Unlike 2016, the 2017 NHL free agent class is loaded with a group of stars and game-changers.
There are a pair of established number one goalies, some future Hall of Famers and legitimate top-pairing defencemen on the open market. A handful of teams could be one free agent signing away this Canada Day from being a bonafide Stanley Cup contender. Seriously, this is going to be a fun free agent class to follow.
Of course, the tough part is wondering who the best fits are for the top free agents. All NHL teams have a number of weaknesses, and free agency is the best chance to take care of that long-term. Expect this to be a record-breaking year when it comes to general managers handing out money in free agency.
But what about the fun part? Where shall we expect the top free agents to sign? I did some research from what the experts are saying to try to find answers. Here's a look at where the top 15 free agents should, could and perhaps will sign in this offseason.
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15 Patrick Sharp: Minnesota Wild
The three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks was dealt to the Dallas Stars for salary cap reasons. Patrick Sharp scored 20 goals and 55 points in Dallas last season, but injuries have limited him to 12 games and two points so far this season. It's safe to say the 35-year-old is on his last legs.
The Minnesota Wild struck gold by adding Eric Staal - a seemingly washed up veteran, in free agency. They could look to take another chance on the veteran in hopes he can put together one or two more 20-goal seasons. Sharp would provide some nice Stanley Cup experience to a fairly inexperienced Wild team.
Sharp could land a friendly deal for both sides, signing with Minnesota for two years worth $9 million.
14 Drew Stafford: Toronto Maple Leafs
Drew Stafford is a four-time 20 goal scorer and provides stability, speed and consistency. He's the ideal second-to-third line winger and has 30-goal potential if he's suited with the right centre.
Enter Auston Matthews.
You see, the Maple Leafs rebuilding plan has worked to perfection so far. They're right in the playoff race and have enough young talent already in Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. The Leafs can speed up this rebuilding process by adding a veteran or two.
Stafford won't command a high price tag and could get a deal around three years, $15 million. Matthews is already an established number-one centre. He and Stafford could be a great fit, and the Leafs are known for throwing money around on July 1. Look for them to do it again on Stafford.
13 Jaromir Jagr: Montreal Canadiens
The Florida Panthers will likely miss the playoffs this season, and chances are Jaromir Jagr will want to sign with a contender to win the Stanley Cup (given how no team is going to pay him that much at this point).
Jagr was reportedly close to signing with the Canadiens in 2013, and Jagr has talked about how much he loves playing in Montreal and how great their fans are. Jagr would certainly not cost more than $4.5 million on a one-year deal. The Habs do need more size and toughness to compete with the top powerhouses in the Eastern Conference.
Jagr is 6-3 and though he's lost his speed, he can control the puck around in the zone like there's no tomorrow. The Habs and Jagr have come close to a marriage before, and they'll look to do it again in 2017. Only this time, it'll actually happen.
12 Andrei Markov: St. Louis Blues
The long-time Montreal Canadiens defenceman can still play top-four minutes and is reliable as a powerplay quarterback. However, his age (38) and injury history make Andrei Markov a major risk in free agency. Nobody is going to give him a lot of cash, and you have to think he'll want to go to a contender.
Spoiler alert: The St. Louis Blues are likely to lose Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency. Their Stanley Cup window is closing fast, and they'll have to find a suitable replacement right away. A 38-year-old Markov isn't even close to what Shattenkirk is now, but he can replace some of the offence and experience.
Alex Pietrangelo is going to need a new defensive partner, and Markov is the best fit for him. Look for the Blues to sign Markov to a one-year deal worth $4 million.
11 Mike Fisher: Stays with Nashville Predators
I tried finding a contender that could take a chance on the veteran who's good to put up 10-20 goals a season while playing slick defence. But unfortunately for Mike Fisher, most of the elite teams are loaded at centre (Chicago, San Jose, Montreal, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Washington, for example) and/or lack the salary cap space.
Fisher will be 37 in the offseason and is already starting to slow down. He absolutely loves playing in the Music City, as his wife Carrie Underwood is also a country music singer. It's the perfect place for him and his wife to raise their family.
Also, the Predators are already a Stanley Cup contender and would be happy to bring Fisher back. Provided his asking price isn't insane (it won't be) it's hard to see him and Nashville agreeing to a divorce.
10 Martin Hanzal: San Jose Sharks
Back in November, Sportsnet's Elliot Friedman said he believes the Canadiens, Blues and Sharks will all be in on Hanzal at the trade deadline. I do believe Martin Hanzal will get traded to the Habs, but he won't stay there after the season.
Joe Thornton's departure from San Jose in the offseason is inevitable. Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are now the faces and frontmen of the Sharks offence. There is no need to keep Thornton around at this point, as he's now showing his age (37) and doesn't fit into their long-term picture.
The Sharks will need a suitable replacement, and Hanzal is an ideal fit. The third-line shutdown centre is 6-6, 236 pounds and would be a huge asset in a Pacific Division that features a pair of physical teams in Anaheim and Los Angeles. Look for the Sharks to pay Hanzal around four years, $20 million.
9 Patrick Marleau: Anaheim Ducks
Patrick Marleau, like Thornton, is 37-years-old, past his prime, slated for free agency and no longer fits the Sharks long-term plans. In the past, the Sharks have asked him to waive his no trade clause, and the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings were on his list of preferred teams.
It makes a lot of sense for Anaheim to take a chance on an old foe. Their Stanley Cup window is closing, with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (both 32 in May, and Ryan Kesler (33 in August,) all nearing the end of their primes. Placing Marleau on a line with Getzlaf and Perry could rejuvenate the Sharks veteran.
And the best part? You can't think Marleau would cost that much. At this point, he'll value a championship opportunity over a few million dollars. If Marleau does in fact go to Anaheim, expect him to sign a one-year deal worth $3 million at most.
8 Thomas Vanek: Los Angeles Kings
It's been a major up-and-down journey for Thomas Vanek, whose down more travelling than Marty McFly in the entire Back to the Future trilogy.
The long-time Buffalo Sabres star was traded to the New York Islanders during the 2013-14 season, only to be flipped to the Montreal Canadiens a few months later. After a lackluster playoff showing, his value dropped down. The Minnesota Wild signed him to a three-year deal, only to buy out the final year of his contract.
So then he found himself with the Detroit Red Wings on a one-year deal. He's rejuvenated himself with seven goals and 21 points in 26 games (as of this writing). Vanek is setting himself up for a decent payday on July 1.
Look for him to join a contender in the Los Angeles Kings. They need another guy not named Jeff Carter who can score. Also given the chance to play with Kopitar, Vanek could sign a two-year deal worth around $8 million.
7 Karl Alzner: Detroit Red Wings
A rebuild is on the way for the Red Wings, who'll likely see their 25-year playoff streak come to an end this season. With a number of veterans nearing the end of their careers, Detroit needs to start a quick rebuild while remaining somewhat competitive in a demanding hockey market.
The Wings will have a tough time convincing the coveted Kevin Shattenkirk to join them, and they desperately need a top-four defenceman. Alzner is their next best option and could pair nicely with Niklas Kronwall.
Though Karl Alzner isn't close to being a superstar, he's a bonafide shutdown defenceman - something the Red Wings lack. The Wings will have to overpay to keep him, but GM Ken Holland has no problem giving guys contracts that are deemed over generous. Signing him to a five-year deal worth $25 million makes sense for both sides.
6 Alexander Radulov: Stays with Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens took a chance on the perennial KHL star, signing him to a one-year deal worth $5.75 million. Alexander Radulov has been a nice fit in Montreal and is second in scoring with 28 points. He is on pace to finish with 18 goals and 62 points, providing the Habs with a flashy scorer that they've been lacking for quite some time.
The other thing going for the Habs in the Radulov sweepstakes is the fact he wants to stay. La Presse reported back in November that he'd be happy to discuss a long-term deal with the team. Also, head coach Michel Therrien has praised Radulov's love for the city:
According to Therrien, Radulov just loves playing. He loves practice, he loves coming to the rink, he loves meetings - yes, meetings! #Habs— Kyle Bukauskas (@SNkylebukauskas) November 20, 2016
Well, it's hard to see Radulov leaving and it's tough to see the Habs letting him walk. Radulov has helped this team reach first in the Atlantic Division at the half-way point. Expect him to re-sign on a deal no longer than three years, worth around $17.5 million.
5 Brian Elliott: Winnipeg Jets
The Jets are slowly becoming the old Edmonton Oilers. So many years of stockpiling on draft picks and elite young talent, but not a lot of results. The Jets barely made the playoffs in 2015 and were swept in the opening round - if you consider that "progress."
Despite fielding so much talent at forward (Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Drew Stafford, Blake Wheeler) and defence (Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Tobias Enstrom) the Jets remain a mediocre team. Part of that is because their three goals-per-game allowed are fourth-worst in the NHL. Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson have combined for a terrible .900 save percentage.
The Jets need to make progress, and veteran netminder Brian Elliott may be their best option. He won't be as expensive as the top free agent goalie (more on that later) and would instantly give them a true number one.
If he goes to Winnipeg, the deal could be around three years at $15 million.
4 T.J. Oshie: Stays with Washington Capitals
The Capitals Stanley Cup window won't remain open much longer. Alexander Ovechkin is 31, Nicklas Backstrom 29 and T.J. Oshie is a free agent. They have to do whatever it takes to keep the talented two-way forward.
Oshie is a great fit under Barry Trotz' system. He's great for 20-plus goals and 50 points a season but also plays an incredible two-way game. His excellent speed is a game-changer in the playoffs. He has 19 points in 42 career playoff games and was a huge reason the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy last season.
If the Capitals are serious about competing for a championship, they'll have to keep Oshie. There isn't a player of equal value on the market this offseason, and the 30-year-old would surely love to stay on a Cup contender.
They'll have to overpay, but Washington will keep Oshie on a deal worth around $23.5 million over five seasons.
3 Kevin Shattenkirk: Boston Bruins
Kevin Shattenkirk is among the NHL's top defencemen. He's posted at least 40 points in each of the last four 82-game seasons. He's extremely skilled as a powerplay quarterback, is solid in his own zone and is a right-hand shot, which most teams covet but lack when it comes to finding a legitimate top-two blueliner.
His departure from St. Louis is inevitable. The two sides haven't been able to agree on a long-term extension, and it appears as though he's going to find a new team with a lot of money in the offseason. Spectors Hockey believes that Shattenkirk prefers to join an Eastern Conference team.
The Boston Bruins have been a rumored destination for Shattenkirk, and they make a lot of sense. Zdeno Chara's declining play leaves them without a true no. 1 defenceman. Shattenkirk fits the bill perfectly, and Boston will have no problem meeting his asking price.
A six-year deal worth around $37 million makes sense for both sides.
2 Joe Thornton: Ottawa Senators
As we touched base on earlier, Joe Thornton is basically a sure-thing to leave the Sharks in the offseason. They need to get younger, and his declining play will prevent GM Doug Wilson from considering the chance to keep this marriage together.
As is the case with Hanzal, Thornton doesn't make sense for a lot of contenders. They're loaded at the centre position and also can't take him on. But the Ottawa Senators have lacked that true number one centre since trading Jason Spezza in 2014. With that, Thornton makes a ton of sense for them.
Ottawa needs to make a big splash, and their relatively young roster needs a veteran with playoff experience to lead them. Thornton could either be the top centre or line up as the second liner behind Kyle Turris. If Ottawa does go for Thornton, a two-year deal worth $12 million makes a lot of sense.
1 Ben Bishop: Calgary Flames
Ben Bishop was reportedly close to being traded to the Calgary Flames at last season's trade deadline, but they weren't able to agree on an extension before then. As a result, GM Brad Treliving did business with the St. Louis Blues instead. He traded a second-round pick and acquired veteran Brian Elliott, who's been a major disappointment thus far.
Elliot has a 7-9-1 record with a woeful .893 save percentage and 3.00 goals against average. Backup Chad Johnson has stolen the starter's role since, and barring a huge turnaround, the Flames won't continue this partnership with Elliot beyond the end of this season. Bishop is all but a sure-thing to leave Tampa. Prior to his recent injury, the younger Andrei Vasilevskiy was outplaying him. The cap-strapped Lightning wouldn't be able to keep Bishop if they wanted to, anyway.
The Flames have one of the league's top offences with Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett. Their defence is loaded with Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. All they need is a goalie, and they're a legit contender. Watch them overpay Bishop on a five-year contract worth $32 million.
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