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.
On the other hand, there is still plenty more room for improvement before the end of the season. If he improves, his potential salary to remain with the Flyers may very well increase, as well as the looks from other teams come free agency. If he improves and returns to his rookie season level of play, teams who are struggling defensively could very well offer him plenty of money via an offer sheet. If he doesn’t live up to the potential, plenty of teams could still take him for more than he is making now.
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.
However, competition with other teams could very well increase Fisher’s value with Nashville. Some teams may very well offer him long-term multimillion-dollar contracts, but only time will tell with Fisher. Being that he's 36, he's likely looking for one last big payday before calling it a career.
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.
Trading him is already a topic of conversation, and Arizona could certainly benefit from the extra cap space. Where will he end up? It all depends on which players other teams are willing to trade for him as well has his performance for the rest of the season. If he plays well for the rest of the season, he could probably end up on a top team like Montreal. Only time will tell for Hanzal. However when you're a big center in a market that is thin at the position, odds are you'll get a contract for a little more than you're worth.
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.
He hasn’t played as well since being traded to Calgary, unlike when he played in St. Louis. With St. Louis currently struggling to maintain a playoff spot, it can’t hurt for them to look into bringing Elliott back.
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.
The Oilers will be tight on cap space as their star players' values grow, so trading Russell could help open up some much needed cap space. Where he ends up next season and how much he earns entirely depends on his performance for the remainder of the season.
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.
Johansen’s salary for next season depends on his performance for the rest of the season. If he does well the rest of the season and throughout the playoffs, he will receive a significant raise. If not, his raise will shrink. With the Predators being pretty thin at center after Johansen though, and the fact they gave up Seth Jones to get him, they're going to keep him around for a long time at a high rate.
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.
He has spent his entire career with the organization and was there when they moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix, so why not give him a few more years with a higher salary? He is one of the most respected players in the league, and he sure deserves to retire with a higher salary, especially considering it could be his last contract.
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.
For struggling teams, a contract with Sharp could be a good investment, even if Sharp gets a small raise from what he is earning now. As a three-time Stanley Cup winner who has played alongside two of the best captains in the league, Jonathan Toews and Jamie Benn, signing Patrick Sharp can’t hurt for a struggling team or a team missing one final piece.
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.
At the ripe young age of 22, Galchenyuk could fit in well at just about any team, especially struggling teams and teams in the rebuilding phase trying to find young talent. With Montreal being so thin at the centre ice position, they can't afford to let another team swoop in. Galchenyuk holds all the cards here, so expect him to land a long-term deal with Montreal, having already signed a bridge contract two seasons ago.
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.
Teams that are struggling, in the rebuilding phase, could use someone of Tatar’s caliber due to his experience on an Original Six team, which despite this season, has seen a tradition of winning. It seems the Red Wings are about to miss the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, so they're going to have to shed some veterans and focus on getting their younger players like Tatar locked up long term. That means Tatar will earn a hefty raise.
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.
If Radulov keeps playing with his current caliber, it would be understandable if he asked for more money from Montreal, but the question is whether or not Montreal could keep him. If they cannot, plenty of other teams would be happy to sign him to a larger contract. Since he is still relatively young, a long-term contract with Radulov is almost a given when you look at how shallow this year's UFA market is.
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.
For Oshie, staying in Washington and making more than he now doesn't seem possible, especially if he keeps playing well through the rest of the season and the playoffs. At 30, Oshie is on the older side but still in his prime, and a long-term contract for Oshie is bound to happen.
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.
The odds of Tampa keeping Bishop appear to be relatively low, he’s simply too expensive. They have other young stars to sign and they seem to be okay with Andrei Vasilevskiy taking over between the pipes. Struggling teams will not hesitate to throw as much money as they can at Bishop in hopes to rebuild their team. Although signing him will be expensive for any team, it can be well worth the investment to teams in need of solid goaltending. The Blues, Stars or Flames all seem like good fits for Bishop.
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.
The cap space in Chicago is tight and they often have to get rid of players who are outside the core to make more room, even when nobody wants to see them go. The Andrew Shaw trade last year is the perfect example, and history may very well repeat itself with Panik.
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.
With star players making a lot of money such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh may not have the cap space to keep Schultz and give him a salary worthy of his performance. Struggling teams could definitely use someone of Schutz’s caliber and will most likely offer him long-term multi-million dollar contracts. He would be expensive, but a Stanley Cup winning defenseman, who probably hasn't even hit his prime yet, is a good investment.
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.
Drafted first overall by the Bruins in 1997, Thornton is on the older side at 37 and doesn’t play as well as he used to, but he's still a fantastic playmaker and teams that want to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup in the near future should look at Thornton if San Jose decides not to keep him. He would be expensive, but well worth the investment. At 37, this will likely be Thornton's last multi-year deal, so you can be sure he wants to earn as much as possible.
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
If Columbus keeps him (which is highly likely), he will definitely receive a decent raise. If they decide to trade his rights, other teams won’t hesitate to throw money at him. The least likely scenario would be another team signing him to an offer sheet, but that is extremely rare in today's NHL. Whatever happens, Wennberg is in for a good raise.
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.
When free agency comes, signing Shattenkirk will be a top priority for many teams. Signing Shattenkirk to a long-term multimillion-dollar contract would be an incredible investment for any team struggling defensively. It would be a stupid move to not give Shattenkirk a look if a team is struggling on the blue line or if they want to improve their power play. Still relatively young at 28 and with his leadership experience as the alternate captain, Shattenkirk will be the cream of the crop regarding free agent defencemen. That means he's due for a big pay day.
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.
Eaves is set to have his first 20-goal season since his rookie year in Ottawa back in 2005-06, so he's obviously looking for a big pay day this summer.
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.