It must be spring in the NHL, because there is another rumor that Ilya Kovalchuk wants to return to the NHL.
The talented, but now much older, Russian recently turned 35 on April 15 and announced that same day he was coming off the voluntary retired list, making him an official unrestricted free agent.
He can now negotiate with any team he likes — we wonder if his old club, Atlanta/Winnipeg has any interest — but can’t sign a contract until July 1 at the earliest.
It’s been rumored that the New York Rangers are one team that kicked the tires, with GM Jeff Gorton stating they “checked in” with him.
He last played in the NHL with New Jersey during the lockout shortened 2012-13 season and has been starring with SKA St. Petersburg since.
With his stick getting thrown into the middle of the metaphorical ice, we have compiled a list of the 20 most attractive NHL free agents, both UFA and RFA, from the net out.
20. C Riley Nash, Boston Bruins – UFA
When compiling our list, we didn’t necessarily go for all the guys with big expired contracts. Rather, we considered age, affordability, talent, production and intangibles. For the money, 29-year-old Riley Nash was an absolute bargain for the Bruins in 2017-18. The former first round pick of the Edmonton Oilers finally found his footing in the NHL, posting career highs in goals (15), assists (26), points (41) and plus-minus (+16). The third-line center, who has won 48.2 percent of his face-offs, made a very modest $900,000 and based on his performance, may be too rich now for Boston’s taste. That kind of production could net him a three-fold pay raise. The Cornell product and Consort, AB native has 139 points in 399 career games spent with Boston and the Carolina Hurricanes (who obtained him from the Oilers at the 2010 entry draft).
19. D Michal Kempny, Washington Capitals – UFA
Let’s just say veteran Czech defenceman Michal Kempny has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse. Paired with John Carlson on Washington’s first pair, the 27-year-old unrestricted free agent has been the stay-at-home yin to Carlson’s offensive yang throughout the playoffs. Little used by Chicago after a lengthy career in the Czech league and the KHL, the undrafted rearguard was obtained before this season’s deadline and played 22 games with the Capitals, scoring two goals, an assist and logging a +1. In 20 playoff games, he has a goal and two assists in just under 18 minutes average ice time, with 23 hits and 33 blocked shots. He made a very modest $900,000 this season and would be a very valuable addition to many teams.
18. LW David Perron, Vegas Golden Knights – UFA
Once the Golden Knights conclude their dream season — quite possibly with a Stanley Cup — they have a lot of decisions to make on key free agents. One is well-traveled veteran winger David Perron, who revived his career with a 66-point effort in 70 regular season games and who has eight assists in 12 playoff games so far. Even though he has been in the league and played 722 games with five different clubs (444 points), the native of Sherbrooke, PQ is still just 30 and seemingly has lots left in the tank. In addition to providing much needed secondary scoring, the third line winger plays a gritty game that saw him log 118 hits in the regular season as well as win a lot of puck battles (48 takeaways, 33 giveaways). A former first round pick of the Blues, he was on the last year of a two-year, $7.5 million pact he signed with St. Louis in 2016.
17. D Ian Cole, Columbus Blue Jackets – UFA
Jack Johnson may be more high profile, but for our money — and for several NHL teams in need of a seasoned defenceman — Blue Jackets rearguard Ian Cole is the man to target. A two-time Stanley Cup winner and veteran of 404 NHL games, the former St. Louis Blues first round draft pick was his usual steady self in a season split between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus. In 67 games he scored five goals and added 15 assists and was +14. He plays a robust game and in just under 18 minutes of ice time per night, he recorded 95 hits and blocked 116 shots. He chipped in three assists in six playoff games for the Jackets, along with 12 hits and 15 blocked shots. Career-wise, has tallied 97 regular season and 17 playoff points (in 62 games). The 29-year-old Ann Arbor, MI born Cole was on the last season of a three-year, $6.3 million contract.
16. G Carter Hutton, St. Louis Blues – UFA
At least one third of NHL teams could use a reliable back-up goaltender, or in the case of NHL goals against and save percentage leader Carter Hutton, a great netminder who can assume the role of starter, too. With Jake Allen signed through 2021 at over $4 million per year, Hutton may not figure in the Blues fiscal plans, since his noteworthy campaign will net him a nice raise on the $1.125 million he made this season. In 32 games, the 32-year-old undrafted netminder posted a 17-7-3 record, with NHL best .931 save percentage and 2.09 goals against average. He also recorded three of his 11 career shutouts. The Thunder Bay born UMass-Lowell grad has appeared in 138 NHL games and owns a .915 save percentage and 2.42 GAA. He’ll be highly sought after, for sure.
15. LW Patrick Maroon, New Jersey Devils – UFA
When tough customer Patrick Maroon scored a career high 27 goals with the Edmonton Oilers during the 2016-17 season, many were skeptical since he benefited from playing with Connor McDavid. But, after a deadline trade to New Jersey, Maroon still put up decent numbers playing on the Devils second line. He had 14 goals and 30 points in 57 games with Edmonton before the deal and then logged three goals and 10 assists in 17 contests with New Jersey, for 43 points overall. He added a goal in five playoff games and has 27 points (13 goals) overall in 47 post-season contests. The only drawback for potential suitors is Maroon’s recovery from surgery to repair a herniated disk in is back (though reports say he is on track to resume off-ice workouts in advance of training camp). The 30-year-old former sixth round draft pick made a modest $2 million in 2017-18.
14. D Kevin Connauton, Arizona Coyotes – UFA
We certainly never expected to say the words “Kevin Connauton” and “desirable free agent” in the same sentence. However, the 28-year-old Edmonton native had an admirable season on the blue line for a horrible team. He had career highs in goals (11) and points (21) and was a +3 on a minus team. Those 11 goals tied him for 21st overall among defenceman and represents the second highest total among UFA defencemen. That lofty total is even more impressive when taking into account that Connauton played just over 15 minutes per game. Drafted 83rd overall by Vancouver out of Western Michigan University in 2009, Connauton has 260 games of NHL experience with three different clubs and has 68 points. We expect he’ll earn better than the $1 million he made with Arizona in 2017-18.
13. RW Michael Grabner, New Jersey Devils – UFA
For the second year in a row, right-handed sniper Michael Grabner wins the NHL’s Cy Young award. That is, he scored far more goals than assists and his 27 goal/9 assist effort certainly looks like a premier pitcher’s record. Those numbers mirror his 2016-17 output with the New York Rangers of 27 goals and 13 assists. An excellent two-way forward who compiled a +11 in 80 games split between the Rangers and Devils, Grabner is also a reliable penalty killer. He fired two shorthanded goals to give him 15 in 553 career games. What makes him even more valued is his ability to strip the puck from opponents, with 444 career takeaways against 215 giveaways. The 30-year-old native of Villach, Austria makes the most of his ice time, too, scoring all those goals while playing under 15 minutes per game. Grabner was on the final year of a two-year, $3.3 million contract.
12. D Thomas Hickey, New York Islanders – UFA
After a very disappointing 2017-18 season, the Islanders brain trust — which now includes Lou Lamoriello — has many difficult decisions to be made on free agents, one of who is exceptional two-way defenceman Thomas Hickey. He, along with Calvin de Haan, hits a market in his prime and is coming off his best campaign since being drafted fourth overall by L.A. in 2007. Exclusively a farm hand with the Kings, Hickey blossomed on Long Island and recorded career bests in points (25) and plus-minus (+20) in 69 games with the Islanders. That point total, while not in a league with the league’s top blue line producers, is third highest among UFA defenders. If the Islanders intend on retaining his services, they will have to get off their tight pocketbook, since he was a true bargain at $2.2 million per season.
11. LW James van Riemsdyk, Toronto Maple Leafs – UFA
It’s a near dead certainty that James van Riemsdyk will be wearing a different uniform in 2017-18. Coming off a disappointing playoff ouster and followed by a significant front office shuffle, new Leafs GM Kyle Dubas faces the prospect of near future contract offers to exciting RFA youngsters Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen. Which means van Riemsdyk’s days in blue and white are surely numbered. Now, expect the Leafs to low ball the 36-goal scorer with an offer closer to the $4.25 million he made last year, which he will probably reject and go elsewhere for way bigger bucks. He is still just 29 and 30-goal scorers are at a premium. In fact, just 32 players had 30 or more this year and JVR’s total was 13th highest overall. He’s been remarkably consistent since joining the Leafs in 2012, scoring 154 goals and adding 140 assists in 413 games. He also has 18 goals in 59 playoff games, including three against Boston in this year’s post-season.
10. D Mike Green, Detroit Red Wings – UFA
With three other 30-something blueliners under contract for 2018-19, the Red Wings, who missed the playoffs for a second straight season, will most certainly wave bye-bye to premier offensive defenceman Mike Green. The 32-year-old veteran isn’t putting up the ridiculous numbers he did with Washington nearly a decade ago (76 points, +39 in 2009-10), but he can still bring it. He registered 33 points, but was a -14 for the Winged Wheels in 66 games, while playing over 22 minutes per game. The question mark dogging him in the off-season was surgery on his cervical spine, but all signs point to him being ready for training camp going into his 13th season. Green averaged $6 million a season in three years with Detroit and despite his high asking price, will probably get multiple offers.
9. G Anton Khudobin, Boston Bruins – UFA
Unfortunately for Boston, Anton Khudobin will, despite his protestations to the contrary, explore the free agent market to seek a raise on the $1.2 million he made in 2017-18. The 32-year-old Kazakh has stated he wants to “remain in Boston until he’s 40” but with Tuukka Rask under contract for $7 million a season until 2021 and with several other free agents needing love, it’s probable GM Don Sweeney may have to let Khudobin walk. His numbers as a back-up in parts of four seasons (two stints) with the B’s warrant a raise, as he posted a 33-16-9 record, with a .914 save percentage, 2.50 goals against average and two shutouts. As a back-up goaltender, Khudobin’s style mirrors that of former Stanley Cup netminder Tim Thomas. That is, he’s a bit of a Riverboat Gambler, but it’s paid off.
8. RW Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals – RFA
Here’s where plausibility meets reality. After the season he had and the robust presence he’s provided in the playoffs — questionable hits aside — the Capitals are going to qualify Tom Wilson. However, wouldn’t it behoove a contending team, with a second round draft pick they can surrender, to take a run at him? His stock rose considerably this season, with career highs in goals (14), assists (21) and points (35), while providing pugnacity in the form of 187 penalty minutes and 25o hits. He’s been even better from an offensive standpoint in the post-season, contributing four goals, nine assists and a whopping 79 hits to the cause in 17 games. The Caps saw all that potential when they drafted him 16th overall in 2012 and he’s finally rewarded them, for the modest sum of $2 million a season over the last two. They have to qualify him at the number and it would behoove them to shoot for the stars come late June, or risk losing him.
7. C Paul Stastny, Winnipeg Jets – UFA
For the first time in Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets history, the team is a true contender. Along with all that success — failed series against Vegas in the Western Conference finals aside — comes the inevitable off-season navel-gazing. One of the big questions is: can they afford to keep elite playmaker Paul Stastny? After obtaining him from St. Louis at the deadline, the veteran pivot scored 13 points in 19 games, after logging 40 in 63 games for the Blues. It marked his best output since 2013-14 with Colorado. He was then very valuable to the Jets playoff push, scoring six goals and nine assists in 17 games. Detractors will say that he is 32 and that his production has waned slightly, while making a very expensive (for Winnipeg at least) $7 million a year. Thus, this is where Winnipeg has to choose between offering him another deal, or focusing on their other high profile free agents (Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck to name three).
6. C William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights – RFA
According to the figures we could obtain, any team putting an offer sheet in front of the surprising William Karlsson will not lose anything in compensation if he signs with them. For the very, very inexpensive sum of $1 million, the Golden Knights have received a team high 50 goals in 98 games of action. While GM George McPhee got Karlsson, among many others, for a song, he’s going to have to navigate the free agent waters carefully, what with 11 restricted and unrestricted free agents to make offers to — or not. It should be pointed out that Karlsson had his monster year in an ideal situation with five more minutes average ice time than he had in Columbus, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. He will no doubt be McPhee’s main priority and it’s going to cost the team, huge.
5. G Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets – RFA
We don’t envy the task ahead for cautious Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. Fresh from a deep playoff run by a team that he built, he’s got 12 free agents to consider making offers to. The biggest decision, in our opinion, has to be on what to do with Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck. The Michigan native had a dream season, usurping starting duties from the disappointing, and fairly expensive, Steve Mason. He appeared in 67 games and fashioned a stellar 44-11-9 record with a .924 save percentage and 2.36 goals against average, with six shutouts. He was also great in the playoffs, before Vegas exposed a few warts. Hellebuyck was 9-8 in 17 games, with a 2.36 GAA, .922 save percentage and another two blanks. Like a couple of other RFA’s here, he will draw significant interest — and maybe a few offer sheets — from teams in dire need of top notch goaltending. It’s going to be interesting come July 1.
4. LW Ilya Kovalchuk, St. Petersburg SKA – UFA
As we said above, Ilya Kovalchuk may well be on his way back to the NHL after a five-year absence. He will garner a whole lot of attention from NHL GMs, despite his advanced age (35). The elite sniper hasn’t mailed it in while he was gone, scoring 120 goals and adding 165 assists in 262 games for a very good St. Petersburg club. Kovalchuk also fired 23 goals and notched 20 assists in 69 KHL playoff contests. Before departing to Russia, he was brilliant in the regular season with Atlanta and New Jersey, recording 816 points (417 goals) in 816 games. In his limited post-season experience, he was nearly as prolific, putting up 27 points in 32 games. He has purportedly been “in discussions” with several teams and one report has postulated five teams — all with modest title aspirations — and cap space who he might be a good fit with. They are Boston, Florida, L.A., Dallas and the New York Islanders. As an added bonus, Vegas was also mentioned as having an outside shot. Stay tuned.
3. D John Carlson, Washington Capitals – UFA
In our humble opinion, there is only one other UFA big fish with more cache in this year’s free agent pool than John Carlson. We won’t spoil it, so read on. The Caps no. 1 defenceman led all NHL blueliners in points with 68 during the regular season and shockingly, he was left off the Norris Trophy ballot. We guess that a career high 68 points just didn’t cut it with the voters. Hmmm. He is also on a tear in the playoffs, while the three finalists (Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban and Victor Hedman) look on with envy from the sidelines. He has 17 points in 20 playoff contests, logging nearly 26 minutes of ice time per game. The former first round pick will be in high demand, in that he is right shot who quarterbacks the powerplay with aplomb. Washington also doesn’t have a lot of cap space and several other players to tender. It’s a no-brainer that he is in for a long term deal that will pay him way more than the $3.96 million he commanded this year.
2. D Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets – RFA
Other than Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers, there was no other Winnipeg defenceman as integral to their success than pending RFA Jacob Trouba. After the Jets drafted the big Michigan native ninth overall in 2012, they have been patient with his development and it has paid off. Defence is hard in the NHL and without one game of AHL experience, University of Michigan product Trouba has been astonishingly consistent from the beginning. In five seasons he has scored no fewer than 21 points (which he registered in 2015-16) and no more than 33 (2016-17). He has been a plus player every year and is a shot blocker of renown, getting in the way of 647 in 326 games. In 17 playoff games this year, Trouba had three points (two goals), was +6 and blocked 41 shots. Having made just under $3 million a season, any team wanting to make an offer sheet would lose a first round pick if Winnipeg doesn’t match. But, we ask, why wouldn’t they at least grind Winnipeg’s gears and risk it?
1. C John Tavares, New York Islanders – UFA
OK, it is hardly a secret that Johnny T will be the most highly sought after free agent this year. However, with the Islanders welcoming hockey guru Lou Lamoriello to the fold, the long-time hockey man will pull out all the stops to keep the team’s prized free agent in Islanders blue and orange. The Islanders certainly have the cap space to open the vault for Tavares, but, they also have to re-sign defencemen Calvin de Haan and the aforementioned Thomas Hickey, as well as search out a goalie to replace free agent Jaroslav Halak (or re-sign him too). Tavares will command money more in the range of the Connor McDavids of the world, made academic by a bounce back season that saw him tally 84 points in 82 games. He made a very cap friendly $5.5 million per year leading up to his first plunge into the free agent pool and the Isles are going to have to empty it to ink him long term. The clock is ticking.