A week ago, I published this piece ranking the best remaining NHL unrestricted free agents at every position. As of today (July 10), all but one player (Chris Kelly) remains unsigned.
It’s not surprising. With the best players snapped up on the opening day (July 1) of the free-agent market, the depth of talent plunged rapidly toward the bottom of the barrel. Very few notable names remain.
Those players either saw their stock plummet last season (hello there, Jiri Hudler), set too high a price on their services (Kris Russel supposedly seeking upward of $6 million annually), are once-great talents on their last legs (Brad Richards) or remain unproven performers (Brandon Pirri).
With most of the teams having already made their investments in the free-agent market, few destinations left for those players on my list. The leverage now shifts toward the general managers. Those remaining free-agent notables will end up accepting much less than they expected to receive when free agency began.
Some of them could even end up competing for jobs on training-camp tryouts in September. For a few, this could spell the end of their NHL careers.
Speaking of free agency, it doesn’t appear any of this summer’s top restricted free agent will be getting an offer sheet.
Granted, it’s still early in the summer. Plenty of time for a desperate general manager seeking an immediate substantial boost to his roster to make a big pitch for another team’s top restricted free agent.
However, it’s been nine years since a restricted free agent was successfully signed away by an offer sheet. That was in 2007, when the Edmonton Oilers inked Anaheim Ducks left wing Dustin Penner, sending then-Ducks GM Brian Burke into a fit of rage with visions of a barn fight with then-Oilers GM Kevin Lowe dancing in his head.
Since then, offer sheets have become rare. The last was in 2013 following the NHL lockout, when the Calgary Flames unsuccessfully attempted to sign away forward Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche.
For those GMs contemplating the offer sheet route, a number of tempting targets are available. The noteworthy include Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov, Calgary Flames center Sean Monahan and Winnipeg Jets blueline Jacob Trouba.
However, it’s unlikely any of them will be get one. One reason is likely most of those players aren’t willing to entertain offers from rival clubs. Another is the unspoken rule among the GMs not to target each other’s RFAs.
With Steven Stamkos re-signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, those Toronto Maple Leafs fans who pined for Stamkos to “come home” are shifting their sights toward another Toronto-area boy.
The target of their new affection is New York Islanders center and captain John Tavares, the pride of Mississauga, Ontario. Tavares isn’t eligible for unrestricted free agency until 2018, but some Leafs fans aren’t wasting time envisioning him in the hometown colours.
This isn’t the first time some denizens of Leafs Nation dreamed of Tavares donning a Leafs jersey. Prior to the 2009 NHL Draft, where he was the first-overall pick, there was unsubstantiated speculation he would spurn whoever selected him and force a trade to the Leafs. Before he re-signed with the Isles in 2011, there was baseless chatter regarding his supposed unhappiness with the Isles and his desire to play in Toronto.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising the “Tavares to Toronto” rumor mill is being dusted off and fired up. The longer he goes past July 1, 2017 without a new deal with the Isles, the louder the musings of his joining the Leafs on July 1, 2018.
For the record, Isles GM Garth Snow recently said he intends to open contract talks with Tavares next summer.
Of the 24 players headed to salary arbitration, I expect all but Colorado’s Tyson Barrie and Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman will avoid that process.
The Avalanche front office reportedly doesn’t consider Barrie a top puck-moving defenseman, despite his combined 102 points in the last two seasons. While Hoffman led the Senators in goals in each of the last two seasons, management seems to have issues with his streaky production.
Perhaps both players will avoid salary arbitration, but given the doubts of their respective managements, I can see them ending up with arbiter-awarded contracts. And if that happens, the countdown begins on their departure via unrestricted free agency when those contracts are expired.
Arbitration is an ego-bruising process for the player, having to sit there and listen to management downplay your accomplishments in the name of getting a cheaper contract. It leaves them feeling unappreciated and rethinking their future.