With the Stanley Cup Final firmly in the rearview mirror—for everyone besides Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals teammates, who are still rightfully in celebration mode—all attention has turned toward the upcoming NHL draft on June 22 and free agency.
It marks one of the most hectic, exciting times on any hockey fan's calendar, as every summer we see unforeseen trades and signings shift the league's landscape. The lifeblood of a sports fan is hope—hope for a winning record, hope to land a great draft pick, hope to defend a championship.
While it's different for every franchise, it is hope that springs eternal as the players wrap up their seasons and general managers get the spotlight.
While the 2018 NHL free-agency class isn't particularly stacked, there are still some quality players available for teams with some cap space to burn.
John Tavares Still the Gem of Free Agency
Not only is John Tavares the biggest fish whom GMs will be trying to lure, if he makes it all the way to July 1 without re-signing with the New York Islanders, he'll immediately become the most impactful free agent to have hit the market since the implementation of the salary cap in 2005.
If it's money that he's after, the 27-year-old could become the highest-paid player in the league not named Connor McDavid. There's virtually no chance Tavares will surpass McDavid's $12.5 million cap hit, but he could well end up in that ballpark.
Yet it doesn't sound like the former first overall pick is just looking for a big payday. He wants to win, and the team that gives him the best chance to do that stands to gain one of the best forwards in the game today. Not only does Tavares desire a Stanley Cup, but he's also stated that he wants to bring a championship to Long Island.
Those two yearnings are pulling at each other quite a bit, as New York has missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
Here's the thing: The Islanders are home for Tavares, and it's not like they're in Buffalo Sabres territory in terms of their trajectory. They traded for Jordan Eberle last summer and have a solid defensive core in place, and the emergence of Mathew Barzal energized the fanbase in 2017-18. There's some good stuff happening with this franchise.
With a new arena now a done deal, Tavares should end up re-signing with the Islanders. He may flirt with other teams during the first week of July just to see what is out there, but New York has just a bit too much going for it moving forward. Jumping ship for a rising squad like the Colorado Avalanche or aforementioned Sabres just doesn't seem particularly likely.
Rick Nash and Boston Bruins to Continue Talking
The Boston Bruins acquired Rick Nash from the New York Rangers in late February to help them come playoff time. While the forward performed decent enough during the regular season, he all but vanished during the postseason, scoring three goals and adding two assists in 12 games as the B's bowed out in the second round.
Despite Nash's (continued) struggle to step up when it matters most, Boston is reportedly interested in having him back for next season.
General manager Don Sweeney spoke about re-signing the wing following the recent draft combine, and had this to say, according to Ty Anderson of 985 The Sports Hub:
"Rick—we're going to have follow up conversations this week. I plan to talk to [Nash's camp] again and have a, hopefully, have a clear understanding of where [his playing future] necessarily lands. Rick indicated when he came to Boston that he was excited about the opportunity. He wants to win. He wants an opportunity to win. He felt badly, and certainly he's not responsible for this, because he got injured. It took away a little juice from him."
Nash will turn 34 before the 2018-19 season begins, so it will be interesting to see if the Bruins end up keeping him around. Prior to being on the receiving end of a high hit from Cedric Paquette during a March 17 contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he produced three goals and three assists in 11 games. So it's not exactly like he was torching the league.
Still, odds are good that the 2002 first overall pick is hungry to add a Stanley Cup to his resume while he can find an NHL deal, and the Bruins would give him a solid chance to do so. If Nash doesn't end up inking a fresh contract with Boston, look for him to land on a cheap, short opportunity with a contender. Plenty of teams are looking for offense for their middle six forwards, and Nash can still score goals.
John Carlson Will Get His Payday...and Defend His Championship
We've known all season long that John Carlson had a large payday coming up this summer. All he did to compound that idea during the regular season was to lead all defensemen in scoring.
He did so again in the playoffs when he notched five goals and 15 assists while helping the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup. It's tough to imagine a way that Carlson could have set himself up any better for a dip into the free-agency pool.
Why is that a swim he'd be interested in taking, though?
Isabelle Khurshudyan @ikhurshudyan
Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin just did the most amusing media availability I can remember. All of them asking for water to hydrate. Backstrom and Carlson laughing at how out of it Ovi was. They haven’t gotten much sleep. “Couple naps,” Carlson said.
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has already stated that he'll do whatever he can to keep the defenseman in Washington. Many outlets, including the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com), have speculated that Carlson could make more than $8 million per season on the open market. As it turns out, the organization has around $11 million to work with, and that's before the cap jumps to somewhere in the $78 to $82 million range.
The team has a handful of other players to re-sign, but none of them are nearly as important as Carlson. Maybe Devante Smith-Pelly will cash in on his stellar playoff run, but Tom Wilson isn't in line for a massive raise. Neither is Michal Kempny, should MacLellan choose to keep the defender around.
Carlson stands alone as the Capitals' top free-agent concern, and if he wants to remain in Washington, the money and term will be his for the taking. They're the defending champions, so there probably won't be greener pastures to leave for, and he wouldn't be leaving much (if any) cash on the table by re-signing.