Happy Canada Da….. well maybe not this year but the annual event normally held on Canada’s birthday begins Friday! The opening of Free Agency marks the day in the NHL calendar where GMs spend the most stupid money of any day of the year. This year may not be the case with a Flat Salary Cap for the foreseeable future, but without further ado here are the top Free Agent Targets.
First thing to notice about this year’s crop, a lot of Goalies. The second is that a Offer Sheet Target list was included because with the aforementioned Flat Cap, GMs are bound to get creative in the way they pursue Free Agents.
*Edit: This list was put together prior to the teams releasing Restricted Free Agents who were not tendered contracts. This includes players like Andreas Athanasiou, Hinestroza, Duclair and Troy Stecher (among others).
Starting on the Blue Line, there are three Top Pairing Defense to choose from in this draft, Pietrangelo, Krug and Gustafsson. Of the trio only Pietrangelo is Right handed, and he should be the top target for everyone. He is sure to command at minimum $9M/season, as will Krug, but Gustafsson is the real money-ball winner here. He is a quiet top pairing defenseman capable of putting up upwards of 50 points in the right system.
Boston would be a natural fit for Gustafsson, but they are rumoured to be in the Ekman-Larsson sweepstakes so stay tune on that front. Other teams that could be on the hunt for a Top Pair D are the Devils, Rangers, Red Wings and Edmonton. The Oilers may not have the money at the moment, but just like the Maple Leafs who are rumoured to be in the mix (for Pietrangelo specifically) they can sign now and figure it out later as every team is allowed to spend up to 10% above the Cap during the off-season (must be under the cap by the start of the season).
Don’t be shocked to see the Caps try and throw their hat in the ring here, but I think they are likely targeting the next tier of defenseman. This tier include Brodie, Shattenkirk, Barrie and Tanev. All are capable of playing big minutes, especially at 5on5. Barrie is the only Power Play specialist on this list, but Shatty’s offensive upside slowly came back this season. In addition to Washington, teams that could be in the mix for these players include Ottawa Pittsburgh (cap issues), Chicago, Dallas and San Jose.
Finally, teams looking to acquire some depth at a discount will be looking at guys like Vatanen, Dillon, Schultz and even savy vets like Zdeno Chara and Dustin Byfuglien. Something tells me Big Buff is very content but as we approach a new season he may get the itch. Chara I do not believe is done playing yet, he understands his role and could be a crucial depth piece for any team as the NHL prepares to sprint through the 2020-21 season.
This year’s Free Agent crop lacks a bit of the offensive firepower that we are used to, however there are a lot of fantastic two-way and depth players that could be a huge boost to a team’s Bottom Six Forwards. Starting with the obvious, Taylor Hall is the premier talent up front and he is sure to come at a cost. Hall has repeatedly said he would take a short term contract given the circumstances, and he is adamant that wants to win. There are certainly a number of teams that could use his service but cannot afford him. Montreal, Nashville and Columbus are rumoured to be frontrunners, but I still have my eye on Buffalo to try and keep Eichel happy as well as Colorado with all the Cap Space and recent playoff success. Very few teams have the cap space right now, especially “Contending teams” so it will interesting to see what Hall decides to do.
Teams who miss out on Taylor Hall could look at guys like Dadonov, Hoffman or Toffoli as back up plans. All three are proven point producers and each possess an unique skill set. They will also be much more affordable making the more attractive options, at least in my opinion. On top of the teams eluded to in the Hall analysis, the Bruins, Red Wings, Senators, Flames and Jets are all to be involved in one way or another with at least one of these Free Agents. The ultimate wild card here remains the Colorado Avalanche, they have the Cap space to basically do whatever they want. Sakic has been very conservative and wants a goalie which is why I think the big ticket in Colorado will be a goalie and they will compliment this with one of these three players.
This next tier is a weird one, almost like purgatory in the sense that these guys will help your team but they are not be really moving the needle. They are not exciting signings but they definitely bring value in their own ways. Granlund, Turris, Smith, Fast, Namesnikov, Simmonds, Ennis and Soderberg all bring something beside pure offense to the table. They are all two-way players, defensively responsible and produce at a moderate pace. Simmonds bring a physical element that none of these guys have, which is why I would love to see him in the Blue-Blanc-Rouge.
Finally a couple of small investment guys of interest are Kovalchuk and Bobby Ryan. Neither’s numbers from last season will impress you, but they both have their own back stories and they should both still have something left in the tank with hopefully something to prove. Kovy’s brilliance in Montreal needs no explanation and most Habs fans would love to have him back at the right price. Ryan on the other hand slowly regained his form last season after a long battle with his own demons. With a fresh start I hope to see Bobby Ryan come back with a vengeance.
The carousel in the crease that is about to go down in the NHL should be very fun to watch. I would not limit the goalies on the move to strictly this Free Agent list as I would expect a trade or two to go down. When it comes to UFAs, to me there is only one goalie in the elite category and that’s Markstrom. At the moment very few teams have the Cap Space to make Markstrom a legit offer, but this will likely come down to Vancouver and Colorado. Yes, the majority of rumours have him moving to one of the two Alberta teams, but they do not have the Cap space that the other two teams have. The Kings have the space, and possibly the roster to entice Markstrom into a long term contract, but he may want to win now and not step into the later phases of a rebuild again.
Holtby is the only other legit starting goalie with Talbot and Greiss possibly entering that conversation depending on the GM. Holtby is only 30 which bodes well for him in this current group of Free Agents. Teams could try to capitalize on his recent downward trend in Washington, in order to sign him for cheap for more term. I highly doubt that Holtby would want to take a backup or split time role, but he may not have choice. Talbot and Greiss on the other hand may actually be the more sought out options because of their price points and assumed acceptance of a split role. Teams that I expect to make a run at these goalies include the Flames, Bruins (if they are dumb enough to move Tukka), Devils, Red Wings, Blackhawks and the loser of the Markstrom sweepstakes.
The final tier of goalies are the willy vets that still have some gas in the tank. After the playoffs he had, I would be shocked if Dallas did not resign Khudobin and let him play out his career in Big D. Anderson, Smith and Howard should fill in a back up role for some contenders looking to give their top guys a bit of a break in this upcoming season. Pittsburgh, Tampa, Toronto, Washington, Arizona (if they move Kuemper), Edmonton, Minnesota, St Louis and the Jets will all likely kick the tires on this one. None of these guys offer much in terms of long term prospects, so given the situation these GMs are in, it is likely that they will try to sign one of these guys at a discount to keep their team competitive under the cap.
The last name I wanted to bring up in his own light is Henrik Lundqvist. As I mentioned on the Podcast this week, filling in for Peeze, I think that Lundqvist should go to the Golden Knights. I am not convinced that Hank was as cool about accepting his role last season as he gave off. Case and point he started the Qualification Round for the Rangers in nets. Hank is a special breed of player, likely destined for the Hall of Fame, he is far too competitive to accept a similar role anywhere else. Hank’s priority will likely be; is this team a legit contender now, and what will my role on the team be. I think that in Vegas, they are taking a minor risk by going with Lehner, but if they move Fleury and bring in Hank it is a massive Cap relieft move, and Hank will likely accept the role better than Fleury. Lehner is a Lunqvist fan, which should bode well for his psyche, and the assurance of Lunqvist behind you is invaluable.
RFA OFFER SHEET TARGETS
Let’s make one thing clear, acquiring most of the guys on this list would be a pipe dream. You could also include a few more Lightning players, but I wanted to give a few others some love. Barzal, Sergachev and Cirelli will get a few offers, but there’s no way that their teams let them walk, maybe one of the two guys in Tampa leave because of money, but I believe Brisebois will do anything and everything to keep them, trading other pieces to make this happen.
Roope Hintz is an actual realistic option because Dallas has mild Cap concerns with a few up and coming young studs to sign. The team still has roughly $15.5M in Cap space but they have to resign Khudobin, Gurianov, Faksa and Hintz. If a team comes in and throws a bunch of money at Hintz, the Stars will have to make some difficult decisions.
Similarly on Long Island, Lou has some difficult decisions to be make. If Lamoriello can get Barzal to agree to a Braden Point type bridge contract, then this team has a chance to maintain their two stalwarts on the Blue Line. The Islanders have just under $9M left in Cap space with Barzal, Pulock and Toews left to sign. Both Defenseman enjoyed breakout seasons this year and both are 26 years old. Again, Lou will likely need them to both agree to Bridge deals, or he can use the extra 10% Cap overage allowance and figure out how to get back under the Cap later. Much like Hintz, if a team throws a bunch of money at these guys, there is a chance that one walks.
Mantha has been rumoured to be on the trading block for some reason which is why he makes this list. I am surprised that Detroit would be willing to move on but at the right price everyone is available. Jordan Greenway is my favourite player on this list by far, but I don’t think there is any chance that he leaves Minnesota with his combination of size, speed and skills. Labanc took a team friendly, 1 year $1M deal last season so he is due for a big pay raise. San Jose has the cap space to match any deal which is why I don’t think he will move, but he is likely someone teams will inquire on. DeAngelo is in the same situation with the Rangers having enough Cap space to match anyone but they have a been moving a lot of defenseman over the last couple season. Virtanen was a Playoff darling for the Canucks so a team could try to overpay for him, but not sure he is a prime Offer Sheet candidate. Teams will likely try to trade for his rights if he were to move at all.
Free Agency is always tough to predict because team’s can drastically alter their plans if they miss out on a guy. I think that we are in for A LOT of trades, starting as early as tonight in order for team’s to create some cap space. This will definitely be one of the more interesting Free Agency frenzy in recent memory!