After the debacle that took place on Long Island last season, with the Islanders losing John Tavares for nothing to free agency, the days leading up to the trade deadline will be exciting and at times nerve racking for many fans across the National Hockey League that have pending unrestricted free agents on the team they love. The decisions of each organization regarding that player can make or break the team both this year and potentially the future…
I have constructed a list of the top 10 unrestricted free agents currently set to hit the market this upcoming summer, with UFA honorable mentions at the bottom of the article. This is one of the most interesting free agent classes heading into the days leading up the trade deadline we have seen in years. In this article I will attempt to break down each situation and give my opinion on what each team should do, trade them at deadline or run the risk of not being able to sign the player in July.
What I would Do: The Sharks are currently sitting pretty in a top two spot in the Pacific Division and it doesn’t look like many teams behind them are good enough to catch up. The Sharks will obviously make the playoffs and have the chance to come out of the regular season on top of the Pacific Division. With that being said, it is a win the Stanley Cup or bust season for the Sharks due to the key players on the team nearing the end of their careers in my opinion. The time is now to win and keeping Erik Karlsson past the deadline is going to be a big part of the potential success to come this post season.
I do not think Erik Karlsson will be dealt at the deadline based on the fact that the Sharks are a team that will no doubt be competing for the Stanley Cup when the playoffs roll around. Will the reward of keeping Karlsson passed the deadline outweigh the risk of losing him to free-agency? We will have to see how the Sharks end up doing in the postseason and if he wants to sign with the team in July to judge that. But, don’t be surprised if you see Karlsson in a different teams jersey next season…
2. Artemi Panarin Once again, “bread man” is having a great season for the Columbus Blue Jackets, he is currently the team leader in both assists and points and is on pace to have another 80 point season. Now the question is will the 80 point mark be hit with Columbus or another team.
The Jackets are currently in the third spot of the Metropolitan division, trailing the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. Unless they totally tail off it looks like the team will be in the playoffs in April. But making the playoffs is not the end-goal for the Blue Jackets, as a franchise they have still never won a playoff series. This is a talented group and they definitely have the ability to win a series or two, but the question is will Panarin be apart of that run.
Before the season started there were rumors floating around the league that Panarin wanted out of Columbus to move to a team near a big city and closer to the Russian community. Last month, the agent of the star winger said the following about his clients situation, “Hopefully he’ll play through the end of the season, will help them get deep into the playoffs and perhaps help them win a Stanley Cup. That’s the immediate goal.” A very political answer, worry about the now and the rest will play out later. The problem is the Jackets front office needs to think about the present and the future.
What I Would Do: The Columbus Blue Jackets are in a real pickle with Panarin. In my opinion, Panarin has his heart set on leaving Columbus after this season. This then raises the question do the Jackets trade arguably their top player before the trade deadline or risk losing him at the end of the season…for nothing.
Out of the entire list I am presenting to you, this was the hardest decision to make for me. But, based on the current talent level of this hockey club, I think the Columbus Blue Jackets have to be all in on winning this year and NOT trade Panarin before the deadline. The only deal I think the team would make is if the players they received for Panarin were players that could make an immediate positive impact on this years team. That will most likely not happen, so trading Panarin when the team is going to make the playoffs does not seem like a great option for the Jackets.
3. Mark Stone The season Mark Stone is having for the Senators seems to be getting overlooked and it’s probably due to the poor season the Senators are having. Either way, Mark Stone is currently the best player on the Ottawa Senators. So far this season he has 20 goals, 28 assists, and is a +12. Among this list, Stone is the youngest on it at the age of 26, in the prime of his career. Because Stone is having such a stellar season his trade value is going to be through the roof leading up to the trade deadline.
What I Would Do: As everyone knows the Sens are in rebuild mode and trading Mark Stone before the trade deadline will be the perfect opportunity for the organization to keep growing a solid group of young players. The Senators currently do not have a first round pick in the upcoming draft, after trading it a couple years back to acquire Matt Duchene (Man, that feels like forever ago). No matter what, the Sens need to find a way to get at least one first round pick and this will be one of the players capable to bring in such return for the organization.
I think Ottawa is going to try to sign Stone before the trade deadline and make him part of the future in Ottawa, but if they cannot work out a deal they should 100% trade him. As an organization the Senators cannot let a talent like Mark Stone just walk for nothing, especially when they team is rebuilding. Sell! Sell! Sell!…if he doesn’t sign.
4. Matt Duchene It has been a crazy two years in Ottawa for Matt Duchene. He was traded to the Sens from Colorado when the Sens were really good and now two or so years later the Sens are bottom of the barrel. Duchene on the other hand is having a great season, he has 18 goals and 24 assists through 38 games. Duchene is the best center in the pending free-agent class and that makes his trade value and signing value sky high. In my eyes, one of the keys to a deep playoff run in this league is having depth down the middle of the ice, meaning the center position. The former third overall selection in the 2009 draft can provide that.
What I Would Do: This is an absolute no-brainier for me and it should be for the Senators too. The Senators cannot afford to lose Duchene for nothing at the end of the season, they must trade him before the deadline and get a solid return for a valuable player. The return for Duchene will be large, and will most likely consist of a middle first round pick and prospects. It would be a huge mistake if the Senators let this prolong to the summer, but crazier things have happened recently in Ottawa.
5. Sergei Bobrovsky The two-time Vezina trophy winner has not had a great season for the Columbus Blue Jackets both on and off the ice. On the ice, Bob has just a .903 save percentage and a 2.94 GAA. Off the ice, the team suspended Bobvrovsky for an undisclosed reason on January 10th and was virtually healthy scratched. It seems the relationship between the Bob and the Jackets cannot be repaired at this point and this will lead to much speculation until the trade deadline on what the future holds for Bob and the Jackets..
What I Would Do: The tricky part about this situation is that Bob has a no-move clause in his contract, so trading the two-time Vezina goaltender will require him to waive that no-move clause before the deadline. As I previously stated above, the Blue Jackets are in win now mode, but they can’t afford losing two of their top players for absolutely nothing in the summer. This will be the player they do trade at the deadline.
It is highly likely that Bob will not return to Columbus after this season, therefore, if I was part of the decision making in Columbus I would trade Bobrovsky IF he waives his no-move clause. There is no doubt that Bob has been a #1 goalie in previous seasons in Columbus, but it is going to be tough to sell a supposed #1 goalie when he is not playing anywhere need the standard of being one. Columbus will value Bob as a #1 goalie and teams around the league will most likely not, which will probably cause the value of the two-time Vezina winners value to decrease. At this point, this is the lowest his trade value has been in years. That should not discourage the Jackets from trading the struggling goalie though, any return is better than losing him to free-agency for nothing.
6. Jeff Skinner What a season Skinner is having in Buffalo, he currently has 30 goals, 14 assists, and is a +14. Skinner is on pace to score 20 more points than he has in his previous 8 seasons with his former team, the Carolina Hurricanes. Buffalo is one of the teams in the Eastern Conference that will most likely be competing for one of the two wild-card spots along with the Islanders, Canadiens, Canes, and Panthers the rest of the way. The Sabres started off the season super hot but have cooled off since. I still do predict them to make the playoffs though and Jeff Skinner will be a major factor in them making it.
What I Would Do: With the success Skinner is having this season he is going to get a nice pay raise this upcoming summer. The good news for the Sabres organization and Sabres fans is that Buffalo has the cap space to pay Skinner just about as much as he wants. The key is, IF he wants the extension…
I think the Sabres organization has come to far this season to trade away one of their best players at the deadline. What kind of message does that send to the fans in Buffalo, who are begging for playoff hockey once again in upstate New York. I would listen to the fans and keep Skinner for the playoff push. At worse, if they do lose Skinner to free agency they still have a lot of young stud talent for years to come in Buffalo. it will also show the fans that they are committed to winning now, something that Sabres fans haven’t seen in many years. Let it be known, I think Skinner will re-sign in Buffalo before the trade deadline passes.
7. Jake Gardiner Along with most of the Leafs team, Jake Gardiner is having a great season. Gardiner currently has 2 goals, 22 assists, and is a +18. The Leafs are second in the stacked Atlantic division and it seems they will most likely finish in that spot with the Tampa Bay Lightning absolutely massacring the entire league ahead of them. Besides Erik Karlsson, Gardiner is the best unrestricted free-agent defenseman this upcoming summer. Gardiner logs major minutes, puts up points, and can quarterback the power play. All three of these traits are what every team needs in at least one defenseman. If Gardiner does test the market after this season he will be a very sought out player by just about every organization.
What I Would Do: We all know Kyle Dubas has his hands full this upcoming summer trying to sign extensions for Matthews, Marner, Kapanen, and Gardiner. The thing is, the Leafs are arguably the second favorite to win the Stanley Cup THIS YEAR, behind the Lightning and trading a top defensemen on a team that is already lacking defense would not be smart.
If I were Kyle Dubas I would NOT trade Gardiner before the trade deadline. Gardiner is way too big of a piece to this contending Leafs team to trade him just before what looks like the potential of a deep Leafs playoff run.
Regarding signing him this summer, the only way Dubas gets a deal done with Gardiner is if he takes a “hometown discount”, meaning he takes less money to stay with the team. But, to be honest with you I see Gardiner testing the free-agent market this summer, he will be the highest sought defensemen behind Karlsson and is going to get paaaaaid.
8. Mats Zuccarello Zuuuuuuuuuuuuc. It’s been a tough season for Zuc, along with the New York Rangers team. Zuc currently only has 7 goals, 11 assists, and is a -19 on the season. This is a rare poor season for Zuc, in his last 5 seasons he has recorded over 50 points in each one of those season. Zuc also has immense playoff experience with 60 total playoff games played.
What I Would Do: If the Rangers are truly all in on the rebuild, they should trade Zuc before the trade deadline. Rangers fans are going to be very disappointing to hear this, but the return for Zuc will be nice for the Rangers rebuild cause and they cannot pass up on this opportunity. Any team looking for winger depth and playoff experience heading into the playoffs will be pushing hard for a player of Zucs’ caliber.
I asked @FitzGSN_ of Gotham Sports Network, a long time Ranger fan, of his thoughts on the Zuc situation and he responded, “Out of all the Rangers’ current trade chips, Mats Zuccarello is the one that is 100% getting traded. He loves New York and is a fan favorite, but given the state of the team they can’t afford to lose him for nothing. He’s on a relatively cheap contracts and plays a hard-nosed game, which should be appealing to any contenders. He can play all situations and could fetch, I don’t know, maybe a second or third round pick or a B-to-B+ prospect, if we’re thinking positively.”
While I clearly agree with most of what Fitz is saying, the one part I do disagree with is the return the Rangers will get for trading Zuc. I think they will get a 1st round pick and a B-prospect for Zuc, I guess I’m a bit more optimistic for the Rangers. Who do you think is right?
Zuc is the heart of the Rangers and I do think he wants to stay in New York, but the Rangers should not sign a 31-year-old to a long term extension if they are rebuilding. Zuc will only be in a New York Ranger uniform for a couple more weeks…
9. Wayne Simmonds It’s been a really tough season in Philadelphia and the time has come for the organization to sell some of their veteran players to add some youth to the club. One of those vets is going to be Wayne “Train” Simmonds; so far this season, Simmonds has 13 goals, 6 assists, and is a -19. But scoring is not the only part of Simmonds’s game, I have always considered him a “skilled-grinder”, meaning he can dangle and score but also battles in front of the net, hits, blocks shots, and occasionally fights. Simmonds has played 11 NHL seasons, so a lack of experience is not in question with this guy. With the Flyers going into a bit of a rebuilding stage the 31-year-old Simmonds doesn’t seem like a good option to lock up long term.
What I Would Do: There is no doubt in my mind Wayne Simmonds will be traded before the trade deadline. The physical winger will actually draw a lot of interest from teams looking to add some grit going into the playoffs. Simmonds will slide nicely into a third line roll and can provide depth scoring, physicality, and experience to a team fighting for the cup. A team usually has to have all three of these aspects in their club for them to be successful in the postseason, conventionally Simmonds bring all of them. If I had to guess I would say the return for Simmonds will be around a 2nd round pick and a low level prospect. Realistically, the best trade wins though, there is no reason to keep him through the trade deadline.
10. Kevin Hayes As I stated above the Rangers are not going to make the playoffs and now they must sell some veteran players at the trade deadline. Kevin Hayes is on pace to have the best year of his career, posting a stat line of 10 goals, 23 assists, and a +6 through only 39 games so far this season. Hayes’s career high in points was 49 in the 2016-17 and if he stays healthy the rest of the campaign this year he will most likely break that personal record. Hayes can play on both the power play and penalty kill, two traits that all teams are looking for. Also, Hayes being a center makes his value and his contract to be inflated going into free-agency.
What I Would Do: I would trade Kevin Hayes before the trade deadline. This is the highest his trade value you will ever be and with the Rangers in rebuild mode they can get probably a mid 1st round pick and a high end prospect for trading him.
When I asked @FitzGSN what he thought the Rangers should do with Hayes he answered with the following, “The Kevin Hayes’ situation is something I’ve flip-flopped on a lot, but I’ve now come around to the trade him camp. If they can deal him to a team that has the cap space to re-sign him, it will only increase the return. He’s become a really good player and I would love to see him here long-term, but this team sucks and needs to keep re-stocking the cupboard with prospects so they can finally draft and develop their own superstar talent.”
Honorable Mentions: Anders Lee, Joe Pavelski, Anton Stralman, Tyler Myers, Eric Staal, Jordan Eberle, Joe Thornton, Ryan Dzingel.