NHL Free Agents 2016: Ranking the Top 20 Players Available

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistJune 28, 2016

NHL Free Agents 2016: Ranking the Top 20 Players Available

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    For a good while, the prevailing sentiment regarding Steven Stamkos was that he would re-sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Why not stay with a team that's been to the Eastern Conference Final the last two years? Why not stay with the team that's been his home since entering the NHL? Why not still play in a state with no state income tax

    But as of Tuesday, Stamkos remained without a new contract with the Lightning. If he really wanted to go back to Tampa, wouldn't he have signed a deal by now? 

    Exactly.

    Assuming Stamkos is available still by Friday's official opening of the market, he instantly makes this the most exciting free-agent period in several years. A 26-year-old, No. 1 center, arguably still the best pure shooter in the league, available to the highest bidder? This just isn't supposed to happen in the NHL anymore. All the best young players stay locked up into their late 20s or early 30s and beyond in the salary-cap era. 

    Anyway, Stamkos will hog most of the media coverage if he's still available by Friday, but there are some other solid players who will be looking for new deals. The following slideshow represents our top-20 list, with reasons why, what they're worth and where they might end up. 

    No, there shouldn't be any surprise at who is No. 1.

    One note before the countdown: I've left off this list a couple of guys who could become free agents Friday, and a couple of high-profile ones. For instance, I didn't list David Backes of the Blues, even though he's still unsigned. I didn't list Shane Doan, either, or Matt Cullen. 

    Why? Because they've all stated they want to return to their teams, and the teams have also said they want to keep them. Of the three, Backes seems the most unsure of returning to his team, but usually when two parties want to work something out, it happens. We'll see.

    ****UPDATE

    Well, I jinxed myself good on this one. Stamkos re-signed with the Lightning on Wednesday. This slideshow went to air on Tuesday. So, scratch this biggest name of all from this list.

20. Jiri Hudler

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    By the numbers: 32 years old, 16 goals and 46 points in 72 games for Calgary and Florida last season.

    Why he's an asset: Jiri Hudler had a bit of an off year, never quite giving the Panthers the turbo boost they expected after acquiring him near the deadline. But he's a talented player who scored 31 goals two years ago. 

    Yeah, he's starting to get up there a bit in age, but he's probably got at least two more productive years in him. A team shouldn't go crazy with some five-year offer, but three years sounds about right.

    What he's worth: He made $4 million last season, and he probably will get that much or maybe a little more.

    Likeliest landing spots: Pittsburgh, NY Rangers, Detroit, NY Islanders.

19. Justin Schultz

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    By the numbers: 25 years old, four goals and 18 points in 63 games for Edmonton and Pittsburgh.

    Why he's an asset: OK, yes: Justin Schultz comes with a WARNING label. After a big buildup coming out of the University of Wisconsin and signing a big contract, Schultz has been a minus-71 in 266 career games and was practically booed out of Edmonton.

    But he played pretty well at times for Pittsburgh in its Cup run, and he's still only 25. Defensemen just take longer to develop sometimes, and he's shown he can put up at least 30 points in a season. His stock has definitely fallen, but he might be a good fit on a team that just needs him for some offense. 

    What he's worth: After making $3.9 million, he's likely to take a pay cut. A three-year, $7 million deal sounds about right.

    Likeliest landing spots: Carolina, New Jersey, Colorado.

18. Lee Stempniak

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    By the numbers: 33 years old, 19 goals and 51 points in 82 games for New Jersey and Boston.

    Why he's an asset: Lee Stempniak has played for nine teams in his career, including six in the last three seasons. Can Stemper finally find a home on a longer-term deal, instead of being trade bait? We'll see, but teams could do a lot worse than the former Dartmouth college player. 

    He put up 51 points last season—the second-highest mark of his career. 

    What he's worth: After making journeyman wages last season ($850,000), Stempniak is worthy of a raise. A two-year, $4 million deal sounds right.

    Likeliest landing spots: Arizona, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, NY Islanders.

17. Darren Helm

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    By the numbers: 29 years old, 13 goals and 26 points in 77 games for Detroit.

    Why he's an asset: Darren Helm has great speed, and while his hands have never quite caught up with his feet, he's a nice player to have as a third-line winger or pinch hitter on the top six. He's a pretty good penalty-killer, too, and after 443 career games with Detroit, he's used to winning.

    What he's worth: Helm had a cap hit of $2.13 million. On the open market, he could get $3 million, maybe a little more. That might be a tad too high for a guy who has never put up more than 33 points in a season, but some teams still need to spend to get to the cap floor. 

    Likeliest landing spots: Buffalo, Winnipeg, Carolina, Arizona.

16. Jason Chimera

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    By the numbers: 37 years old, 20 goals and 40 points in 82 games for Washington.

    Why he's an asset: Don't be fooled by his age. Jason Chimera is in great shape and is still one of the fastest skaters in the league. He's coming off a 20-goal season, and at 6'3", 215 pounds, he can also bang in the corners. He's a great team guy in the locker room and a true gamer. He'd be a great addition to a number of teams' third lines.

    What he's worth: He made $2 million last season. He could get $3 million on his next deal, and that would be fair.

    Likeliest landing spots: Chicago, San Jose, Philadelphia.

15. Dan Hamhuis

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    By the numbers: 33 years old, three goals and 13 points in 58 games for Vancouver.

    Why he's an asset: Injuries have caused the veteran defenseman to miss 47 games the past two seasons, and he was tagged with 47 giveaways in his 58 games for the Canucks last season—too high a number. Still, Dan Hamhuis had a 50.2 Corsi for percentage and has been above 50 percent every season since 2008-09. While his point production dipped, he's a good passer on the power play and probably still capable of 30 points or more.

    What he's worth: Hamhuis is coming off a long-term contract that had a cap hit of $4.5 million. He's not worth that much now, but $3 million is a realistic number, and defensemen often get more than even they expect on the open market.

    Likeliest landing spots: Dallas, Carolina, Boston, Detroit.

14. Jamie McGinn

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    By the numbers: 27 years old, 22 goals and 39 points in 84 games for Buffalo and Anaheim.

    Why he's an asset: Jamie McGinn picked a good season to crack the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career. As a guy still relatively young, he figures to draw strong interest as a top-six forward. McGinn has pretty good speed for a big guy and has a good, hard shot. His defensive ability isn't great, though, and injuries have plagued him at times. He missed most of the 2014-15 season in Colorado with a back injury, for instance.

    What he's worth: He's coming off a season in which he had a cap hit of $2.95 million. It's likely he'll command $3.5 million or more on his next deal.

    Likeliest landing spots: Buffalo, Winnipeg, Florida, Ottawa.

13. Dale Weise

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    By the numbers: 27 years old, 14 goals and 27 points in 71 games for Montreal and Chicago.

    Why he's an asset: OK, so it didn't work out too well in Chicago for Dale Weise, who was acquired by the Blackhawks at the deadline to provide depth for a long playoff run but who scored only one goal in 19 games, including the playoffs.

    But he played well for Montreal before that and has drawn high marks for his work ethic. He would be a nice fit on the third line of many teams.

    What he's worth: He had a $1.03 million cap hit, and something around $1.5 million a year sounds fair.

    Likeliest landing spots: Montreal, St. Louis, Minnesota, Philadelphia.

12. Thomas Vanek

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    By the numbers: 32 years old, 18 goals and 41 points in 74 games for Minnesota.

    Why he's an asset: Many probably are surprised to see Thomas Vanek on this list. After all, he just had his contract bought out by the Wild after the lowest-scoring non-lockout season of his career. 

    But I'm not ready to give up on Vanek. He'll take the buyout personally, get in the best shape of his life and have a "take that" kind of season to prove his critics wrong. The guy is still a two-time 40-goal scorer, and there were times in his two-year stay with the Wild where he was effective. He can still be that way with another team.

    What he's worth: Well, he's not worth the $6.5 million cap hit of his last contract, that's for sure. He's probably worth no more than $2 million per year now, especially with all the money he just collected from the buyout. That could be a nice, affordable fit for a team hoping for the Vanek of old.

    Likeliest landing spots: NY Rangers, NY Islanders, Carolina, Ottawa.

11. David Perron

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    By the numbers: 28 years old, 12 goals and 36 points in 71 games for Pittsburgh and Anaheim.

    Why he's an asset: A three-time 20-goal scorer, David Perron put up some pretty good numbers with the Ducks after being traded from the Penguins, with 20 points in 28 games. He wasn't great in the playoffs (one goal in seven games), but the same can be said for other Ducks.

    He's bounced around a bit, with four teams on his career log now, and teams should be wary of overpaying, but he's got top-six talent.

    What he's worth: He had a $3.8 million cap hit with Anaheim. He's probably still worth that, especially considering he's still only 28.

    Likeliest landing spots: Boston, Ottawa, NY Rangers, NY Islanders.

10. Mikkel Boedker

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    By the numbers: 26 years old, 17 goals and 51 points in 80 games for Arizona and Colorado.

    Why he's an asset: Mikkel Boedker is young with a great set of wheels and above-average hands. He was a combined minus-33 in his 80 games with the Coyotes and Avalanche, so potential suitors shouldn't expect a Selke Trophy candidate here. 

    His possession numbers aren't great, either. He has had a Corsi for percentage under 50 every season since 2011-12. But he can really skate, and he's in the right market as a guy who can score some.

    What he's worth: He had a $3.75 million cap hit, and it's quite possible he'll get $5 million or more on the open market. That's probably overpaying some, but, again, he's in a seller's market for offense.

    Likeliest landing spots: Arizona, NY Islanders, Buffalo, Ottawa.

9. Eric Staal

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    By the numbers: 31 years old, 13 goals and 39 points in 83 games for Carolina and New York Rangers.

    Why he's an asset: Yes, Eric Staal was terrible for the Rangers after being traded by the Hurricanes, scoring just three goals in 20 regular-season games and getting zero points with a minus-seven in five postseason games. 

    But Staal has too much pride to be that bad again. Sure, he's getting on in years and has a lot of mileage (929 career games) on him for a 31-year-old. His foot speed has gotten a bit slower, which is a big concern in a league that seems to get faster every year. 

    Still, he is talented enough to have a good comeback year or two.

    What he's worth: He won't command the $9.5 million cap hit of his expiring contract, but he figures to draw strong interest. Too many teams are looking for scoring and will want to take a gamble that Staal can reclaim some former glory. He's likely to get $4 million or more on his next deal.

    Likeliest landing spots: Detroit, Carolina, Ottawa, Florida.

8. Frans Nielsen

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    By the numbers: 32 years old, 20 goals and 52 points in 81 games for NY Islanders.

    Why he's an asset: Not only is he a guy who puts some points on the board, Frans Nielsen is a good defensive player and penalty-killer. He finished 17th in Selke Trophy voting earlier this month, for instance. His Corsi for percentage was a solid 51.1.

    He'll be in high demand as a top-six forward who is good at both ends.

    What he's worth: He had a cap hit of $2.75 million, and according to the New York Post's Larry Brooks, he turned down a deal worth $5.5 million from the Islanders to stay. So, he could top the $6 million mark.

    Likeliest landing spots: Buffalo, Detroit, Arizona, Boston.

7. Jason Demers

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    By the numbers: 28 years old, seven goals and 23 points in 62 games for Dallas.

    Why he's an asset: Jason Demers' Corsi for percentage last season (54.1) was among the league leaders. As a right-hand shot defenseman, he will be highly sought-after come Friday. He was an integral part of the Western Conference regular-season champion Stars, and he is in his prime years at 28.

    What he's worth: He figures to command at least $5 million on the open market.

    Likeliest landing spots: Edmonton, Florida, Boston, Detroit.

6. Troy Brouwer

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    By the numbers: 30 years old, 18 goals and 39 points in 82 games for St. Louis.

    Why he's an asset: A great playoff showing with the Blues (eight goals, 13 points in 20 games) definitely helped Troy Brouwer's market value. He was good in the regular season, too. Brouwer plays a hard game in the corners and in front of the net, and having played for the Blues, Capitals and Blackhawks, he's used to winning.

    Teams shouldn't expect a ton of offense and therefore shouldn't go crazy with an offer, but he'd be a solid addition to most teams.

    What he's worth: He had a cap hit of $3.6 million with the Blues. He's worth $4 million on the open market.

    Likeliest landing spots: Montreal, Detroit, Anaheim, San Jose.

5. Loui Eriksson

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    By the numbers: 30 years old, 30 goals and 63 points in 82 games for Boston.

    Why he's an asset: Frankly, teams should be hesitant in making some mega-offer for Loui Eriksson. Yeah, he scored 30 goals, but it was a contract year and he wasn't great for Boston in his first two years there (10 goals in 61 games in 2013-14). 

    That said, he does have undeniable offensive skill with a proven track record. In a league where many teams are starved for goals, Eriksson will be an attractive option. But they may regret it in the long run.

    What he's worth: His cap hit with Boston was $4.25 million, and he's likely to get at least $5 million per year from some team.

    Likeliest landing spots: Detroit, NY Islanders, Florida, New Jersey.

4. Andrew Ladd

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    By the numbers: 30 years old, 25 goals and 46 points in 78 games for Winnipeg and Chicago.

    Why he's an asset: The Blackhawks gambled and lost with the deadline acquisition of the former Winnipeg captain, but Andrew Ladd will still draw a lot of interest come Friday. 

    He's big (6'3", 200 lbs) and unafraid of going to the net. He's a consistent 50-60-point scorer and still in his prime years. Might a team overpay with some five-year offer? Perhaps. But he's a solid left winger, and it wasn't his fault the Blackhawks didn't make it out of the first round.

    What he's worth: Ladd was already making $4.4 million on his last deal. He'll likely top the $5 million mark on a new deal.

    Likeliest landing spots: St. Louis, Detroit, Florida, New Jersey, NY Islanders.

3. Milan Lucic

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    By the numbers: 28 years old, 20 goals and 55 points in 81 games with Los Angeles.

    Why he's an asset: Milan Lucic is huge (6'4", 233 lbs) and still one of the nastiest, most physical players in the league. No, he's not fast, and there have long been questions about Lucic's effort on a nightly basis. But he's put up 50-60 points consistently for several years now, and he's won a Stanley Cup. 

    He never seemed to quite fit in with the Kings' system, so a change of scenery with some long-term security could do wonders for his game. That said, is he worth a long-term commitment? He's got some miles on him, and his type of game is increasingly becoming outmoded. He comes with risk.

    What he's worth: He already was making $6 million on his last deal, and it's hard to imagine him settling for any less as a free agent. Edmonton Journal writer Curtis Stock reported Tuesday that the Oilers already have a tentative agreement on a new deal with Lucic. Teams cannot officially announce any signings until Friday, however.

    Likeliest landing spots: Edmonton, Vancouver, Boston, Detroit.

2. Kyle Okposo

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    By the numbers: 28 years old, 22 goals and 64 points in 79 games for NY Islanders.

    Why he's an asset: Hard to believe the Islanders couldn't figure out a way to keep this heart-and-soul type of winger. They should have worked hard to sign Kyle Okposo to a long-term extension when they could have done it at a reasonable price, because it will be a severe loss when he goes.

    Okposo not only can score; he's also a diligent defensive forward unafraid of mixing it up in physical areas. He's got a good one-timer on the power play, too. He'll get lots of quality offers.

    What he's worth: He had a cap hit of $2.8 million with the Islanders and is likely to get at least $6 million on the open market.

    Likeliest landing spots: Detroit, Arizona, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Winnipeg.

1. Steven Stamkos

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    By the numbers: 26 years old, 36 goals and 64 points in 77 games for Tampa Bay.

    Why he's an asset: No question about it, Steven Stamkos is the biggest fish by a wide margin in this pool of free agents. A former 60-goal scorer with the Lightning, Stamkos is a major star and will instantly make his new team a lot better offensively.

    Is health a concern? He did miss all but one game of the playoffs with blood clots, so the answer has to be yes, a little. But, with the right medication, Stamkos figures to resume a normal career. Stamkos is a great, accurate shooter and a strong skater. He served as captain of the Lightning, so his leadership skills are strong, too. He's the total package.

    What he's worth: Well, the most a team can offer is seven years, and he could max out at $12 million per season. Could he get it? Yes, he could. The Buffalo Sabres, in fact, have already signaled they might go that high on an offer, per Buffalo's WGR Sports Radio 550.

    Likeliest landing spots: Detroit, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver.