Stock Watch for the Top Potential Unrestricted NHL Free Agents in 2016

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2015

Stock Watch for the Top Potential Unrestricted NHL Free Agents in 2016

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    As this NHL season progresses, the value of top pending free agents like Los Angeles Kings forwards Anze Kopitar and Milan Lucic (pictured above) continues to intrigue fans. While the 2016 NHL free-agent period begins on July 1, it's worthwhile to revisit the stock value of those players.

    Since our initial evaluation of these players, several have seen their stock value rise or fall. Player performance was a critical factor in this ranking, along with status of contract negotiations.  

    Here's an updated look at the stock value for the top NHL players heading to free agency in 2016. Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.

Honorable Mention

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Jaromir Jagr, Florida Panthers: With 20 points in 26 games, Jagr's on track for 60 points. However, it remains to be seen if the 43-year-old can maintain this production. 

    Frans Nielsen, New York Islanders: The two-way center could reach a respectable 59 points this season. That will certainly boost his free-agent value.

    Jiri Hudler, Calgary Flames: The 31-year-old forward is on pace for 54 points. That's well below last season's career-best 76-point performance. 

    Alex Goligoski, Dallas Stars: While young John Klingberg is dominating headlines, Goligoski is the Stars' best all-around defenseman. He's among their leaders in hits, blocked shots and ice time. 

    Keith Yandle, New York Rangers: Yandle's current production (14 points in 28 games) puts him well below his recent back-to-back 50-plus point levels. He'll have to step up his game to move up on this list.

    Radim Vrbata, Vancouver Canucks: His 15 points were netted in only 11 of his 27 games thus far. Vrbata's well below last season's 31-goal, 63-point effort. 

    Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes: While on pace for 31 wins, Ward's goals-against and save percentage stats are slipping. Those numbers must improve if he hopes to re-sign with the Hurricanes.  

    Kris Russell, Calgary Flames: The 28-year-old Flames defenseman leads the NHL in blocked shots. Russell will attract considerable interest if he hits the free-agent market. 

    Note: Two notable omissions from the previous list are Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis. Abdelkader was re-signed by the Wings, while Hamhuis' performance has noticeably declined this season. 

10. Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Status of contract talks: On Dec. 2, ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun reported Eric Staal's agent and Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis hope to meet in the next few weeks. Staal's current annual salary-cap hit is $8.25 million, though his actual salary for his season is $9.5 million. 

    Current performance: With only 17 points in 28 games, the 31-year-old Staal is on track for a 49-point campaign. That will be his worst production over a full NHL season since his debut in 2003-04. Still, he's among the Hurricanes' leading scorers. Though listed as a center, Staal now primarily skates at left wing on the Hurricanes' first line. 

    Value: In recent years, Staal's performance has steadily declined. He's no longer playing at the level expected of an elite player. If he's unwilling to accept a short-term deal at a significant pay cut, the Hurricanes could move him at the Feb. 29 trade deadline. Some rival general managers could gamble that a change of scenery might bolster Staal's play. 

9. David Backes, St. Louis Blues

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Status of contract talks: No media updates regarding the status of David Backes' contract talks with the St. Louis Blues. The 31-year-old center's current annual salary-cap hit is $4.5 million. 

    Current performance: After 28 games, Backes has seven goals and seven assists for 14 points. That production has him on track for 40 points, his lowest in a full NHL season since 2007-08. Still, he ranks among the Blues' top scorers this season. He's also their leader in hits and faceoff wins

    Value: While Backes is a respected two-way player and leader, his future with the Blues could depend upon the club's performance this season. If they come up short in the playoffs again, management could overhaul the roster core. That might include parting ways with Backes via free agency. So far, there's no speculation suggesting he could be dealt at the Feb. 29 trade deadline. 

8. Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Status of contract talks: On Dec. 2, TSN's Bob McKenzie told NBC Sports right wing Kyle Okposo could prove too costly for the New York Islanders to re-sign. However, unless the Isles fall out of playoff contention, he believes they won't trade Okposo before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. The 27-year-old's annual cap hit is $2.8 million, but he's earning $4.5 million in actual salary this season. 

    Current performance: After 29 games, Okposo has six goals and 16 assists for 22 points. He's on track for a 61-point performance, which would mark the second time he could reach that level. He's currently tops on the Islanders in assists and is among their leaders in points and takeaways. 

    Value: Okposo could seek over $6 million annually on a long-term deal. In the past, that would have assured his departure via free agency. However, with new ownership taking over in July, perhaps that's no longer a certainty. Winger Ryan Strome's struggles this season could also bolster Okposo's value to the Isles. 

7. Mikkel Boedker, Arizona Coyotes

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Status of contract talks: There are currently no updates on contract negotiations between winger Mikkel Boedker and the Arizona Coyotes. Boedker, who turns 26 on Dec. 16, is currently on a one-year deal worth $3.75 million. 

    Current performance: After 28 games, Boedker has nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points. He's on track for a career-high 26 goals and 58 points. He's among the Coyotes' scoring leaders this season. 

    Value: Boedker is a reliable offensive winger for the rebuilding Coyotes. He'll also become a prime target for rival clubs if he hits next summer's free-agent market. Coyotes management could try to keep him as a long-term part of their future. It'll depend on how much they're willing to invest. It could cost $5.5 million annually to keep Boedker in the fold. 

6. Milan Lucic, Los Angeles Kings

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Status of contract talks: So far there's been no update as to Milan Lucic's contract status with the Los Angeles Kings. The 27-year-old left wing is carrying an annual cap hit of $6 million. 

    Current performance: Lucic had a slow start to the season, but his production has improved in recent weeks. After 27 games, Lucic has 10 goals and 18 points. He's on track for 30 goals this season, along with 54 points. He is also the Kings' leader this season in game-winning goals and hits.

    Value: Lucic is enjoying a fine bounce-back performance this season. With his size (6'3", 235 pounds), physical style and scoring touch, he could be the top power forward in this summer's free-agent market. The Kings could find it expensive re-signing Lucic. They freed up cap space by shedding Mike Richards and Slava Voynov, but Anze Kopitar is also due for a big raise. 

5. Andrew Ladd, Winnipeg Jets

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Status of contract talks: On Nov. 26, Tim Campbell of the Winnipeg Free Press reported the Jets had held contract talks with captain Andrew Ladd. However, nothing was believed to be imminent. Ladd, who turns 30 on Dec. 12, is completing a five-year deal worth an annual cap hit of $4.4 million. 

    Current performance: In 28 games, Ladd has eight goals and 10 assists for 18 points. That puts him on pace for a 23-goal, 52-point performance. It would mark the fifth time he reaches 20 goals and 50 points in his career. Ladd's also among the Jets' leaders in points, hits and takeaways. 

    Value: Given his leadership, consistency and championship experience, Ladd will be highly prized by playoff contenders as a free agent. Those attributes also make him invaluable to the Jets. There's a good possibility he could be re-signed before next July, though it could cost them around $6 million per season. 

4. Loui Eriksson, Boston Bruins

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Status of contract talks: No word to date on the status of Loui Eriksson's contract negotiations with the Boston Bruins. The 30-year-old winger's current annual cap hit is $4.25 million. 

    Current performance: After 26 games, Eriksson has 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points. He's on pace for a career-high 75-point performance and is currently one of the Bruins' leading scorers. A solid two-way winger, Eriksson is also among the Bruins' leaders in power-play and shorthanded ice time. 

    Value: Since joining the Bruins two years ago, Eriksson's become a vital part of their core. However, his age, concussion history and potential asking price could make him difficult for the Bruins to re-sign. They could decide to move him before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. On Nov. 28, the Boston Globe's Fluto Shinzawa speculated they could seek a first-round draft pick and a top prospect for Eriksson. 

3. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    Status of contract talks: On Dec. 1, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported his belief defenseman Dustin Byfuglien could stay with the Winnipeg Jets for the right deal. However, Friedman believes it could take a longer-term contract than the Jets are willing to give. Byfuglien is in the final season of a five-year deal worth an annual cap hit of $5.2 million. 

    Current performance: In 28 games, Byfuglien has seven goals and 10 assists for 17 points. That has him on track for 20 goals, 29 assists and 49 points, right around what he's averaged over four of the past five seasons. He tops all Jets defensemen in points and leads his club in hits, takeaways and penalty minutes. 

    Value: At 6'5" and 260 pounds, Byfuglien is an intriguing mix of size, skills and physical play. Rival general managers value those assets and will overlook his age (30) and occasionally undisciplined play. He will be the best defenseman potentially available in next summer's free-agent market and will command top dollar. 

2. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Status of contract talks: On Nov. 25, TSN's Bob McKenzie reported center Anze Kopitar was getting closer to a new contract with the Los Angeles Kings. McKenzie speculated the deal could be for eight years and worth close to $10 million in annual average salary. That will be a significant increase over his current annual cap hit of $6.8 million. 

    Current performance: After a slow start to the season, Kopitar is picking up the offensive pace. With 16 points in 27 games, the 28-year-old center is on pace for 24 goals and 48 points. He's now among the Kings' leading scorers. He remains their best two-way center, leading their forwards in blocked shots, takeaways and faceoff wins. 

    Value: One of the league's best all-around centers, Kopitar will attract considerable interest if he reaches next summer's free-agent market. As the Kings' leading scorer in every season since 2007-08 and a crucial part of their Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014, it's little wonder he could be re-signed to a hefty raise.

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Status of contract talks: To date, there's no word regarding Steven Stamkos' contract negotiations with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Both sides remain tight-lipped with the media. The 25-year-old center's current annual salary-cap hit is $7.5 million. 

    Current performance: In 28 games, Stamkos has 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points. He's on pace for 32 goals and 58 points, his lowest totals over a full NHL campaign since his rookie season in 2009-10. However, he still leads the Lightning in goals and points

    Value: Stamkos' production may be down, but he could pick up the pace over the course of the season. It could also be reflective of his club's overall performance, as their production is well below last season's level. Regardless, Stamkos remains the top player potentially available in next summer's free-agent market. Few clubs will pass on a chance to sign one of the league's top snipers.

    Players stats as of Dec. 9, 2015 via NHL.com. Salary info via General Fanager. 

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