The 2019 NHL free agent class is shaping up to be one of the best ever. I don't want to spoil it and give away names, but let's just say the likes of Jason Spezza, Gustav Nyquist, Jordan Eberle, Tyler Myers, Derick Brassard, Jimmy Howard, Semyon Varlamov, Alexander Edler, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams aren't even in the top 15 of this list.
Obviously, a good handful of the top free agents in 2019 are going to sign extensions with their current teams. Some may even get traded to another team and THEN sign a long-term deal.
But what's so fun about just assuming all these superstars will stay with the teams that they're under contract with for two more years? The speculation game is fun, so that's why we're going to play the guessing game. Just where will the top free agents of 2019 sign with in two years' time? Here are my educated guesses.
15 Blake Wheeler: Boston Bruins
Blake Wheeler was always your average Joe of a second liner, but he's really become a borderline superstar over the last three years with the Winnipeg Jets. Wheeler has scored 26 goals in each of the past three seasons, and that includes consecutive 70-point campaigns. The 31-year-old remains one of the NHL's elite right wingers. But the Jets will have problems extending him in two years from now.
For one, Wheeler will be 33 years of age by then. Tough to see Winnipeg giving him a long-term deal. Youngsters like Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Nic Petan and Marko Dano will also need long-term extensions. That makes Wheeler expendable.
That's where the Boston Bruins come into play. Wheeler began his career in Boston before being traded to the Atlanta Thrashers. His strong two-way game and good shot make Boston an ideal fit for Wheeler. They also don't mind overpaying for veterans in their 30s (hello David Backes), so expect a big deal for Wheeler.
14 Joe Pavelski: Pittsburgh Penguins
Joe Pavelski has been one of the NHL's most underrated centres for nearly a decade now. But the 33-year-old likely won't be sticking around with the San Jose Sharks long-term, as this team nears an inevitable rebuild.
Teams like the Penguins love taking a chance on aging veterans. Just look at Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Ron Hainsey and others. It's brought them a pair of Stanley Cup championships, so there's nothing to complain about.
Pavelski will be 35 in 2019. The eight-time 20-goal scorer would be a great fit with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (who'll both be on the wrong side of 30 in 2019). This will be a signing as a last-ditch effort to bring another championship to Pittsburgh before their Cup window closes. Pavelski to Penguins. Book it.
13 Marc-Andre Fleury: Philadelphia Flyers
It's really tough to see Marc-Andre Fleury committing to the Vegas Golden Knights after 2019. This team's going to need plenty of time to rebuild, and it's unlikely that Fleury chooses to play out his remaining years on the strip. As a result, look for Fleury to join a contender to finish out his playing career.
The Philadelphia Flyers are a great fit for Fleury. This team's on the rise, as second-overall pick Nolan Patrick tries to take this team to the next level. The Flyers signed Brian Elliott to a two-year deal for him to be their starter. When that contract expires, GM Ron Hextall will need a new goalie.
Seeing how the Flyers are willing to pay a lot for goalies (Ilya Bryzgalov got $51 million in 2011), expect them to pay a lot for Fleury. He will make a lot of Penguins fans angry, but Philly's an ideal fit for Fleury. They'll pay him, start him lots and give him the chance to win another title.
12 Pekka Rinne: Nashville Predators
It's impossible to envision a scenario where the Predators give up on Pekka Rinne after the 2019 season. He will be 36 years of age by then, but this team doesn't have a goalie in the system that's prepared to assume starting duties any time soon. If they want to keep the Cup window open long-term, then getting Rinne under a contract is a must.
According to QuantHockey.com, Rinne's the franchise all-time leader in wins (269), goals against average (2.38), and shutouts (43). He had one of the most remarkable postseason performances in NHL history this year (save for the three games of the Final in Pittsburgh).
Also, most teams won't be willing to pay an aging netminder that much money. Rinne has made a great home in the Music City, and it's likely the two sides will agree on a two or three-year deal.
11 Matt Duchene: Ottawa Senators
Someone is going to trade for Colorado Avalanche star Matt Duchene soon. The only question is who? One question that I don't have to ask is what team will sign him in 2019. That's because the Ottawa Senators are an ideal fit for the former third-overall pick from 2009.
Ottawa has been in on Duchene for quite some time, but GM Joe Sakic is reportedly asking the Senators for too much. So why not wait until 2019 when they can sign him without losing an asset?
Duchene would be a great fit for Ottawa. He brings blazing speed and would instantly be this team's top forward. The Sens play great defence, but need a guy who can score the big goal. That man is Duchene. Don't be surprised if he's rewarded with a contract worth $30-35 million over six years.
10 Logan Couture: San Jose Sharks
Though Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau earned most of the love and attention in San Jose throughout the past 10 years, Logan Couture has been no slouch himself. In fact, he's been just as vital to San Jose's success as any other player.
Couture is a six-time 20-goal scorer, and has hit the 30-goal mark twice. When healthy, he's good for 50-60 points (even as a second-liner). And with that, the Sharks are going to do whatever they can to keep Couture.
They already lost Patrick Marleau in free agency to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Joe Thornton will likely be retired by 2019. They figure to lose Joe Pavelski. So GM Doug Wilson will make sure Couture remains a Shark for life. A seven-year extension worth about $45-50 million should get it done.
9 Jeff Skinner: Tampa Bay Lightning
Jeff Skinner has been one of the NHL's most dynamic left wingers since the Carolina Hurricanes drafted him with the seventh pick in 2010. He's scored 180 goals and 330 points in 497 games. He's coming off a career high in goals (37), and surpassed the 50-point mark for the fourth time.
Carolina has a gem in Skinner, but playing in a small market comes with plenty of downsides. They'll struggle to pay him top dollar. They also have to pay the likes of Sebastian Aho, Derek Ryan, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk a lot of money within the next couple of years.
So expect Skinner to hit the market, where the Lightning will be waiting. Skinner would get the chance to play with Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. They'll get aggressive and pay Skinner seven years worth $50 million. He's an ideal fit. He gets paid (without having to pay a lot of taxes in Florida), and the chance to win.
8 Artemi Panarin: Montreal Canadiens
Through his first two NHL seasons, Artemi Panarin has scored a total of 61 goals and 151 points. The man's been a stud in his career, and he's going to make a lot of money when he's a free agent in 2019.
The Columbus Blue Jackets surely won't be able to keep him. Not when guys like Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg and Zach Werensky await long-term extensions.
The fit? The Montreal Canadiens. The Habs almost signed Panarin out of the KHL before the Chicago Blackhawks got him. Montreal's desperate for scoring, and GM Marc Bergevin will out-bid other teams for Panarin's services. A five-year contract worth $25 million is reasonable for both sides.
7 Ryan McDonagh: Washington Capitals
After signing Kevin Shattenkirk for four years, the Blueshirts must be firmly aware that they're going to have troubles staying under the salary cap. According to CapFriendly.com this team has just over $7 million in space remaining. Many of their young core players (like J.T. Miller and Jimmy Hayes), will need extensions.
So it's tough to see them keeping captain Ryan McDonagh beyond 2019. He'll easily command a five to seven year deal worth around $6 million a season. The Rangers will have no choice but to bid him good bye.
The Washington Capitals are a great fit for McDonagh. This team lost a handful of quality defencemen in free agency in 2017. They'll be desperate to maximize the opportunity of winning a championship while Alexander Ovechkin is around. Seven years, $45 million. That's reasonable for both sides.
6 Max Pacioretty: Montreal Canadiens
It's a wonder why Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty faces so much criticism all the time. Sure, he's not the best of leaders. But the man has been one of the league's top goal-scorers of this decade. Power forwards like Pacioretty don't come around often, and they'll do their best to keep him.
Pacioretty has scored 30-plus goals in each of the past five 82-game regular seasons. The 6-foot-2 superstar doesn't only score, as he's also good enough for 60-65 points a season when healthy.
Montreal loves Pacioretty and vice versa. Bergevin has to keep this championship window open while Carey Price is in his prime. Pacioretty and the Habs should be able to settle on a five-year deal worth an average of $5.5 million a season. It doesn't make sense for this partnership to end.
5 Sergei Bobrovsky: New York Islanders
As is the case with Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky will likely price himself out of Columbus -- as much as Jackets fans definitely don't want to hear that. But such is life in today's salary cap world.
Bobrovsky has been one of the NHL's elite goalies for a few years now, taking home the Vezina Trophy in 2013 and 2017. He's coming off a career-high 41 wins, but the small market Jackets won't be able to pay him top dollar.
That's where the New York Islanders come in and swoop Bobrovsky. They've got great scoring with John Tavares, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson in the fold. Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy lead a solid defence. But the Isles need a goalie before they can think about a championship. That's where they pay Bobrovsky to fix the problem. Bank on it happening.
4 Oliver Ekman-Larsson: Detroit Red Wings
It's not very often where a smooth-skating defenceman that can score 20 goals in a season. But that's what makes slick Swede Oliver Ekman-Larsson such a stud. Despite playing on the lowly Arizona Coyotes his entire career, Ekman-Larsson scored double-digit goals five times.
That includes a pair of 20-goal seasons (in 2014-15 and 2015-16). The cash-strapped Coyotes don't offer Ekman-Larsson much of a reason to stay. The team is bad, there is no interest in hockey there and the Coyotes face a questionable future in The Desert. As such, expect Ekman-Larsson to leave when he's a free agent in 2019.
The Red Wings have been desperate to add a star defenceman since Nicklas Lidstrom retired in 2012. They'll pay him everything they can. Expect a seven-year pact worth close to $7 million a season. He'll take the money and the chance to play in one of the best hockey markets out there.
3 Tyler Seguin: Dallas Stars
Tyler Seguin has absolutely zero reason to leave the Dallas Stars.
He's scored over 70 points in each of his four seasons there. He and Jamie Benn have formed one of the NHL's most dynamic scoring duos. Seguin is playing great in Dallas. That's only a fraction of the reason why he should stay.
The Stars will have no probably meeting Seguin's contract demands. Playing in the state of Texas also means he doesn't have to pay a lot in taxes. And hey, money talks for these athletes.
And finally, Seguin is on a team that finally looks to compete for a Stanley Cup. Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov, Marc Methot and Martin Hanzal are among the newcomers for Dallas in 2017. They're going to be a Stanley Cup contender for many years. Seguin may as well stay there if he wants a title.
2 Drew Doughty: Philadelphia Flyers
Very few of the Stanley Cup contenders will be able to afford Drew Doughty. Though there have been rumors about him joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, they can't afford Doughty. Not when Auston Matthews is zeroing in on a $100 million contract, and guys like Connor Brown, William Nylander and Mitch Marner need big extensions soon.
So why do I think Doughty leaves the Kings? The team is no longer a championship contender. Too many aging veterans like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick. Doughty also loses a lot of his money in taxes -- such is life in California.
This is where the defence-hungry Flyers step in and give Doughty ridiculous money. They're a team on the rise. They need help on the blue line. They can afford to give Doughty the max seven-year deal, worth around $8 million a season. This is just a guess, but the Flyers and Doughty are a great match.
1 Erik Karlsson: Ottawa Senators
Erik Karlsson has been the NHL's best defenceman since 2012, and there shouldn't be much of a debate. The two-time Norris Trophy winner is the reason Ottawa came within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. With so many injuries on the team, Karlsson still worked tirelessly and nearly won his team the East.
Ottawa is fortunate to have plenty of salary cap space, and Karlsson probably isn't dreaming of playing anywhere else right now. The Sens need to keep their star player around long-term. Or else, the fans will be very mad. And the team will be very bad.
Karlsson will get his eight-year extension from Ottawa. It could be anywhere between $70-90 million. But one thing is for sure: He's not leaving the nation's capital. If you're not a Senators fan, then keep dreaming.