Free agency can help turn a good team into a great one. In past years, key players on championship teams such as Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks and Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins have been signed to long-term deals as unrestricted free agents. While this offseason features some good players who could provide a strong impact to the right team, such as defenseman Mike Green or future Hall of Fame winger Martin St. Louis, teams would be better off holding out on handing out any long-term, big money contracts to free agents this year.
Why is that, you may ask? It is because the free agency class of 2016 is poised to be one of the best classes in recent memory, and perhaps one of the best of all time. While there is still a full year left before some of these players can hit the open market, and some may be re-signed by their current teams, the best free agents from this offseason are dwarfed by the stars of next year. Any team doling out handfuls of money to free agents this offseason could regret it come next offseason.
Given how infrequently teams fail to re-sign their own restricted free agents, this article focuses solely on players who are eligible to hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2016.
This is the group of players least likely to hit the open market, as they hold too much value to their current teams to expect that their current franchise would allow them to leave with nothing in return. If they reach free agency, however, expect them to receive the maximum 7 year contract worth more than $8 million annually.
Unquestionably the best player slated to hit free agency come next summer, Stamkos is considered by many to be one of the best players in the entire NHL and even one of its best goal scorers. While he had a down season this year by his lofty standards, the Tampa Bay captain still potted 43 goals and has led his team to the brink of a Stanley Cup Championship (although the mighty Chicago Blackhawks stand in their way). With the Lightning sitting pretty in terms of cap space for the near future and featuring a young forward group lacking significant experience, expect Tampa Bay to sign their captain to a lengthy contract in the near future.
In past seasons, the two-time Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings would never have let the heart of their forward corps come this close to free agency. However, due to potential upcoming troubles with cap space, the Kings might not possess the financial resources necessary to retain their superstar centre. Make no mistake, if the Slovenian stud were to hit free agency, he would become one of the highest-paid players in the NHL, among elite players such as Jonathan Toews ($10.5 million cap hit) or Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 million). However, expect the Kings to do anything they can, including trading the bloated contract of Mike Richards or allowing important role pieces such as Jarrett Stoll or Trevor Lewis to leave in free agency, to retain the heartbeat of their offense.
If there was any question that Chicago blueline stalwart Brent Seabrook was among the NHL’s elite defensemen before the 2015 playoffs, those concerns have been put to bed. He has proven to be a workhorse for the Stanley Cup finalist Blackhawks, playing nearly half of every game in every situation, all while providing a physical presence Chicago lacks among its other defensemen. While he is an extremely valuable part of the Blackhawks’ blueline, the Blackhawks are another team that could be entering a serious cap crunch soon, and it may be that they don’t have the cap room to re-sign Seabrook on top of other core players such as the aforementioned Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and the possible long-term contract up-and-coming star Brandon Saad could sign this offseason.
Top-6 Forwards/Top-4 Defensemen
This group of players could still contribute at a high level, but their high salaries could force their current teams to allow them to leave in free agency. They could, however, probably still command a long-term deal worth north of $5 million dollars annually.
The current Carolina Hurricanes’ captain, Eric Staal could have been included in the elite players category and would have been a near-lock for the biggest free-agent name available a few short seasons ago. However, Staal’s numbers have declined in recent seasons. Entering the final season of an 8 year, $57.75 million deal that paid him $8.25 million per season, Staal’s declining numbers could force him to take a slight pay cut from those lofty figures. However, he can still be counted on to provide more than 50 points and 20 goals, as well as bringing a strong veteran presence to the team that signs him (with the Hurricanes still a strong possibility to retain their captain). However, with young centres Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask, as well as Eric’s younger brother Jordan already in tow, Carolina may not be willing to pony up the money that Staal could command on the open market.
In the conversation as the NHL’s best power forward, Lucic is a unique breed in today’s fast-paced, skill-focused NHL. A load to handle at 6’4″, 235 pounds, Lucic is feared by both his physical game and high skill level. One of only a handful of players who is a threat to reach 20 goals, 100 penalty minutes, and 200 hits in any given season, Lucic could command a slight raise on his current $6 million salary. The Bruins could also be entering cap troubles with many long-term contracts on the roster and new contracts being due to bright young players such as Dougie Hamilton, so they may be forced to refrain from offering fan favourite Lucic a new contract come next offseason.
While Yandle played more of a depth role on a stacked New York Rangers defense in their deep playoff run, Yandle has top-notch abilities and could be a first-pairing defender on many other NHL teams. With more than 50 points in 3 out of the last 4 non lockout-shortened seasons, Yandle will be the most talented offensive defender on the free agent market next summer, should the Rangers choose not to re-sign him. While he might not be the best shut-down defender on the market (-26 plus/minus rating, albeit mostly with the lowly Arizona Coyotes), his puck-moving ability and powerplay skills should land him a long-term contract. The Rangers might not re-sign the talented rearguard, as they already have four defensemen signed through 2018, so look for Yandle to be taking his services elsewhere to begin the 2016-2017 season.
Honourable Mentions: Dan Hamhuis, Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan O’Reilly, Ryan Kesler, Mark Giordano
These players could provide strong secondary scoring or an important role as a role player on a strong contending team, but their performance probably isn’t enough to merit a long-term, big money contract. Based on their important roles on their respective teams, however, they could still warrant a multi-year deal (2-4 years) worth more than $3 million per season.
Vrbata, long underrated as one of the offensive stars for a small-market team in Phoenix, gained national recognition last season riding shotgun with the Sedin twins and making his first All-Star game. Coming off a two year deal worth $5 million annually, Vrbata will probably have to take a pay cut as he will be 35 years old by the time he hits free agency next summer and could be viewed as a declining scorer. He would still provide valuable secondary scoring, however, as the five-time 20 goal scorer has been to a Conference Finals with the Coyotes back in 2012 and could bring veteran leadership and playmaking skills to a young, contending team.
Always considered more of a secondary scorer than a go-to option, Hudler broke out this past season with a career-high 31 goals and 76 points playing alongside star youngsters Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Expecting Hudler to maintain such a torrid scoring pace and paying him for such production might be a mistake, but he could definitely play an important role as a secondary scoring option on a contending club. Having 77 games of playoff experience and a Stanley Cup championship under his belt, he would be a huge addition on any club, and it remains to be seen whether Calgary, one of the youngest teams in the league, will pay to retain the services of the soon-to-be 32 year old.
Highly touted as a youngster, the former #1 overall draft pick has failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him when he was selected over superstars Jonathan Toews and Phil Kessel in the 2006 Entry Draft. However, he could still play an important role on a contending team, as he has the size (6’4″, 231 pounds) and two-way ability to play lots of minutes in all situations. While he was the #1 defenseman on a defensively weak Colorado Avalanche team, he could excel playing in easier assignments as the second- or third-best option on a contending team. Having said that, Colorado will likely try their best to retain their strongest blueliner, as he is just 27 years old and brings a mean streak and defensive acumen that many of their other rearguards lack.
Honourable Mentions: David Perron, Braydon Coburn, Tomas Plekanec, Loui Eriksson, Frans Nielsen
While it is very likely some of these great players will be re-signed by their respective teams, the depth and talent available in the 2016 free agent class far outmeasures the kind of talent teams will be able to sign come July 1st, 2015. If teams are trying to improve their clubs by supplementing their existing talent with strong free agent signings, they would be better off by saving their cheques in hopes of landing one of the many great players available in the 2016 free agent class.
Joseph Aleong is an At-Large writer for THW from Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Follow him on Twitter @josephaleong11