Things are rapidly changing in the NHL lately. The Vegas Golden Knights have done what nobody would have thought could have been possible prior to this season. To be an expansion draft team—picking up the scraps that other teams didn't deem necessary any longer—with one of the league's best records, solidly at the top of their conference and now indisputably a Stanley Cup Contender is a remarkable feat that has shaken some of the "rules" with regards to what makes a good team. Most people didn't expect the Golden Knights to even finish with a record above .500, because no expansion team had done that before. Perennial contenders like the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings and have been replaced by new powerhouses like the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets.
What all of this means is that it's hard to predict where the next batch of top free agents is going to go. Teams are rethinking their long-term strategies, and have to decide whether to part ways with established players who have failed to achieve substantial success in order to go in a new direction. When free agency opens this year, there will be a whole lot of highly sought-after players changing hands, and the league may look almost unrecognizable in one or two years' time. Are the Edmonton Oilers just a couple key players away from living up to the expectations set for them, or do they need to blow the whole thing up and start again? Can the Chicago Blackhawks get back on track with the same core, or do they need to head in an entirely new direction? Will the Penguins just keep adding another piece or two every year and continue winning cups until the end of time? Let's take a look at where the top free agents of 2018 and 2019 are going to end up.
22 (2018) Joe Thornton - Boston Bruins
Joe Thornton's time in San Jose has consisted of extremely productive regular seasons and countless disappointing playoffs. It's hard to imagine any other player putting up 92 assists in one season, for example, but it's also hard to believe that in well over a decade of being on a team with one of the league's strongest rosters year in and year out, he's been unable to win a cup. With his contract with San Jose expiring this year and his numbers at an all-time low, it seems highly possibly that they won't re-sign him. He'll certainly want one more shot at a cup before he calls it a career though, and it would be a natural fit for him to sign a one or two year deal for only a couple million to play a secondary role in Boston, where his career began. Right now Boston are certainly a cup contender, and I could see him chipping in a little extra production there.
21 (2019) Drew Doughty - Toronto Maple Leafs
There's no doubting that Drew Doughty has had a great run in Los Angeles. He has been the centrepiece of their blueline for years now, has lead them to constant playoff success, and has won a Norris trophy as the league's best defenceman. However, the Kings have slipped lately. They're holding onto a wildcard playoff spot right now, but it'll really come down to the wire whether they make the playoffs at all this year. On one hand, it's hard to imagine him wanting to leave L.A., and leaving his position as the core of the Kings, but on the other hand, I could see him wanting a change of scenery, and to spend some time playing in a Canadian market in his home province of Ontario, close to his family. The Leafs would love to fill out their roster with a franchise defenseman and would probably offer him pretty close to a max contract, so this is a deal that makes a lot of sense.
20 (2018) Rick Nash - Pittsburgh Penguins
Remember a few years back when Marian Hossa was switching between the league's best teams every few years, trying desperately to attach himself to a situation where he could win a cup? I can easily see Rick Nash in a similar role, switching teams on a near-yearly basis. It's easy to see why teams would still be interested in the 33-year-old. Though he's expensive and his numbers are plummeting, he's still a huge skilled player with an innate ability to score, and his best chance at the kind of surefire playoff success he's probably looking for would come from taking on a secondary role with the Penguins, letting Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Phil Kessel do the bulk of the scoring and kind of coasting his way to a cup. It's not the most noble way to get a cup, but Nash has done his time, toiling on the Blue Jackets for years while they were nowhere near playoff contention.
19 (2019) Erik Karlsson - Washington Capitals
Didn't it look like Erik Karlsson was going to be dealt at this year's trade deadline? Partially that may have been due to the fact that talking about the league's best defenceman changing teams is good for ratings, but the Ottawa Senators franchise seems like an unstable environment and relationships there are souring, so it seems to be only a matter of time before the Sens captain changes teams. He's still only 27, so he'll probably be offered a max contract, so whoever picks up him will have to make some room. It's also highly possible that the Senators will trade him before he's a free agent to make sure they get something back when they lose him, but if he makes it to free agency, a natural fit would be the Washington Capitals, who gravitate towards a flashy, offensive game and would love to have that kind of scoring coming from the back end.
18 (2018) Paul Stastny - Winnipeg Jets
At time of writing, Stastny has only been a member of the Winnipeg Jets for a few games, but he has been fitting right in so far, and if he keeps it up, there's no reason why the Jets wouldn't try to re-sign him to a new, longer contract. The Jets are looking as good as they've ever looked since their move from Atlanta, sitting within striking distance of the Nashville Predators for first place in their conference. Stastny has really flown under the radar for much of his NHL career. He isn't a very flashy player, and his best scoring years are behind him, but he's the kind of mid-lineup forward that is essentially during long, gruelling playoff series. Again, where he ends up is largely dependent on the kind of playoffs that the Jets have this year, but if he keeps up how he has been playing so far, there's no reason he won't stick around in Winnipeg.
17 (2019) Logan Couture - Vegas Golden Knights
As I'm sure you can tell from reading this list, I've got a feeling that the San Jose Sharks have a year or two on the current path they're one, after which time they're going to have to blow the whole thing up and start fresh. Every time I watch the Sharks, I'm blown away by Logan Couture, who doesn't get talked about as much as he should, I think. He has the full package and, though he's not marketed as one of the league's great stars, he has the ability to dominate the flow of play. The Golden Knights are in this bizarre position where they have quite a lot of salary cap space and a team that is already firing on all cylinders, but even if they win a cup this year, they'll be looking to add more pieces, and Logan Couture, with his speed and dynamic play, would fit right in with the Golden Knights' ethos.
16 (2018) Henrik And Daniel Sedin - San Jose Sharks
Daniel and Henrik Sedin have said repeatedly in the media that they have no intention of ever playing anywhere aside from Vancouver. It's where they've played their entire NHL careers, and where their friends and family live, and they're not hellbent on chasing a cup. However, the Vancouver Canucks are still at least three or four years away from being a competitive NHL team, and while signing the Sedins to new contracts would be a kind thing to do, they should have a long think about whether that's a direction the team wants to go in, instead of signing younger players and giving them more ice time. If the Sedins do spend a year or two somewhere else, they'll certainly want to do it for a cup contender. Even as they near 40 years of age, they could have an impact in a reduced role, and could be what a team like the Sharks need to finally get it done in the playoffs.
15 (2019) Jordan Eberle - Nashville Predators
The Edmonton Oilers have screwed up too many times to count over the past few years, and trading away Jordan Eberle last year looks as though it can be safely classified as a bad decision at this point. Jordan Eberle is a clutch performer and a very hard worker. He's famous among Canadians for being an extremely productive player for their World Juniors team who had a flair for the dramatic. Though he's fit in well for the New York Islanders so far, there will come a point when he gets tired of losing and wants to move on to a better team, particularly if John Tavares leaves too. A great fit for Eberle would be the Nashville Predators, a young, fast, and hardworking team that he would probably mesh with perfectly.
14 (2018) Mike Green - Tampa Bay Lightning
This was a deal people talked about possibly happening at the trade deadline this year, but it didn't happen because the Lightning ended up going with Ryan McDonagh instead, which was probably the right move because McDonagh is younger, tougher, and more responsible on the back end. There's a high chance that the Lightning will be taking home a Stanley Cup this year, but a lot of fans and experts feel as though they still have weaknesses on the blue line, so if things fall apart in the playoffs for them this year, you can expect for them to add another piece on the back end. Mike Green almost plays like a forward sometimes, and you know he'd love a chance to play with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, instead of the stale Red Wings offence he's stuck with right now.
13 (2019) Joe Pavelski - Dallas Stars
Captains don't leave via free agency all that often, but my thinking here is that, of the San Jose Sharks core, it seems unlikely that so many of their players would stick around on a single team for their entire careers without testing the waters elsewhere. Joe Pavelski is an elite goalscorer and a good leader, and if the Sharks had managed to knock off the Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals, there would be no talk about whether he would try his luck elsewhere. But how many early playoff exits can one guy take? The answer is: probably one or two more before he moves on. The Dallas Stars have a knack for picking up the most desired UFAs, and it would be surprising to see them give Pavelski a shot in the twilight of his career.
12 (2018) John Tavares - Ottawa Senators
Another captain who may be on the move, John Tavares has said in the media that he's happy playing for the New York Islanders and is in no great hurry to move, but it's hard to see how that can be true. He's a former first overall pick and is considered to be one of the best young Canadian players in the world, but his point totals and accolades haven't really taken off like other former Canadian number one picks—Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid—because the Islanders have failed to surround him with top level talent, and he doesn't seem to be having much fun leading the Islanders to missed playoff appearances. While the situation isn't much better in Ottawa, he'd had a change to play in his home province, in front of Canadian fans, and lead the Sens in a new, positive direction. One thing is for sure; wherever he ends up, he'll command a maximum salary.
11 (2019) Artemi Panarin - Nashville Predators
It has been exciting to watch Artemi Panarin blossom from a surprise Calder winner, to a reliable scorer for the Blackhawks, into a solid contributor for the Blue Jackets. Surely letting Panarin go was a misstep by the Blackhawks. The trade was largely in response to them easily getting swept by the Nashville Predators in the first round of the playoffs, but even Patrick Kane said that he wasn't happy with the deal. The Columbus Blue Jackets are holding down a wildcard playoff position right now, but it stands to reason that when 2019 rolls around, Panarin is going to be one of the most on-demand free agents out there, and plenty of teams are going to be making a push for him. Given that Columbus doesn't have a whole lot of money to throw around and not the greatest supporting cast to offer, he'll be switching hands, probably to a young, talented team like the Predators.
10 (2018) Evander Kane - Detroit Red Wings
Evander Kane is already on his third NHL team in fewer than ten NHL seasons, and a large part of that seems to have to do with his personality. He's seen as being a brash, cocky player who doesn't always follow the rules and is hard to coach. He's also an electrifying, fast young player who can put the puck in the net, so while signing him is seen as being a risk for most teams, he's still on demand and can thrive in the right environment. The Detroit Red Wings are not a good team this year and seem to be going through a kind of identity crisis as they rebuild. If Kane doesn't have success in San Jose, I could see him taking on a big role with a young, rebuilding team like the Red Wings.
9 (2019) Matt Duchene - Minnesota Wild
Matt Duchene has been looking pretty good in Ottawa so far, especially compared to his years of unhappy suffering in Colorado. The whole saga with him requesting a trade but not being dealt was really a blow to Duchene's value overall, as he went from being considered one of the game's brightest young stars into a kind of liability, especially now that Nathan MacKinnon has emerged as one of the best young players in the world, leading the Avs to a surprisingly good record this year. The Ottawa Senators have been just terrible this year, and it's hard to imagine they'll be able to hang onto Duchene when he's a free agent in two years if they don't turn things around soon. I could see him settling in in Minnesota, away from the scrutiny of a Canadian market.
8 (2018) James Neal - Vegas Golden Knights
It's a shame that James Neal has run into some injury troubles this year, because he has been on an absolute tear for them this season, leading them to one of the most surprisingly successful seasons in NHL history. I often wonder whether, at the beginning of this season, if the Golden Knights' head office even thought it was possible that things would go this well for them this season. Has it been a fluke, or has it all been part of a well thought out master plan? Anyway, there's absolutely no reason why the Golden Knights wouldn't sign Neal to a long contract when he becomes a free agent this offseason. The Predators thought of him as being disposable, and it has got to feel good to be proving them wrong.
7 (2019) Tyler Seguin - Winnipeg Jets
Tyler Seguin deserves better than what has happened in Dallas over the past few years. He's a reliably 30-goal scorer, a dynamic player, and the Stars are constantly underperforming compared to the firepower on their rosters. They're probably going to make the playoffs this year, and will have another chance to finally do some damage in the post-season, but if they suffer two more disappointing seasons, I've got a feeling that Seguin will try his luck elsewhere, perhaps in a Canadian market for the first time in his career. When he does leave Dallas, he'll definitely command one of the biggest contracts in the league, as he has proven himself to be an elite player time and time again. For some reason, Dallas has been having a hard time getting its players to gel and become greater than the sum of their parts lately, and Seguin must be getting frustrated.
6 (2018) Jack Johnson - San Jose Sharks
Jack Johnson's name came up a lot this trade deadline as a guy who might be moved, but as we all know, almost nothing that people said might happen at the trade deadline actually happened this year, as the deadline passed with almost no moves being made for some reason. Johnson has been a reliable force for the Blue Jackets for years now, but his contract ends this season, and maybe he'll be looking to try his luck elsewhere. His finances have been messed up for years because his parents mismanaged his money, and at 31 years of age, Johnson won't be signing too many more NHL contracts, so he'll definitely be looking to cash in and make this one count to ensure his future financial stability.
5 (2019) Jeff Skinner - Toronto Maple Leafs
Jeff Skinner is one of the speediest and most skillful young players in the NHL, but he's kind of buried in Carolina, which isn't exactly the most vibrant hockey market and is not a team that is in the playoff picture this season. Skinner grew up in Toronto and played his junior hockey in Ontario, and I get the feeling that when his current contract ends, he'll be looking to sign a big deal with Toronto, where he'll get to be near his friends and family and play for the team he grew up cheering for. Plus, he'll get to play alongside other young stars like Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Skinner says he has enjoyed being a leader for the Hurricanes, but I get the feeling he has the urge to spend some time in a bigger hockey city soon.
4 (2018) James van Riemsdyk - Edmonton Oilers
James van Riemsdyk came up a lot as a guy who could have been traded at this year's trade deadline. Experts figured that this may not be the Leafs' year for a long playoff run and that they might be better off trading him for future assets, continuing to build, so that they'll be ready to make a serious run in a year or two. However, they decided to hold on to van Riemsdyk and now the question is whether he'll re-sign with them next year. As a proven 30-goal scorer who is under 30-years-old, he'll definitely be on high demand, especially by a team like the Oilers who are in desperate need of some support for McDavid so that they they don't end up wasting his potential.
3 (2019) Blake Wheeler - Winnipeg Jets
It can be a source of endless entertainment to speculate about where the NHL's top players will end up once they enter free agency. In the NBA in recent years, we've seen a kind of fantasy situation for fans, in which the top players all want to play together on mini all-star teams, which has created a league in which only a handful of teams have any chance of winning. The NHL is different, and there are certain players you can't really imagine turning their back on their team. One of these players is Blake Wheeler. He is the heart and soul of a Winnipeg Jets team that has slowly become very good. He's a point-per-game player in his prime who provides a lot of leadership for the Jets, and I have a feeling he'll sign with them until the end of his NHL career.
2 (2018) David Perron - Vegas Golden Knights
The reason I think the Golden Knights' top players will stick around after this season is because they all have a chip on their shoulders. First of all, the Golden Knights were widely projected to be the worst team in the NHL going into this season, and I'm sure it has felt good to prove those projections wrong. Also, most of the players on the Golden Knights were abandoned by their previous teams, who felt that they were expendable. Perron bounced around between teams for years before getting picked up by the Golden Knights, and he has been a core part of their success so far, so it's hard to imagine that he won't be rewarded with a long term, high value deal this summer.
1 (2019) Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Edmonton Oilers
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a guy whose name has been coming up in trade rumours for years now. This is because he's widely considered to be one of the league's most skilled, well-rounded defencemen, but his talents have largely been hidden because he hasn't been given much of a chance to shine. He's spend his whole career in Arizona, playing for consistently weak teams, and when his current contract ends in 2019, there will be a long line of teams looking to add a top-tier defenceman without sacrificing any assets. At the top of the list of teams will be the Oilers, who desperately need to fill out the holes in their roster. Signing Ekman-Larsson—who is still only 26—to a long-term deal would do wonders for their recent struggles.