NHL Free Agents 2017: Ranking Top Available Players at Every Position

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistJune 27, 2017

NHL Free Agents 2017: Ranking Top Available Players at Every Position

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    Kevin Shattenkirk is expected to be one of the more highly sought free agents.
    Kevin Shattenkirk is expected to be one of the more highly sought free agents.Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    This year's NHL free-agent class feels more like that garage sale at the end of your typical lonely suburban cul-de-sac. There are some glass vases available, and if you look closely, you might find an Elvis vinyl LP from his rhinestone Vegas years. 

    Even the Canadian TV networks aren't using the word "frenzy" to describe free-agent day anymore. Since the salary cap came in prior to the 2005-06 season, July 1 has become more serene than frenetic.

    The best young players are locked up with long contracts, and with the same budget for every team, top players don't wait to go to the highest bidder much anymore. What's the point, when few franchises have the cap space?

    This year's free-agent class probably is the least buzz-worthy of any since 2006. There are a lot of old, former name-brand guys just trying to get one last deal, or C-level guys whom their former clubs deemed not good enough.

    Still, there are a few potential gems. In the following slideshow, we will break down the best available five players at each position based on their potential to give close to or equal value for the dollars they'll receive.

    On with the countdown.

Left Wing

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    5. Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins

    The longtime linemate of Sidney Crosby faces the most uncertainty of his career since coming over from Anaheim in 2009. More than anything, Kunitz's inclusion here shows what a shallow pool of viable upside options are available. He's 37 and coming off a season that saw him score nine goals in 71 games and just two more in 20 playoff contests.

    Still, Kunitz is beloved by teammates, and his underlying numbers suggest he's still doing something right. So it's not hard to envision a veteran team looking for some quality depth snatching him up.

                  

    4. Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks

    The ice time was largely still there for Marleau last season with the Sharks, but the production continued to slip. His 27-goal campaign was impressive, and the consistency with which he did it was also worth noting. He scored four goals in every month except October (two), where the season didn't start until October 12, and December (eight), when he scored four goals in the third period against the helpless Avalanche.

    As he stares down free agency, it's fair to wonder how much he has left and what kind of production he'll give if he no longer plays 17 minutes a night. Goals are hard to come by, though, and someone will buy into the chance that the 37-year-old can come up with at least one more year of decent production.

                 

    3. Patrick Sharp, Dallas Stars

    Sharp's another old guy who seems at the end of the line. Still, in 2016-17, there were glimpses of the player who scored 55 points the year before. His underlying analytic numbers took their first real dip in a while, but he's still a positive contributor most nights. However, the fact is he's 35 and playing in a young man's league.

    Chicago brought back Brandon Saad to get the old band back together, so why not Sharp, too? It seems like he never wanted to leave Chicago in the first place.

             

    2. Thomas Vanek, Florida Panthers

    That Vanek is second on this list may be a surprise, but you can't argue with his raw production. For all his faults, the Austrian is still coming off a 48-point season that saw him score 17 goals.

    Only two of those goals, however, came with the Florida Panthers, who acquired him leading up to the trade deadline. He excelled in Detroit as a power-play specialist, and whatever team signs him should look at his Red Wing usage and try to emulate that to best replicate the success he had there. He's 33, getting up there, but with some tread left on the tire. 

             

    1. Kris Versteeg, Calgary Flames

    Forced to go the PTO route last year, Versteeg eventually signed in Calgary and promptly put up his best season since 2011-12, when he was a member of the Panthers.

    The left-wing position is so thin that a 31-year-old coming off a 37-point season is the best option. Much like the rest on this list, he may not find a multiyear commitment on the open market. Versteeg's underlying numbers, however, are rock-solid and suggest he's worthy of a commitment as a depth player who can give you about 15 goals and 20 assists.

Center

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    Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images

    5. David Desharnais, Edmonton Oilers

    If you're looking for a guy who can win faceoffs, kill penalties and chip in with the occasional goal, Desharnais is a potential solution. Just don't overpay, expecting a return to the 50-60-point years he put up with Montreal several seasons ago. That window of offensive production is closed.

    Desharnais won 54.3 percent of faceoffs with the Oilers and did a lot of important little things. He seems willing to accept a lower role in the lineup, but he also probably wants a decent-sized paycheck. Teams need to be cautious.

          

    4. Nick Bonino, Pittsburgh Penguins

    This is where the list gets interesting. Bonino is only 29 but is coming off a 37-point season as essentially the third-line center for the Penguins. Wherever he signs should put him in a more prominent role.

    Bonino doesn't have great underlying numbers, so teams will need to be careful not to give him too much responsibility, but he's a talented player who can help boost a top six for what should be a reasonable rate and term.

         

    3. Sam Gagner, Columbus Blue Jackets

    Gagner is an interesting inclusion because he was so sparingly used at even strength last season in Columbus that one has to wonder if his 50-point season is something he can even come close to replicating. He was a significant contributor to the success of the Blue Jackets' power play, racking up 18 points with the man advantage.

    The reality is Gagner has registered seven seasons of at least 40 points and is just 27. He may struggle to reach the level he did last season, but a track record like that suggests he can be a productive force regardless of his role. Whichever team gets him will have to put him in situations in which he excels.

         

    2. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

    This was a tough call because of Thornton's advanced age, as he turns 38 on July 2. Will he be celebrating his birthday in a new uniform, or will he return to the place he has called home for the past 12 seasons?

    He showed he can still produce with another 50-point season despite scoring just seven goals along the way last year. A knee injury forced him to miss most of San Jose's playoff run, but he should be healthy for the start of next season. He's still one of the supreme passers in the league and is just a year removed from an 82-point effort.

    Whoever lands "Jumbo Joe" will hope to extract the last offense from a Hall of Fame career.

        

    1. Martin Hanzal, Minnesota Wild

    Of the free-agent centers, Hanzal is the best blend of production, reliability, skill and age. He's just 30, so he doesn't face the end of the road like Thornton, but he lacks Gagne's track record. He also doesn't have Gagner's significant red flags and is as reliable a pivot as there is in the league.

    That he's the top center on the market says more about the quality of the class than Hanzal. He's a good player, but he tops out as a second line center—maybe third on a deeper team. He's excellent in the faceoff circle, winning 56.4 percent of the 1,360 draws he took last season, and his underlying numbers suggest he's solid across the board.

    This is another player who will be tempting to overpay, but history suggests no team should go overboard.

Right Wing

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    5. Ales Hemsky, Dallas Stars

    There were a lot of questionable choices for this spot: Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Drew Stafford, even Tyler Pitlick. We picked the best balance of age, injury history and effectiveness.

    Hemsky's time in Dallas was overshadowed by the glut of talented players brought in throughout his tenure, and his production suffered from a gradually reduced role. He's only 33, and if fully healthy, he should continue contributing in a depth role.

    He's not the same high-wire act he was earlier in his career, but he's still a wizard with the puck and could provide value in shootouts. 

              

    4. Radim Vrbata, Arizona Coyotes

    Even though he just turned 36, he's produced 20-goal, 50-point campaigns in three of the last four seasons (the three in which he was healthy) for some poor Canucks and Coyotes teams.

    Like most of the older players here, he probably won't see a multiyear contract offer, but he clearly deserves a job somewhere. He has quietly produced 279 goals across 1,015 NHL games and has enjoyed a productive late life in the NHL. Someone will get a lunch-pail goal scorer in Vrbata. 

           

    3. Jaromir Jagr, Florida Panthers

    It's hard to believe a 45-year-old player could be on this list—let alone this high on a list that has some depth to it—but here we are.

    Jagr has been playing so long that his CapFriendly page can't hold all of his career stats. He is coming off a 46-point season, a 20-point drop from his first full year in Florida. So maybe he's starting to hit the wall. Then again, 46 points is pretty good for this league.

    At this point, in a market flooded with players in their mid- and late 30s, why not take a chance on a guy who doesn't mind playing anywhere and is still making it happen?

           

    2. Justin Williams, Washington Capitals

    Of all the older guys included, Williams might be the most worthy of a multiyear contract. He's 35, so it comes with the inherent salary-cap risks of any 35-plus deal, but he scored 100 points across the last two seasons as a big part of a loaded Capitals squad.

    He's known for his clutch playoff performances, and that isn't a gene that ages out of players. A team can drop him into its lineup and get excellent production as well as great underlying stats. He's the kind of addition to a Cup-chasing squad who might be able to push them over the top.

    Well, that didn't happen with the Caps, but it wasn't his fault.

             

    1. Alexander Radulov, Montreal Canadiens

    With Radulov coming off a great return to the NHL with the Canadiens, it's hard to believe the team has yet to re-sign the talented Russian after his 54-point campaign. Radulov turns 31 next week, so fiscal prudence will be necessary, but in this market, he's a relative youngster who can provide electricity to a team's top six.

    He turned out to be more of a playmaker than goal scorer for the Canadiens, but his intense desire to win helped drive the Habs back to the postseason, and he would be a positive addition to any team. There will be a strong temptation to give him a contract a few years too long and that may be where a team separates itself in the upcoming bidding war for one of the top forwards on the market.

Defense

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    5. Brendan Smith, New York Rangers

    Smith's inclusion speaks to class' low quality. He's not prolific offensively and has never carved out a consistent role for the Detroit Red Wings despite his first-round pedigree.  

    He arrived in New York thanks to a midseason trade and immediately slid into the Rangers' blue line. There, he continued to be the solid but unspectacular defenseman he was in Detroit.

    This is as good a time as any for the 28-year-old to hit the open market, as he boasts impressive underlying numbers despite underwhelming traditional counting stats. He should find a comfortable contract waiting for him in a role he can excel in.

            

    4. Cody Franson, Buffalo Sabres

    The big righty hits the market for the second time in his career while hoping it goes a little better than the last time around when he waited until the end of summer to sign a deal with the Buffalo Sabres.

    Injuries prevented him from helping the Sabres out of the league's doldrums, but when he was healthy, there were all the signs of his being a positive contributor. His point production was decent and his underlying statistics showed him to be on the right side of shot suppression far more often than not.

    Franson turns 30 before the start of next season, but he should be a solid piece of whatever blue line he's added to this week.

                  

    3. Michael Del Zotto, Philadelphia Flyers

    He never quite lived up to the hype that accompanied him during his tenure with the New York Rangers. Then Del Zotto bounced around, eventually landing in Philadelphia.

    Once there, "MDZ" repaired his image and regained some of the scoring touch he had when he first broke into the NHL.

    Though his points never hit quite the same level, he became a more disciplined player in his own end. In doing so, he has likely priced himself out of a return to the Flyers, and at just 27, he is set to sign what should be a healthy contract.

                       

    2. Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals

    Alzner is an interesting case as he heads to the open market for the first time in his career. He isn't a point producer and has the reputation of being a tough defenseman, but his shot-suppression numbers are mediocre at best. 

    As the advanced-statistics revolution slowly spreads across front offices, what kind of deal Alzner gets will be telling in how much progress has occurred in the correction of conventional hockey wisdom. He is too frequently on the wrong side of the fancy stats, but coaches, teammates and scouts love what he brings to the rink on a daily basis.

    At just 28 and in an exceptionally weak defensive market, Alzner will get a contract among the more interesting handed out this summer.

              

    1. Kevin Shattenkirk, Washington Capitals

    Shattenkirk produces a mountain of points when he's healthy, and last season's deal that saw him finish the term in Washington was no different, as he scored 14 points in just 19 games for the Capitals. 

    Things tightened up in the playoffs, and Shattenkirk followed suit, scoring just six points in 13 games and struggling in his own end against the relentless Penguins forecheck. That's the conundrum with handing him the kind of money he's expected to command this summer.

    He's a true power-play quarterback and his style should age gracefully, but his play in his own end has never come up to the same level.

    That said, points get you paid, especially from the blue line, so expect Shattenkirk to command a hefty contract.

Goaltender

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    5. Chad Johnson, Calgary Flames

    Johnson has had a well-traveled career after serving in backup roles for Boston, Buffalo, the New York Islanders and Calgary. He has generally done well from a statistical standpoint.

    The Flames wouldn't have made the playoffs without Johnson's steadying presence as Brian Elliott adjusted to his unfamiliar surroundings in the first half of last season. While his numbers were average, he boasts a track record of being a reliable backup who can be a spot starter if something goes awry.

    Already 31 and facing a market with more goaltenders than starting jobs, Johnson is the best of the career backups. With a number of openings around the league, he should have plenty of opportunities to ply his trade—potentially even back in Calgary where he was just traded from in the Mike Smith deal, as he's still well-regarded by the Flames.

           

    4. Jonathan Bernier, Anaheim Ducks

    The shine had faded from the former Kings first-round selection after a disappointing multiyear stint as starter for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he rebounded well with Anaheim last season in a role that saw him play 39 games.

    He posted a .915 save percentage and 2.50 goals-against-average. He added in four appearances for Anaheim in the postseason that did not go quite as well.

    At 28 years old (29 before the start of the season), he's surpassed the stage where teams should talk themselves into the magic of potential; in this market, he'll be sought for his ability to be a strong backup who understands the starter role should injuries take their toll. 

    He could be a good fit in Colorado where there's a need for a backup behind injury-prone starter Semyon Varlamov.

                   

    3. Brian Elliott, Calgary Flames

    Elliott was hoping he wouldn't be part of this market after his draft-day trade from the St. Louis Blues in 2016 landed him in Calgary as the new starting goaltender, a position the Flames have struggled with since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013. 

    Instead, a slow start for the Flames cast doubt on his ability to be the team's No. 1 after Johnson relieved him of his duties for a while. Elliott rebounded, however, and had a strong second half of the season to lead the Calgary charge back into the postseason.

    Once there, however, the wheels fell off for Elliott. The player whose career many felt was bolstered by the protection of strong defense and a defensive-oriented system with the Blues was suddenly exposed to criticism again; he was pulled just minutes into Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks as the Flames went on to a quick elimination from the postseason party.

            

    2. Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers

    Mason picked the wrong season to struggle with the Philadelphia Flyers as he headed into a contract year and was saddled with a quality backup in Michal Neuvirth.

    Three consecutive strong years as a starter for the Flyers were undone by a poor final showing, and it became clear he was no longer the man in Philly. He comes into the market at a difficult time, but his track record and age (29) could dictate that he's a solid second-starter type for a team without a clear-cut No. 1.

             

    1. Ryan Miller, Vancouver Canucks

    He's the oldest of the bunch at 36 (37 on July 17) but is still the most reliable of the group. Despite playing the last three years behind some poor defensive teams in Vancouver, Miller hung tough and continued to produce decent seasons for the Canucks. 

    His status among the NHL's elderly would suggest he's not likely to receive much in length on his next contract, but he would be a fantastic stop-gap option for a team in need or as a mentor for an up-and-comer who will take the reins sooner than later.