The 2017 NHL free agent class promises to be one of the best in recent memory. Unless you think soon-to-be 38-year-olds Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleu are superstars at this stage of their respective careers, then there aren’t quite any stars in this year’s free agent class. But there is a tremendous amount of depth when it comes to reliable number one goalies, top-pairing defencemen and top-six forwards. This is easily one of the more exciting UFA classes in recent memory.
Last year, Steven Stamkos was to be the big fish on the open market, only to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning shortly before July 1st came. But there are plenty of high-quality players that could be all a contender needs to get over as a championship team once and for all.
When it comes to the top 15 free agents, there will be some suitors that make perfect sense. There will also be some destinations that make no sense at all. Let’s take a look at the best and worst possible team for the top 15 free agents of 2017.
30. Best For Patrick Sharp: Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild are on their way to winning their first Central Division since its inception three seasons ago. Head coach Bruce Boudreau has found a way to maximize the talent and skill on this team that has underachieved for almost a decade. That being said, the Wild may have problems keeping up with a team like the Chicago Blackhawks who are more experienced and balanced in scoring.
If the Wild can’t go to the Stanley Cup this year, bringing on the veteran Patrick Sharp would be a smart signing. He has three championship rings with Chicago and brings a nice shot and would fit nicely on a line with Eric Staal. Leadership is underrated in the postseason, and Sharp would have plenty of it to bring.
29. Worst for Patrick Sharp: Boston Bruins
The Bruins are on the edge of having to commit to a full-scale rebuild. Patrice Bergeron (31), Zdeno Chara (39), David Backes (32) and David Krejci (30), are the core players that are nearing the end of their primes. That means signing a 35-year-old Patrick Sharp would make no sense for the Bruins.
Boston was one of the league’s highest scoring teams a year ago, but they transitioned into a more defensive-sound, puck-possessive team in 2016-17. Sharp is used to playing with the likes of Jonathan Toews and Tyler Seguin; slick centers who feed him the puck and let him score.
Sharp doesn’t fit into the Bruins short-term or long-term plans, and their style of play would not make him the right fit. He needs to go to a team with plenty of speed and slick set-up men. That’s not happening in Beantown.
28. Best For Drew Stafford: Chicago Blackhawks
Blackhawks’ general manager Stan Bowman loves his reclamation projects; Kimmo Timonen, Andrew Brunette and Brad Richards are some of the names that come to mind. Why not take a chance on Drew Stafford, who has a chance of being one of the bigger bargains of the 2017 offseason?
Stafford is a four-time 20-goal scorer but is having a miserable season with the Winnipeg Jets, scoring just four goals and 12 points after putting up 21 and 38, respectively, a season ago. Perhaps fitting on a line with Toews, Artemi Panarin and/or Artem Anisimov is all Stafford needs to get his career back on track. Bowman is reportedly on the lookout for a winger to help out the forward depth, and Stafford would be a nice, cheap option for a team with such limited cap space.
27. Worst For Drew Stafford: Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings have made a big mistake over the last four years by trying to “rebuild on the fly”. This team was simply built not to win a Stanley Cup but rather to keep their two-decade playoff streak alive. Well, the streak is ending in 2016-17 and Detroit has to get younger.
They’re stuck with the toxic contracts of Jimmy Howard, Henrik Zetterberg, Frans Nielsen, Darren Helm and others. They signed veterans Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott last year, but both are set to become free agents at years’ end. There is simply no reason for Detroit to had another veteran. General manager Ken Holland loves to try reclamation projects, but Detroit doesn’t have any quality centers who can revive Stafford’s old scoring ways.
26. Best For Andrei Markov: St. Louis Blues
The Blues will not have Kevin Shattenkirk (traded to Washington) for 2017-18 and beyond, as the slick offensive-minded defenceman is slated to earn a huge contract from another team in free agency. Losing Shattenkirk will hurt the Blues and their team that’s built to win now.
But they can soften the pain by replacing him, and reliable veteran Andrei Markov would be a good fit. He’s a solid power play quarterback but also sound in his own end. Markov has been reliable enough to score 40-plus points in a season when healthy and has an excellent plus-50 career rating.
Markov is also 38 years of age and doesn’t have much playing time left, but that also means he won’t cost the cap-conscious Blues much money. His style of play would make him a great fit there, and St. Louis wouldn’t take such a huge hit from losing one of their top blueliners in Shattenkirk.
25. Worst For Andrei Markov: Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers are set to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, and there is really no need for them to look at adding any veterans at this point. The offence is more than fine up front with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Cam Talbot has cemented himself as a top-tier goalie and should be a big part of the crease for years to come. And then there’s the defence led by Adam Larsson, youngsters Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom, plus veterans Kris Russell and Andrej Sekera. They also haven’t brought up Griffin Reinhart from the minors yet
Edmonton has limited cap space down the road to extend all of their young stars, and the blue line is already filled up and doesn’t have a usage for Markov. This team has built itself on speed and Markov wouldn’t supply that in Edmonton.
24. Best For Mike Fisher: Nashville Predators
The best and most logical fit for Mike Fisher would be to stay where it belongs. Ever hear the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Fisher is on pace for his best season in three years as a 36-year-old. He’s been one of the league’s top two-way forwards in his career and has helped the Predators become one of the top teams in the Western Conference all these years.
But Fisher also makes sense to stay in The Music City because thats convenient for his wife — country music star Carrie Underwood and their family. Both factors make sense for Fisher in that he gets to play for a championship team where he remains a force and it’s ideal for his family. No reason to believe another team would be a better fit.
23. Worst For Mike Fisher: Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres have showed plenty of progress in 2016-17 and appear destined for a chance at the playoffs next year. But the Sabres still have a considerable amount of overpaid veterans on their team that should be moved in order to bring in more room for the young guys.
Though veteran Brian Gionta’s contract is set to expire, it’s possible the team decides to bring him back. Past-his-prime forward Matt Moulson is still on the roster and 33-year-old blueliner Josh Gorges also takes up valuable cap space. Buffalo is also carrying the expensive contracts of Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo, so bringing in Fisher would not make sense for either team. The Sabres have to avoid adding ageing veterans, and Fisher would surely be a bottom-six forward at best on this young roster.
22. Best For Martin Hanzal: San Jose Sharks
Martin Hanzal isn’t much of a scorer — having not scored more than 41 points in a season. The most tallies he’s put up in a single campaign? 16 back in 2010-11, though he’s about to pass those totals this year.
But these numbers are on a lowly Arizona Coyotes team, and Hanzal is going to be a third-line centre at best on a contender. His frame of 6-6, 226 pounds make Hanzal an attractive option for teams looking to add muscle. Regardless of how the San Jose Sharks do in this upcoming postseason, Hanzal is an ideal fit for a team that’s seeing its Stanley Cup window close considerably.
Joe Thornton is a pending UFA and if he skips town, the Sharks will be without a towering centre. Though Hanzal doesn’t score much, he would be a nice replacement and maximize San Jose’s championship chances.
21. Worst for Martin Hanzal: Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks just don’t seem to understand what a rebuild really means. Following a disastrous 2013-14 campaign under John Tortorella, they decided to retool by trading away Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison while signing veteran Ryan Miller and Radim Vrbata.
Vancouver was the NHL’s third-worst team in 2015-16, but their idea of rebuilding was to sign 31-year-old Loui Eriksson to a six-year deal worth $36 million. Yay. That may now be the NHL’s worst contract. So what do you believe the Canucks will do in the offseason? They’ll avoid spending on veterans in free agency and just accept a full-on rebuild is necessary, right?
Adding a 30-year-old Hanzal does nothing to help the Canucks rebuild. A pure shutdown third-line centre isn’t going to give them more scoring, a bonafide number one defenceman and star goalie. But don’t worry, there is a great chance they decide to pay an overrated veteran any way.
20. Best for Patrick Marleau: Anaheim Ducks
The greatest player in San Jose Sharks history is nearing age 38 along with his playing career. Patrick Marleau is no longer the consistent 30-goal and 70-point man he once was, but does remain reliable to put up at least 20 goals and 50 points a year. That being said, it’s easy to see him playing his final season(s) in another uniform.
According to Jon Wilner from The Mercury News, Marleau did ask to be traded to either the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks or New York Rangers. You can take the Kings off the list of possible destinations, since they’re no longer a championship contender and can’t afford another pricey player.
Anaheim’s cup window is closing fast. With their best forwards on the wrong side of 30, adding Marleau gives them another scorer to bail out Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Marleau wants to go there if San Jose doesn’t want him back, and the Ducks should look to strengthen themselves while weakening a division rival.
19. Worst for Patrick Marleau: New York Rangers
The Rangers are among the highest-scoring teams in the NHL this season. J.T. Miller (19 goals), Mats Zuccarello (12), Kevin Hayes (15), Chris Kreider (23), Michael Grabner (26), Rick Nash (17), and Jimmy Vesey (14), give this team more scoring depth than just about any other club in the NHL.
But New York is also seeing their championship window slowly close. Nash (33), Henrik Lundqvist (35), Zuccarello (29), Marc Staal (30), and Dan Girardi (33), are all reaching the end of their primes. Adding Patrick Marleau to an already loaded offensive group won’t do much for the Rangers. If they really feel like they need more scoring, then the Rangers will have to find a younger and faster option.
18. Best For Alexander Radulov: Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens took a chance on the long-time NHL star in the 2016 offseason, signing Alexander Radulov to a one-year contract. Everyone knew general manager Marc Bergevin was taking a huge risk, but the gamble has paid off to perfection. So far this season, Radulov has 14 goals and 42 points, and has been among the Canadiens’ top performers this season.
Radulov and his agent were willing to do talk an extension, according to a report from La Presse back in November. The Canadiens and Radulov have been a great marriage so far, and bringing him back is key to helping a team that is built entirely to win now.
Given his age (31), the Canadiens should be to retain Radulov without having to overpay. The two sides appear keen on working together and it’s tough to see why either party would break up a successful project.
17. Worst for Alexander Radulov: Calgary Flames
On paper, Radulov appears to be the ideal fit for the Flames. This team hasn’t scored as much in 2016-17 compared to a season ago. Radulov would join a forward group that includes rising stars Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Johnny Gaudreau. But there are a number of reasons as to why the Flames should stay away.
For starters, their goaltending situation is far more of a concern than adding a top-six forward. With Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury as possible options in the offseason, Calgary will have to think about using their salary cap space to improve between the pipes.
Secondly, the Flames have a nice young core of players who are 25 and under. Adding Radulov would mean adding a veteran who’s on the wrong side of 30 and only has so many effective seasons left. They’d be wise to pass on Radulov and stick with the younger guys they have now.
16. Best for Karl Alzner: Detroit Red Wings
Karl Alzner isn’t known for his offensive talents, but few blueliners are so reliable in their own end like the Burnaby, B.C. native is. Alzner has an incredible plus-26 rating so far in 2016-17, the best of his career. In fact, his plus/minus is a career +64, and he’s on his way to finishing 10 or better for the fifth season.
But the cap-strapped Washington Capitals probably won’t be able to pay Alzner what he’s worth, so it’s easy to believe he’s going to be on a new team next season. The Detroit Red Wings are a great fit as they greatly lack a legitimate top-pairing defenceman. The Red Wings are entering a rebuilding stage, but Alzner is just 28 years of age and would be a nice centrepiece in turning Detroit back into a contender.
15. Best for Karl Alzner: Winnipeg Jets
The Jets should be winning the Central Division when you consider their roster has Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Toby Enstrom and Tyler Myers. This team is loaded with elite scorers and standout blueliners, but why are they struggling?
Their goaltending has been incredibly terrible all season long, and luckily Ben Bishop, Ryan Miller and Marc-Andre Fleury are available to fix that. The Jets haven’t even paid some of their up-and-coming talents top dollar yet, meaning they’ll have to save salary cap space for the long run.
Alzner wouldn’t be a bad fit in Winnipeg, but he’s not going to mask the problems of the goalies on his own. He’d struggle to earn top-four minutes and is better off going somewhere that’ll give him 20-plus minutes a game.
14. Best for Thomas Vanek: Los Angeles Kings
Thomas Vanek was bought out by the Minnesota Wild less than a year ago, and took a one-year contract from the Detroit Red Wings. It’s paid major dividends so far and he’s set up for a nice payday on July 1st. On a lowly Wings team, Vanek has 15 goals and 38 points in just 47 games. But the rebuilding Red Wings would be smart to avoid keeping a 33-year-old. They need to get younger.
The Los Angeles Kings need more scorers up front. Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson are doing most of it while Anze Kopitar is going through the worst season of his career. General manager Dean Lombardi has taken chances on veterans Mike Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Marian Gaborik in the past, so bringing Vanek over wouldn’t hurt.
13. Worst for Thomas Vanek: Ottawa Senators
The Senators have tried picking up veterans for years and they got duped big time. The Mika Zibanejad for Derick Brassard swap has left eggs on the faces of Senators’ management. The Bobby Ryan and Pascal Leclaire trades also failed to pan out. The signings of Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar were also disappointments Overall, the Senators always seem to pay too much for veterans who don’t produce when it comes to bringing over veterans.
Furthermore, the Senators scoring is fine as is up front. Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Zack Smith and Ryan Dzingel are doing a fine job supplying the Sens with offence. They have four quality blueliners and a reliable goaltending duo of Craig Anderson.
12. Best for T.J. Oshie: Washington Capitals
T.J. Oshie has been an excellent fit in D.C. since being traded away from the St. Louis Blues two years ago. Last season, the slick two-way forward scored 26 goals and 51 points then followed it up with 24 goals and 43 points. The Capitals are well-positioned to win their second-straight Presidents’ Trophy, with Oshie playing a crucial part of that.
The Capitals window of opportunity has very little time left, with Alexander Ovechkin now 31 and Nicklas Backstrom pushing 30. With few prospects ready to come up, Washington would be smartest to retain some of their own key players. Oshie has played great in Barry Trotz’s system and will be a key piece of their playoff run in 2017. If the team lets him go in free agency, that’ll be one tough hole to fill.
11. Worst for T.J. Oshie: New York Islanders
The Islanders thought bringing on a proven and reliable two-way forward for John Tavares would be a final piece in establishing themselves as a Stanley Cup contender. Last offseason, they signed Andrew Ladd to a seven-year contract worth $38.5 million. Ladd has scored just 16 goals and 22 points this season after registering 25 and 46 a year ago, respectively.
Oshie and Ladd were similar in being responsible defensively while being able to score 20 goals and 50 points in any given season. Unfortunately for the Islanders, Ladd has been a huge disappointment and they’re stuck with his toxic contract for the long run. The last thing the Islanders need is to pay another veteran top dollar for his services.
10. Best for Brian Elliott: Winnipeg Jets
Elliott has been one of the more underrated yet better number one goalies in the NHL over the past five seasons. After a slow start with the Calgary Flames in 2016-17, he’s bounced back nicely but holds a 14-13-3 record with a 2.81 goals against average and .896 save percentage. Despite those porous numbers, it’s important to remember that the .898 save percentage in October and .869 in November really hurt his stats.
He’s finally settled in Calgary and appears to be in line for a nice raise in the offseason. With backup Chad Johnson outplaying Elliot aplenty this season and with other goalies on the market, they may look to cut ties with Elliot after the season.
The best fit for Elliott would be the Winnipeg Jets, who allow 2.89 goals per game and have a team save percentage of .898. Bringing on a true number one goalie is all they need to start contending for Stanley Cups.
9. Worst for Brian Elliott: Vancouver Canucks
Going back to the team that doesn’t like to rebuild…
The Canucks should have torn it all down three years ago, but they opted to sign 34-year-old goalie Ryan Miller to a three-year contract. With Miller set to become a free agent, the Canucks may look to move on from him and trust the younger tandem of Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko to carry the crease.
But knowing the Canucks, they’ll just be far too tempted into adding a veteran, and nobobdy should be surprised if they overpay for Elliott’s services. This is a team that has no superstar players, a very unreliable defence and no speed that would often wear down a team. They have a million things to do before they become Cup contenders again.
8. Best For Jaromir Jagr: Pittsburgh Penguins
Jaromir Jagr was one of the NHL’s premier superstars with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the ’90s, winning a pair of Stanley Cups with them. He hasn’t played with them since the 2000-01 question, and it’s amazing that he’s simply playing in the league nearly two decades later. Why not a reunion with the team that gave him a career to begin with?
The Penguins rely a lot on speed, but there has to be a sentimental feeling about bringing back one of the franchise’s biggest icons. Who cares if Jagr is 45 years of age, too. Sidney Crosby makes every guy on his line look great, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t form chemistry with the second-highest scoring player in league history.
7. Worst For Jaromir Jagr: Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs committed to a long-term rebuilding project two years ago, but they’re already showing incredible strides and may find themselves in the playoffs for the first time in four years. That is thanks in large part to young stars Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. The Leafs don’t seem to have any intention of chasing big-named veterans any time soon.
That would be a wise decision, as those three young stars plus Jake Gardiner, James Van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov and others are due for massive extensions soon. So for salary cap reasons, Jagr heading to Toronto doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Seeing him with Auston Matthews may sound great on paper, but the Leafs entire team is built on speed, speed, speed. With all due respect to Jagr, his 6-3 and 45-year-old frame doesn’t exactly possess the wheels to fit under Mike Babcock’s system. Not seeing a fit here.
6. Best for Ben Bishop: Calgary Flames
The Calgary Flames struggles in net have been well documented. This team hasn’t had a star goalie since Miikka Kiprusoff when he was in his prime back in 2010. Brian Elliott has been above-average, but not great in Calgary. With Elliott set to become a free agent, the Flames can turn their attention to Ben Bishop.
Calgary was close to acquiring him back at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, but the two sides weren’t able to agree on an extension beforehand. The Flames then opted to trade for Elliot, leaving Bishop in Tampa Bay before going to the Los Angeles Kings before the trade deadline.
The goalie market is at an all-time low right now, so the Flames won’t have to worry about out-bidding other clubs. Bishop is solid to win 30-plus games a season, and Calgary should sign him and establish their biggest weakness — in the crease.
5. Worst for Ben Bishop: Colorado Avalanche
Bishop was born in Denver, so some might think that he has a desire to join his hometown team. But the Colorado Avalanche are the NHL’s worst team (and it’s not even close), with a solid goalie in Semyon Varlamov. Bishop is not better nor worse than Varlamov, so it’s not like he’d be able to fix the Avalanche’s problems.
Also, Bishop is 30 years of age and wouldn’t be a good fit in a team that’s preparing to tear it all down and restart. The Avalanche need to get as young as possible everywhere in the lineup, and Bishop is probably more interested in joining a team to win now. Plus, didn’t we mention something about Varlamov being a good enough goalie any way? No need to add Bishop.
4. Best For Kevin Shattenkirk: New York Rangers
Kevin Shattenkirk is the best defenceman on the free agent market this season, and it’s clear that Washington are gearing up for a Cup run (Shattenkirk was recently acquired from St. Louis). That said, Shattenkirk could have simply been brought over to the Capitals to help this process along. The 28-year-old blueliner hit the 40-point mark for the fifth-straight 82-game regular season. Few blueliners are as talented defensively and remarkable offensively as the Blues’ veteran.
Reports out there state that Shattenkirk has a desire to play for the Rangers, and it all makes plenty of sense. As we mentioned above, this team has a ridiculous amount of depth in scoring and doesn’t need Patrick Marleau. But outside of Ryan McDonagh and an oft-injured Marc Staal, the Blueshirts don’t offer much on defence to scare the opposition’s top players.
3. Worst for Kevin Shattenkirk: Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have shown plenty of progress but need another year or two with their young core before they’re ready to compete in the playoffs. Though Ron Francis may feel tempted to add a big fish in free agency, Shattenkirk shouldn’t be one of them.
This team is going to want to save its cap space when its top young players are in line for big raises. Furthermore, the Hurricanes have so much talent on the blue line that Shattenkirk really isn’t needed. Noah Hanifin looks to be a Norris Trophy candidate for years to come, while Jaccob Slavin and Justin Faulk have already settled in as quality blueliners.
2. Best for Joe Thornton: Ottawa Senators
The Senators have been an average/solid team for the better part of the past decade. But ever since Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson reached the end of their primes in Ottawa and requested trades, the team that plays in the nation’s capital has lacked a bonafide star at forward.
Erik Karlsson is the NHL’s best defenceman and guys like Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Derick Brassard, Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman do provide nice offense — but none of them post star-like numbers. Ottawa needs a true number one centre to go on a deep playoff run, and Joe Thornton would be an awesome fit.
Joe Thornton has made all of his linemates look great, and Stone and Hoffman would be even better if the 2006 scoring champion and Hart Trophy winner headed over to Ottawa. This could be the move that puts the Senators over top in the Eastern Conference, too.
1. Worst for Joe Thornton: Pittsburgh Penguins
It never seems like a bad idea for a great team to add a great player, but the Pittsburgh Penguins would be foolish to take on Thornton unless he took a contract for under $2 million annually — which he obviously won’t.
The Penguins have two legitimate number one centres in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and that won’t change any time soon. If Thornton plays on the Penguins’ third line, who would be reliable-enough linemates to ensure Jumbo Joe remains productive? Pittsburgh also doesn’t have much salary cap space and they’d be wise to save money so they can pay more stars down the road. This team just won a Stanley Cup against Thornton and his Sharks, so there’s no reason to believe he’s the missing ingredient of another championship.
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