The NHL‘s 2016 unrestricted free agent class is stronger at forward than it has been in recent years. For the first time in recent memory, an elite-level player might hit the open market. There are several players available that could make a serious immediate impact, as well as those who could add much-needed depth to a contender. Some players may not generate much interest until the bigger names are off the board, but will still have a number of teams making offers.
Top 10 NHL UFA Forwards 2016
#1 – Steven Stamkos
Previous cap hit: $7.5 million with the Tampa Bay Lightning
Indisputably the most talented player to hit unrestricted free agency in recent memory, Stamkos has been playing with the distraction of July 1st all year. Tampa’s captain continued to be an elite scoring force this season despite playing under a microscope. He led the Bolts with 36 goals, and also added 28 assists in his 77 games. He missed all but the final game of the playoffs, though, with a blood clot that could be a concern for potential suitors.
Stamkos is certain to command a serious raise on his previous deal, with all signs pointing to negotiations starting at $9-10 million. He’ll almost certainly get the maximum seven-year term as well. Stamkos is likely in contention for the largest UFA contract signed in the salary cap era. It’ll be a serious challenge for any team to fit him under the cap, but most will be more than happy to do some roster shuffling to fit him in. A player of Stamkos’ calibre only hits the open market once in a blue moon, so almost every NHL GM will be doing their due diligence by talking to him.
Every team could benefit from the goalscoring Stamkos brings. He is a potentially franchise-altering player, and is head and shoulders above any other UFA this summer.
#2 – Kyle Okposo
Previous cap hit: $2.8 million with the New York Islanders
On John Tavares‘ right wing, Kyle Okposo has been a perennial 20-goal scorer. He has a lethal shot, and can play quite a tough game in the offensive zone. He is streaky though, and is occasionally prone to injury – but he’s a great top six player when healthy.
Okposo put up 64 points this season, a year where he managed to appear in 79 games. He was also a constant force in the playoffs, as he recorded 8 points in 11 games for the Islanders as they progressed to the second round.
It seems unlikely at this point that he will return to Brooklyn. Okposo may end up waiting until after Steven Stamkos has been signed, going to a team that failed to land the biggest fish but will settle for a different top-six player. He will cost less than the Tampa captain – it’s been speculated that Okposo’s new deal will be just under the $7 million mark.
#3 – Milan Lucic
Previous cap hit: $6 million with the Los Angeles Kings
Milan Lucic is known around the NHL as one of the nastiest players there is. He has a 6’3″, 233 lb. frame that he loves to use to his advantage, and is one of the few true power forwards left in the game. Lucic has caused a stir everywhere he’s played, with a real knack for agitating opposing players and physically dominating games.
The Kings acquired Lucic at the 2015 draft, looking to add his size and physicality to their lineup. A team doesn’t have to sacrifice too much offence for the sake of toughness with Lucic, as he is quite capable in the offensive zone. He crashes the net hard, and this year netted 20 goals and 55 points with L.A.
Los Angeles does seem interested in bringing him back, so Lucic could be extended by them before Friday. There was also a rumour that he had agreed to a deal with the Edmonton Oilers, which has since been debunked. It’s hard to say what kind of money Lucic will command, but it seems unlikely he’ll be getting a raise on his previous contract.
#4 – David Backes
Previous cap hit: $4.5 million with the St. Louis Blues
The second captain on this list, David Backes had a memorable playoff run as he led the Blues to the Western Conference Final. Backes is a prototypical two-way centre, known for his poise in a shutdown role and ability to lay a hit. He too is not without offensive ability, and can typically be counted on for upwards of 40-50 points. He scored 21 times for St. Louis this season, finishing with 45 points.
Backes said after the playoffs that he’s definitely interested in returning to the Blues, but it’s possible he’s looking for a longer contract than Doug Armstrong would want to give to a 31-year-old. They have other priorities this off-season, but would likely still be considered the frontrunners for him.
#5 – Andrew Ladd
Previous cap hit: $4.4 million with the Chicago Blackhawks
The biggest name moved at the trade deadline, Andrew Ladd settled into a secondary role well in Chicago. He was previously leaned on more heavily with the Winnipeg Jets so had to adjust his game to fit into his new third-line responsibility. Ladd is another big-bodied forward who can be tough along the boards, although perhaps with less scoring ability than Lucic or Backes. His total production actually tends to be higher than Backes, having potted 25 goals this year, but Ladd is less consistent.
With the Blackhawks perennially struggling to stay under the salary cap, he’s unlikely to return to Chicago. Now starting to move towards the end of his prime, Ladd’s experience might be most highly valued by a younger team. He’s won two Stanley Cups, and is seen around the league as one of the better dressing room guys there is.
#6 – Loui Eriksson
Previous cap hit: $4.25 million with the Boston Bruins
The Bruins held on to Loui Eriksson at the trade deadline this year, opting to push for the playoffs (and failing). Nevertheless, he had an excellent season in Boston and scored 30 goals, second on the team in scoring with 63 points. He did maintain quite a high shooting percentage through the year though (16.3%), and will probably drop off a little bit next season.
The lanky Swedish winger has great hockey sense in both ends of the ice, particularly with the puck on his stick. He makes smart plays in the offensive zone, and possesses a very accurate shot.
Eriksson doesn’t seem particularly interested in remaining in Boston, having been scrutinized since being traded for Tyler Seguin. Re-signing is not out of the realm of possibility, though. He could also be seen as another slightly discounted scoring option for a team that fails to sign Steven Stamkos.
#7 – Jimmy Vesey
Previous cap hit: N/A, rights owned by the Buffalo Sabres
Jimmy Vesey’s story has been closely followed for months now. His agent confirmed near the trade deadline that he had no intention of signing with the Nashville Predators, who held his rights after drafting him in 2012. He was traded to Buffalo last week, but it seems that his plan is still to stay the course and hit the open market on August 15th when he can become a UFA.
Vesey scored 24 goals with 22 assists in 33 games this year for Harvard University, with many interested NHL teams watching. He has good size and an impressive passing ability in the offensive zone. He’s the only prospect on this list, but he has the potential to be a valuable top six forward.
Before the trade to the Sabres, the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs were rumoured to be the frontrunners to sign Vesey. He grew up in Massachusetts and has always played near the Boston area. His father, though, is a scout for the Leafs, and his brother Nolan is a prospect in Toronto’s system. It remains to be seen whether he will be interested in Buffalo, who will likely use Jack Eichel, who has played with Vesey before, as an incentive to sign with them.
#8 – Jiri Hudler
Previous cap hit: $4 million with the Florida Panthers
Jiri Hudler won the Lady Byng Trophy last year after helping the Calgary Flames to the playoffs, but didn’t quite match that this season. He netted 46 points, just 5 of which came after he was dealt to the Panthers at the deadline. He played a role on Florida’s third line down the stretch and into the playoffs, but wasn’t spectacular.
Hudler is capable of being a great offensive weapon, and thrived in Calgary with highly skilled linemates like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. He’s slightly undersized, but has a great shot and superior instincts in the offensive zone. He also provides some experience and leadership, with a Stanley Cup under his belt from 2008.
The Panthers don’t seem like major candidates to re-sign Hudler, likely unimpressed by a disappointing playoff performance. He could find himself taking a pay cut for a middle-six role on a younger team in need of a veteran forward.
#9 – Thomas Vanek
Previous cap hit: $6.5 million with the Minnesota Wild
Minnesota bought out Thomas Vanek’s huge contract last week, sending him to the free agent market. He has been a productive scoring winger in the past, but he’s noticeably declined in the past two years. That said, Vanek is still capable of playing an effective role in front of the net, and enjoys playing as a screen or digging for the puck in the crease. He also has quite a heavy shot.
Vanek will be taking a much smaller contract than his last, likely now seen as a budget option for a team’s second or third line. He can still work in a secondary scoring role. He’ll probably prefer to go to a contender, hoping to win a Cup as he approaches the twilight of his career.
#10 – Eric Staal
Previous cap hit: $8.25 million with the New York Rangers
The Rangers made it clear after their playoff loss to Pittsburgh that Eric Staal would not be returning. He was acquired at the deadline, and managed just 6 points for New York. That was unacceptable for the Rangers, who expected him to contribute to an offence in need.
Staal was easily the most overpaid player on this list last season. He will likely see the biggest pay cut. Staal has not ruled out a return to the Carolina Hurricanes. This could be a very viable option as one of the few teams who may be interested. He is rumoured to want a top-six role somewhere, so a team like the Canes may be the best destination.
This free agency period will have a fascinating dynamic, dictated by Steven Stamkos. Many of the players on this list may not be busy until Stamkos is off the market, as most teams in need of scoring will be focusing on him first. With teams allowed to talk to pending UFAs since the 25th, the likelihood that big deals will be signed on July 1st is greater, so there could be a massive chain reaction once the marquis name is off the board.