A list of this summer’s top unrestricted free agents, and why the Toronto Maple Leafs could be attractive for some of them.
SPORTSNET: Luke Fox provides an updated list of this summer’s top-16 unrestricted free agents. It’s comprised of Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, St. Louis Blues center David Backes, New York Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo, Los Angeles Kings left wing Milan Lucic, Chicago Blackhawks left wing Andrew Ladd, New York Rangers center Eric Staal, Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr, Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle, Boston Bruins right wing Loui Eriksson, Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell, Dallas Stars blueliner Kris Russell, Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward, Colorado Avalanche winger Mikkel Boedker, Panthers forward Jiri Hudler, San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer and Vancouver Canucks right wing Radim Vrbata.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: The uncertainty over Stamkos status will continue to feature prominently in the rumor mill between now and July 1. Backes’ future in St. Louis will be determined by the Blues’ performance in the 2016 playoffs. Okposo is probably a goner via free agency. The Kings hope to re-sign Lucic, who is keen to stay. Fitting his new contract under the limited cap space, however, won’t be easy. Ditto the Blackhawks re-signing Ladd.
Staal’s tenure with the Rangers will likely be short, as they have younger players to re-sign. Jagr will re-sign with the Panthers, as GM Dale Tallon made it known he wants the veteran winger back. Yandle will be too expensive for the Rangers to retain. Same goes for Eriksson with the Bruins. Campbell could be re-signed to a less-expensive, short-term deal, as he has solid chemistry with young Aaron Ekblad. If Russell plays well in the upcoming postseason, the Stars could re-sign him.
Ward will have to accept a considerable shorter and cheaper contract to sign with another NHL club. His tenure with the Hurricanes ends this summer. Boedker could test the UFA market, as I have my doubts the Avs will re-sign him when they’ve got Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie due big raises this summer. Hudler will hit the UFA market. Reimer, too, and I think the Calgary Flames will take a serious look at him. Vrbata’s days with the Canucks are numbered.
Other notables include ” Frans Nielsen (Islanders), Shane Doan (Coyotes), Dan Hamhuis (Canucks), Jonas Hiller (Flames), Karri Ramo (Flames), Troy Brouwer (Blues), Alex Goligoski (Stars), Patrik Elias (Devils), Lee Stempniak (Bruins), Teddy Purcell (Panthers), David Perron (Ducks), Luke Schenn (Kings), Jamie McGinn (Ducks), Dale Weise (Blackhawks), P.A. Parenteau (Maple Leafs), Tom Gilbert (Canadiens) and Jason Demers (Stars).
SPECTOR’S NOTE: Nielsen, Goligoski, Stempniak, Perron, McGinn and Demers will likely attract plenty of interest via the UFA market. I think the Islanders will try to re-sign Nielsen. The Ducks could look at retaining Perron, who has 19 points in 25 games with them. If Doan doesn’t retire, he’ll likely sign with the Coyotes for one more year.
TORONTO STAR: Dave Feschuk believes the Maple Leafs will be attractive to top UFAs like Steven Stamkos. He cites the rebuilding club clearing salary-cap space over the past year giving them “the freedom to pay Stamkos the projected eight-figures-a-season market rate.” Feschuk believes they have the room for “a handful of high earners at the top of Toronto’s cap-hit list,” while the lower-priced talent coming from their “cache of draft picks” competes for room at the bottom of that list. He also cites recent comments from Leafs coach Mike Babcock noting that a team being built with young talent also needs good veteran talent to go with them. Recently-acquired Leafs forward Brooks Laich sings the praises of the club’s coaching staff, the organization’s first-class treatment of its players, the promising talent and treatment of the players by local fans makes Toronto a very attractive place to play.
SPECTOR’S NOTE: Those factors work in the Leafs favor, but also against them. If those top free agents want to sign with a contender, they won’t have interest in a rebuilding club like the Leafs. The fishbowl existence and constant pressure of playing in Toronto are also significant downsides. Indeed, it could take a couple of seasons of improvement before the Leafs become an attractive destination again for the top free-agent players.
I’m not saying the Leafs won’t be able to sign a top free agent this summer, but it has to be one willing to buy into the rebuilding process and prepared to spend at least the next couple of seasons sitting outside the playoff picture. If they can get one, like Stamkos, to sign this summer, it could encourage others to do the same.