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Panarin, Bobrovsky futures among top questions heading into free agency

Landing spots for Blue Jackets forward, goalie, possibility of Marner offer sheet add intrigue to July 1

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

NHL teams used to consider free agency a chance to add players without giving up assets. Not anymore. The NHL salary cap makes cap space an asset. 

That makes the opening of free agency on July 1 a particularly tricky time.

To win a bidding war for a player, a team often must give more money and term than it would like. But if a team signs players for too much for too long, especially when players decline in the coming years, it creates salary cap problems.

 

[RELATED: Complete NHL Free Agency coverage]

 

The salary cap is $81.5 million for 2019-20, a modest increase from $79.5 million.

The good news? Big contracts for elite players and smaller ones for role players can improve a team immediately, and all isn't lost for teams that lose free agents. They gain salary cap space to make other moves and take advantage of teams tight against the cap.

Here are five burning questions entering free agency:

 

Where do the Columbus Blue Jackets free agents go?

Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, forward Artemi Panarin and center Matt Duchene are at or near the top of everyone's list of pending unrestricted free agents. Forward Ryan Dzingel is in the next tier.

Bobrovsky and Panarin have been linked to the Florida Panthers, who hired coach Joel Quenneville and have been open about their desire to spend. Panarin played two seasons for Quenneville with the Chicago Blackhawks. Duchene, who has been known to play guitar, seems a perfect fit for the Nashville Predators.

But they will have other options. Do the New York Islanders sign Bobrovsky to replace Robin Lehner, another pending UFA? Do the Islanders, New York Rangers or Colorado Avalanche lure Panarin? Do the Montreal Canadiens appeal to the emotions of Duchene, who wore No. 9 in honor of Maurice Richard?

Video: Where Duchene, potential UFAs land during Free Agency

 

What happens to two California icons?

It's hard to imagine forwards Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski in different uniforms. But the Anaheim Ducks have bought out Perry, and the San Jose Sharks could part with Pavelski, a pending UFA.

Perry could be a low-risk, high-return signing if he accepts a relatively cheap, short-term contract in the hopes of proving himself and signing a bigger one later. The 34-year-old missed 51 games this season because of a knee injury; he scored 34 goals as recently as 2015-16.

Pavelski is hard to value for the same reasons he's easy to love. How long can he continue to beat the odds with determination, when the NHL keeps getting faster? He has never been known for his skating and turns 35 on July 11. He scored 38 goals this season, tying his NHL career high, and his shooting percentage was 20.2 percent, the highest of his career. Will he regress? How quickly? How badly? How long would you sign him? He reportedly has visited the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning during the interview period.

Video: Freidman gives updates on Panarin, Pavelski

 

Will any restricted free agent sign a contract offer sheet?

Each year, the hockey world buzzes about offer sheets. Almost always, nothing happens. The RFA's team has the right to match, and if it doesn't, the compensation is too high: as many as four first-round draft picks spread out over five seasons.

No RFA has signed an offer sheet since Feb. 28, 2013, when Avalanche center Ryan O'Reilly signed a two-year, $10 million offer sheet with the Calgary Flames. The Avalanche matched it.

The last player to switch teams because of an offer sheet: Ducks forward Dustin Penner, who signed a five-year, $21.5 million offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers on July 26, 2007. The Ducks didn't match and received the Oilers' first-, second- and third-round picks in the 2008 NHL Draft based on the compensation scale at the time.

What makes this year interesting, though, is there are several teams tight against the cap and some particularly attractive RFAs, including Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner, Lightning center Brayden Point and Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine.

Video: Offseason winners and losers heading into free agency

 

Which teams will grab the headlines?

The Panthers have said they will be aggressive. The New Jersey Devils selected center Jack Hughes No. 1 in the 2019 NHL Draft on Friday, acquired defenseman P.K. Subban in a trade with the Predators on Saturday, and want to keep forward Taylor Hall, who becomes eligible to sign a contract extension Monday. Are they done? 

Keep an eye on the Avalanche. They're loaded with young talent and cap space, and they took the Sharks to Game 7 in the Western Conference Second Round. Some secondary scoring to complement center Nathan MacKinnon and forwards Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen could make Colorado a serious Stanley Cup contender. No wonder the Avalanche are reportedly recruiting Panarin.

What about the Blue Jackets? General manager Jarmo Kekalainen showed how bold he could be when he not only kept Bobrovsky and Panarin but added Duchene and Dzingel before the NHL Trade Deadline to make a run at the Stanley Cup. If those players leave, Columbus would have a young core, promising prospects and lots and lots of salary cap space.

 

Who'll make quiet moves we'll praise later?

The St. Louis Blues made noise on July 1, 2018, trading for O'Reilly and signing forwards Tyler Bozak and David Perron. Then they signed forward Pat Maroon on July 9. The St. Louis native took a one-year, $1.75 million contract, less than he could have gotten elsewhere, to play for his hometown team and live near his son, Anthony.

Maroon didn't put up big numbers but scored in double overtime against the Stars in Game 7 of the second round, and he was a physical presence for a team that wore down opponents in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and won the championship.

It more than paid off.

Who could be a relative bargain who makes an impact? Maroon again? Centers Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Brian Boyle and Brandon Pirri? Forwards Brett Connolly, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist? Goalies Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney?

It all starts Monday.

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