NHL Free Agents 2016: Top Players on Market Following Stanley Cup Final

Brian Marron@@brianmarron398Featured ColumnistJune 17, 2016

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos scores past Winnipeg Jets' Ondrej Pavelec, of the Czech Republic, during the shootout of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. The Lightning won 6-5. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Mike Carlson/Associated Press

Now that the 2016 NHL season is complete, every club around the league will look to build its roster up through the draft and free agency in an attempt to reach hockey's pinnacle next year.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will not lose any key free agents, but the 2016 NHL free-agency period could see several teams' top players go elsewhere.

Here is a look at a few of the best unrestricted free agents in the league heading into this summer's signing period, which begins on July 1.

Andrew Ladd

Andrew Ladd spent nearly six seasons captaining the Winnipeg Jets before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks at last season's deadline. The Blackhawks were knocked out of the playoffs by the St. Louis Blues in the first round, but with the team's tight cap situation, it appears Ladd is set to hit free agency in two weeks.

At 30 years old, Ladd is a gritty, two-way winger who can play anywhere in a team's top six. He has averaged roughly 53 points per season since 2010 while also providing strong checking against opponents' top lines and contributing on the penalty kill.

Ladd told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun this week that joining a contender will be his biggest priority this summer:

"First and foremost I want to play for a team that has a chance to win,” said Ladd. "I’ve kind of done the rebuild thing a little bit there in Winnipeg. At this point in my career I want a chance to win another Stanley Cup."

He added that returning to Chicago is not likely, but he knew that when he was dealt to the franchise.

This was before Chicago traded Bryan Bickell and Teuvo Teravainen to the Carolina Hurricanes Wednesday, freeing the team of Bickell's $4 million cap hit. The Blackhawks now have $12.6 million in space.

There is a chance Ladd could return, but it would need to be at a discount. Ladd was seeking over $6 million a year in Winnipeg, per the Winnipeg Free Press' Tim Campbell. If that figure is the same, Chicago could not re-sign Ladd with restricted free agents Dennis Rasmussen and Andrew Shaw needing new contracts.

The Florida Panthers would be a tremendous fit for Ladd, as they could use a veteran presence who can score and physically complement their young forward group.

Kyle Okposo

After Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, Kyle Okposo is the best offensive player in this year's free-agent crop.

Okposo, 28, was second on the New York Islanders in scoring last season, and he has at least 50 points in each of the last three years. He is a power forward with a wicked shot, which would benefit a lot of teams in need of power-play production.

Despite his role as the Islanders' second-best forward, Okposo and the team have not had any significant contract talks, and the forward is set to hit free agency, per LeBrun.

Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal sees the Oilers as a possibility:

Okposo would fit well the bevy of young forwards Edmonton has, but the team would be wise to spend its money on a defense that allowed the fourth-most goals in hockey last season.

Teams like the Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche are better built to win soon, which would be more attractive to Okposo. He would be quite an asset for the Predators, who still lack some punch offensively.

Steven Stamkos

As a 26-year-old franchise center with four 40-goal seasons under his belt, Steven Stamkos is the crown jewel of this class.

He is arguably the best pure goal scorer in the NHL, and he will alter the fortune of whichever team he signs with in July. 

Stamkos stated he wants to return to Tampa Bay after its season-ending loss to the Penguins in May, per the team's Twitter account:

Tampa Bay Lightning @TBLightning

Stamkos: "We have unfinished business here. This group has been unbelievable. This city has been unbelievable." https://t.co/2cKyuxZq2b

Tampa Bay has appeared in back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals in the past two seasons, and the team is loaded with young talent like Jonathan Drouin, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, so there is plenty of reason Stamkos would want to continue his career with the Lightning.

However, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Stamkos' hometown team, loom large. The Philadelphia Flyers are also a possibility, per TSN's Darren Dreger:

Darren Oregor @DarrenOregor

With the cap relief of Umbergers buyout. Philly is now a front runner for Stamkos

The Maple Leafs will be good in a few years with the likely addition of Auston Matthews in the draft, but Stamkos' best option is to stay in Tampa Bay. 

The team is already built to be a contender for the next decade, and Stamkos would be under less pressure to produce with the players the Lightning have around him. If Stamkos wants to win a Stanley Cup in the near future, staying with the team that picked him No. 1 overall in the 2008 NHL draft is his best bet.

Contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.

Statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com.


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