We haven’t even hit the quarter mark of the 2015-16 NHL, so why would anyone be looking ahead to the 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent Class? Well, for me, it’s because I’m a Leafs fan (I know), and as excited as I have been for Mike Babcock and the systems he’s instilled in this team, I’m realistic, and I know there’s pretty much no chance of making playoffs this year. So already, I’m looking ahead to see who might be available on July 1st.
I’m going to ignore all the players who are over the age of 32, today, because free agent signings of guys who are that age usually turn out to be bad signings. Their best years are behind them, and while they might still be able to contribute regularly, it’s rare. For that reason, guys like Tomas Plekanec, Jiri Hudler, Brad Richards, and Jaromir Jagr won’t be on this list. Someone needs to sign Jagr though, because he can probably play until he’s 50, especially if he’s gets the mullet flowing.
This list will focus on players who have some years left in their career, some tread left on those tires. If any of these players were signed to a five year deal, they would likely be able to play out the length of the contract.
Finally, it’s safe to assume some of them won’t make it to July 1st because their current teams will lock them down before then, but a guy can dream, right?
17 Luke Schenn
For a defensive defensemen, Schenn needs to work on his defensive game, ask any Leafs or Flyers fan. At the age of 26 though, Schenn still has room for improvement, and last season with the Flyers he showed his game is headed in the right direction. He averaged 18:04 minutes per game, and posted his highest point total since he was traded to Philadelphia and he only played 58 games. He even had positive possession numbers. His cap hit is $3.6M in 2015, which is about right for 3-4 defenseman, maybe a bit on the high side. This season hasn’t been good for Schenn so far, as trade rumours swirl, but he’ll be sought after if he makes it to July 1.
16 Justin Abdelkader
Abdelkader will be 29 once free agency hits, and while he’s unlikely to score a ton of goals, he has managed to hit double digits in goals scored in the last three seasons. He’s well on his way to making that four seasons in a row, as he already has four goals through 12 games this year. Last season, Abdelkader had a career year, scoring 44 points for the Red Wings as his responsibilities continued to climb, logging almost 18 minutes of ice time per game for the first time. This year, he’s getting even more ice time under new bench boss, Jim Blashill. If he decides to hit free agency, he should get a raise from the $1.8M cap hit from his current four year deal.
15 Sam Gagner
Gagner will be 26 on Free Agent Day in 2016, which sounds crazy because he’s already played 8 NHL seasons. Gagner has scored over 40 points in each of those seasons, except two (one of which was the half-season because of the lockout). Considering he has spent his entire NHL career on terrible teams, that’s not half bad. This year, Gagner is in Philadelphia, and once again, he’s on pace to score over 40 points. In ten games, he has 2 goals and 5 points while playing a smaller role than he ever has, averaging only 13:25 minutes of ice time per night. If he hits free agency, he’ll probably get more than a few offers, and with a $3.2M cap hit this season, he could be signed at a decent price.
14 James Reimer
Reimer will be a bit of a risk for whatever team decides to sign him, assuming he decides to go to Free Agency. If a team signs him to be a starter, they’ll have to consider Reimer has never played more than 37 games in a season. By the numbers, he’s been inconsistent, albeit he’s backstopped a consistently bad team. He’ll be 28 if he reaches July 1, and he’s known as a late bloomer, so his best years should be ahead of him. His cap hit is $2.3M this season, and he’ll likely sign a small contract again, so he could be a real bargain.
13 Andrew Ladd
The captain of the Winnipeg Jets has been a steady and consistent NHLer for most of the last decade. Since 2009, when he was playing the Chicago Blackhawks, Ladd has scored double digits and over 40 points every season, save for one. Last season, Ladd had a career year scoring 24 goals and 62 points and led the Jets to their first playoff berth since their return to Canada. This season, he appears to be on track to repeat, with 3 goals and 8 points in 12 games. His cap hit this season $4.4M and he’ll be looking to get paid on what is likely to be his biggest contract before his career begins to wind down.
12 Mikkel Boedker
Boedker will be 26 if he hits free agency, so there are still a lot of good years left ahead of him. He’s only scored more than 50 points once so far in his career, but last season, he only played in 45 games and scored 28 points, so it’s not out of the question he could score 50 again. So far this year, he’s on pace to do just that; in 11 games, he has 4 goals and 8 points. His cap hit of $3.75M might a little high for a player who’s never scored more than 20 goals in a season, so it will be interesting to see how this season plays out for Boedker, especially on a bad Arizona team.
10 Kyle Okposo
In 2013-14, the NHL caught a glimpse of what Okposo is capable of. In 71 games he scored 27 goals and 69 points. Even more impressive, 54 of those points were scored while playing at even strength. His numbers dipped a bit last season, but he was still just under a point per game, scoring 51 P in 60 GP. In 13 games, he has 3 goals and 9 points this season, so he’s currently just shy of his 2013-14 pace. He makes $4.5M this season, even though his cap hit is only $2.8M, so he’s going to want a big contract whether it comes from the New York Islanders or not. At 27, he’ll still in the prime of his career.
9 David Perron
Perron has been a consistent scorer throughout his career; every season he’s played more than 40 games, he’s scored more than 10 goals. Last season, he scored 5 goals in 38 games with the Edmonton Oilers before being traded to the Pens, where he scored 12 goals in 43. This season hasn’t been going well for Perron, as he’s off to a very slow start. In 11 games he only has 2 points, and is still without a goal. With a $3.812M cap hit, this could be a defining year in his career.
8 Milan Lucic
Lucic is playing his first season outside of Boston, playing for the Los Angeles Kings. At 27, the power forward should have at least a few good years left ahead of him, but it’s hard to project if a big fall off it coming. It’s been a few years since he scored 30 goals and 62 points, and he had a sharp drop last season when he scored 18 goals and 44 points. His cap hit of $6M might be high, but with the Bruins retaining $2.75M, he could be a bit of a bargain for the Kings. So far in 12 games, he has 2 goals and 7 points, with 16 PIM, which puts him on pace to just beat last year’s totals.
6 Kris Russell
Russell spent 6 seasons between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the St. Louis Blues before going to Calgary in 2013. Since then, he’s become a very valuable blueliner for the Flames. Last season, he broke the record for blocked shots in a season with 283. He averaged 23:57 minutes per night, and he played a major role in helping the Flames make playoffs after Mark Giordano’s season-ending injury. This year has been rough on the Flames and Russell; in 13 games he has 2 points and is -15. His cap hit of $2.6M is a bargain, and I imagine the Flames will do whatever it takes to prevent him from becoming a free agent, so he should get a raise.
5 Eric Staal
At the age of 30, Staal’s best years are likely behind him, and there’s pretty much no chance he ever scores 100 points in a season again. The scary knee injury he suffered at the 2013 World Championship has affected him, whether he wants to admit it or not. He’s posted the lowest point totals of his career (except his rookie season) since the injury, but he’s a former All-Star. This year, through 12 games he has 4 goals and 7 points. Whatever happens, his next contract won’t match the $8.25M average his current one netted him.
4 Dustin Byfuglien
The All-Star has been a game changer for the Winnipeg Jets, whether it’s by scoring goals or by laying big hits. He’s scored more than 50 points three times in his career, and would have done so last season if he would have played a handful more games. This season, he has 6 points in 12 games. He’ll be 31 on July 1, so his prime years are behind him, but he’ll be able to contribute as long as his body holds up, but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
3 Keith Yandle
Yandle has scored over 50 points in each of the last three seasons, a streak that would probably be four had it not been for the lockout shortened season. He’s in his first full season with the New York Rangers, and because the Arizona Coyotes have retained half his cap hit, his $2.625 cap hit will be a bargain. So far, he has 7 points in 12 games. The Rangers paid a high price to trade for Yandle, sending Anthony Duclair to Arizona, so I would imagine they will do their best to resign him before he hits free agency. If they can’t make room to fit him under the cap though, Yandle will get a lot of calls.
2 Anze Kopitar
One of the league’s best two-way centremen, Kopitar does everything a team could ever ask for, and he’s been doing since he came into the league. The only year he hasn’t scored more than 60 points, was the lockout shortened year, when he scored 42 points in 47 games. It’s been long reported that Kopitar wants to stay in LA and he’s confident they’ll be able to work out a contract, but until there’s ink on paper… a guy can dream. His current deal pays him $7.7M this season, accounting for a $6.8M cap hit. It wouldn’t be surprising if Kopitar becomes one of the league’s highest paid players. He’s 28 years old and has a lot of good years left ahead of him.
1 Steven Stamkos
He’ll be 26 years old when the season ends, he’s already won the Maurice Richard Trophy twice and should be among the league leaders every year he’s healthy. So far this season, he has 6 goals in 14 games. Going into the 2015-16 season, the Lightning are right up against the cap, and Stamkos will get a raise from his current average salary of $7.5M. There have been crazy rumours that Stamkos wants to sign with his hometown team, but I imagine Lightning general manager, Steve Yzerman, will do whatever it takes to keep Stamkos in Tampa.
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