Let the sweepstakes begin. Based on money and fit, which teams have the most realistic shots to sign the summer's top free agent?
The 2017-18 season is truly over now. The Washington Capitals are wringing beer out of their clothes. It’s time to really turn our attention to what should be a fascinating off-season, featuring some monster names potentially changing teams via free agency or trade.
The summer belongs to UFA center John Tavares above everyone else. He’ll get a seven- or eight-year term, depending on whether he re-signs with the New York Islanders, and he’ll command a cap hit of $10 million at the absolute minimum. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see Tavares end up hockey’s second-richest player behind Connor McDavid as of July 1.
So where will Tavares play hockey in 2018-19? Which teams are the best, most realistic fits for him in terms of cap situation, franchise direction and comfort? Consider these five destinations.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The top candidate to re-sign a marquee free agent is typically that player’s current team. The Islanders are still easily the favorite in this race. They have brand-new leadership from GM Lou Lamoriello, with the Garth Snow era over. If anyone can sell a player on a winning long-term vision, it’s Lou. We also know Tavares was publicly thrilled to learn the Belmont Park Arena project will put the Islanders back on long Island by the 2021-22 season, meaning he’d get to play five of eight years there under his new contract. Staying with the Isles would mean adding an extra year to his pact, as any new team can only ink him for seven years, and the presence of Matt Barzal, fresh off the best rookie season this decade, gives this team reason for hope. Championships are built through the middle these days, so the Isles would have two key pieces to build around for years to come in Tavares and Barzal.
Tavares will meet with many teams when his negotiating window opens up five days before free agency but, let’s remember, for all the hype Steven Stamkos generated as ‘The Greatest UFA ever’ in 2016, he didn’t even make it to market, re-signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the middle of his negotiating period. Of course, Stamkos was returning to a much better team with a much more stable ownership structure, not to mention state tax breaks. The Islanders can’t offer as many checkmarks. If Tavares stays, it’ll be about maintaining the comfort level he’s established in nine seasons with the franchise. If he leaves, it’ll be about finding a place that gives him a better shot at the Stanley Cup.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
If we could commandeer Tavares’ brain and make his choice for him, I dare someone to find a better fit for him than the Devils. They’re an up-and-coming franchise with a promising pivot to build around already in Nico Hischier. They have what may soon be the reigning league MVP in Taylor Hall, who just happens to be a left winger and would be an awfully nice linemate for Tavares. Hall carried the Devils to the playoffs, with his 93 points besting his closest teammate by 41, so imagine what he could do working with Tavares. The Devils would become an instant Cup contender. They also have more help on the way in years to come, having sent more players than any other team to the 2018 World Junior Championship.
The Devils are also swimming in cap space – between $23 million and $27 million, depending on what the yet-to-be-established league number is for 2018-19. They could re-sign their desired free agents, from UFA Patrick Maroon to RFAs Miles Wood and Blake Coleman, and still have more than enough room to accommodate Tavares. Better yet, on a personal level, Tavares might not have to uproot his life moving from the Islanders to Devils. He’d still enjoy all the geographical benefits of playing in New York.
The wrench in the works would be a recent conversation I had with Devils GM Ray Shero, in which he expressed that free agency was not the best way to build a team and challenged me to name one legitimately outstanding free agent signing in the salary-cap era aside from Zdeno Chara. Will Shero’s skepticism keep him from bidding? Or will he see potential for Tavares to make a Chara-like impact?
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Don’t sleep on St. Louis. Losing Paul Stastny opens up $7 million in cap space, and that chunk of change plus the salary-cap increase alone would make enough room to fit Tavares under the cap. General manager Doug Armstrong has some work to do with his free agents, of course. Sturdy blueliner Joel Edmundson has earned a long-term extension, Robby Fabbri is also an RFA, and the Blues have to bring back goaltender Carter Hutton or sign someone else to push, er, back up Jake Allen. None of those moves should involve massive amounts of money, though. Fabbri is coming off a torn ACL, Edmundson’s lack of offense will keep his price tag down, and no goalie on the UFA market will command more than a few million dollars per year.
The Blues have room for Tavares. Adding him to a forward group that already includes Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn, with intriguing prospects Robert Thomas, Tage Thompson, Jordan Kyrou and Klim Kostin to build around, would make St. Louis a very interesting team in the forever-competitive Central Division. St. Louis is a big enough hockey market to be appealing but will never be mistaken for a pressure cooker, either. Tavares would enjoy relative anonymity there if that’s what he wants.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Joe Thornton has expressed his passionate desire to remain a San Jose Shark. If he returns at anything close to last season’s $8-million AAV – heck, if he returns, period – it would likely block San Jose from taking a run at Tavares, especially after the Sharks committed a $7-million cap hit to Evander Kane for the next seven seasons. The Sharks have an important, not-so-cheap RFA to re-sign in Tomas Hertl, too. But if they say goodbye to Thornton and buy out Paul Martin…there could be room for Tavares. And there are few markets more appealing than San Jose, which offers a devoted fan base, great California weather and a consistently competitive team while keeping players shielded from the crushing pressure a Canadian market would bring.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
No team’s behavior will be tougher to predict this off-season than that of the Golden Knights. Do they decide their inaugural season was a pure miracle, impossible to replicate, and return to a traditional tract, slowly developing talent to support star goal scorer William Karlsson and rising youngsters Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore? Or does GM George McPhee say, “No, our run to the Stanley Cup final was legitimate. We’re one of the best teams in the NHL, and we’re a piece or two away from winning a championship”? Given owner Bill Foley’s confidence and willingness to spend, I’d bet on Vegas adopting the latter mentality. This team took a run at Erik Karlsson at the trade deadline, after all, and may re-enter the sweepstakes for him in the coming weeks as the draft approaches.
So if the Golden Knights decide they want to spend aggressively, might they let James Neal and David Perron leave as UFAs and devote the freed-up dollars to Tavares? It’s remarkable how much can change in a year. Instead of a sideshow, Vegas is now viewed as an exciting, passionate market with a franchise that treats its players first-class. Might everything change if the Golden Knights struggle for the first time next season? Maybe, but a Tavares signing would take struggling out of the equation.
Keep an eye on…
Pittsburgh Penguins: If Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman says something, there’s fire with the smoke, so we should take it seriously when he suggests Penguins GM Rutherford might try to figure out a way to join the push for Tavares. Imagine a trio Tavares, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up the middle. Signing Tavares would essentially mean purchasing a Stanley Cup.
Detroit Red Wings: The Wings badly need a center and a franchise player. Their best young stars are not elite.
Montreal Canadiens: The void at center remains in Montreal, and the Habs consider themselves a win-now operation, but would Tavares want to play in such a hockey-mad market?
Columbus Blue Jackets: They want a top-drawer center and have a really strong team already, so he’d be joining a true contender, but fitting him under the cap would require some financial acrobatics from GM Jarmo Kekalainen.