The NHL season is just about to reach the All-Star Break and what an eventful season it has been. From the institution of 3-on-3 overtime to Alex Ovechkin’s 500th goal, this campaign has already succeeded in creating many memorable moments for fans and players alike. However, that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start looking towards the future. This summer will bring what could be one of the most interesting free agent classes in recent history.
For starters, there are numerous young talents that will be hitting free agency (unrestricted or restricted) for the first time. In fact, out of the 20 players on this list, 8 of them are 22 years of age or younger. With players such as Johnny Gaudreau, Max Domi, Connor McDavid, etc. joining the league in the past year or two, the NHL has seen an influx of incredibly talented budding superstars. This only means great things for the future of the best sport on ice. When these young players become restricted free agents for the first time, as will be a theme through this list, teams will look to lock them up for a few years to sustain their respective player cores at a reasonable price.
This summer won’t be all about the young RFA’s, however, as one of the best players of our generation will become a UFA this summer: Steven Stamkos. It is rare to see such a huge name reach UFA status in the NHL, as they are usually signed to an extension during the season or are traded for a major return before their contract runs out. This summer could provide for one of the most entertaining bidding wars in hockey’s recent memory.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the 20 NHL Free Agents who stand to gain the most this upcoming summer.
*Stats are correct as of January 11th, 2016.
18. Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Dallas Stars
Valeri Nichushkin (RFA) is a former 10th overall pick who will be exploring free agency for the first time in his young career. The 20 year old winger is restricted, so the Stars will have a chance to negotiate with him before anyone else and will have the chance to match any offer given to him by another team. Dallas loves how their prospect has been developing, even though his production is slightly down and his time lost due to injury has gone up. He plays a very prominent position on the first line with Benn and Spezza. Expect Dallas to sign him to a long-term contract this summer.
Prediction: Dallas Stars
17. Cam Ward, G, Carolina Hurricanes
Cam Ward (UFA) is on the back end of his consistent caree, and he is the one who stands to gain the most from this year’s thin free agent class at the goalie position. He has put up a solid 2.42 GAA in 30 games to date this season, even with the weak team playing in front of him. Carolina will hope that Eddie Lack can regain the form he had in Vancouver and be their short term starter. It seems that prospect Alex Nedeljkovic could work as Lack’s backup next season. This would save the Hurricanes a lot of cap space that could definitely be spent in other places.
Prediction: Edmonton Oilers
16. Jaromir Jagr, RW, Florida Panthers
Can you believe that we are discussing Jaromir Jagr’s free agent status in 2016? Jagr (UFA) has stated that he wants to play until he is 50 and he is showing no signs of slowing down. To this point in the season, hockey’s resident fountain of youth has posted a 15/16/31 stat line with a +9 rating. He also serves as a great veteran presence for the young Panthers who have surged to the top of the Atlantic Division. He will most likely finish his career after a few more 1-year contracts in South Florida, with a few more playoff runs possibly sprinkled in.
Prediction: Florida Panthers
15. Milan Lucic, LW, Los Angeles Kings
Milan Lucic (UFA) is not the player he once was, but he is still a hard-hitting forward who has the ability to score. His main issue is inconsistency. He is a very streaky player who was asked to do a lot in Boston. The 27 year old winger is not asked to do nearly as much in LA and he fits perfectly with their hard-hitting physical style. Milan has openly stated that he would like to stay with the Kings after this season and there is no reason to think the Kings will let him go when they can sign him at a bargain.
Prediction: Los Angeles Kings
14. Radim Vrbata, RW, Vancouver Canucks
Radim Vrbata’s (UFA) dip in scoring and the Canucks lackluster play this season could signal the end of his tenure in Vancouver. After posting a 31 goal, 63 point season in his first year with the Canucks, he has only put up 10 goals and 18 points through 40 games this season. The Canucks are treading water in a terrible division and will most likely look to get younger next season. Due to the 34 year old’s history, Vrbata will command a few million per year. He will most likely not get that in Vancouver unless things turn around.
Prediction: Anaheim Ducks
13. Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets
At 22 years old, Mark Scheifele (RFA) is showing that he can be a star center in the NHL. He put up 49 points last season and is on pace to be around 50 again this season. As he gets older and gains more experience, it can only be assumed that he will continue to get better. The Jets should keep him and they should make sure it is for the long term. He can be seen as a very cheap option compared to their two star free agents, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien.
Prediction: Winnipeg Jets
12. David Backes, C, St. Louis Blues
David Backes’ (UFA) future in St. Louis relies heavily on the team’s playoff performance this season. The captain has been consistently been putting up 20-30 goals per season for the Blues, but the team has been eliminated in the first round over and over again. His leadership in St. Louis is being questioned, and with an absolutely stacked Central Division this season, expect the Blues to suffer another early exit. Nashville makes sense, as they were rumored to be in on Stamkos, before the Ryan Johansen deal, but will most likely miss out and look for a solid second line center.
Prediction: Nashville Predators
11. Kyle Okposo, RW, New York Islanders
When healthy, the 27 year old Okposo (UFA) is a shoe-in for at least 20 goals each season. He only makes a $2.8 million AAV and is in line for a large pay raise this coming summer. The Islanders have something special offensively and they likely aren’t ready to break that up. They will do whatever is necessary to keep Okposo and they have the space to do it. They will have $18 million of cap space to throw around this summer. Expect Okposo to haul in about $6 million of it.
Prediction: New York Islanders
10. Filip Forsberg, LW, Nashville Predators
After bursting on the scene last season with 26 goals and playing in all 82 games for Nashville, Filip Forsberg (RFA) has established himself as a legitimate threat. The sophomore slump hasn’t gotten to him, as he is on pace for another 20+ goal season. At 21 years old, the Predators have something special on their hands. They will look to lock him up long term, most likely for around $4 million per season. He has superstar potential and with more experience he will continue to grow into a top forward.
Prediction: Nashville Predators
9. Seth Jones, D, Columbus Blue Jackets
There is no shot that the Blue Jackets will let Seth Jones (RFA) walk. Zero. None. Zilch. Nada. They traded their best player for him in Ryan Johansen and they expect Jones to be a Blue Jacket for a very long time. The 21 year old standout defenseman has proven himself in Nashville. As a 19 year old, he was immediately thrust into the first line with Shea Weber. He also learned to play the left side as a righty, which is an extremely difficult transition. He is the new centerpiece of the rebuild in Columbus and will be paid as such.
Prediction: Columbus Blue Jackets
8. Keith Yandle, D, New York Rangers
Keith Yandle’s (UFA) days with the Rangers are numbered. He has already informed management that he wants to test the market this upcoming summer, which means the Blueshirts may trade him as soon as the 2/29 trade deadline. He won’t score many goals, but he is a solid defender and an assist machine (on pace for 40 this season). He will command about $6 million per season and it makes sense that he would get it from Boston. The Bruins lack strong blue line presence at the moment and Yandle would represent a major move in helping them get back to the top of the mountain.
Prediction: Boston Bruins
7. Frederik Andersen, G, Anaheim Ducks
Even though he has been passed on the depth chart by the upstart John Gibson this season, Frederik Andersen (RFA) is still a proven goalie who is very effective. The 26 year old is the best goalie in this year’s very thin crop of netminding free agents. He has 60 wins and a career 2.38 GAA, which is enough for a solid payday. Even though he is a restricted free agent, don’t expect the Ducks to pay him what he deserves. Expect him to sign a 3-4 year deal with a team that is in need of a solid goaltender to reach the next level and who has some picks to spare.
Prediction: Calgary Flames
6. Nikita Kucherov, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov (RFA) is a rising star in the NHL and has especially shown his skill on the line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. He is on pace for a 30 goal season after putting up 29 last year in a breakout season. At 22 years old, he will be looking for big money over a lot of years. Assuming they trade Jonathan Drouin and lose Stamkos to free agency, the Lightning will make sure not to let this rising superstar go. Tampa will give him whatever he desires and then some.
Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning
5. Andrew Ladd, C, Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg captain (UFA) has been around since the days of the Atlanta Thrashers and while his production has dropped over the years, he is still good for at least 20 goals a season. More importantly, the 30 year old is a huge locker room influence and his leadership cannot be understated. Due to this fact, the Jets will pay him. It has already leaked that Ladd has demanded $41 million over 6 years. The Jets will have to make sacrifices at the blue line to pay their captain.
Prediction: Winnipeg Jets
4. Tyson Barrie, D, Colorado Avalanche
Tyson Barrie (RFA) is a 24 year old well-oiled machine. To this point in the season, he has already put up a 7/22/29 stat line from a defensive position and can give up to 30 minutes of ice time each night. Remarkable. This kid is just scratching the surface of what he can do in a hockey rink and the Avalanche know that. Colorado is a strong team that is hurt by playing in the insane Central Division. They are building a very special core of young talent and Barrie is a major chip in that core.
Prediction: Colorado Avalanche
3. Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon (RFA) is showing that the sophomore slump was only a fluke, as he is well on his way to putting up 70 points this season. He is a mega star in the making, and he still has so much room for improvement. Due to the fact that he is only 20 years old, Colorado should be able to steal one here. Most likely, MacKinnon will earn a 3-4 year “bridge” contract that will take him to about his age 24 season with an AAV of around $3.5 million. When this bridge contract is up, look out. If he continues to improve we’re looking at Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews money.
Prediction: Colorado Avalanche
2. Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames
Johnny Hockey (RFA) is already a superstar. The baby-faced 22 year old winger won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award last season with a line of 24/40/64, and has already put up 18/22/40 this season. He is the centerpiece of a Flames franchise that is so close to breaking through the glass ceiling that has been holding them back since the late 80s (with the exception of their Western Conference title in the 03-04 season). A long-term contract for Gaudreau and the addition of a few other pieces can propel Calgary to the top of the Pacific Division next season.
Prediction: Calgary Flames
1. Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Here he is, the crown jewel of the free agent class. An absolute mega-star. The 25 year old has put up four 30-goal seasons since 2008 with his largest amount for a single-season being 60 goals. Steven Stamkos (UFA) has been tucked away in Tampa and it is time for him to go to a big market team. Many large market teams are rumored to make a run at him (Rangers and Bruins to name a few), but there is one team that makes the most sense. The Toronto Maple Leafs. Playing in his hometown for one of the most well-respected coaches in the sport (Mike Babcock) will be too much to pass up for Steven Stamkos.
Prediction: Toronto Maple Leafs
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