Every year, the NHL free agent class boasts significant talent and marquee names. Then, players start to re-sign with their old teams, and the shine is considerably reduced.
Right now, however, there are several enticing names that teams would covet should they hit the open market. And the biggest are all-star center John Tavares of the New York Islanders and John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, a possible Norris Trophy contender as the league’s top defenseman.
Here’s a look at the top 20 free agents (ages as of Feb. 1). Like in previous years, rankings are determined by age-adjusted production projections using both traditional stats (goals, assists, points, ice time and save percentage, if applicable) and advanced stats (shot percentage, expected goals, penalties drawn, etc.) for the 2018-19 season, then comparing those projections to what is available elsewhere in this free agent class. Salary info is provided by capfriendly.com.
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1. John Tavares, C, 27 years old, $5.5 million cap hit in 2017-18
Should Tavares not re-sign with the Islanders, he’ll be the most coveted free agent to reach the market since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter hit the market in 2012. And not to slight either of those players, but Tavares would trump both in terms of impact.
Tavares is having an exceptional season, scoring 26 goals with 31 assists in 52 games, his best scoring pace since 2013-14, in addition to creating 142 scoring chances at even strength, fifth-most in the league.
There’s no guarantee the Islanders’ captain and franchise cornerstone will hit the market July 1, but if he does, he has a good chance to surpass the $10.5 million salary cap hits of Blackhawks Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and become the NHL’s second-highest paid player behind Connor McDavid ($15 million).
2. John Carlson, D, 28, $3.97 million
Carlson ranks third at the position in points (40) while skating 26 minutes a night, including almost three minutes on the penalty kill and nearly four minutes with the power play per contest. Known for having a cannon of a shot, his 277 shot attempts on the power play rank 10th among all skaters.
3. James van Riemsdyk, LW, 28, $4.25 million
His consistency as a scorer would fit any lineup. He has scored 14 or more goals in each of the past six seasons, including a 30-goal campaign in 2013-14, and he would instantly help any power play in need of quality shots. According to Corsica’s expected goal metric, which takes into account quality and quantity of shots, no player has a higher rate of output than van Riemsdyk does this season (6.7 expected goals per 60 minutes). The next-best player on a power play, Vancouver’s Markus Granlund, creates 4.0 expected goals per 60 minutes.
4. Patric Hornqvist, RW, 31, $4.25 million
An advanced-stats darling, Hornqvist is on his way to a fifth consecutive 20-goal season, and he generates more than three shots per game. And those shots are of high quality: With him on the ice, the Pittsburgh Penguins are out-chancing opponents 149-113 in the high-danger areas, such as the slot and the crease.
5. James Neal, LW/RW, 30, $5 million
The 30-year-old veteran of the Vegas Golden Knights, the best team in the West, is having his most prolific goal-scoring season since 2013-14, when he was riding shotgun to Sidney Crosby as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. His 22 penalties drawn lead the team, and his 150 scoring chances are second on the squad to Jonathan Marchessault’s 152.
6. Evander Kane, LW, 26, $5.25 million
He scored 48 goals in his first two seasons as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, and with 14 in 50 games this year, he could finish with 30 or more. The key for him is volume. Since his rookie season, he has averaged over 3.5 shots per game, fifth-most in that span among skaters with at least 10,000 minutes played.
7. David Perron, LW/RW, 29, $3.75 million
Perron does a little bit of everything for the Golden Knights, but his vision has yielded him a share of the team lead in assists (30), with 18 of those the primary pass leading to the goal.
8. Patrick Maroon, LW, 29, $2 million
Playing on the third line for the disappointing Edmonton Oilers, Maroon has 13 goals and 13 assists with a career-high in shots per game (2.4). That rate has helped the team outshoot (464 to 375) and outscore (37 to 31) opponents at even strength with him on the ice.
9. Mikael Backlund, C, 28, $3.58 million
Backlund is excellent defensively (on the ice for 8.9 even-strength, high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes, eighth-best among forwards), helps tilt the ice in the Calgary Flames’ favor (56 percent of even-strength shot attempts in his team’s favor) in the possession game and skilled enough to center a top-six line (31 points in 50 games).
10. Josh Bailey, LW/RW, 28, $3.3 million
Bailey’s 55 points have almost matched the output of his 2016-17 campaign (56), putting him on track for a career year in goals and assists.
He’d be higher on this list if his production didn’t take a hit when skating away from Tavares. When those two share the ice, the Islanders outscore opponents 35-28 at even strength. When Bailey is not skating with the team’s best player, they have been outscored 12-9.
11. Mike Green, D, 32, $6 million
Detroit’s puck-moving defenseman is fourth on the team in points (26) with half of those coming on the power play, placing him ninth overall in that category among defensemen.
12. Tyler Bozak, C, 31, $4.2 million
Bozak is a third-liner who can play a top-six role if needed. The Maple Leafs get more than 54 percent of the even-strength shot attempts and more than 61 percent of the high-danger chances in their favor with Bozak on the ice.
13. Paul Stastny, C, 32, $7 million
He’ll likely have to take a pay cut, but his overall shot volume has jumped back above two shots per game for the first time since 2013-14.
14. Lars Eller, C, 28, $3.5 million
A diamond in the rough, Eller has 10 goals and 25 points in 49 games for the Washington Capitals, putting him in range to obliterate his previous career high of 30 points in 2012-13. On a team filled with star talent, Eller’s 91 scoring chances at even strength put him third on the team behind Alex Ovechkin (139) and Jakub Vrana (93).
15. Thomas Vanek, LW/RW, 34, $2 million
The 34-year-old winger has 14 goals and 22 assists for the Vancouver Canucks, giving him the second-most points behind rookie of the year favorite Brock Boeser (44 points). Only Daniel Sedin (22) has more high-danger chances than Vanek (19) on the power play among Vancouver’s skaters.
16. Calvin De Haan, D, 26, $3.3 million
He won’t pop off the scoresheet, but De Haan logs a respectable 18:45 per night for the Islanders, adding 65 blocked shots and 45 hits. It’s that kind of physical play that helps the Isles outscore opponents 33-24 at even strength with him on the ice.
17 and 18. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, LW, 37, $7 million
I didn’t have the heart to split the twins up, and why should I? Of the roughly 600 minutes they have spent on the ice at even strength this season, 532 of those minutes have been together — and the Canucks are better for it. With the Sedin twins on the ice, the team puts 56 percent of the shot attempts and 57 percent of the scoring chances in their favor. That drops to 46 and 43 percent when they are on the bench.
19. Michael Grabner, RW/LW, 30, $1.65 million
Grabner took his talents to Broadway in 2016 and leads the New York Rangers in scoring this season with 21 goals in 49 games. All but one of those has occurred at even strength, giving him the highest goal-scoring rate per 60 minutes in the NHL (minimum 500 minutes played).
20. Joe Thornton, C, 38, $8 million
His days of winning the Art Ross and Hart trophies are likely behind him, but Jumbo Joe remains a solid playmaker and capable two-way center. The Sharks take more than half of the shot attempts (54 percent) and scoring chances (51 percent) with him on the ice. But there is a catch for any team interested in his services: Thornton has a risky injury history. Last season, he partially tore the medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. On Tuesday, he suffered an injury to his right MCL and is expected to miss several weeks.
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