- Craig Custance
By now, you’ve heard. It’s not a great free agent class. The NHL’s general managers are expected to be active on the trade front over the next few weeks, in part because there’s not a lot of help in free agency. That’s what happens when teams put such a high priority on retaining their top talent.
Still, in the following group of players is a 28-year-old center who is a two-time Olympian. There’s a guy who just put up 14 goals in the playoffs. There are two legitimate starting goalies and no shortage of wingers capable of scoring 20 or 30 goals per season.
The prices for these players will be higher than teams want, but it’s the only time of the year you can get high-end talent without giving up anything in return, which is perhaps what makes these players most appealing.
With that in mind, here are the top 25 unrestricted free agents for 2014:
Talks to keep Stastny in Colorado are expected to intensify this week, although the safe bet is that Stastny at least waits until the leaguewide interview window opens to get a stronger sense of his options elsewhere. The Avalanche want him to stay, he’s loved in the dressing room and likes playing in Colorado. The challenge is finding a number that works. He’s a 28-year-old center who can anchor one of the top two lines on most teams, a rarity in free agency. Because of that, he could demand big money, with his current salary of $6.6 million a starting point for the open market. During a Thursday news conference, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy used the word "structure" repeatedly in talking about future contracts and where unsigned players fit into that structure.
“[Stastny’s] part of our core. We’re hopeful we can sign him,” Sakic said. “We have our structure, I know he understands that."
The assumption when you’re talking about salary structure is that one player sets the cap for the others. Matt Duchene's contract averages $6 million. Gabriel Landeskog's averages $5.57 million. Semyon Varlamov's averages $5.9 million. So you can get an idea of the ballpark where the Avalanche would like to fit Stastny’s next deal.
“We believe Ryan O'Reilly and Paul should fit within that structure,” he said. “We don’t believe anybody should be ahead of all those guys."
It’s a little unfair to Stastny, because none of those players were days away from unrestricted free agency where prices are higher than when you’re buying years off restricted free agency. If a deal can’t get done, Stastny will have no shortage of suitors with potential fits in New York, St. Louis and Toronto.
It was a wild season for Vanek, who turned down two very large offers (from Buffalo and the New York Islanders) to retain his right to pick a team on July 1. His postseason struggles might mean teams approach him with more trepidation than they might have otherwise, but his agent Steve Bartlett believes there’s a large enough history of success for Vanek to retain his value.
“Let’s be honest, if you’re coming up to free agency, you’d love to have a guy who was lights-out in the playoffs and had a hat trick against the Rangers in Game 7,” Bartlett said. “But it’s ludicrous to think that a guy who has an eight-year body of work that puts him among the elite offensive players in the league gets judged on [the playoffs]. You’re going to judge eight years, not eight days.”
Just look at Marian Gaborik for an example of how a guy’s reputation changed overnight on the right team. Vanek has the kind of offensive skill that can change games and teams, and that puts him in a category by himself on this list.
There have been talks between the Lightning and Callahan’s agent (Bartlett), but the lure of July 1 might be strong for Callahan, who has gone through a lot just to get this far.
“We’ve had good-faith negotiations with Tampa,” Bartlett said when we chatted before the weekend. “We’re trying to narrow the gap. He certainly liked his time there.”
If he hits free agency, the expectation is that Buffalo will make a play for him and could end up making the biggest offer, but for a guy who just saw his former team advance to the Stanley Cup finals, it might be hard to go directly into a rebuilding situation.