Early Ranking of the Top Unrestricted NHL Free Agents in 2016

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterJuly 2, 2015

Early Ranking of the Top Unrestricted NHL Free Agents in 2016

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    The 2015 NHL free-agent class is, to put it nicely, underwhelming. There are a handful of players who can make an impact, sure, but there's almost zero star power on the market. After Wednesday, there's almost no one of major value remaining.

    We are 12 months from next year's free-agent period, and as of now, that crop looks a lot better. Of course, the following year's pending unrestricted free agents always look great and then many of them get signed to long-term extensions before or during the season.

    It doesn't mean they aren't fun to scour presently.

    Not all of these players will make it to July 1, 2016, but it doesn't mean we can't imagine, so here are the best pending UFAs for next summer and some specially created odds that they get to market.

    All numbers via NHL.com or Spotrac.com.

10. Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Brent Seabrook has three Stanley Cups, and his contract will expire after next season. He will be 31 years old, a top-pairing defenseman with at least four good years remaining at that point.

    Seabrook has 318 points in 763 career games and has been good for about 30-40 points per season since 2011-12. In the playoffs, he averages about a point every other game, a sign he's usually at his best when the games mean the most. When the Blackhawks were leaning on four defensemen over the final two rounds this year, Seabrook was great.

    The Blackhawks have $58 million committed to the salary cap next season without any free agents awaiting big contracts (besides Seabrook). But with general manager Stan Bowman's offseason just beginning, it's tough to forecast how the team will look in three months, never mind 12 months.

    Chances he reaches free agency: This is like going to see a murder mystery movie and trying to guess the killer during the opening credits. Just about anything is possible as of now, so please stop shouting your guesses to the crowded theater.

9. David Backes, St. Louis Blues

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    The St. Louis Blues have flamed out of three straight postseasons, and David Backes has been one of the main culprits. He has two goals and six points in his past 16 playoff games, and it's not impossible that he could be traded this offseason.

    Now that you're entirely sold on the 31-year-old Backes...

    Despite the playoff problems, Backes has 53 goals over his past two seasons and at 6'3", 221 pounds, he's one of those rare centers who can produce offense and provide size down the middle. That's why it's unlikely he is traded this summer.

    But if the Blues get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs again next season, Backes might not be asked back if he's again part of the problem.

    Chances he reaches free agency: It's like seeing the bathroom for the first time of someone you've only been dating a week. You're not going to make any long-term decisions about the relationship until you get a sense of the last time the shower, sink and toilet were cleaned. The Blues probably won't make any decisions until they see Backes' shower, sink and toilet, but all three should be immaculate.

8. Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks

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    Ryan Kesler was as advertised in his first season with the Ducks after he was acquired in a trade from the Canucks. He had 20 goals and 47 points in 81 regular-season games, then delivered seven goals and 13 points in 16 postseason games.

    Kesler turns 31 years old in August, and the Ducks don't have any better options behind Ryan Getzlaf. The Ducks also acquired Kevin Bieksa, a long-time teammate and friend of Kesler, in another trade with the Canucks on Wednesday. 

    The Ducks have the money to pay Kesler, and as long as he's happy there, something should get done.

    Chances he reaches free agency: Try to imagine a movie that features CGI dinosaurs at an amusement park. It's just two hours of dinosaurs chasing people around. Dinosaurs fight each other. too. The plot doesn't even matter. There's a better chance of that movie being a box-office bomb than Kesler getting to the open market.

7. Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Eric Staal is the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes and has been a member of the team since he made his debut in 2003-04 after he was taken with the second pick in the 2003 draft. He won a Stanley Cup in 2006 and is the face of the struggling franchise.

    Staal will be 31 years old next season and is probably wondering where the team, which has missed the playoffs in six straight seasons, is headed. Will the Hurricanes rebuild? Will they be competitive? The Hurricanes did well in free agency and finished strong last season, so maybe Staal wants to stay long term.

    "I’ve had a general and open and honest conversation with Eric’s agent on things," Hurricanes GM Ron Francis said to ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun on Saturday. "We’ll continue to have those as we move into the summer. Eric has indicated he wants to be part of the Hurricanes moving forward, and we’ll see if we can get that worked out."

    Chances he reaches free agency: This is like figuring out if Jon Snow is still alive on next season's Game of Thrones. Everyone has theories, but no one knows for sure because the show has caught up to the books. That's the case with Staal—there's evidence to support both options, although the principles probably know if he will be part of the Hurricanes' show next season.

6. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames

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    Mark Giordano was on his way to a Norris Trophy before a shoulder injury cost him the final 21 games of the season. He still had 11 goals and 48 points in 61 games and has emerged as a dominant possession defenseman over the past few years.

    And now he wants to get paid like an elite defenseman, which could present some issues for the Flames. 

    According to TSN's Frank Seravalli, Giordano is looking for $9 million per season on his next contract. Whether that's a starting point in negotiations or a true asking price, it's not far off from what he'd get on the open market. The problem is he will be 32 years old next season, so if Giordano wants six or seven years, those last two or three years will be problematic.

    Throw in the fact the Flames have Dougie Hamilton (22) and T.J. Brodie (25) signed through 2020 for $10.4 million, and Giordano may be considered expendable if he wants too much money.

    Chances he reaches free agency: You are on a diet. You are sitting on the couch at your friend's apartment. There's a dish of peanut M&Ms on the coffee table, staring at you, beckoning you to come closer. You know you shouldn't, but you eat the entire bowl because peanut M&Ms are the best. Giordano is the M&Ms in the Flames' lives right now. Neither can be resisted.

5. Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Flyers have yet to begin talks on a new contract with Jakub Voracek, according to Tim Panaccio of CSN Philadelphia, but GM Ron Hextall should get on that right away.

    Voracek has proved himself to be an elite scorer since the 2013 lockout season; he has 67 goals and 122 assists in his past 212 games and hasn't missed a game over that time. He had 81 points last season, six fewer than Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars.

    Hextall has been working to get the Flyers out of cap purgatory and has the room to sign the 25-year-old Voracek long term. It's just a matter of both sides agreeing on terms.

    Chances he reaches free agency: You know your buddy who @s every female celebrity on Twitter? You know, he calls her "bae" and tells her she's stuck-up because she's not replying to his tweets about his Madden stats? There's a better chance of them getting married and raising two kids than there is of Voracek reaching free agency.

4. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

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    Dustin Byfuglien is a dominant defenseman who's also capable of playing forward. The 30-year-old had 20 goals playing both positions two seasons ago and 18 goals and 45 points in 69 games playing almost exclusively defense last season.

    The Jets became a playoff team last season, and while Byfuglien was a big part of it, he also wasn't. He missed almost all of March with an injury, and the NHL suspended him for four games in early April, yet the Jets still found a way to make a push into the postseason.

    The issue for Byfuglien is the Jets already have Tyler Myers under contract for three more years at $5.5 million per season and Jacob Trouba looks like a potential No. 1 defenseman and will also need a new contract next season.

    Chances he reaches free agency: The odds of Byfuglien signing with a new team for 2015-16 are on par with the odds of you visiting Times Square and immediately regretting it when you can't walk 50 feet in less than an hour. Very good.

3. Ilya Kovalchuk, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)

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    Remember this guy? Ilya Kovalchuk "retired" from the NHL to play in the KHL for a whole bunch of tax-free money. Everyone got mad at him, but you know you'd move to your home country for a tax-free fortune if you could.

    But the KHL may be crumbling, or at least, it's showing signs of cracking. Yahoo Sports' Greg Wyshynski
    wrote an article in March (h/t CBS Sports) claiming that a source told Finnish newspaper Iltalehti that Kovalchuk is rumored to be eyeing a return to the NHL after abandoning the Devils before the 2013-14 season.

    But there are all kinds of complications to getting back to the NHL. There are rules that say Kovalchuk would have to sit out a full year, and his return would need to be improved by all 30 teams. 

    But this is the NHL, where rules mainly exist to be ignored or changed whenever the league feels like it.

    Kovalchuk will be 34 years old next summer, but he'd have no trouble landing an NHL contract if he can be reinstated.

    Chances he reaches free agency: You fall asleep next to someone special. You want to roll over but your arm is stuck under the other person, who is in a deep slumber. You try to free your arm but you can't. Will you get your arm back? Will they roll over before your arm goes numb? You don't know for sure, which is about the best way to analyze the unknown Kovalchuk situation.

2. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

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    Anze Kopitar may be the NHL's best two-way forward, even if he loses the Selke Trophy every year to either Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews.

    Not only is Kopitar a possession machine, but he has 610 points in 683 games in his career. He averaged a point per game (46 in 46) in each of the Kings' two Cup runs and probably could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2014 if not for voters falling in love with the idea that Justin Williams had magic clutch blood or whatever.

    Kopitar will be 28 years old in August but should get an eight-year deal from the Kings at some point. The team has $54 million committed to the cap for 2016-17, so there's plenty of room to lock him up.

    Chances he reaches free agency: Imagine getting to an airport at 7 a.m. You haven't eaten in like 18 hours. Your stomach is making weird noises as you stand in line at security. There's a better chance of you not getting a sugar-coated soft pretzel and dipping it in frosting than there is of Kopitar not re-signing with the Kings.

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Steven Stamkos. You may have heard of him. He is better than a point-per-game player in his career (498 in 492) and has 97 goals in his past 167 games. If you want a puck placed in the other team's net, Stamkos is your guy.

    At 25 years old, Stamkos would be the type of UFA who would receive a seven-year deal from another team in 2016 and still have time for another seven-year deal when that one expires. If Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are worth $10.5 million per season, Stamkos isn't far away from that number.

    Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said signing Stamkos is his "No. 1 priority," according to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times.

    Chances he reaches free agency: Imagine you are skydiving. You jump out of the plane. You pull the cord. Nothing. You pull the emergency cord. Nothing. There's a better chance of you not screaming all the way to your death than there is of Stamkos not re-signing with the Lightning.