If there is one thing sports fans admire in an athlete more than pure skill, it’s loyalty to his/her team. Of course, any time a free agent star signs with a team, fans will root for him to succeed. However, there is something heart-warming about cheering the player who stayed in town, who took a pay cut to remain with a team, or who signed on for one more year in hopes of delivering that team’s city a championship.
Hockey is a sport of loyalty as well. Yet, as is the nature of professional sports, business often trumps loyalty. Players cash in on big contracts with new teams, giving a literal meaning to “seeking greener pastures.” Other times, it’s the owners who shun loyalty. They will ship players to other teams through trades in hopes of solidifying or improving their chances of a deep playoff run.
This endless speculation can wear on a player’s psyche. The relentless questioning about a player's future can distract that player so much that his on-ice performance is affected. Still, analysts and pundits can’t resist giving in to predictions, projections, and rumors.
I shamelessly admit to being part of that group. Thus, I took a look at 15 NHL players whose futures remain uncertain. Whether through impending free agency, or likely trades, these players might find themselves wearing new sweaters in 2017-18.
Here are some projections on where these 15 NHLers could wind up next season.
15 Ryan Miller - Los Angeles Kings
Make no mistake, Ryan Miller is a great goaltender. With over 350 career wins and a save percentage above .910, he has quite the resume. However, at 36 years of age, his best days appear to be in the rear view mirror. Take into account the emergence of young netminder Jacob Markstrom, and Miller's expiring $6 million cap hit, and chances are he winds up on another team next season.
A trade deadline deal could also happen. The Kings are the strongest possibility, with Dwight King or Kyle Clifford as likely trade pieces. Also, Miller's wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, may prefer staying close to the Los Angeles area for work purposes. Jonathan Quick's health is still uncertain so the Kings could use some insurance in goal.
Another possibility is the Vegas Golden Knights, who will need an established goaltender for their inaugural season.
14 Patrick Marleau - Nashville Predators
Patrick Marleau may be 37-going-on-38, but he is still a serviceable NHL player. He led the Sharks to last season’s Stanley Cup Final after a 25-goal season. He has 11 goals through 39 games this season.
Marleau will be an unrestricted free agent following the 2016-2017 season, and may retire. However, Kevin Kruz of CSN Bay Area reported back in 2015 about possible trade rumors. Kruz wrote that Marleau would accept a trade to the Rangers, Kings, or Ducks.
The Sharks could trade Marleau at the trade deadline to avoid the risk of losing him for nothing. The Rangers might not fit given their salary cap situation, and the Kings are division rivals. The Ducks do have some young defenseman, including Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, but those pieces seem too important to give up for an aging player.
If Marleau plays out his contract with San Jose, I see him signing a one-year deal with the Nashville Predators. Their roster is young, and Mike Ribeiro comes off the payroll in 2017. Marleau could take that center position as a cheap option for 2017-18.
13 Tomas Plekanec - Edmonton Oilers
Plekanec enters the final year of his contract next season with the Canadiens, and is owed $6 million. Plekanec is also enduring one of the worst seasons of his career. He has registered just six goals and 20 points in his first 43 games this season. His 4.4 shooting percentage is also a career-worst. Nick Kypreos told "Hockey Night in Canada" in early January that if Plekanec doesn't "get re-engaged" that the Habs could shop him at the trade deadline.
Given Plekanec's struggles, Montreal may have a tough time trading him. However, he is still winning over 50 percent of his faceoffs, and could be a valuable locker room leader on a young team. Perhaps the Edmonton Oilers could work, given their need for a strong defensive center. With the emergence of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, Edmonton may be willing to part with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jordan Eberle. Clearly, Plekanec alone wouldn't suffice, but Montreal could package him in a deal.
Another option is Nashville, where Plekanec can help on faceoffs. Mike Fisher and Ryan Johansen are the main options in the faceoff circle, while Calle Jarnkrok and Mike Ribeiro struggle in that area. Plekanec provides a third option to take the load off of Fisher and Johansen.
12 Jaroslav Halak - Winnipeg Jets
Jaroslav Halak is unique among players on this list given that he is not currently on an NHL roster. The Islanders waived him during an underwhelming 2016-17 season where he struggled to a 6-8-5 record. He managed just a .904 save percentage, while backup Thomas Griess sported a .922 save percentage.
So the question is, which team signs Halak? Will Halak even get a shot with another team? Halak is 32, but can still sign on as a backup.
He could spend the remainder of this season with the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. If not, there are two teams that could work.
One is the Oilers, who have enough cap room to fit Halak. The veteran may provide a better option than Jonas Gustavsson.
The best option is Winnipeg, whose backup, Michael Hutchinson, has a paltry .896 save percentage. Halak could serve as a mentor for young goalie Connor Hellebuyck as well.
11 Semyon Varlamov
Varlamov makes a lot of sense on the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. At 28 years old, he doesn’t quite fit on the rebuilding Colorado Avalanche, nor does his $5.9 million cap hit. Calvin Pickard is younger and enjoying a better season thus far, so the Avs might be more apt to protect him in the upcoming expansion draft.
Vegas general manager George McPhee was also the GM for the Capitals when they drafted Varlamov 23rd overall back in 2006. McPhee could very well select Varlamov again in the expansion draft.
Dave Prior, the Golden Knights’ goaltending coach, also served the same role for the Capitals from 1997-2014, so he knows Varlamov fairly well.
Varlamov is under contract until 2019, and could give Vegas a solid starting option for the next few seasons.
10 Martin Hanzal - Montreal Canadiens
At 12-22-6 through 40 games this season, the Coyotes may be sellers at the deadline. One piece they’ve been rumored to move is 29-year-old center Martin Hanzal. Hanzal is set for free agency this offseason after his five-year, $15.5 million deal expires.
However, Hanzal realizes he may be traded before season’s end. “That’s something I can’t control,” he told Sarah McLellan of the Arizona Republic. “If they want me, I’ll be happy to stay here. But if not, I’ve got to move on.”
Montreal could be one such destination for Hanzal, according to Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. The Habs have some prospects to spare, such as Daniel Carr and Sven Andrighetto. Another possibility is San Jose, given the injury to Thomas Hertl.
Coyotes GM John Chyka will likely command a second-round pick in exchange. Hanzal has never topped 41 points in his career, but provides a solid option on the second or third line. While he's a UFA at the end of this season, it would make sense for the Habs to trade for Hanzal and re-sign him, once they've shipped out Plekanec.
9 Jakob Silfverberg - Edmonton Oilers
With Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen both signed to long-term deals, the Ducks could move some of their other young players. Among these are Cam Fowler, Rickard Rakell, and Jakob Silfverberg. With 13 goals and 16 assists through 44 games this season, Silfverberg is enjoying a productive year. However, the Ducks may not be able to protect him at the expansion draft in June. Thus, they may try and trade him before then, while his value is sky-high.
He has two years left on his deal after this season, with a $3.75 million average cap hit. Sure, the Ducks could deal the All-Star Fowler, but Silfverberg has higher upside and could fetch a higher return.
Expect a possible deal with a defensively-challenged team such as the Edmonton Oilers or Carolina Hurricanes. Edmonton, in particular, could deal a Jordan Eberle-type player. I’m not proposing Edmonton would accept Silfverberg for Eberle straight up, but if you package both Silfverberg and Fowler, the Oilers may bite. It might be pie in the sky, but the Ducks can’t protect their entire defensive core at the expansion draft.
8 Patrick Sharp - Carolina Hurricanes
The Dallas Stars need a defensive upgrade, since they rank 15th in the league with 2.72 goals-against-per-game this season. They surrender an average 29.10 shots-against per-60-minutes. The Stars will likely make a trade for a defenseman at the deadline or in the offseason.
With Jamie Benn locked up long-term on an eight-year, $76 million extension, Patrick Sharp might be the team’s best trade chip. Yes, the 35-year-old forward has only scored four points in 16 games this season. He was placed on injured reserve with concussion-like symptoms in December. Despite that, he did score 20 goals last season.
The Carolina Hurricanes might be a nice fit for Sharp. Dallas could ask for a young defenseman such as Ryan Murphy, who would develop well in the Stars’ system. One complication is Sharp’s no-movement clause, which would mean he’d have to be waived in order for any possible deal to go through.
It appears unlikely Sharp would leave Dallas. Yet, with a $5.9 million cap hit, the Stars may choose to cut him loose. If so, the Hurricanes could be a fitting destination.
7 Gabriel Landeskog - Boston Bruins
The Avalanche forward is at the forefront of trade rumors this season. Landeskog holds a $5.5 million cap hit through the 2020-21 season, and is underperforming thus far this in 2016-17. His 13 points in 29 games are disappointing enough, but his minus-10 rating is even more troublesome.
Nonetheless, Colorado will command a high asking price for Landeskog. Darren Dreger of TSN reported in early January that the Avs are asking for a “top-level defenseman, a first-round pick, plus” for the Swedish forward.
Few teams may be willing to move those kinds of assets for Landeskog. If he rebounds to his 65-point form from 2013-14, then perhaps things change. The Bruins reportedly denied Avs’ GM Joe Sakic’s request for defenseman Brandon Carlo in a potential deal. It seems an offseason trade is more likely, if it happens at all.
If Landeskog doesn’t stay in Colorado next season, expect a possible trade to Boston. They may not part with Carlo but they still have defensive prospects like Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, and Joe Morrow that they could package along with a high draft pick.
6 Evander Kane - Minnesota Wild
Evander Kane has all the skill in the world to be a top 10 player in the NHL. He has shown flashes of stardom during his career with the Thrashers/Jets and Sabres. However, his off-ice issues are well-documented, as is his attitude in the locker room and inconsistent two-way play on the ice.
While Kyle Okposo is putting together an All-Star season in Buffalo, Kane is struggling through injuries. He has 10 goals and 15 points through 29 games so far in 2016-17. When healthy, Kane is a top forward for the Sabres.
Yet, with heavy reliance on centers like Ryan O' Reilly, and Jack Eichel, the Sabres may trade Kane at the deadline. They could deal him in return for defensive help. With his injury history, Kane is too high a risk for Buffalo to keep.
Consider a team like Minnesota, who has a surplus of defensemen. The Wild would love a gritty forward like Kane. They may deal Josh Brodin and Marco Scandella, thereby providing Buffalo a boost on defense.
5 Ben Bishop - Dallas Stars
The Lightning recognized the hot play of Andrei Vasilevskiy by signing him to a three-year contract extension last offseason. The young netminder spelled Ben Bishop in net after Bishop went down with injuries in the playoffs once again. The 22-year-old went 3-4 in eight appearances with a .925 save percentage.
Given Bishop’s injury history, it’s likely Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman deals him before season’s end. Bishop is an impending free agent this offseason. He has a $5.95 million cap hit for 2016-17, and will likely price himself out of Tampa Bay when he asks for a raise this summer.
The 29-year-old will probably sign with either the Dallas Stars or the Vegas Golden Knights. In the case of Dallas, GM Jim Nill might prefer Bishop over either Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi. He may deal one of those two back to Tampa in a trade. In the case of Vegas, Bishop’s name obviously comes up as a possible starter to backstop to the team in their freshman season.
Dallas seems more likely, however. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
4 Jaromir Jagr - Florida Panthers
Jaromir Jagr is the NHL's ageless wonder. He turns 45 in February, and has over 750 career goals. He recently passed Mark Messier for second all-time in points scored this past December.
Yet, given Jagr's age, the time for long-term deals has passed him by. He is on a one-year contract with the Florida Panthers, which pays him $4 million. Despite Jagr's consistent contribution into his 40s, Father Time will eventually catch up to him. He may only play another year or two in the NHL.
Jagr may choose to leave Florida to go to a contender to give him a shot at a championship before retirement. However, he may not be able to handle the workload of a long playoff run. Instead, he could play between 60-65 games for a small market team that needs veteran leadership and doesn't come with the pressures of a larger-market team.
Expect him back with the Panthers next season. If he chooses to chase a ring, he could sign with the Blackhawks, Wild, or even return to the Penguins. Florida is still the best bet though.
3 Marc Andre Fleury - Colorado Avalanche
Even with the rise of Matt Murray, Fleury proved he still deserves to be an NHL starter. He enjoyed a great 2015-16 season, winning 35 games and a earning a career-best 2.29 goals against average.
However, Fluery has also proven fragile over the past few seasons. Concussion issues kept him out of the Penguins' 2016 run to the Stanley Cup. Murray assumed the starting role, and backstopped the team to its second championship in the past decade.
The Penguins would love to keep Fleury on the roster ahead of the expansion draft, as they will have two number one goalies. Yet, they may only be able to protect one of their netminders in advance of the draft. Odds are they favor Murray, who is just 22 years old, over the 32-year-old Fleury.
Fleury is currently signed through 2018-19 at an annual average $5.75 million cap hit. He would have to waive his no-movement clause in any possible deal. With the likely departure of Semyon Varlamov from Colorado, the Avs could come calling for Fleury. The Canucks could also make a play for Fleury given that Ryan Miller is an unrestricted free agent at season's end.
2 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - New York Islanders
The Oilers showed they aren't afraid to trade away former number-one overall draft picks. They did it last summer with Taylor Hall, and again last fall with Nail Yakupov. Chances are they could do it once again with 2011 top pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
The rise of Connor McDavid, coupled with the exceptional play of Leon Draisaitl, has pushed Nugent-Hopkins down Edmonton's depth chart. Despite an injury-shortened 34-point, 55-game season in 2015-16, the 23-year-old still has trade value. He has eight goals and 20 points through 43 games played so far this season.
The Oilers could use help on the wings for McDavid and Draisaitl. GM Peter Chiarelli might package Nugent-Hopkins in a deal to a team like the Islanders, who have promising young wingers in their organization. Michael Dal Colle or Josh Ho-Sang are two wingers Chiarelli could ask for in return for Nugent-Hopkins. The Islanders need another center, and Nugent-Hopkins fits the bill.
1 Kevin Shattenkirk - New York Rangers
Kevin Shattenkirk is the most intriguing free agent on this list. There is a myriad of speculation about his future if he doesn’t re-sign with the Blues. Shattenkirk is a star right-handed blueliner, and potted 14 goals and 44 points during the 2015-16 regular season. He added 11 points in 20 playoff games and was vital to the Blues’ run to the Western Conference Finals last season.
At just 27 years old, Shattenkirk is in the final year of his contract, and is due $4.25 million. Talk about a bargain. Shattenkirk will cash in this summer, and the team that will give him that raise is the New York Rangers. Dan Girardi and Kevin Kline have both declined this season, and Marc Staal is out with a concussion.
The Rangers could use a puck-moving defenseman to help Ryan McDonagh and the struggling backline. The Rangers would need to deal either Derek Stepan or Rick Nash to make cap room for Shattenkirk. The Blueshirts may prefer the latter, as Nash is older (32 years compared to Stepan’s 26 years) and has a higher cap hit ($7.8 million to Stepan’s $6.5 million).