Steven Stamkos (Photo by David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
The 2016 free agent crop could be one of the best in recent memory and could turn some playoff pretenders into Stanley Cup contenders. Some may be snatched up by way of extensions by July 2016, but here are the early leaders for best UFAs in 2016.
Next July could be franchise-changing for the teams that have the cap space and the money to shell out big dollar to deals to some big-name free agents.
While the 2015 off-season hasn’t been one of big money contracts or jaw-dropping deals, the 2016 off-season is already setting up to be one that sees several perennial all-stars change locales. It’s not just one or two major names that will potentially be hitting the free agent market, either — we’re looking at potential for more than a dozen impact players finding new homes.
Some of the free agents listed below have the potential to sign long-term before free agency hits and several — including Anze Kopitar and Mark Giordano — have already reportedly been talking about new deals. But these are the top 25 free agents who could hit the market next off-season:
1. Steven Stamkos, C
It’s not often a legitimate franchise player — and a center, to boot — hits the open market, but Tampa Bay stands to lose their superstar to the open market if they can’t get him locked up to a new, long-term deal. Stamkos will demand big money on the open market and will probably land somewhere in the $8-9 million range, if not more. And when it comes to term, he’s going to get the full seven-year deal. That is unless Tampa Bay signs him, which means he could get an eight-year deal.
Outside of Alex Ovechkin, who is likely to be a Washington Capital for life, there isn’t a more pure goal scorer in the NHL. Any team who lands Stamkos instantly upgrades their power play to one of the most lethal in the league.
2. Anze Kopitar, C
There’s already been preliminary talks between the Kings and Kopitar, but that doesn’t mean a deal is absolutely getting done. Is it likely? Sure, but if Kopitar doesn’t land a new contract by the time the off-season hits, teams will be falling over themselves to sign the Slovenian to a new deal.
In Kopitar, a team would get one of the two or three very best two-way pivots in the NHL. He’s the cornerstone of a Los Angeles Kings team that has won two of the past four Stanley Cups and it’d be interesting to see what he could produce offensively in a system that was a bit more open than that of the Kings. He’s a sure bet for anywhere from 60 to 75 points per season, which is incredible for his acumen in the defensive zone.
3. Mark Giordano, D
It’s already been reported that Giordano is looking for a deal in the range of $9 million per season, but that could be the going rate for a blueliner who could, realistically, have won the past two Norris Trophies were it not for injuries. Giordano’s development has been remarkable to watch and he’s turned into one of the league’s premier blueliners with little fanfare. He’s not an Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban, but he brings a complete game that few defensemen do.
If Giordano chooses to leave Calgary, he could be a cornerstone defenseman for a franchise that needs that one piece on the backend to put them over the top. He can contribute in the 40-point range every season and he’s good for at least 24 minutes a night. Not many No. 1 defensemen hit the open market.
4. Dustin Byfuglien, D
He’s big, he’s strong, he skates well for his size, has a booming shot, can play forward or defense and has scored 15-plus goals six times. You’re going to get production out of Byfuglien and you’re going to get some head-shaking plays, but you have to take the good with the bad. There aren’t many players who have the same skill set as ‘Big Buff’ and he’ll be due for a decent raise if he decides to leave the Winnipeg Jets.
For those who care about past victories and playoff experience, Byfuglien also has a Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks. He wasn’t so successful this past season with the Jets, but he was having a season that was good enough for him to be in the Norris Trophy conversation. He should have of good years left in him, too.
5. Brent Seabrook, D
Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has said Seabrook isn’t going anywhere, but he had also said the same about Brandon Saad. We know how that turned out. Seabrook has been part of the Blackhawks’ top-pairing alongside Duncan Keith for three Stanley Cup championships, and that’s the kind of experience that will earn him a significant bump in pay if he hits the open market.
He’s not going to wow anyone with his offensive ability, but he’s going to be steady at both ends of the ice, play power play minutes and kill penalties. His game isn’t volatile, so it’s not a risky pickup, either. When it comes to overtime, all eyes should be on big No. 7 on the blueline. Throughout his career with Chicago, Seabrook has had a knack for timely goals. Like Giordano, he could be a top-pairing blueliner almost anywhere he goes.
6. Eric Staal, C
Things haven’t been great in Carolina over the past few seasons and it could mean Staal is looking to continue his career somewhere else. If that’s the case, the 30-year-old Staal is going to be an excellent addition. Sure, he might cost a pretty penny, but he’s about as steady a 20-goal, 50-point player as there is at his age. He hasn’t really shown too many signs of slowing, either.
The other plus side to inking Staal would be his resistance to injury. He has missed 22 games in his entire 11-year career. Some signings are risky because GMs won’t be sure whether or not they’ll be getting full seasons, but with Staal 75-plus games is a near certainty. If he has a big season in 2015-16, he’s going to land a big-money deal.
7. David Backes, C
The longtime St. Louis Blues captain is skilled defensively and can chip in on offense, but teams will also love his hard-nosed style of play and his willingness to throw the body. While that could end up taking some years off of his career, Backes’ game is at its best when he’s getting in the face of the opposition and making life difficult for the other team’s best players.
Backes has scored 31 goals twice in his career and has been close to the 30-goal plateau in his past two seasons. He’s 31 and should be coming out of his prime, but it doesn’t appear his scoring touch is going anywhere. Putting Backes between two skilled wingers would make for a dangerous trio, as we’ve seen with him centering the line of Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie over the past two campaigns.
8. Kyle Okposo, RW
One would think the Islanders wouldn’t let Okposo slip through their fingers, but if they don’t get a deal done with the power forward, he’s going to be a hot commodity. Okposo has always seemed like a definite threat to breakout and have a 30-goal season, but injuries have almost always gotten the best of him.
His past two years have been near point-per-game performances, including a 27-goal, 69-point 2013-14 campaign in which he played 71 games. It was the best performance of his career and he was heating up in 2014-15 before an upper body injury put him on the shelf. If Okposo can stay healthy, he could be an 80-point player skating alongside John Tavares. His stock will shoot through the roof is he’s healthy all year.
9. Andrew Ladd, LW
The Winnipeg Jets captain is a sneaky-good scorer and probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his production. In the past two seasons, Ladd has scored 47 goals and 116 points in 159 games. That’s quality scoring from a player who could be a first- or second-line winger on a number of teams throughout the league.
The thing about Ladd, too, is that he has two Stanley Cups to his name and he’s the kind of player coaches love — the player who would, “do anything to win.” Ladd can play a physical game or a skill game, take power play minutes, skate on the penalty kill and has an underrated shot. He’s not going to score 40 goals, but if he gets some bounces 30 isn’t crazy.
10. Erik Johnson, D
The first overall pick at the 2006 draft, Johnson moves up the list because of one special quality he posses: he’s a right-handed shot. It seems like the conversation at every trade deadline in the past few years has been about teams looking to acquire a right-handed defenseman to fill out their blueline. Beyond his shot, though, Johnson has the skating ability and shot to be a top offensive blueliner, he’s just yet to really find his stride.
Johnson could be a solid addition and, if given some veteran guidance, could probably round out into a solid No. 1 or 2 defenseman. He’s never going to put up the gaudy point totals that Erik Karlsson has, but Johnson could still contribute 30-plus points from the back end. That’s healthy production from a defenseman, so long as he’s not sacrificing his defensive responsibility.
11. Milan Lucic, LW
He was beloved in Boston and will be a hit in Los Angeles, but he could be onto his third team in July 2016. Lucic has all the ability to be a 20-goal scorer and consistent threat for 50 points and he’s the type of power forward that those with the old-school mentality love.
Lucic is not afraid for the game to devolve into an all-out brawl and is at his best when he can get into the corners and throw a hit or two. Some see him as simply a big, bruising body, but his offensive acumen is wholly underrated. He didn’t luck into his three consecutive 20-plus goal seasons and on a Bruins team that was desperate for offense in 2014-15, Lucic managed 18 tallies.
12. Alex Goligoski, D
Playing in Dallas, Goligoski probably hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves as an offensive defenseman. Goligoski is a skilled playmaker from the backend and has had more than 30 assists from the blueline in three of the past five seasons. In the lockout shortened season, Goligoski had 24 helpers in 47 games — that could have been a 40-assist campaign were it a full year.
On the Stars this past season, he was one of the lone bright spots on the defensive side of the puck. He’s not going to be a standout No. 1 blueliner on many teams, but he could very well be the second-pairing guy that puts a team over the top. Good, offensive depth defensemen aren’t easy to find. Goligoski fits that bill and there’s a number of teams that will chase him should he hit the market.
13. Keith Yandle, D
Yandle seemed like the type of player who could have spent his entire career in Arizona, but a massive trade at the deadline this past season sent him to the New York Rangers. He’s a good fit for the Rangers right now, but his name was mentioned as a possible trade candidate if New York had to free up some salary cap space. That didn’t come to pass, but maybe that’s the writing on the wall about Yandle’s future in the Big Apple.
When it comes to pure offensive defensemen, they don’t get much better than Yandle. He has averaged more than half a point-per-game from the blueline over his NHL career and blew everyone away with an 11-goal, 59-point campaign in 2010-11. He’s only 28 so he’s got a lot of good years left and could be the perfect target for a long-term deal.
14. Tomas Plekanec, C
There has only been two seasons in which Plekanec hasn’t score 20 goals: the 2011-12 season and the lockout shortened 2012-13 campaign. If that’s not consistency, we’re not sure what is. Plekanec could be the perfect complimentary second-line center on a team that’s ready to make the leap to contender or a good first-line pivot on a team that has two solid wingers to line him up with.
His play at both ends of the ice is underrated, but that’s only because he has been such a steady offensive force for the Montreal Canadiens throughout his career. He scored three shorthanded goals in 2014-15 and has six in the past two seasons. He makes life difficult for the opposition power play and is the type of all-situations player GMs love.
15. Brian Campbell, D
As hard as it may be to believe, Campbell recently turned 36 and by the time free agency hits, he’ll be 37. That said, there still aren’t many players who make skating look as effortless as Campbell does. His skating stride is a thing of beauty and he can dance up the ice with the puck. That has been his calling card for his entire career and he’s almost always good for close to 30 points.
Where Campbell struggles is defensively, but that can be lessened by pairing him with a defensively responsible partner. He spent three seasons averaging more than 26 minutes per game for the Florida Panthers. He’s probably best playing in the 22-minute range at this point in his career and could be a perfect complimentary defenseman on a second pairing.
16. Cam Talbot, G
The chances the Edmonton Oilers let Talbot walk are just about zero, but if they do — and if he has a good year with the Oilers — there are several teams who would be clamoring to get the 28-year-old netminder under contract.
As Henrik Lundqvist’s backup in 2014-15, Talbot asserted himself as a potential No. 1 in the league, posting an outstanding 21-9-4 record with five shutouts, a 2.21 GAA and .926 SP. Similar numbers this season could earn Talbot a deal in the $5 million-plus range.
17. Radim Vrbata, RW
The question about Vrbata heading into 2014-15 was whether or not the veteran could find his scoring touch outside of the desert. He had produced for the Coyotes throughout his career, but his first foray outside of Arizona ended poorly when he flamed out with Tampa Bay. He got his career back on track with the Coyotes and proved he could do it elsewhere with a 30-goal season in Vancouver.
He’s a good bet to hit the free agent market next July and could be a solid second line scoring option for a handful of teams if the price is right.
18. Braydon Coburn, D
Coburn was brought in to be one of the final pieces to the puzzle in Tampa Bay and he helped the club get to the Stanley Cup final. No one has ever mistook Coburn for a 40-point blueliner, but he can still chip in with 10-15 points from the backend and he possesses a solid shutdown game. He won’t be a No. 1 anywhere, but teams looking for a second-pairing guy are going to love the chance at nabbing Coburn. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Coburn is mobile enough to skate the puck out of danger.
19. Cam Ward, G
Following his magical Stanley Cup run in 2005-06, Ward has never really, truly recaptured that run of play. That said, it’s tough to picture the Hurricanes goaltending situation without Ward between the pipes. He has been one of the faces of the franchise for the past decade. If he moves on, he could land a starting job somewhere looking for an upgrade over a bottom-tier starting netminder.
His best season came in 2010-11 when he went 37-26-10 with a 2.56 GAA and .923 SP. He hasn’t broken the .920 SP mark since.
20. Frans Nielsen, C
Nielsen’s ability flies under the radar because he plays on an Islanders team with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. He’s a consistent scorer for a second- or third-line pivot and you’d be hard done by to find a player who contributes as well on the power play and penalty kill at his price. He had an incredible 25-goal, 58-point season in 2013-14 so he has serious upside. He might be coming out of his prime, though, which could mean he’s only got a couple of good years left in him.