The class of remaining UFAs is a mess right now.
Seriously. Of the top five remaining forwards based off of points in 2018-19, all of them are at least 35, and Jason Pominville’s 31 points is enough to get him on the list. On defense, it’s Jake Gardiner, Ben Hutton, plus a handful of guys who can fill sixth or seventh spots, at best. And with Cam Ward and Chad Johnson being the top goalie options remaining, don’t expect teams to upgrade their crease situation through the open market. But it’s also past the halfway mark in July, so all of this is no surprise.
But what still gives this some a ton of intrigue are the restricted free agents: eight remaining RFAs had at least 50 points, with one coming close at 49. Mitch Marner and Brayden Point are among two of the best RFAs in recent seasons and will be very important pieces once they hammer out deals with Toronto and Tampa, respectively (assuming they don’t get offer sheets).
In the meantime, let’s have some fun during the hot summer days: what would a roster of the best remaining RFAs look like?
Matthew Tkachuk – Brayden Point – Mitch Marner
Kyle Connor – Colin White – Mikko Rantanen
Patrik Laine – Ivan Barbashev – Brock Boeser
Travis Konecny – Evan Rodrigues – Pavel Buchnevich
News out of Toronto regarding Marner has been quiet over the past week, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But after the William Nylander debacle last year, you can bet your bacon Leaf fans want Marner back to start the season. His 94 points were the most of any free agent this season, and his 68 assists were good for fourth in the league. So imagine him setting up someone like Point, a sharpshooter coming off of a 41-goal season alongside Nikita Kucherov in Tampa Bay. Throw in a guy with size who can create havoc around the net like Tkachuk and you have a well-rounded line where everyone is capable of 85 to 90 points a season without hesitation.
The talent at center falls off after Point. In fact, the three other centers on this roster combined for 96 points, four more than Point had himself. But with White, in particular, you have a guy who was surrounded by nothing in Ottawa for most of the season but is poised for a breakout season in 2019-20 after a couple of solid seasons learning from veterans like Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel. Having Connor and Rantanen, two wingers coming off of huge seasons themselves, on the side would unlock his potential and showcase his fantastic playmaking abilities that have been stifled on a poor team in Ottawa.
Barbashev has been somewhat of a project player in St. Louis. Once a promising playmaker in junior, Barabashev hasn’t broken out in the NHL yet and is coming off his first full season in the NHL after spending significant time in the AHL over the past few years. He’s an effective bottom-six center in St. Louis, but he’s proven at other levels he’s as dangerous around the opposition’s net as he is responsible around his own. And having Boeser and Laine, two elite shooters capable of scoring 30-plus goals a year would give him a ton of help offensively.
The fourth line features a group looking to prove themselves. Konecny has been bubbling around the 50-point mark the past two seasons and another year with Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux should push him towards that mark easily this season. Rodrigues, a two-way center with experience at all three forward poisitions, plays on one of the worst offensive teams in Buffalo, so giving him talent to play with would finally give him a chance to show if he can produce at the NHL level. Buchnevich will have a better supporting cast around him in New York – assuming the trade rumors aren’t true – and after scoring 21 goals last year on a poor team, he’s trending upwards and would be a good value player on the fourth line. Fiala is the spare forward and rounds out the group as a player who finds himself in a good situation in Minnesota, which won’t be afraid to give him 17 minutes a night and a chance to be a key contributor for a team that’s unlikely to make the playoffs.
Zach Werenski – Jacob Trouba*
Ivan Provorov – Charlie McAvoy
Will Butcher – Anthony DeAngelo
Werenski and Trouba are both about to enter their prime years, and the combo would be a dominant duo. Werenski, coming off a torn labrum, had a tough road to get back to full pace this past season and took half the year to regain his confidence. But when he was on his game – something that was evident during Columbus’ miracle playoff run against Tampa Bay – he wasn’t someone to mess with. Offensive, few were as good as Trouba was last season, putting up 50 points in 82 games for the Jets before getting traded to the Big Apple in June (EDIT: This was written before Trouba’s contract was announced). Together, both defenders can move the puck well, outskate their opponents and have nice size to boot, so this combo is a no-brainer.
On the second pair, Provorov is one of Philadelphia’s most important players and a big minute-muncher, playing an average of 25:07 per game in 2018-19, the sixth-highest total in the NHL. He had a bit of a down offensive season, falling from 41 points in 2017-18 to 26 this past season, but Provorov is capable of leading a team – he simply needs a bit of help. McAvoy is still looking to complete his first 82-game season with the Bruins due to a knee injury, concussion issues and a heart procedure in his short career, but there are few defensemen under the age of 23 you’d want to go head-to-head against. And both Provorov and McAvoy have a bit of snarl, too, so this duo would be a pain in the butt to play against.
New Jersey is having a renaissance with the additions of Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban, so it’s easy to forget about Butcher on the Devils’ backend. Small but speedy, Butcher is still developing his game but can run a power play and moves the puck very well – so imagine what Subban, with his big shot, will offer him on the right side in New Jersey. DeAngelo, with his offensive flair, and the massive Carlo, with his steady two-way play, are two defenders who came into their own this season. They round out a group that has an impressive amount of speed and skill all around.
David Rittich – Linus Ullmark – Adin Hill
The skaters on our all-RFA team make it a Cup contender, but there are question marks in goal. Jordan Binnington would have been a fantastic option, but Blues recently signed him to a two-year bridge deal after his meteoric rise from zero to Stanley Cup hero. Rittich is not a bad option. He finished the year 27-9-1 with a .911 save percentage but faded down the stretch and lost the No. 1 job to Mike Smith. It was Rittich’s first extended stint in the NHL, however, and at points the 26-year-old looked like one of the better goalies in the league. He showed enough to deserve a crack at the No. 1 role, and at this point there’s no reason to believe the Flames won’t bring him back this, potentially on a one-year deal before he becomes a UFA next summer.
Ullmark had his busiest game load with the Sabres this past season after four years with the organization, but he did nothing to spark confidence that he can be a long-term starting goalie. Still, he’s one of the most experienced RFAs on the goalie market and can fill a backup role swimmingly. Hill, like in Arizona, would serve as the third goalie who could play games if needed.
*Note: Jacob Trouba signed a seven-year, $56-million contract with the Rangers Friday afternoon.
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