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Star-studded list of potential 2019 UFAs could mean contract craziness for NHL

John Tavares and John Carlson are in line for high-priced deals ahead of or during free agency, but the NHL could go contract crazy over the next 12 months with the list of big-name talent eligible for free agency in 2019.

In the wake of Connor McDavid’s goalpost-moving eight-year, $100-million contract, the NHL has seen a noticeable shift in spending.

For instance, there’s a fair chance Carey Price doesn’t earn $10.5 million annually on his extension with the Montreal Canadiens if McDavid doesn’t ink that deal, and you can be certain that McDavid’s signing also helped raise the bar for the likes of Evander Kane, who recently made waves with his seven-year, $49-million deal with the San Jose Sharks. That’s more money, by maybe $1 million or so per season, than Kane was expected to be paid on the open market, but deals such as McDavid’s have helped create a shift in free-agent value, even if the circumstances of his signing were different being that it was his second contract and not his first foray into unrestricted free agency.

It’s not just Kane and Price, though. Over the past year, there are 13 players who could’ve been eligible for free agency this summer who have put pen to paper on contracts worth $5 million or more per season. That includes Kane and Price, as well as Martin Jones, Marc-Edourad Vlasic, Bryan Little, Mikko Koivu, Kyle Turris, Cam Atkinson, Jonathan Marchessault, Mikael Backlund, Josh Bailey, Patric Hornqvist and Zdeno Chara. It’s likely that list will grow by at least several skaters once John Tavares, John Carlson, James van Riemsdyk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Paul Stastny, Mike Green, James Neal, Joe Thornton, David Perron and Rick Nash sign on the dotted line.

But the ripple effect of McDavid’s contract isn’t going to end there. In fact, in all likelihood, we’re going to begin to see those costs shift even more this coming summer and it could set up for a high-spending season that sees huge numbers tossed out to keep top talent in town.

Consider that when Tavares lands upwards of $10 million per season on his next deal, he’ll establish the going rate for a top-tier center, and that price will only increase with the cap projected to rise by as much or more than $5 million in time for next season. Likewise, when Carlson’s new contract carries an annual average value of more than $8 million, defenders will have a new guideline for determining their worth. And you can rest assured that the off-season arms race will see some other inflated deals, ones that piggyback off of those handed to the Kanes and Tavareses and Carlsons, that alter what the mid-level, consistent contributing, top-six forwards stand to earn as they begin to seek extensions.

And that’s why the next 12 months are going to be a veritable feeding frenzy for the pending UFAs of the hockey world. Because if you think the above list of $5-million-or-more earners is chock full of talent, take a glance at the group that are set to sign extensions and potentially enter free agency come next off-season.

Of course, the cream of the crop and the big-ticket earners as we head towards July 2019 have already started to make some waves. We’ve heard talk, that is, about what it’s going to cost for the Los Angeles Kings to keep Drew Doughty in town and what Erik Karlsson could potentially command on an extension or as a free agent. And while they may be the only players who have potential to add an eighth figure to their cap hit among the group of 2019 UFAs-to-be, that doesn’t mean they’re the only high-priced pieces on the board.

For instance, if Tavares signs for $10 million-plus, what then is the starting bid for the Dallas Stars when it comes to Tyler Seguin, who has slightly outscored Tavares over the past three seasons and would be the no-brainer top free agent forward on the market in the unlikely event he reaches July 2019 without a new pact. Stars captain Jamie Benn earns $9.5 million annually, and while he and Seguin are different players, their statistics are near identical over the past three campaigns. So, is that the mark for Seguin? And if that’s the case, what does it then mean for Artemi Panarin, who will also be due an extension or earn the right to explore his options come the next round of free agency?

Some may think there’s no relation, and some may rate Seguin much higher than Panarin, but it should be noted that Panarin just had his career-best campaign and was a force in the post-season at the tail end of a three-season run in which he scored 11 fewer goals but 10 more points than Seguin in seven additional games. Panarin’s 0.96 points-per-game rate is slightly higher than Seguin’s 0.94 rate. And, again, Panarin’s past season was proof positive he can produce without the supposed crutch he was provided by Patrick Kane. If Seguin earns more than $9 million, Panarin could rightfully follow suit. 

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That’s to say nothing, either, of what retaining Blake Wheeler could cost the Winnipeg Jets or any franchise who wants to bring him aboard should he reach free agency. Wheeler, while older than either Seguin or Panarin by several years, is the highest-scoring player eligible for free agency next season with 75 goals and 243 points over the past three seasons. In fact, only McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane have more points than Wheeler over the span. So, again, one has to wonder exactly how much Wheeler’s services are going to be worth, even if he is at a more advanced age than his other free agent-to-be counterparts. And whatever Wheeler and Panarin get will still only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the big-money contract craziness that could be the coming campaign.

Among the other notable forwards who will be due extensions and could potentially flirt with the open market, in order of offensive production over the past three seasons, are Joe Pavelski, Eric Staal, Mats Zuccarello, Max Pacioretty, Jeff Skinner, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Logan Couture, Derick Brassard, Adam Henrique, Gustav Nyquist, Jakob Silfverberg and Marcus Johansson.

But that’s to say nothing of the rearguards who will be eligible for new deals, either. The cream of the crop, once Karlsson and Doughty are done, will be Ryan Ellis, and while there’s next to no chance the Predators let the rearguard slip through the cracks, his deal could be incredibly pricy with the precedent that was set by Oliver Ekman-Larsson on his reported eight-year, $66-million contract with the Arizona Coyotes. While maybe not at the same level as either Ekman-Larsson or Ellis, too, one has to wonder what the high-priced pacts do for Tyler Myers and Niklas Hjalmarsson. The former can be an offensive force in the right situation, while the latter is a two-time Stanley Cup winning shutdown defender. Vlasic signing for $7 million per season and teammate Ekman-Larsson inking a deal worth $8 million has almost certainly raised Hjalmarsson’s asking price.

And that brings us to the goaltenders, who will be able to look at Price’s deal and compare away. Sergei Bobrovsky’s playoff misfortune isn’t going to do him all too well, but his 2016-17 Vezina Trophy and place among the Hart Trophy finalists will. That’s not to mention he has the NHL’s fourth-best save percentage over the past three campaigns combined. Marc-Andre Fleury, though older, will be able to make a compelling case for a big-time raise, too, as the face of the Vegas Golden Knights, and his desire to stay doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to come cheap. Meanwhile, Semyon Varlamov has potential to be the best netminder available on the open market. That is if Pekka Rinne doesn’t land there as well, but the 35-year-old may choose to stick around in Nashville at a cut rate or tend net elsewhere as a No. 1 if he’s moved along at some point.

When you add it all together, it’s not all that far-fetched to assume the total cap hit for the potential crop of 2019 free agents could flirt with — and in the off chance maybe even eclipse — the $200-million mark. So, while the past season and the opening days of free agency are going to see big money handed out for contracts that will kick in come the 2018-19 campaign, it may be nothing compared to what GMs will be set to spend to keep players or bring talent to town in time for the 2019-20 season.

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