastic changes given the team's inability to succeed in the postseason combined with their difficult cap situation and one of the casualties could be All-Star goaltender Braden Holtby. While he is signed through the 2019-20 season, the Capitals would be wise to deal the former Vezina Trophy winner while his value is still at its highest; he posted a career-best 2.07 goals against average last season, but that number his risen to 2.57 this year, his worst mark since the 2013-14 season.
That number is more so a result of the Capitals' team defense regressing, but it's for that reason the team should deal Holtby while he's in his prime to get a massive return to help with a potential re-build/re-tool. The team's top stars are all over 30 years old and it certainly seems as though they've missed their window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. Holtby, more than any player on the roster, could return them a handful of top prospects.
3 Forward: John Tavares
In the past, we've seen high-profile pending unrestricted free agents remain with their current team, but there's a few differences with the John Tavares situation. For one, aside from this year, the Islanders have been fairly mediocre so it's not as though Tavares might want to stay to win a championship. However, most importantly, the team's future is in doubt without a stable ownership group or any idea of where they're going to play in the near future. It's an organizational mess that Tavares would be wise to leave this offseason.
The former first overall pick grew up in Ontario so it's not absurd to suggest he could sign with the Maple Leafs, but the team is already set at center and will have cap issues themselves. Tavares would actually be a perfect fit in Montreal or Vancouver, but he might prefer to continue playing in a relatively low-pressure market like Florida or Nashville.
2 Defenseman: Erik Karlsson
We said one or both Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty would leave their current team and Karlsson seems the early favorite. Although Doughty has made some interesting remarks about wanting to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, he has also said he's only loyal to winning Stanley Cups and will sign with a team that gives him the best chance of doing so; right now, the Kings are as good as any team in the league. Karlsson, meanwhile, has stressed a desire to get paid. Ottawa isn't going to make that happen, given the team can't sell out Eastern Conference Finals playoff games and has been known to be cheap.
If the team continues to struggle this season, it might not even be difficult to see them dealing him either at the trade deadline or prior to the draft. With another year left on his deal, the team could easily get a trade package that includes multiple high-end prospects and picks. Can Edmonton be a prime trade candidate?
1 Goalie: Tuukka Rask
Finnish netminder Tuukka Rask is undoubtedly one of the best goaltenders in the league and is one of the main reasons the Boston Bruins remain relevant. The 30 year old has a career record of 211-131-50 to go along with a goals against average of 2.25 and a save percentage of .922. His numbers have dipped a little this year, but he's still an elite goaltender. Despite that, the Bruins are a bubble playoff team at best, and they've actually been better with Anton Khudobin between the pipes; he has a 7-1-2 record compared to Rask's 7-8-2 record.
Khudobin is a career backup, but upon closer inspection he actually has decent numbers. His career save percentage is .917 and his record is 58-46-11. The Bruins could make themselves a more competitive team by keeping Khudobin at a lesser cost and dealing Rask to help round out its roster.