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The Last Word: How Tavares' decision could impact futures crops of UFA talent

Tavares’ decision to pursue free agency this summer might open the door for pending UFAs to play out their final season rather than sign the sure, safe deal

On the other end of the phone line in late August was Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, as decent a human being as you’ll ever meet in the hockey world. “How’s your summer?” Nill said. “I wanted to make sure I returned your call, but I’m not saying anything about Tyler Seguin.”

That was in direct contrast to Seguin himself, who was quite the chatterbox the day before at a pre-training camp gathering of NHL players in Toronto. Seguin said how “disappointed” he was he didn’t have a contract extension that late into the summer and how surprised he was there had been no real dialogue with the Stars since the draft in June. But here’s the thing, eh? Seguin’s contract with the Stars doesn’t expire until after this season, meaning the two sides have about 10 months to figure this out. Just because the Stars could have signed him to an extension as early as July 1 doesn’t mean they were feeling compelled to do it.

So, thank you, Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars, for injecting a little off-ice excitement into our lives. There was a time not long ago when it would’ve been a given that a player of Seguin’s ilk wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the waters of unrestricted free agency. But now that John Tavares, the most sought-after free agent in the history of the game, defied that concept by eschewing the New York Islanders for the Toronto Maple Leafs, perhaps now we’ll have some real fun around the trade deadline and free agency again. Take Seguin, for example. His numbers the past five seasons prove he’s Tavares’ equal. In fact, you could make the argument he’s a superior player to Tavares. So if Tavares is worth $11 million per on a seven-year deal…

Going into this season, the list of high-profile players entering the final year of their contracts is almost dizzying. Two years ago, we had Steven Stamkos. Last season, we had Tavares. With any luck, this season we’ll be talking about so many elite players in that situation that it will be difficult to keep track.

Digest this murderer’s row of pending UFAs for a minute. Let’s start with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have arguably the best goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky and a top-five left winger in Artemi Panarin staring down the UFA option. Panarin has indicated he’s not terribly interested in re-signing with the Blue Jackets and looks to be on his way out, either by way of the trade market or free agency next summer. Panarin wants to be near water and the Scioto River apparently doesn’t qualify. What makes this situation so intriguing is the fact the Blue Jackets have the makings of a contending team, which means they’ll face an excruciating decision if they can’t sign either player. Do they cut their losses and trade one or both or do they go the distance, hoping a long playoff run or a Stanley Cup will convince them to stay?

The dysfunctional Ottawa Senators have an even bigger headache. In addition to Erik Karlsson, the Sens face uncertainty with Mark Stone and Matt Duchene both entering their final contract years. If the chance to win a Cup in the foreseeable future is one of the boxes these guys want to check off with their next long-term employer, there’s going to be a stampede out of Canada’s capital.

But wait, there’s more! Speaking of dysfunctional, the messy impending divorce between the Montreal Canadiens and Max Pacioretty has to come to some sort of resolution, does it not?

Add to those players the likes of Jeff Skinner in Buffalo, Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee with the Islanders and Wayne Simmonds in Philadelphia, and we’re onto something here. There’s a very good chance, given their situations, that at least a few of these guys don’t get re-signed. Which means they’ll either play out their last seasons with their teams or create a frenzy of activity at the trade deadline.

Either way, it’s a win-win for fans who like some off-ice spice added to their hockey palate. Nothing stirs up the imagination like uncertainty and possibility because man cannot live on 3-2 shootouts in February alone. This time last year, much of the hockey world assumed Tavares would join the line of pending UFAs who re-signed before things got exciting, but his decision to play it out and move on might cause other players to pause before taking the sure thing.

And if it doesn’t manifest itself in an exciting trade deadline, at the very worst you’ll see a bunch of elite players motivated and eager to prove they’re worth being fought over on July 1. Let the games, both on and off the ice, begin.

This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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