Two summers ago, Steven Stamkos dominated NHL headlines as one of the rare elite talents who could land on the free-agent market. Now John Tavares is following that path, and the rumor mill is already buzzing.
The New York Islanders' recent play is making his situation even murkier, but could he be joined by another top-two draft pick in James van Riemsdyk as a free agent? The big winger is looking like the odd man out with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with recent league talk indicating he could be looking for a new club this summer.
Of the two, who is looking more likely to hit the open market? Well, that answer appears pretty clear at the moment.
Tavares List Taking Shape
Tavares' impending free agency, like that of Stamkos, has been a major league storyline for well over a year. Both the player and the Islanders organization have expressed public interest in working out a long-term solution, but firm intel of where the Canadian and his camp really stand has been pretty scant.
Yet the list of possible contenders for his services looks to have a couple of front-runners should he become available. Per Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun, the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues "are thought to be at the top of the list of suitors."
Simmons goes on to speculate about other possible options, but to be honest, the list of "suitors" for a player such as Tavares is always going to include every NHL team.
Tavares is 27 years old, in the prime of his career and unquestionably one of the 10 best players on the planet.
In 659 games, he has 610 points, including 70 in four of the last five full seasons where he missed less than five games. In the postseason, Tavares has 22 points in 24 games, yet the Islanders are set to somehow miss the playoffs for sixth time in his nine NHL seasons.
The guy is simply a beast, but his signing will require a huge price tag for any suitor in free agency.
So while the Blues seem like an attractive option with a top-end sniper such as Vladimir Tarasenko on the wing, their cap situation is a bit tight.
They are pretty much right at the cap this season, and they have no big contracts coming off of the books this offseason. Even buying out expensive, overpaid veterans such as Jay Bouwmeester and Alexander Steen would not be enough to create an affordable situation that is also enough to attract Tavares.
On the other hand, the Sharks look like a great fit.
Even with Marc-Edouard Vlasic's cap hit rising from $4.25 million to $7 million and Martin Jones' hit going from $3 million to $5.75 million next season, San Jose will lose the contracts of Eric Fehr, Jannik Hansen, Evander Kane, Joe Thornton and Joel Ward to free up a combined $20.5 million this offseason.
Even if Thornton is brought back, he will command a substantially lower cap hit as he only has 36 points in 47 games and will be 39 next season. That leaves plenty of cash to make Tavares a No. 1 center to play with Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Vlasic, giving the Sharks a core that makes them an instant contender in the West.
Another option that was presented by TSN's Pierre LeBrun is a sign-and-trade. This would allow Tavares to get the eighth year on his extension that he can only get by signing with the Islanders, but he can play elsewhere while New York gets a return for his exit. However, a sign-and-trade has never happened in the salary cap, making its effect on Tavares' value unknown.
San Jose would be an intriguing fit for Tavares and a more feasible one than St. Louis. Either way, July 1 is still a long way away, meaning this sweepstake is bound to take several major turns.
Many other teams will join this list as potential contenders for Tavares, who could become the biggest free agent of the last decade.
No Room for JVR?
Being his hometown squad, Toronto has always been thought of as a top destination for Tavares, but the Maple Leafs' abundance of young talent and cap situation make that highly unlikely at this point. In fact, those circumstances may push a current notable player into free agency.
Since being taken No. 2 overall in the 2007 draft, van Riemsdyk has established himself as a legitimate top-six winger. This is particularly true since coming to the Maple Leafs for the 2012-13 season, where he has posted 287 points in 403 games. This includes twice eclipsing the 30-goal mark and the 60-point mark.
So with Toronto set to make the playoffs for the second straight season, it would seem logical for the Maple Leafs to want to bring back the impending free agent. However, this looks to be a near-impossibility.
Per TSN's Darren Dreger, van Riemsdyk and the Maple Leafs have not had any "meaningful negotiations" as of Thursday. This is not promising for his return to Toronto, especially considering the comparable numbers LeBrun recently threw out for the 28-year-old:
Looking at Toronto's cap situation, the fit for van Riemsdyk is simply not there. Currently with no cap space, the Maple Leafs drop a combined $16.5 million this offseason with the contract endings of Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore, Tomas Plekanec, Roman Polak and van Riemsdyk. This seems like plenty of room to explore bringing back van Riemsdyk, but there are still several big fish to fry.
Auston Matthews is a year away from a massive contract extension, with Jack Eichel's eight-year, $80 million seeming like a strong comparison. Mitch Marner will need a new extension at the same time, and he will be paid big-time as he already has 121 points in less than two NHL seasons.
That's not enough? William Nylander is due a new deal this offseason, and the 21-year-old has 126 points in 175 games. Three elite talents under 21 years of age needing new long-term extensions and suddenly the cap-space situation looks much tighter.
So van Riemsdyk looks like a lock to hit free agency, and he should be able to cash out. The six years at $6 million makes sense considering Milan Lucic, who is also 28, took home seven years at $6 million two summers ago from the Edmonton Oilers.
Considering van Riemsdyk is a far superior offensive player, he should easily match or exceed that number this offseason, but it won't be with the Maple Leafs.