By: Nick Lanciani
12:01 PM ET on July 1st (precisely) marks the start of the NHL’s free agency period, so of course, you’ve found yourself scavenging the Internet for the freshest hot takes and the best indications of where players (ahem, Steven Stamkos) will end up. Likewise, you probably just want to know who’s available out there (and I’m not talking about Tinder).
Well fear not, because I’m here to set things straight with a short series of posts about the Top-5 free agents in every category you can think of (UFA forwards, UFA defensemen, UFA goalies, RFA forwards, RFA defensemen and RFA goalies) in this latest edition of Numbers Game posts.
1. C Steven Stamkos (36-28-64 totals with the Tampa Bay Lightning)– $7.500 million cap hit, 25 years old
Steven Stamkos is a franchise player. Period. He could stay in Tampa after all and crush every free agent fanatic’s dream of a player that hasn’t been seen since the 2004-2005 season lockout, or he could leave. While there are some teams that I could rule out— Las Vegas being one of them, since they don’t begin play until the 2017-2018 season— it’s anybody’s guess as to where Stamkos might end up.
His 312 goals in 569 career NHL games speak for himself. He’s a two-time 50 goal scorer, having amassed 60 in the 2011-2012 season, and he’s more than capable of increasing your team’s scoring ability all around with the right chemistry. Prior to having his season cut short due to a blood clot, Stamkos had 36-28-64 totals in 77 games.
Stamkos is destined to make anywhere from the same salary as this season up to $10 million AAV. Everybody wants him, if they’ve got the cap room or can make cap space. We might even see the NHL’s first sign-and-trade if a team makes the Lightning an offer they can refuse with Stamkos’s camp in agreement.
Steven Stamkos resigned with Tampa on June 29th- 8 years, $8.500 million AAV.
2. RW/LW Loui Eriksson (30-33-63 totals with the Boston Bruins)- $4.250 million cap hit, 30 years old
The big piece of the Tyler Seguin deal that the Boston Bruins acquired might very well be on the move at his own discretion, since Boston couldn’t get a deal done to Eriksson’s satisfaction, leaving the Bruins with Joe Morrow as the sole survivor of the failed Seguin maneuver.
But like Stamkos, there’s nothing that says the Bruins are out of the picture on this one, unless they are absolutely against giving Eriksson a much deserved raise for his 63 point season.
His 30-33-63 totals tied his 2008-2009 season performance with the Dallas Stars when he had 36 goals and 27 assists. The following three seasons, Eriksson went on to score 71 points or more. If history is any indicator, Eriksson has found his stride in the Eastern Conference and with the right chemistry, will return to his familiar form while hopefully avoiding the injuries that plagued his time in Boston.
Despite his age compared to some of the other top UFAs, there are no downsides to Loui Eriksson— unless you’re a team with plenty of 30 or older players already under contract and you’re trying to get younger.
3. LW Milan Lucic (20-35-55 totals with the Los Angeles Kings)- $6.000 million cap hit, 27 years old
The Edmonton Oilers might be the best situation and most attractive destination for Milan Lucic to return to Canada, play with Connor McDavid and reunite with former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli at the reigns of the Oilers, but if you can get a chance to offer him a deal, you might as well and see if he listens.
Lucic scored 30 goals in the 2010-2011 regular season en route to winning the Stanley Cup with Chiarelli in Boston and had 11 more points this season (55) with the Kings than he did in 2014-2015 with the Bruins (44).
While he’s sure to receive numerous offers of outrageous sums of money, one thing is for sure. The team that lands him will know exactly what they’re getting from him. A gifted power forward with timely goals when you need them, Lucic has been known to have a temper. But any team can utilize his temper in the right fashion if they have the right roster components to balance the load and control each game.
Someone like Leon Draisaitl suddenly becomes more of an opportunity for Lucic to mentor in Edmonton. Then again, a return to Boston would be welcomed by many TD Garden faithful too.
4. RW Kyle Okposo (22-42-64 totals with the New York Islanders)- $2.800 million cap hit, 27 years old
Players like Kyle Okposo are in high demand in this league and it is crazy to see the New York Islanders letting him go in such a fashion (then again, who isn’t in the Stamkos sweepstakes, if that’s their motivation). Okposo has scored 51 points or more in the last three seasons and is only entering the prime of his career. Where he plateaus is yet to be seen, but he’s got a chance to shine if, say he lands on a roster with Stamkos (or the like).
Teams should be all in on trying to land Okposo if they are in dire need of the elusive right winger as they are in trying to sign Stamkos, but with more realistic expectations.
With the exception of the shortened 2012-2013 season, he’s only failed to record 39 points or more once in 2010-2011 when he was limited to 38 games played due to injuries. The nearly 70 point scorer is highly underrated, but is about to be put into the spotlight due to the free agency affect— what with a large contract certainly heading his way.
There’s no telling what his 51 point season in 2014-2015 would have been if he got to play more than 60 games, in comparison to his 69 points in 71 games in 2013-2014 and 22-42-64 totals in 79 games this season.
5. C Eric Staal (13-26-39 totals with the Carolina Hurricanes/New York Rangers)- $8.250 million cap hit, 31 years old
This summer could be the summer of reunions if Lucic goes back to Boston and 2006 Stanley Cup champion, Eric Staal, heads back to Carolina (it’s like he never left!), but as a general manager, didn’t you mean to get rid of the guy in the first place? Nothing against Staal here, but it’s just a thought about what it means to move on, move forward and find better success with— well, let’s face it— a better team, since the Hurricanes aren’t making waves just yet (though Teuvo Teravainen helps).
Carolina was great to the former 100 point scorer in 2005-2006 and 70+ point scorer up through the 2011-2012 season. But in 83 games between the Hurricanes and New York Rangers, the veteran center couldn’t find his scoring touch with 13-26-39 totals (down from 23-31-54 totals in 77 games in 2014-2015 and 61 points the year before that).
One thing is for sure, though, Staal’s status as a top-6 forward changed with his acquisition in New York, which impacted his play.
For a significant discount, Staal could return to form in the right organization, preferably one that’s a playoff contender, if not a Stanley Cup contender, similar to how Brad Richards spent a year with the Chicago Blackhawks (and won the Cup) in 2015. Staal rounds out my top-5 UFA forward list because there’s still a lot left in him, similar in nature to Joe Thornton, but he needs balance on the roster around him and the right fit.
Of note, Colby wanted me to mention that Staal would add a veteran presence and that he “understands how to be a franchise player.” I think he just wants me to say that Staal should sign with Toronto or Edmonton, but I can’t tell.
Honorable Mentions/ Well if the price is right (and the shoe fits)…
LW Thomas Vanek (18-23-41 totals with the Minnesota Wild)- $6.500 million cap hit, 31 years old
Thomas Vanek has never had a season below 41 points in scoring. In fact, the only other time Vanek scored 41 points was during his 20-21-41 total campaign in the 2012-2013 lockout shortened season with the Buffalo Sabres over 38 games played. Last season, of course, Vanek disappointed the Minnesota Wild with only an 18-23-41 effort in 74 games.
But at the right price of significantly less than $6.5 million, the prolific scorer could see a resurgence in confidence and playing ability. Vanek’s not getting any younger, but he’s still Thomas Vanek even at 31 years old. He might not be the next Jaromir Jagr, but he definitely carries a low risk-high reward potential just the same. Besides, maybe the right change of scenery is just what he needs.
RW Radim Vrbata ( 13-14-27 totals with the Vancouver Canucks)- $5.000 million cap hit, 34 years old
If you’re not sold on signing one of the top guys in free agency for ridiculous dollar amounts, why not try to grab an excellent depth scoring forward for just the right amount of money before he becomes one of the only remaining forwards on the UFA list and has his price inflated because of that whole supply and demand thing?
Okay, that was a long winded way of saying that Radim Vrbata is nowhere near the best player in the league by far, but for less than $5 million and with the right fit, Vrbata could be a quality asset pickup for any team looking to add a veteran presence in the locker room. At 34, Vrbata probably just wants to win and likely isn’t inclined to go after making the opportunity himself in a market where he’d be the main attraction. Coming off a 63 point season in 79 games played in 2014-2015, he fell off the charts for the Vancouver Canucks this year with 27 points in 63 games.
C David Backes (21-24-45 totals with the St. Louis Blues)- $4.500 million cap hit, 31 years old
David Backes plays David Backes style hockey. He hits hard, he plays hard and he’s a good center that finds his time switching between playmaker and scorer en route to usually accumulating at least 40 points a season.
For a team in a pinch to find a quality center to strengthen themselves down the middle for the foreseeable future, Backes would be a great option if you can’t land Stamkos. In 10 seasons with St. Louis, he only had three seasons where he scored 31 points or less. In fact, only his rookie and sophomore years were under 31 points until the 2012-2013 48-game season where he recorded 6-22-28 totals through all 48 games.
Coming off a 21-24-45 season in 79 games this year, his offensive production has dipped over the last three seasons from 57 and 58 point seasons in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons. But the soon to be former captain of the Blues still plays with all the fire inside him and could bounce back on a team that’s not strapped by the salary cap.