Out of the many things that make the NHL interesting, the salary cap has to be somewhere in the top five. It is what makes free agency and trades so interesting. Once July hits NHL fans are glued to their phones with fingers crossed that some players will come to their team, and some will stay.
It makes the offseason nearly as exciting as the regular season and playoffs. Trades can range from uneventful to changing the face of the sport, such as the trade of Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles.
With each summer, a new class of free agents emerges with a healthy mix of veterans, players who are relatively unknown, and some in the middle. What will make this summer interesting is the expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights occurring in late June. All 30 teams will lock up the players they need, some will be sent to Vegas, and the rest will enter free agency. Some will be unrestricted free agents, giving them the opportunity to sign anywhere, while some will be RFAs, which means they'll either earn a big raise from their current team, or may be signed to an offer sheet by another team.
We have already given you 15 Players That Will Change Teams by the March 1st deadline. Here are twenty upcoming free agents who will most likely benefit the most from free agency and make the most cash this summer.
20 Shayne Gostisbehere
A Calder Trophy finalist among the likes of Connor McDavid of Edmonton and Artemi Panarin of Chicago last season, Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers is a shining star among young defensemen in the NHL. With a cap hit of $925,000, Gostisbehere could very well remain with the Philadelphia since his less than stellar sophomore season does not ask for much of a raise.
19 Mike Fisher
Named captain of the Nashville Predators before the start of this season after the Shea Weber was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for P.K. Subban, Mike Fisher’s cap hit is at $4,400,000. Although their cap space is small, Nashville will most likely hang onto Fisher due to his captaincy and his success. At 36, he is one of the oldest free agents and a long-term contract with another team may not be worth the investment. However, Fisher can definitely get a raise from Nashville if he keeps playing as well as he is now.
18 Martin Hanzal
Martin Hanzal of the Arizona Coyotes has a good reputation around the league and can probably shine more on another team. With a current cap hit of $3,100,000, other teams who see potential in him can definitely offer him more money. He isn’t the best player out there, but is definitely above average, especially in his performance so far this season.
17 Brian Elliott
Brian Elliott was a favorite of the St. Louis Blues before he was traded to the Calgary Flames last summer. With a current cap hit of $2,500,000 and with his contract expiring soon, he likely won’t stay with the Flames next season. Elliott is no Carey Price, but he is a decent and reliable goaltender than any team struggling with goaltending could use as either a starter or a backup. At 31, he is older than most top NHL players, but signing him to a long-term multimillion-dollar contract would be a good investment to teams currently struggling with goaltending.
16 Kris Russell
Kris Russell of the Edmonton Oilers currently has a cap hit of $3,100,000, and it might be tough for the Oilers to keep him if he asks for a raise. He is no Duncan Keith or Drew Doughy, but he is a reliable defenseman who can help a team who is struggling defensively or a team who just wants a veteran presence on the back end. If he plays well for the rest of the season, his odds of a higher salary increase dramatically, and his odds of staying with the Oilers decrease.
15 Ryan Johansen
Since the Nashville Predators may very well hang onto Mike Fisher, Ryan Johansen’s cap hit of $4,000,000 will be nearly impossible to keep. Unlike Fisher, Johansen is on the younger side at 24, other teams are more likely to sign him to a multi multimillion dollar contract. Although Johansen isn’t the strongest player, his abilities are above average and could probably fit in well with younger teams in the rebuilding phase such as Edmonton and Toronto. Teams that are struggling such as Colorado and Arizona could take a jab at him via an offer sheet.
14 Shane Doan
The darling of the Arizona Coyotes franchise, Shane Doan’s current cap hit lands at $3,876,134. Despite being 40, Arizona might want to hold onto him for a little while longer. Even though Arizona is one of the worst teams in the league, Doan is often praised as being one of the top captains of the league for his attitude and strong leadership skills. He won the Mark Messier Leadership award in 2012 and the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2010. Both awards focus on leadership.
13 Patrick Sharp
One of the most popular players on this list, Patrick Sharp won three Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks before he was traded to the Dallas Stars in 2015. Earlier in the season, Sharp was named alternate captain of the Stars, the same position he held in Chicago. Due to the eight-year $76 million contract Stars captain, Jamie Benn signed over the summer, there isn’t much cap space for Dallas. Trading Sharp before the deadline, who has a cap hit of $4,900,000, would be a smart move to open up some cap space. Either way, there's no way the Stars could keep him in July.
12 Alex Galchenyuk
Alex Galchenyuk, who was selected third overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2012 draft has not been a disappointment by any means. With a cap hit of $2,800,000, a performance worth more, Galchenyuk could very well be a top target for teams interested in giving him an offer sheet.
11 Tomas Tatar
The 26-year-old Tomas Tatar has spent his entire NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings as a left-winger. He has hit the 20 goal mark twice in his career and is constantly improving, calling for a raise with his current cap hit at just$2,750,000. He could very well stay in Detroit with a small raise, but he could definitely make more money elsewhere.
10 Alexander Radulov
After playing in Moscow for four years, 30-year-old Alexander Radulov returned to the NHL in the 2016-17 season to play for the Montreal Canadiens. Since making his return to the NHL, Radulov has been an incredible asset to the Canadiens’ success with a cap hit of $5,750,000. He is currently on the top 50 of overall points and assists in the NHL overall.
9 T.J. Oshie
It is no secret that teams with a lot of star power have a hard time with the salary cap and the Washington Capitals are no exception. T.J. Oshie’s cap hit of $4,175,000 already takes up plenty of space. Oshie is a great player and a strong asset to the Capitals, but he’s no Alex Ovechkin. Oshie has shown improvement in his two seasons with Washington since his days on the St. Louis Blues (which weren’t too shabby either) and deserves more than what he is getting.
8 Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning isn’t among the same ranks as Carey Price and Braden Holtby, but he’s a strong goaltender. Many teams who are struggling to find a good goaltender could use someone like Bishop. Bishop is relatively young at 30 and has a cap hit of $5,950,000. The cap space for Tampa has shrunk since their captain, Steven Stamkos, signed an 8-year extension last year worth $8.5 million per year.
7 Richard Panik
The 25-year-old Slovak native Richard Panik has made his mark on the Chicago Blackhawks this year, often playing on the same line as Jonathan Toews. Panik has a small cap hit of $875,000 and has shown he is worth much more during his play this season. Chicago may very well decide to keep him for a couple million, but other teams, especially struggling teams, will not hesitate to throw money at Panik. His young age and experience playing with multiple Stanley Cup winners like Jonathan Toews are an added bonus.
6 Justin Schultz
A strong defenseman of the 2016 Stanley Cup champions Pittsburgh Penguins, Justin Schultz has had a stellar season. With a cap hit of $1,400,000 and a much-improved performance this season, Schultz deserves much more than he is getting. Still relatively young at 26 and with a Stanley Cup under his belt, Schultz will be a top priority on teams struggling defensively come free agency.
5 Joe Thornton
One of the most well-known players entering free agency, San Jose Sharks center and alternate captain currently has a cap hit of $6,750,000. The winner of the Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy for the 2005-06 season has had an accomplished career and almost earned his first Stanley Cup last season, but the Sharks were defeated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.
4 Alexander Wennberg
The Columbus Blue Jackets have had a historic season, going from one of the worst teams last year to one of the best. It is no secret that hockey is becoming a young man’s game. This makes 22-year-old center Alexander Wennberg much more valuable. With a cap hit of $925,000 and a performance worth much more, Wennberg will be a priority for the Jackets to lock in on a long-term deal
3 Kevin Shattenkirk
Currently, an alternate captain and star defenseman on the St Louis Blues, Kevin Shattenkirk’s cap hit is at $4,250,000. With his point totals over his last few years, he has proven he is worth more. St. Louis is no stranger to losing star players; take last summer when they let captain, David Backes walk in free agency. With their shrinking cap space, they might have no choice but to trade Shattenkirk.
2 Patrick Eaves
One of Dallas's biggest surprises this season, Patrick Eaves’ cap hit of $1,000,000 is far below what he deserves. As much as the Stars want to hang on to Eaves, there is very little cap space after captain Jamie Benn signed an eight-year $76 million contract last summer. With the amount that Eaves should be worth, trading his rights before July 1st would be a much better option for Dallas.
A veteran like Eaves will most likely receive long-term multimillion-dollar contracts from not only struggling teams but teams with a weak offensive core. Eaves is on the older side at 32 and could be a great role model for younger players on struggling teams, plus his experience playing with top players like Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin is definitely a plus.
1 Scott Darling
With a backup goaltender like 28-year-old Scott Darling who performs like a starter, the Chicago Blackhawks will be in an interesting situation come free agency. With a low cap hit of $587,500 and an ability far greater than his salary, there is no doubt that Darling will be asking for more money. There is also no doubt that that other teams will not hesitate to throw whatever they can at him.
With the majority of the cap space filled with core players, Chicago has a history of trading star quality players outside of the core to save cap space such and Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. Even core players such as Patrick Sharp weren’t saved from the salary cap. With the amount of money that Darling will most likely request if Chicago tries to re-sign him, history may very well repeat itself and Darling will cash a big check from another team.
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