The NHL’s best rarely make it to free agency.
Teams tend to re-sign their top players, keeping them off the market and on their rosters. That leaves a slew of solid veterans and journeymen available to the highest bidders trying to find a forward to play on a second or third line, a defenseman to be in a second pairing or perhaps a backup goaltender.
John Tavares this year is considered a top target, assuming the New York Islanders and their new leaders can’t persuade the 27-year-old center to stay with the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2009. He had 84 points last season, two shy of his career high.
Trying to show Tavares how serious they are about winning, the Islanders hired Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz and Stanley Cup-winning president of hockey operations Lou Lamoriello. New York can sign Tavares to an eight-year contract, too, one year more than any other team in the league can give him. The Islanders can invest $80-plus million to help convince their franchise star to stay.
Tavares, though, may want to take his two-way talents elsewhere because he has made it to the playoffs just three times in his nine-year career, advancing only once. If the five-time All-Star chooses to leave, he has plenty of choices. Toronto, Boston, San Jose, Dallas and Tampa Bay are believed to be among his options. Tavares can command a seven-year contract for perhaps more than $70 million from any of the teams trying to lure him away from the Islanders.
Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said the Tavares situation is holding back other free agents, not knowing how high he will set the bar for salaries, and delaying trades.
“I think it’s holding up the hockey world a certain amount,” Hextall said Friday.
Some other names to watch ahead of free agency, which begins Sunday:
JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK
The Maple Leafs would love to keep him at the right price, but they might have to let him go to potentially to have enough money to bring Tavares back home. The 29-year-old winger had a career-high 36 goals last season, his sixth in Toronto and ninth in the league.
The 30-year-old winger picked a good time to have a career year, with a career-high 50 assists and 66 points with the Vegas Golden Knights. He added nine point during their postseason run.
The three-time All-Star had a career-high 11 postseason points during the Vegas run to the Stanley Cup Final. The 30-year-old winger keeps himself in great shape and leads on and off the ice.
The 32-year-old center had a career-high 15 playoff points, helping the Winnipeg Jets reach the Western Conference final. The one-time All-Star would be a solid Plan B for teams that whiff on their shot to sign Tavares.
With Washington keeping John Carlson off the market, the 32-year-old Green may be the best defenseman available. Green had a neck injury last season in Detroit and that may concern some teams.
The 30-year-old winger finished with 27 goals last year to rank third among potential unrestricted free agents. He had only two for New Jersey in the final 21 games.
The 32-year-old Bozak has spent his entire career with the Maple Leafs, who may not be able to afford the solid center with 365 career points.
Teams may hesitate to sign Thornton, coming off knee surgery with his 39th birthday on Tuesday, but the center with great hands could be a great fit for a contending team looking to add depth and a veteran presence.
With slim pickings on the blue line, the 35-year-old defenseman will be in demand after missing a total of just five games the last two seasons in Dallas.
The 34-year-old goaltender won 23 games last season, the most of any potential unrestricted free agent, despite playing for the lowly Carolina Hurricanes.