Did John Tavares and his $77-million sweepstakes open his UFA followers’ eyes for what might be possible if you peek beyond the curtain?
The summer of 2019 will deliver no shortage of star power, as a two-time Vezina winner, a finalist for three major 2018-19 trophies, and a few clubs’ top scorers are all racing toward July 1’s open market.
Big shakeups and monster paydays are on the horizon, and off-season buyouts have added a few familiar names to the list.
While recent big tickets awarded to Erik Karlsson ($11 million AAV), Jeff Skinner ($9 million) and Kevin Hayes ($7.14 million) scratch some key names off the board, those paydays only increase the worth of an extremely Columbus-heavy UFA class.
Here’s a look at the NHL’s Top 12 unrestricted free agents of 2019 and the freshest rumours surrounding their futures.
As of Sunday, these players have been free to start meeting with their suitors. Rumour season is officially upon us.
1. Artemi Panarin
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Led all Blue Jackets in assists (59), points (87), game-winners (eight) and power-play points (18). Now leads in playoff scoring. Memorably beat out Connor McDavid for the 2016 Calder Trophy. Crushed back-to-back 80-point seasons in Columbus after starting his NHL career with back-to-back 70-point seasons in Chicago. Magician on ice.
The latest: Bread Man gets paid.
Panarin is leaving Columbus for the open market — and a bigger city with a larger Russian community — on July 1.
Having never won a playoff series, Columbus was loath to trade its top scorer heading into the stretch run, as brassy GM Jarmo Kekalainen risked losing an elite talent for nothing.
The whole city pitched in on the “Keep Panarin” campaign. Columbus-based High Bank Distillery took out a billboard offering him free booze for life if he re-signs.
“I say it’s harder for me to keep talking about my free agency because I see how people want me to stay in Columbus, and it’s harder,” Panarin told reporters in February.
“But it’s my life. We only have one life and I want to, like… it’s 10 per cent of my life, seven or eight years, you know? I want to stay happy every day and I want to see more options.”
The Florida Panthers — the presumed front-runner here — have cleared cap space and hired coach Joel Quenneville (a Panarin fan) to make a splash in July.
“Seriously, guys, I don’t have a team. Not one team where I want to go,” Panarin said. “But I have many teams. We’ll see what happens in the summer, but right now I don’t know what I want.
“I’m ready for that situation. I know in the summer how hard that will be for me. I’m ready. Still positive.”
Panarin was reportedly seeking a deal worth $10 million to $11 million per season prior to the start of the playoffs.
He met with Colorado brass in Denver Sunday, according to Adrian Dater, and is scheduled to sit down with Panthers GM Dale Tallon later this week, per Sportsnet’s John Shannon.
Tallon has been explicit about his plan to open the coffers on Canada Day.
2. Matt Duchene
Age on July 1: 28
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Best UFA centre under 30. Seven 20-goal, 50-point seasons. Gold medallist for Team Canada at Winter Olympics, world championships (twice), and World Cup. Coming off career-best 31-goal, 70-point campaign. Point per game in 2019 playoffs.
The latest: “It’s a situation of constant information-gathering whenever you’re in a contract year,” Duchene told me at training camp.
“Johnny [Tavares] is a good friend of mine. We’ve come up together: same agent, same trainer, same equipment company, same draft, same everything. It’s a guy I’m very familiar with and have a really good relationship with. I thought he handled the situation with extreme class and respect for everyone involved. I definitely took notes.”
Duchene played so well in his walk year that he silenced those who questioned his abilities as a playoff performer. His July 1 suitors will be plentiful, and centre Kevin Hayes’ handsome deal with the Flyers should only jack up his price.
Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that Ottawa offered an eight-year, $64-million extension to Duchene prior to his deadline trade to Columbus. Duchene should fetch at least that much.
By trading P.K. Subban in a salary-dump deal to New Jersey over the weekend, the Nashville Predators are poised to take a healthy run at Duchene, a country music fan they’ve long coveted.
Agent Pat Brisson and Duchene are deciding whether to tour a few interested teams or set up shop Tavares-style and field meetings at the CAA offices.
3. Sergei Bobrovsky
Age on July 1: 30
2018-19 salary cap hit: $7.425 million
Bargaining chips: Two-time Vezina Trophy winner. Franchise record-holder for most wins, best goals-against average and save percentage in a season. Gold medallist for Team Russia at world championships. Bona fide No. 1 goalie.
The latest: “I don’t like to do any games, any mind games,” Goalie Bob said at the outset of camp. “After last season, I told the situation to the management of the Blue Jackets, so they know everything. They know my plans for the season. They know my plans for the future. They know everything.”
Bobrovsky endured an up-and-down season. His save percentage (.913) was his lowest in a healthy season since he came to Columbus from Philadelphia seven years ago.
In mid-December, NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes (who shares an agent with Bobrovsky, Paul Theofanous) labelled the situation untenable.
“Based on what I’m told from the Bobrovsky camp, and not Sergei himself, this relationship has really deteriorated,” Weekes said.
The front-running Panthers, Islanders, Flames and Hurricanes should be among the teams kicking tires when Bobrovsky hits the open market.
His asking price come July 1 has been said to be in the ballpark of $10 million per season.
The goaltender finally got over his post-season woes, backstopping the Jackets to a sweep over Tampa — the first series victory in franchise history. Then he immediately put his Columbus condo up for sale.
Panarin switched agents to Theofaneous in the first week of February, leading some to believe the Russian Blue Jackets could be a package deal.
Bobrovsky and Panarin will both meet with the Panthers as early as Monday.
A Roberto Luongo decision (play, retire, or go on LTIR) awaits, and could push Tallon to trade or buy out goalie James Reimer if he is able to secure Bobrovsky.
4. Joe Pavelski
Age on July 1: 34
Position: Centre / Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $6 million
Bargaining chips: Most goals per game (38 in 74) among all impending UFAs. One of the world’s best tippers. Equally effective as a wing or a centre. Olympic silver medallist for Team USA. Ten 20-goal seasons and running. Captain America. Won’t be slowed by head staples.
The latest: After a slight production dip in 2017-18, “Little Joe” over-delivered in his platform year, to the point where we’d have him a few spots higher on this list if he wasn’t going to enter 2019-20 at the age of 35. Forwards are supposed to decline then, right?
That appeared to be GM Doug Wilson’s logic when he shelled out big bucks to Evander Kane and made certain to lock up the younger Logan Couture last summer but played the wait-and-see approach with Pavelski.
In September, agent Dan Plante described extension talks as “nonexistent” to The Athletic‘s Kevin Kurz.
Complicating matters for the captain’s future within the Sharks’ financial puzzle is Karlsson’s monster extension and breakout forward Timo Meier’s RFA status. Joonas Donskoi and Kevin Labanc also need raises, and UFA Joe Thornton announced he wants back too.
There is zero reason to believe Pavelski and the Sharks wish to part ways, and Wilson said last week that a deal is still possible, but simple math makes this one tricky.
Pavelski wants term on his next deal, which may prove to be a hurdle in San Jose. Rumours have linked the Wisconsin native to Chicago if he reaches free agency.
The Arizona Coyotes recently met with Plante, according to Craig Morgan of The Athletic, but it’s unclear if the interest is mutual.
5. Tyler Myers
Age on July 1: 29
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5.5 million
Bargaining chips: The most attractive and highest-producing under-30 UFA defenceman remaining once Karlsson signed. Logs more than 20 minutes nightly. Solid power-play option. Big body. Shoots right.
The latest: Myers is one member of a long list of Jets who are headed to free agency and looking for a raise: Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Ben Chiarot, Brandon Tanev…
“We have some tough decisions to make this summer, a lot of them,” GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said following his player exit meetings. “This year, there’s certainly going to be some changes.”