The NHL free agency period is set to open on Saturday.
Unfortunately, the available talent isn’t AAA grade. Not a lot of high end scoring, rear mobility or top end goalies to be had.
Of those available, the tires will be kicked and most certainly some desperate teams will overpay. Most should be prudent and wait for the watershed 2018 class (provided the good ones aren’t re-signed during the season).
The 2018 crop may include John Tavares, Carey Price, James Neal, Bryan Little, Patric Hornqvist, James van Riemsdyk, Cam Fowler, John Carlson, Mikael Backlund, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, Cam Atkinson, Josh Bailey and Martin Jones among others.
That is why this year’s UFA crew pales in comparison and why we temper everyone’s expectations here.
Even still, there were 14 non-playoff teams and one expansion team who could use immediate help to fill holes in their line-ups.
Here are those 15 teams and the positions they may want to spend money on (in no particular order).
15. New York Islanders – Goaltending
If Garth Snow has a snowball’s chance in hell of retaining the services of John Tavares after the 2017-18 season (he is a free agent next year), he needs to improve this Islanders squad — like yesterday. Where they are weakest is in goal and while there aren’t premier names available, there are better options than Snow has now. Both Thomas Greiss (26-18-5, 2.69, .913) and Jaroslav Halak (12-9-5, 2.80, .915) are better suited to back-up duties. Given his druthers, Snow should keep Greiss, who is a bit younger — and cheaper — than Halak, who is on the last year of a contract that has a cap hit of $4.5 million. So, with just over $9 million to spend — and an eye to re-signing Tavares — Snow will have to get creative. He may have to bury Halak’s contract (or get him traded) and then take a run at either Steve Mason (choice two, a reclamation project) or stop-gap goalie with upside Brian Elliott (choice one; cheaper and better stats).
14. Tampa Bay Lightning – Veteran Scoring
In a perfect world, the Tampa Bay Lightning get Steve Stamkos back healthy, ending any debate as to whether the Lightning improve over their so-so 2016-17 season. As well, Mikhail Sergachev steps in to adequately replace some of Jonathan Drouin’s offence (21 goals, 32 assists). GM Steve Yzerman is a cagey fellow, so don’t expect him to make any bold and/or rash moves. Yet, with the uncertainty about Stamkos health and the trading of his third leading scorer from last year, Stevie Y might do well to bring in some veteran scoring to augment the likes of youngsters Sergachev, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point. Plucking a still useful Jaromir Jagr off the Florida roster could work, as would having a look to what Washington’s Justin Williams, Florida’s Thomas Vanek or Boston’s Drew Stafford would cost.
13. Philadelphia Flyers – Puck-moving Defenceman
Kevin Shattenkirk is the de facto big name in this year’s free agent class and will garner all kinds of attention come Saturday morning. The Flyers could use an upgrade in goal, but we think with the departure of Mark Streit (trade deadline to Pittsburgh) and the regression in play of Shayne Gostisbehere, they really could use another puck mover. Yes, rookie Ivan Provorov came to the fore in 2016-17 (30 points in 82 games) but he won’t sneak up on anyone this season, so having a guy like Shattenkirk around to lug the puck up ice. By not re-signing UFA’s Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz and over $10 million to spend, Ron Hextall has options. Shattenkirk is a good one.
12. Carolina Hurricanes – Goaltending And Defensive Depth
The conundrum facing Ron Francis is having quite a bit of money to spend (around $24 million), but not a whole lot to spend it on. And next year, he has a slew of expiring contracts owned by youngsters Elias Lindholm, Joakim Nordstrom, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Trevor van Riemsdyk. Ronnie Franchise’s immediate holes exist in net and not having a solid veteran rearguard, or two, around. Cam Ward, 33, is past his prime and has a year left on a deal with a cap hit of $3.3 million. Ditto Eddie Lack, whose $2.75 million cap hit goes off the books this year. So, does Francis wait until 2018 to take a run at Carey Price or Martin Jones, or kick the tires on Steve Mason or Brian Elliott. We think he should give Kevin Shattenkirk a good long look (or one of Johnny Oduya or Brian Campbell) for immediate help and wait out the goalie situation.
11. Florida Panthers – Scoring Depth
In one fell swoop, the Florida Panthers lost 45 goals to the Vegas Golden Knights during the expansion and entry drafts. Those goals — representing over 20 percent of Florida’s 210 goals in 2016-17 — belonged to Jonathan Marchessault (30) and Reilly Smith (15). Between them, they also had 43 assists, making them responsible for another 20 percent of the offence, roughly. Therefore, Dale Tallon has to roll up his sleeves and do what he does best, fill the holes on the cheap — or not. Tallon is in an advantageous position where he has locked up most of his good young talent long term and still has $20 million under the cap to spend. He could replace some of Marchessault output by signing Patrick Marleau to a short-term team friendly deal. Or he could go a little younger and sign Martin Hanzal.
10. Detroit Red Wings – Get Younger
For once, it looks like Ken Holland isn’t holding all the cards. The wily Red Wings GM has plenty of line-up questions and fewer answers. There are still a lot of guys north of 30 like Henrik Zetterberg, Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Jimmy Howard. And, Holland doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room under the projected $75 million salary cap (about $7.5 million). The team needs to get younger, but cheaply. Two names that pop up, both of who are reclamation projects, are Nail Yakupov (the Oilers former first overall pick) and Alexander Burmistrov (a former eighth overall pick). Yakupov made $2.5 million with Edmonton and St. Louis last year and is in dire need of a fresh start. Ditto Burmistrov, who finished strong with Arizona last year, scoring 14 points in 26 games. We’ll see what kind of genius Holland is.
9. Buffalo Sabres – Reliable Scoring
The Sabres had exactly two 20-goal scorers last season. Little wonder they were the second worst offensive team in the East and also finished second last. New GM Jason Botterill has his work cut out for him, but it will be made a little easier knowing he has nearly $25 million to spend (most under the cap of any team). He will have to deal with the impending contracts of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, so take away 40 percent of that total (at least). Otherwise he could look at adding a still potent Joe Thornton to his line-up if the price is right or give a younger Alexander Radulov incentive with a longer term deal. The Sabres need scoring and it will be up to Botterill to make it happen.
8. New Jersey Devils – Veteran Help
Now that the Devils have no. 1 pick Nico Hischier in the fold and the faint possibility of re-adding Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils GM Ray Shero has all kinds of cards on the table. With those two in the line-up, again providing Kovalchuk comes back and Hischier is NHL ready, Shero may not have to do much in free agency. If that scenario doesn’t play out, he will need to add some scoring to the third most punchless offence in hockey. With just three 20-goal scorers in Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique, a sniper or three will need to be added — veterans especially. Radim Vrbata could come come cheaply for a team with plenty of cap room, ditto Nick Bonino and Martin Hanzal. Otherwise, filling departed defenceman Jon Merrill’s spot could be done by signing someone like Dmitry Kulikov or Michael Stone.
7. Winnipeg Jets – A True No. 1 Puckstopper
There is plenty to love — and loathe — about the state of the Winnipeg Jets roster. The love part comes in the form of some dynamism up front via Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers and a decent defensive corps headed by Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba. The loathe part points to goaltending that didn’t get it done in 2016-17. Connor Hellebuyck will be a heck of a goalie some time soon, but should be apprenticing as a back-up. He was 26-194 last year with a pedestrian 2.89 goals against average and .907 save percentage. He had far better numbers in 2015-16 in a more limited role (2.34 GAA, .918 save percentage in 26 games). Thus, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should beat the weeds for a stop-gap starter on a two to three-year deal. Hellebuyck is RFA and should be re-signed, while Michael Hutchinson is on the last year of a deal that pays him $1.15 million. Brian Elliott, should he want to play in Winnipeg, would be a nice addition, or maybe even Ryan Miller, who might accept a pay cut to start.
6. Los Angeles Kings – Young Legs Up Front
Missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014 can’t sit well with Kings’ management. New GM Rob Blake inherits an aging forward corps in need of a youth injection and a defensive unit that lacks a third pair. Unfortunately, Blake doesn’t have a ton of room under the cap, so he’ll have to be creative in free agency (or trades) to find the magic elixir. One name that comes to mind is Sam Gagner, who enjoyed a renaissance year in Columbus and is still just 27. He scored 50 points (his highest ever total) in 81 games, all while making just $650,000. A modest raise for Gagner wouldn’t break the Kings bank. Otherwise, first round pick Gabe Vilardi may be NHL ready and will be paid entry level money. On the back end, a good third pair defenceman on the cheap could be had in Montreal’s Nikita Nesterov, 24.
5. Dallas Stars – Top Shelf Defence
Stars GM Jim Nill will be under the gun this year to improve the fortunes of a team that tanked spectacularly in 2016-17. Much of the root cause of that horrible campaign stemmed from the net out. A 30 point drop in the standings and a goal differential that went from +37 to -39 is directly tied to very poor goaltending and shoddy defensive zone play. Nill made strides in that department by getting Ben Bishop from the Kings and signing him to a hefty six-year contract. Now his job is to give returning coach Ken Hitchcock something to work with on the blue line. The acquisition of 32-year-old defender Marc Methot from Vegas was a good start, but the losses of Johnny Oduya and Jordie Benn haven’t been backfilled. With just over $18 million to spend and some UFA/RFAs left to sign, Nill would do well to make a serious pitch for Kevin Shattenkirk or Karl Alzner, both UFAs.
4. Arizona Coyotes – No. 1 Center
The Coyotes needs are actually many, but the focus should be on acquiring a robust centerman to assume first line duties. Martin Hanzal was a candidate until he left at the deadline and Derek Stepan, recently brought in via trade at the entry draft, is a second line center, nothing more. Young Coyotes GM John Chayka has some good young talent up front, but they need a solid veteran presence or two to augment the attack. One name that immediately comes to mind is Joe Thornton, who would represent a no. 1 playmaking force at pivot. He’ll have plenty of suitors, so good second options could be Patrick Sharp (who is in need of a change of scenery) or Sam Gagner, who can play either center or wing. Chayka needs to pull the trigger to allow young centers Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome to develop at a reasonable pace.
3. Vancouver Canucks – Just About Everything
The proverbial fork in the road has come for the Vancouver Canucks. The Sedin Twins, now 35, are still durable but on the down slope of productivity. Ryan Miller is UFA and may be moving on. The defensive unit lacks chutzpah and requires some re-tooling. GM Jim Benning does have cap space, but the pickings this year are slim. Up front, he might be wise to add promising C/LW Jordan Weal of the Flyers, who scored eight goals and four assists in 23 games with Philly and made $650,000 last year. As we stated earlier, Nail Yakupov might deserve another shot in a new home. Ditto Sam Gagner or Calgary winger Alex Chiasson, who are both UFA and still young enough. On the back end, Michael Del Zotto’s name has come up, but he is likely in one, maybe two year contract territory. Replacing Miller won’t be easy and maybe the answer is a platoon of Jacob Markstrom and say UFA Jonathan Bernier of the Ducks, until someone like Martin Jones or Carey Price is available in 2018.
2. Colorado Avalanche – Depth, Everywhere
The worst team in the NHL sprung a lot of leaks last season and free agency may help plug a few. Rumors abound that Matt Duchene might be traded and some have even suggested dealing captain Gabriel Landeskog. Both 20-somethings had awful years — as did much of the rest of the line-up. After Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, then, the Avs are woefully thin up front. With few top-of-the-line players available this year, GM Joe Sakic ought to turn his attention to cheaper UFAs on limited contracts to add depth and wait to hit a home run with the better 2018 crop (unless he can flip Duchene and/or Landeskog for good return value). Value forwards like Brandon Pirri (26) and Alex Chiasson (26) could be targets. Sakic also has several holes to fill on the blue line and in net, what with the departure of back-up Calvin Pickard to Vegas. Calgary’s Chad Johnson is available and affordable.
1. Vegas Golden Knights – Cheap Help
With the expansion and entry drafts in the rear view mirror, GM George McPhee still has a lot of work to do, but not a lot of money left to impact his roster in a meaningful way. They do have better-than-average goaltending and serviceable players on defence and forward, but not a lot of pizzazz. However, really good players will be available next year and 14 on the current roster will be up for contract at the same time. Sam Gagner, whose name has popped up elsewhere here, would be a good — and relatively cheap — pickup to add some sizzle to the front end. On the back, dependable vets like Matt Hunwick of Toronto or Kyle Quincey of Columbus would fit in well.