For part three of four in our look at UFAs for next season, we will look at the players available who would be considered established top-four forwards or defensemen. An enjoyable reference is Evolving Wild’s contract projections, which has an algorithm for free agent player salaries on a google spreadsheet. Most of their projections are fairly accurate but some you will need to take with a grain of salt.
Many thought Ferland would be dealt at the trade deadline, but Carolina kept him and used him as their own rental for their playoff push. With back-to-back 40-point seasons, Ferland should have quite a few suitors in free agency as he combines an offensive touch with very physical play and he can play on the first or second line. That’s a combination, along with great skating, that 31 teams in the league are looking for. His CF% of 53.6 is a little elevated, playing on Carolina that had the highest team CF% of 54.8, so a drop-off in PDO (102.9 last season) and points should be expected if he signs with another team. Evolving Wild has him signing a four-year deal at $4.1 million AAV.
Lee has averaged 34 goals for the past three seasons and has only missed four games in the past four years. The former high school football, baseball, and hockey star is surely happy with choosing hockey as he is set for a large payday. At 6-3 and 231 lbs, Lee is a very fast skater, regardless of his size. He has toned down his physicality in the past two seasons, averaging 102 hits, compared to 165 averaged over the three years before. He might not get 40 goals again, but he should be a consistent 30-goal scorer moving forward, and it would be shocking if the Islanders didn’t re-sign their captain. He is looking at a six or seven-year deal around $6 to 6.5 million AAV.
After two years in a row of struggling in the playoffs, Gardiner will doubtless get a fresh start somewhere other than Toronto. There are many teams that would like to add a 40-point d-man who will play top four. As such, Gardiner could command a six or seven-year deal upwards of $7 million AAV. That seems an overpayment for an offensive player who can struggle on defense at times. He was second unit PP in Toronto for the most part, but could slide into the first unit on a few teams, which could see his point total get back up to the 50-point mark. Even then, the expected contract I mentioned is very risky for a player like Gardiner at his level of production, as he doesn’t provide the other elements of the game that are needed when the offense dries up for certain stretches of the season.
Full disclosure: I have Nelson on my keeper team and am hoping that he signs for as little as possible, after having his best season to date with 25 goals and 53 points. Reality has him signing a four or five-year deal at $4.5 to 5 million AAV. He is another big winger who can skate well and score 20-25 goals consistently. Nelson is a player who a team like the Canucks might pursue to play on one of their top two lines, and this might drive up the price for the Islanders to keep him. He will be 28 years old at the start of the next season, and shouldn’t have as many miles on him as Ferland and Lee, as he doesn’t play a physical game at all, averaging just over 50 hits per year. A four or five-year deal for Nelson shouldn’t be as risky as most on this list.
Zuccarello will be 32 years old at the beginning of next season and is coming off a few injuries that limited him to 48 games in 2018-2019, but he still managed 40 points which put him at an impressive 68-point pace. He had a very good playoff, with 11 points in 13 games with Dallas, and is looking for a bigger payday than his expiring four-year $4.5 million AAV deal. There is no reason to think that Zuccarello can’t be a 50-plus-point player for the next two seasons, but can he continue that pace after he turns 34 or beyond? He is looking at a three or four-year deal with $5 to 6 million as his AAV (Evolving Wild has him at 4 years with $6.2 million AAV). Any team offering him more than four years is overpaying, as a good portion of his first-line minutes in New York and Dallas were predicated by a lack of a better option. He is a top-six option who tops out at 60 points after being afforded top PP and first-line opportunities.
Myers has never lived up to his 48-point rookie campaign ten seasons ago, but has settled into a top-four role with second unit PP time. He has been maligned throughout his career for being a gentle giant, who is not physical and can make some defensive gaffes. On the other hand, he is an established top-four d-man who can chip in offensively (averages eight goals and 34 points per year) and skates very well for a man his size. He is coming off a seven-year contract, with a $5.5 million AAV. He will most likely sign a similar deal with Winnipeg or another team for over $6 million AAV. He might be good value for the first three or four years of a deal like that.
Eberle did not have the kind of year most players envision when heading into their UFA summer. He posted a career-low of 37 points and had fewer than 20 goals for only the third time in his nine seasons (he had 16 goals in 48 games in 2012-2013). Having said that, he re-ignited his game in the playoffs and had four goals and nine points in only eight games, reminding everyone that he shows up when it counts. Will that be enough to keep him above his $6 million AAV from his expiring deal on his next contract? If common sense prevailed for a player with 37 points last season, along with his diminishing IPP almost every season since his rookie year, the answer would be not a chance. However, this is July 1st and the NHL, where over half a billion dollars were committed on the same day in 2018. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we can bank on the fact that Eberle will match his prior AAV.
Nyquist had his highest point total of his career, with 60 points in 2018-2019. Just in time for free agency! He is contributing to the Sharks’ playoff success so far, with eight points in 14 games heading into the Western Conference finals. His expiring contract was for four years at $4.75 million AAV, and Evolving Wild have him signing a six-year deal for $5.75 million AAV. It’s a hefty contract for a 45-55 point second-line player who is sound defensively but plays a perimeter game (36 hits and 23 shot blocks in 81 games). I will bridge the gap and predict he gets five years at $5.25 million AAV— unless the Sharks win the Stanley Cup, then all bets are off.
After completing his four years at Boston College, Hayes elected to sign with the NY Rangers instead of the Chicago Blackhawks who had drafted him in the first round at 24th overall in 2010. He hits unrestricted free agency after only five NHL seasons and will be 27 years of age when next year starts. He signed a one-year bridge deal for $5.175 million before last season and promptly went out and had a career year, split between New York and Winnipeg with 55 points in 71 games. Hayes is a very good two-way player who plays on the second line, on the PP, and is a regular penalty killer as well. The knock on Hayes is skating, and the big threat when players get older is losing a step or two; bigger players like Hayes, who are already behind in that regard, can become very bad contracts (see Lucic, Ladd and Backes). He is looking at a five or six-year deal for $5.5 to 6 million AAV.
For the above players, in what I call Tier Two of the UFAs available, we can expect to see salaries from $4 to 7 million in AAV for this group. This tier has some of the biggest contract risks to be taken and a few will turn out to be big mistakes. Hopefully these articles on free agents will help you a little to plan for your keeper leagues with salary caps. Next week we will look at the top tier that will include the biggest names among upcoming UFAs.
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