NHL free agency begins at high noon ET on Monday, July 1. While there have already been major moves this offseason — including Erik Karlsson re-signing with the Sharks, P.K. Subban being traded to the Devils and Phil Kessel joining the Coyotes via trade — the immediate future for a number of premium players remains up in the air.
To help get you ready for the flurry of deals, we gathered our writers to answer some big questions:
Who signs Artemi Panarin?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: It seemed like the Florida Panthers for months, but … BAH GAWD THAT’S LOU LAMORIELLO’S MUSIC! The New York Islanders, willing to pay whatever price necessary for the star winger, have emerged as late front-runners for the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ free agent. Lou knows his way around signing (and gaining the confidence of) Russian players, and New York was always one of Panarin’s preferred destinations. The idea of Panarin as the centerpiece of a New York Rangers‘ offensive core is tantalizing, but the Islanders were clearly in “by any means necessary” mode to add Panarin to their forward group. Could it still be Florida? Sure. But my inkling is that it’s the Islanders.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Florida Panthers; when there have been signs of smoke for this long, there should be a fire. However, I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s either New York team, especially the Islanders. Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello historically keeps things close to the vest. Nobody knows what he’s up to. And, like Florida, he has the ability to sign both Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky as a package deal. And the Rangers? The rebuild has gone better (and quicker) than anticipated, and they typically can’t help themselves when it comes to flashy, high-profile free agents.
Chris Peters, hockey prospect and draft analyst: I’ll also go with the Panthers. I think Panarin will be tempted by the bright lights of New York, but the lack of a state income tax in Florida could help the Panthers’ cause. He should be able to command massive dollars and had such success playing under Joel Quenneville in his first two seasons that the familiarity should also help. That’s a big piece added to a team that should have greater expectations this season.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: The Panthers, just because they check the most boxes. They’ve really been calling their shot the entire way, shrewdly moved out a bunch of future money by dumping the combination of Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, Roberto Luongo and James Reimer‘s contracts to position themselves to spend big this summer. They not only have the room to essentially hand both him and Bobrovsky blank checks, but also to wield the added bonus of an advantageous state tax situation. On the ice, Panarin joins his former coach Quenneville, under whom he enjoyed plenty of success in Chicago, gets to play alongside the best center he’s ever had in Aleksander Barkov, and slides into a high-octane offense that had the second-best power play last season.
What will be the best value signing?
Wyshynski: I’m not sure how much of a “value signing” Joonas Donskoi is going to be once the unrestricted free agent inflation is applied to his salary, but he was one of my “smart gambles” in my free-agent tiers. The San Jose Sharks forward, 27, finished last season with a 57.33 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 and a 55.91 goals-for percentage. He’s a shifty winger who has 14 goals in each of the past two seasons and is begging for an increased role somewhere else. Evolving Wild has him at a $2,796,060 cap hit on a three-year deal. Anything in that neighborhood would be a steal.
Kaplan: Noel Acciari isn’t the most exciting name available (if your team signs him, it’s not like you’re going to suddenly start fantasizing about a Stanley Cup parade). He’s likely to stay in Boston — probably doubling his $725,000 salary from last season — but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Bruins get priced out on the 27-year-old. I even think at $2 million, Acciari would be a value. After watching the Bruins extensively this postseason, I’m all-in on Acciari as the ultimate fourth-liner: smart, great motor, offensive abilities and the willingness to block every and any shot.
Peters: Corey Perry, coming off of an injury-shortened season and a buyout, should be available for fairly cheap. A veteran, middle-six forward who still has quick hands around the net, plays nasty and has something to prove? Good recipe. One wonders how many teams are interested, and what that does to the price, but if you can keep that cap hit nice and low, there’s value to be had, assuming Perry is back to full health.
Another super under-the-radar player who could provide low-money value to a team is Group 6 free agent John Gilmour. He had 54 points in 70 AHL games last season, and could be a good fit for a team looking for a bottom-pairing guy. He’s 26 and needs an NHL job.
Filipovic: The big-name restricted free agents. Especially the ones such as Brayden Point and Timo Meier, who are on loaded teams that always seem to take care of their own business. It’s kind of cheating, but it’s technically the truth. I couldn’t in good conscience pick any of the names on the unrestricted list because the large majority of them will either be grossly overpaid or not make a tangible difference. Everyone is working themselves up into a frenzy talking about all of the potential offer-sheet machinations this summer, but I’d be surprised if any of the big names actually went that route. Without that, most of these young guys will get leveraged into taking deals that don’t really line up with their actual on-ice contributions. It’s obviously fun to think about that finally changing, but I’ve followed this league long enough to know that until something actually happens, we shouldn’t expect anyone in the NHL to go against the system and rock the boat.
What is your bold prediction for the rest of the offseason?
Wyshynski: The Taylor Hall drama drags into the season. He’s been steadfast in taking a wait-and-see approach to the New Jersey Devils, and I imagine that wait-and-see doesn’t end with what GM Ray Shero does this summer to bolster the roster. Next summer will be Hall’s first taste of contractual freedom, and one imagines he’ll take his time in surveying the landscape before making a long-term commitment. This doesn’t mean he won’t be a Devil for the eight years following summer 2020, but I’d be surprised if he signed something now.
Kaplan: The Colorado Avalanche emerge in the fall looking like the next NHL superpower. After arriving ahead of schedule two years ago, and exceeding expectations again in 2018-19, the Avs are poised for sustained success thanks to a talented young core, smart drafting and frugal contracts (anyone want to argue Nathan MacKinnon at $6.3 million per year isn’t the best deal in the league?). They’ve added some offensive talent lately, particularly via the Andre Burakovsky trade, and I don’t think they’re done shoring up the forward group (Ryan Carpenter would be a solid fit at fourth-line center and absorb some of Carl Soderberg‘s responsibilities). Future Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar gets his first full season, too. I’m all-in on this team.
Peters: Sabres GM Jason Botterill will be the quiet assassin of this offseason. I don’t think he’s going to make a big splash out there in free agency beyond the Jeff Skinner re-signing that’s already done, but I can see him taking significant steps toward getting out of this hole. They might not be moves that help in 2019-20, but they will look better over time. The Colin Miller trade is the first small-ish deal, but I don’t think Botterill is anywhere close to being done with remaking this roster.
Filipovic: We shouldn’t be too quick to write the Columbus Blue Jackets off for dead. They’re obviously going through a nearly unprecedented exodus of big names this summer, but it’s not like they’re automatically jumping back to square one, either. They have a core of Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois around which to build, and all of them are under 25 and playing the two cornerstone positions teams agonize over trying to fill — they effectively have two No. 1 defensemen, and Dubois is developing into a solid, two-way center. They have just less than $30 million in cap space to improve their team this summer and a sneakily deep roster of contributors who can combine to cover for a lot of the offense they’re losing. If they can use some of that money to fill those holes in the depth chart with secondary market guys such as Gustav Nyquist and Marcus Johansson, they should be able to reload on the fly and be competitive once again next season.