Ranking the 10 Best NHL Players Bound for Free Agency in 2015

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistJuly 15, 2014

Ranking the 10 Best NHL Players Bound for Free Agency in 2015

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    When Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane re-signed with Chicago, they did more than help reconfigure the NHL's salary landscape or even establish the Blackhawks as long-term contenders. They delivered a hefty blow to next summer's free-agent market, where they would have been the top two attractions.

    Which players now assume the mantle of being the most attractive free agents on the 2015 market? 

    To answer that question, we've subjectively ranked the top 10 free agents for next summer, keying in not only on what they offer an NHL team and their likely role with a new club, but also on the likelihood of them moving to a new home on July 1. 

10. Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks

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    What he brings: Some will wonder how Antti Niemi beat out Marc-Andre Fleury for the final goaltending spot on this list, but it's pretty simple: He's consistently been the better goalie over the last five seasons. Niemi's 0.926 even-strength save percentage is pretty good and significantly superior to Fleury's 0.919. He's nothing special, but he's an average NHL starter. That has value. 

    Does he go to market? There's a strong chance Niemi is looking for a job next year. The San Jose Sharks are in transition mode following another early playoff exit and No. 1 goalie Niemi may not be in the plans after this season. 

    Possible role: No. 1 goalie. 

9. Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators

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    What he brings: The 27-year-old winger brings one extremely scarce attribute. He can score goals. Despite a somewhat disappointing 2013-14 campaign with Ottawa, he topped the 30-goal mark four times between 2008-12. Of course, his most common linemates in that span were Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, which didn't hurt. 

    Does he go to market? Ottawa is a difficult team to predict, but one thing it has pretty conclusively demonstrated this year is that it isn't interested in spending with the NHL's high-end teams. On the other hand, the Sens did pay a pretty high asset price for Bobby Ryan. As for Ryan's interest, it's hard to say, but he doesn't have a long history in Canada's capital, and the Senators don't have a recent track record of overwhelming success. 

    Possible role: No. 1/2 winger.

8. Marc Staal, New York Rangers

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    What he brings: Marc Staal is a big, smart defender with some puck-moving ability and was half of an excellent defensive pairing with Anton Stralman in New York last season. He has a big reputation, but both his basic offensive numbers and his underlying numbers (2013-14 excepted) tend to lag behind it. 

    Does he go to market? The bigger question is "does he go to Carolina?" With brothers Eric and Jordan Staal playing for the Hurricanes, it's easy to anticipate Marc jumping ship to join them. 

    Possible role: No. 2/3 defenceman. 

7. Christian Ehrhoff, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    What he brings: One of the NHL's most undervalued players, Christian Ehrhoff is much more than just a power-play ace. He's posted consistently strong underlying numbers at even strength for years and years, and he's a guy who gets the puck to the right end of the rink. 

    Does he go to market? It's possible. Ehrhoff signed a one-year bargain contract with Pittsburgh, pretty clearly in the hopes of winning a championship. He might be open to a long-term contract elsewhere next summer, particularly if it's offered by a contender. 

    Possible role: No. 2 defenceman. 

6. Andy Greene, New Jersey Devils

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    What he brings: Another insanely underrated player, Andy Greene was the No. 1 defenceman in New Jersey last season, playing 24 minutes, 34 seconds per game last season and contributing in all situations. He has some legitimate offensive ability, but his true value is as a guy who can advance the puck out of the defensive zone against good opponents. 

    Does he go to market? New Jersey will certainly have incentive to retain Greene, with virtually all of its defencemen hitting free agency next season. The last time around, Greene signed a four-year deal at a $3.0 million cap hit. That worked out pretty well for the Devils. 

    Possible role: No. 1/2 defenceman.

5. Justin Williams, Los Angeles Kings

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    What he brings: The NHL's reigning Conn Smythe winner has a reputation for coming up big when it matters most, but there's more to him than clutch scoring. Justin Williams has long been an advanced stats darling, and his teams are consistently much better with him on the ice almost regardless of who he is playing with, against or what zone he plays in. 

    Does he go to market? The Kings have a lot of long-term contracts at decent money, but they also have the cap space to keep anybody deemed essential (as well as a clear pattern of loyalty to their key guys). Williams fits the bill, and it's hard to imagine why he'd want to end a successful relationship. 

    Possible role: No. 1/2 right wing. 

4. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    What he brings: Pittsburgh's No. 1 defenceman last season, Paul Martin has a nice range of skills and is pretty clearly a legitimate top-pairing option. He defends well, moves the puck well and is one of the few left shots in the NHL who can switch to the right side without missing so much as a beat. 

    Does he go to market? It's an interesting question. Martin's time in Pittsburgh hasn't always been smooth, but he's established now on a very good team that can't really afford to let him leave. It seems likely that he sticks with the Pens.  

    Possible role: No. 1/2 defenceman. 

3. Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    What he brings: It's important to remember that we're still in early days with Ben Bishop; he's 100-odd games into his NHL career and has exactly one season under his belt. But what a season it was. The promise Bishop showed as an AHL starter and an NHL backup was delivered on in 2013-14 as he posted incredible numbers in Tampa (37-14-7, 0.924 save percentage). 

    Does he go to market? It seems doubtful. The Lightning are an up-and-coming team and one that made some big additions over the summer. More than that, Tampa Bay hasn't had a decent starter in seemingly forever, it has no legitimate in-house replacement option and it has cap space next season. 

    Possible role: No. 1 goalie. 

2. David Krejci, Boston Bruins

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    What he brings: David Krejci gets less press than Patrice Bergeron, and in some ways deservedly so, but he's an outstanding centre in his own right, and he consistently gets more even-strength minutes than Bergeron. He's a quality two-way guy and an exceptional playmaker. 

    Does he go to market? Presumably not. The Bruins are still in a situation where they're a contending team and Krejci is a big part of that; one would imagine the two parties find a mutually acceptable number for an extension. 

    Possible role: No. 1/2 centre.

1. Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars

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    What he brings: The 2001 second overall pick is a high-end offensive centre. The 6'3", 220-pound pivot has scored at better than a point-per-game over his career and at 31 is still arguably capable of playing on a top line. Injuries have been a major factor over his career, however, and he might be best suited as an exceptional fit in the second line job he seems tabbed for in Dallas. 

    Does he go to market? It depends. He's only just arrived in Dallas, but the Stars have made big improvements on paper and even brought in Ottawa linemate Ales Hemsky to play with him. There's a pretty good chance this year goes well, and if it does one imagines he'll stay put. 

    Possible role: No. 1/2 centre.

    Statistics courtesy of ExtraSkater.comNHL.com and HockeyAnalysis.com. Salary information courtesy of CapGeek.com.