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The One 2014 Free Agent Every NHL Team Must Keep

Lyle RichardsonFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2013

The One 2014 Free Agent Every NHL Team Must Keep

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    The start of the NHL's free-agent period is still months away (July 1), but general managers are already identifying the key free agents to re-sign. For every team, there's always one player it must retain. Some are superstars, but others include invaluable role players or promising youngsters with star potential.

    A number of factors will affect their contract negotiations. There are players eligible for unrestricted free agency. Some are restricted free agents who could use their arbitration rights as leverage for lucrative contracts. Age, skill level and salary cap space are also taken into account.

    Here's a list of the one free agent every NHL team must re-sign, their free-agent status and what it could take to sign them.

Jakob Silfverberg, LW, Anaheim Ducks

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    Debora Robinson/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Silfverberg had four goals and seven points in only 11 games this season until sidelined on October 25 with a broken right hand.  The 23-year-old sophomore winger is a promising scorer, possessing a strong wrist shot and good offensive instincts.

    What It Will Cost: Silfverberg's earning $900,000 this season, has only one NHL season under his belt and is coming off an entry-level contract. He can expect to receive a two-year bridge contract for around $1.5 million per season.

     

Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins

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    Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: With 15 points in 25 games, Krug not only ranks among this season's rookie scoring leaders but is also among the Bruins' leading scorers. Though small (5'9", 181 lbs) for an NHL defenseman, the 22-year-old's offensive skills provides the Bruins an extra measure of scoring punch from their blue line.

    What It Will Cost: Krug's in the final year of his entry-level deal at a salary cap hit of just over $916,000 (excluding performance bonuses). He can expect a two-year bridge deal likely worth between $1.5-$2 million per season.

     

Tyler Ennis, W, Buffalo Sabres

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    Graig Abel/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, with arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Despite his lack of size (5'9", 169 lbs), Ennis is a speedy playmaker who doesn't shy away from physical play. Though the 24-year-old's numbers are down this season (nine points in 26 games), he's been among the Sabres' reliable scorers through most of his career.

    What It Will Cost: Averaging $2.812 million on his current deal, Ennis could use the threat of arbitration to seek a long-term deal worth over $4 million per season. His reduced production this season, however, could result in a lesser offer (around $3.3 million) on a shorter term.

Reto Berra, G, Calgary Flames

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Though he's played only 10 NHL games so far this season, Berra's shown considerable promise with the rebuilding Flames, earning the trust of head coach Bob Hartley. His 6'4" frame covers the net well and he's quite agile for his size. Given the Flames lack of goaltending depth, Berra could have a future as their starter.

    What It Will Cost: He's earning $850,000 (excluding bonuses) this season. If he plays well throughout the rest of the season, he should get a two-year deal with a raise around $1.5 million per season.

Anton Khudobin, G, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Khudobin is a proven NHL backup, with a career goals-against average of 2.03 and .932 save percentage. Injuries have limited the 27-year-old to only two games this season. The Hurricanes need a reliable goalie to lighten starter Cam Ward's heavy workload. They're hoping Khudobin can fill that role upon his return from injury.

    What It Will Cost: Khudobin's only earning $800,000 this season. Should he play well over the remainder of the season, it could take a two-year, $3 million deal to prevent him from testing the free-agent market.

Brandon Pirri, C, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: In his first full NHL season, Pirri has played his way onto the Blackhawks' second-line center role. The Chicago Sun-Times praised the 22-year-old for his improved play in all facets of the game. His 11 points in 20 games puts him among this season's leading NHL rookie scorers. He has the tools to become a reliable top-six forward.

    What It Will Cost: Coming off an entry-level deal and with only one full NHL season on his resume, Pirri should expect a two-year bridge deal worth around $1.8 million per season.

     

Semyon Varlamov, G, Colorado Avalanche

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, with arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Varlamov has finally come into his own as a starting goalie, ranking among the league leaders this season in wins (12), goals-against average (2.14) and save percentage (.932). He's also facing trial on a domestic dispute charge, which sports legal analyst Eric Macramalla of CBS Sports reports could result in jail or deportation. If the 25-year-old avoids those consequences and continues his strong play, he'll be in line for a lucrative new contract.

    What It Will Cost: The Avalanche will try to avoid going to arbitration with Varlamov. Given his current performance, a five-year deal worth $5 million per season could do the trick.

Ryan Johansen, C, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: In his third NHL season, Johansen is blossoming into an effective scoring center. With 16 points in 25 games, the 21-year-old is among the Blue Jackets' leading scorers as well as their leader in faceoff wins. On pace for a 54-point season, Johansen is among the few positives in an otherwise disappointing season so far for the Jackets.

    What It Will Cost: As with most young players coming off an entry-level contract, Johansen should get a two-year bridge deal. If he maintain his current offensive production, he could get a raise around $2.5 million per season.

Cody Eakin, C, Dallas Stars

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    Ben Nelms/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Since being acquired in June 2012 from the Washington Capitals, Eakin has turned into a steal for the Stars. His 14 points in 23 games is among the team's leading scorers, putting him on pace for a 50-point season. The 22-year-old sophomore center can play any forward position and possesses sound two-way skills. 

    What It Will Cost: Eakin is coming off an entry-level deal earning a base salary of $550,000, so he'll likely get a two-year contract worth between $1.5-$2 million per season.

Danny DeKeyser, D, Detroit Red Wings

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Though he's played in only 33 NHL regular-season games, the 6'3" DeKeyser has considerable promise as a puck-moving defenseman. The 23-year-old rookie had nine points in 22 games before a separated left shoulder sidelined him four to six weeks. He's projected to become an effective top-two blueliner.

    What It Will Cost: As with most players coming off an entry-level deal, DeKeyser should receive a two-year bridge deal. His base salary this season is $925,000, so he should see a raise between $1.25-$1.75 million per season.

Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton Oilers

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Only 23, Schultz is the Oilers' top mobile defenseman. With 10 points in 17 games, he's on pace for 40 points this season. His speed and offensive skills enable him to jump up quickly into the play, providing a boost to his club's scoring punch. Schultz is considered a key part of the Oilers' future.

    What It Will Cost: Schultz is coming off an entry-level contract, but the Oilers have shown a willingness to lock up their best young players to lucrative long-term contracts. A seven- or eight-year deal worth between $5-$6 million per season isn't out of the question.

Erik Gudbranson, D, Florida Panthers

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    Michael Martin/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Only 21, Gudbranson is in his third NHL season and part of the Panthers' core of promising youngsters. The 6'5", 210 lb blueliner possesses solid all-around potential and thrives on playing a physical shutdown role. He has the potential to become the future anchor of the Panthers defense corps.

    What It Will Cost: Gudbranson is in the final season of his entry-level contract earning a $900,000 base salary. Given the club's new ownership, it remains to be seen if they'll try to ink him to an affordable short-term bridge deal or a lucrative long-term contract. 

Ben Scrivens, G, Los Angeles Kings

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    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Scrivens won't supplant Jonathan Quick as the Kings' starting goalie, but he's been invaluable as a backup this season. With Quick currently sidelined by a groin injury until mid-December, Scrivens has done a tremendous job in relief, going 6-1-4 with a 1.48 goals-against average, .947 save percentage and three shutouts.

    What It Will Cost: If Scrivens is content to remain a backup on a Stanley Cup contender like the Kings, a two- or three-year deal at $1.8 million per season could do it.

Nino Niederreiter, RW, Minnesota Wild

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Since being acquired in the offseason from the New York Islanders, Niederreiter seems reborn in Minnesota. His 13 points in 26 games ranks among the Wild's leading scorers, putting him on pace for 42 points this season. As the 21-year-old winger gains confidence, he could turn into an effective power forward for the Wild.

    What It Will Cost: Though the Wild have shown a willingness to invest big money in established stars, they'll likely play it cautious with players coming off entry-level contracts. Niederreiter should get a two-year deal around $1.8 million per season.

P.K. Subban, D, Montreal Canadiens

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    Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted with arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Subban's the 2013 Norris Trophy winner, becoming the first Canadiens defenseman to win that honor in 23 years. With 21 points in 25 games, he's also their leading scorer this season. A true superstar at only 24, his best seasons as an elite player remain ahead of him. Subban should anchor Montreal's defense corps for years.

    What It Will Cost: The Canadiens played hardball last time around, inking Subban to a two-year, $5.75 million deal. He's the one in control now, and it'll cost them between $7.5-$8 million per season on an eight-year deal to keep him. It would also be wise to re-sign him before July, lest a rival club pitch him an expensive offer sheet.

David Legwand, C, Nashville Predators

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    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: The Predators' original first-round pick remains among their most reliable forwards. With 20 points in 25 games, the 33-year-old Legwand is their leading scorer and is on pace for a career-best 65 points.  

    What It Will Cost: Given his age, the Predators could offer up a two-year deal at his current salary of $4.5 million per season. Given his longtime ties to the team, it's an offer he might find hard to refuse.

Adam Larsson, D, New Jersey Devils

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Though Larsson is struggling to adjust to the NHL game, the 21-year-old still has considerable potential as a puck-moving defenseman. At 6'3" and 205 lbs, Larsson has good size and all-around ability. The Devils will remain patient and not rush his development, hoping he'll blossom into a reliable top-four blueliner.

    What It Will Cost: Larsson's completing his entry-level deal, and his struggles won't give him negotiating leverage. He'll get a two-year bridge contract at a modest raise around $1.25 million per season.

Andrew MacDonald, D, New York Islanders

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    Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: MacDonald is the Islanders' lowest-paid defenseman ($550,000), but over the past two seasons he's become their most reliable. The 27-year-old is a mobile blueliner who's regularly among the Islanders' leaders in ice time and hits. His style also makes him susceptible to injury, but he remains a key part of their defense.

    What It Will Cost: It'll take a long-term deal worth $4 million per season. If the Islanders won't pay it, another team will via free agency. Given the difficulty the Islanders face in attracting free-agent talent, it would be wise to keep MacDonald in the fold.

Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York Rangers

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    Scott Levy/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: He's struggled at times this season, but Lundqvist remains the Rangers' foundation. Winner of the Vezina Trophy in 2012 and with 30 or more wins in each of his first seven NHL seasons, the Rangers can't afford to lose him to free agency. Though rookie backup Cam Talbot shows promise, he has a long way to go before he can be favorably compared to "King Henrik."

    What It Will Cost: The New York Post reported Lundqvist seeks an eight-year deal worth $8.5 million per season. Because of his age (32), the Rangers could be leery of investing in him for too long. Given Lundqvist's love of New York and his value to the franchise, a six-year, $7.5 million per season compromise could be reached. 

Robin Lehner, G, Ottawa Senators

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    Len Redkoles/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Lehner's a big goalie (6'4", 223 lbs) with great ability who remains calm under pressure. Craig Anderson may be the Senators' starter, but the 22-year-old Lehner is their future between the pipes. He's outplayed Anderson this season, with a 4-4-2 record through 11 games, 2.40 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. 

    What It Will Cost: As Lehner's completing an entry-level contract, the cost-conscious Senators could ink him to a two-year, $5 million bridge deal, paving the way for his eventual replacement of Anderson. 

Steve Mason, G, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, with arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Since he was acquired last season from Columbus, Mason's been stellar between the pipes for the Flyers. The 25-year-old currently ranks among the NHL's top goaltenders in goals-against average (2.17) and save percentage (.931). As the Flyers struggle to get back into playoff contention, Mason gives them a chance to win every night. He could be that big-game goalie they've sought for years.

    What It Will Cost: If Mason remains among the league's elite goalies this season, it'll cost the Flyers much more than the one-year, $1.5 million deal he inked with them last summer. Expect something between five to eight years at $5 million per season.

Radim Vrbata, RW, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Vrbata has consistently ranked among the Coyotes' best scorers, including a 35-goal, 62-point performance in 2011-12. His speed and offensive skills makes him invaluable to the Coyotes' attack. The 32-year-old winger is showing no signs of slowing down this season, on pace for a career-high 69 points. 

    What It Will Cost: Vrbata's last two deals were three-year, $9 million contracts. If Coyotes management intends to re-sign him for another three years, a salary bump of $4.5 million per season could be necessary to keep him off the open market.

Brooks Orpik, D, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Orpik is the Penguins' best shutdown defenseman, regularly among the team leaders in hits and blocked shots. Though the 33-year-old's physical style regularly leads to injuries, the Penguins would be hard-pressed to replace his blue-line experience and leadership.

    What It Will Cost: Orpik's in the final season of a six-year, $22.5 million deal. In September the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported he didn't want to talk about his contract status. So far, there's been no updates.  Orpik could test his luck on the open market, but a four-year deal at $4.5 million per season could keep him in Pittsburgh.

Joe Thornton, C, San Jose Sharks

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    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: The 34-year-old Thornton is currently the Sharks' leading scorer, averaging a point-per-game. Having led the Sharks in scoring in six of the last eight seasons, he remains the most important part of their offensive attack. They cannot afford to lose his leadership and playmaking skills.

    What It Will Cost: He's finishing a three-year deal worth $7 million per season, lives in the San Jose area year-round and could accept a little less for another three-year deal.

Alexander Steen, LW, St. Louis Blues

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    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Despite a long injury history, Steen's been an effective two-way winger for the Blues. The 29-year-old is having a career performance this season, on track for over 60 goals and 100 points. It remains to be seen if he can maintain that torrid scoring pace, but it appears the Blues have a late-blooming star on their hands. 

    What It Will Cost: Steen's coming off a four-year deal worth an annual cap hit of $3.362 million. CBC's Elliotte Friedman reported the Blues attempted to open contract talks last summer, but he opted to wait until the end of this season. A wise move, as his current scoring pace could net him around $7 million per season on the open market. It could cost the Blues over $6 million per season on a long-term deal to keep him in St. Louis.

Alex Killorn, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Free-Agent Status: Restricted, no arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Killorn's made significant improvement in his sophomore season. With 16 points in 25 games, he's not only poised to top last season's 19-point effort but is also among the Lightning's leading scorers. The 24-year-old has the potential to become a good two-way winger.

    What It Will Cost: Killorn's in the final season of his entry-level deal at a cap hit of $875,000. Management will want more time to evaluate his performance, so it'll probably sign him to an affordable two-year, $3 million bridge deal.

Dion Phaneuf, D, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Put simply, Phaneuf is the Leafs' best defenseman. He leads the club in ice time (24.07 minutes per game) and plus-minus (plus-13), is second in hits and blocked shots, and since 2005-06 ranks among the NHL's leaders for defensemen in goals, points and ice time. No other Leafs blueliner can fill his skates.

    What It Will Cost: Phaneuf's coming off a six-year, $39 million contract. Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos believes it could cost the Leafs $50 million over seven years to re-sign their 28-year-old captain. Given there's no affordable replacement options via the trade market or free agency next summer, the Leafs could have little choice but to pay up.

Chris Tanev, D, Vancouver Canucks

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    Free-Agent Status: Restricted with arbitration rights.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Tanev is a good puck-moving defenseman who rarely makes mistakes in his own zone. At 23, he's yet to reach his playing prime and could become a reliable top-four blueliner for the Canucks. He's on pace for a 25-point season, which would be his best to date.

    What It Will Cost: Following lengthy contract talks in the offseason, Tanev agreed to a a one-year, $1.5 million deal. He could use his arbitration rights this summer as leverage for a more lucrative deal. The Canucks could avoid this with a three-year deal at $2.5 million per season.

Mikhail Grabovski, C, Washington Capitals

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    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Since joining the Capitals last summer as a free agent, Grabovski's been a good fit centering their second line. With 19 points in 25 games, the 29-year-old is on track for a career-best 65-points, which could entice the Capitals to offer him a contract extension.

    What It Will Cost: Having signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Capitals after being bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Grabovski will undoubtedly seek a long-term deal. He was making $5.5 million per season with the Leafs and could seek similar dollars over four or five years.

Olli Jokinen, C, Winnipeg Jets

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Free-Agent Status: Unrestricted.

    Why He Must Be Re-signed: Jokinen turns 35 in December and his best seasons are behind him, but his leadership and versatility still make him a key forward for the Jets. He's already matched last season's subpar 14-point effort and is on pace for a 45-point performance. The Winnipeg Free Press reported he's done well of late in a checking role.

    What It Will Cost: His big money days are over. Currently earning $4.5 million per season, the Jets might be able to re-sign him to a one-year deal for half that amount. 

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