The 2018 NHL free agency frenzy’s top picks
Scott Savard and Bobby Mihalik
This year’s NHL free agency period begins on July 1, and New York Islanders centre John Tavares leads the pack of players available.
A number of teams are in the Tavares sweepstakes, but many other notable players are available for teams to snag and improve their Stanley Cup aspirations.
The top five free agents that could be on the move to other teams this off season, including the highly touted Tavares are:
#5 Rick Nash
Rick Nash, a former first overall pick in the 2002 NHL entry draft, has been a regular first or second line player his entire career. He was traded from the New York Rangers to the Boston Bruins a day before the 2018 NHL trade deadline, where he helped contribute to the Bruins’ second-round playoff run.
Nash is known for his skills with the puck, being one of the better stick handlers in the league marked by flashy shootout goals. His last few seasons have seen a slight decline in production, having not surpassed 38 points since hitting the 69 point-mark in the 2014-15 season.
The 34-year-old could end up on a team that hopes to use his experience to inspire younger players or on a team that has a chance to win it all next season.
Potential suitors include Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Detroit Red Wings.
#4 Tobias Enstrom
Tobais Enstrom is in the unique position of playing for two teams, but only one organization with the Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets. The former NHL All-Star who was a solid top-two defenseman for the organization throughout his career has apparently turned his back on the Jets after he was healthy scratch during a conference playoff final against Vegas Golden Knights.
Just leaving what is considered among most players the peak age of 33, teams will be trying to grab him for his leadership and experience. He is a defenseman that does not take many penalties and plays a smart back-and-forth game. Enstrom accumulated 308 points in 719 regular season NHL games.
Having announced he won’t be returning to the Jets, Enstrom could land on a team looking to improve one of their top two defensive pairings. After tasting a deep playoff run this year with the Jets, he could also set his sights on a contender.
Potential suitors are New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Carolina Hurricanes.
#3 Paul Stastny
Paul Stastny has been a steady 40 plus point scorer for the past 5 seasons. Stastny recorded 53 points this year between the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets, his highest total since the 2013-14 season. During the 2018 playoffs with the Jets, he notched 15 points in 17 games.
Not only does he bring a scoring touch to any team, Stastny is a key player to have taking faceoffs, winning over 50 per cent each season of his NHL career. Through his career, he has scored at least one goal against every team in the NHL.
Teams looking at Stastny will be seeking a bonafide first or second line centre who comes with extreme consistency.
Potential suitors: Winnipeg Jets, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, and Dallas Stars.
#2 James Neal
James Neal knows what it takes to reach hockey’s biggest stage. He has more experience than anyone in the Stanley Cup finals in the past two years, reaching the final in back-to-back seasons as a member of the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights.
“The Real Deal” Neal is known for getting in the “dirty areas” of the ice to win puck battles and his ability to find openings to fire off a shot from anywhere on the ice. This dedication and determination has led Neal to score at least 20 goals in each of his NHL seasons, with a high of 40 goals in the 2011-12 season.
The 30-year-old left wing is still in his prime and can fit on any team needing a reliable goal scorer. With his two straight finals appearances, however, Neal may want to seek out another Cup contender.
Potential suitors include Vegas Golden Knights, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, and Nashville Predators
#1 John Tavares
The crown jewel of this year’s free agency pool, Tavares stands to garner a huge raise from his current $5.5 million cap hit. His high skill at a young age led to Tavares earning the first ever “exceptional player” status from the OHL, allowing him to play in the junior league a year early, at age 15.
Taken first overall in the 2009 NHL entry draft by New York Islanders, Tavares earned at least 54 points in all 82-game seasons and recorded a high of 86 points in the 2014-15 season. He surpassed 80 points on two other occasions in his career and tallied 621 points in 669 regular season games.
Although his forays into the NHL playoffs have been brief, he has registered nearly a point per game in the post-season, scoring 22 points in 24 games. His overtime goal against the Florida Panthers in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs gave the Islanders its first playoff series victory in 23 years.
Teams chasing Tavares are seeking a franchise number one centre who could lead them to a championship. He announced a short list of teams he is speaking with — including Toronto, San Jose and New York Islanders — and rejected others, including the Montreal Canadiens.
Potential suitors are New York Islanders, San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Nashville Predators.