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Unrestricted free agent class of 2018 banking on big season

Tavares, Atkinson, Kane among those who could cash in next summer

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

It's never too early to think about the future, especially if you're an NHL player still in his prime and about to enter the final year of your contract.

Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu and Winnipeg Jets center Bryan Little clearly had their futures in mind entering training camp. Each has since signed a contract that will carry him well beyond this season.

Koivu, 34, signed a two-year extension worth $11 million on Monday. He should be in Minnesota through at least the 2019-20 season. Little, 29, signed a six-year extension worth $31.7 million. He should be in Winnipeg through at least the 2023-24 season.

They each could have waited and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Their signings got us thinking about the top players scheduled to become UFAs this offseason.

The following is a list of the 10 most interesting players, all younger than 35 (listed alphabetically), who could highlight the UFA Class of 2018 (all salary figures are from CapFriendly.com):

 

Cam Atkinson, RW
Team: Columbus Blue Jackets
Cap charge: $3.5 million
Age: 28
2016-17 stats: 35-27-62 in 82 games

Atkinson, entering the last year of a three-year contract, is one of the best bargains in the NHL. He was tied for eighth in the League in goals with Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty and tied for 33rd in points with Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk. Pacioretty has a $4.5 million cap charge. Van Riemsdyk has a $4.25 million cap charge. Atkinson is 13th in the NHL with 62 goals the past two seasons. He could play this season with Alexander Wennberg and Artemi Panarin, so his production could increase. He also told The Athletic that he will not negotiate a new contract once the season begins.

Video: PIT@CBJ, Gm3: Atkinson steals, nets his second of 1st

 

John Carlson, D
Team: Washington Capitals
Cap charge: $3.96 million
Age: 27
2016-17 stats: 9-28-37 in 72 games

Carlson is entering the last year of a six-year contract. Since the 2013-14 season, Carlson is 20th among defensemen in points (168), 19th in assists (129), tied for 16th in power-play points (68), tied for 11th in game-winning goals (10) and 22nd in ice time per game (23:30). The Capitals already have defensemen Matt Niskanen ($5.75 million), Brooks Orpik ($5.5 million) and Dmitry Orlov ($5.1 million) signed through at least next season. Orpik could be a buyout candidate to make room for Carlson if the Capitals are interested in keeping him.

 

Evander Kane, LW
Team: Buffalo Sabres
Cap charge: $5.25 million
Age: 26
2016-17 stats: 28-15-43 in 70 games

Kane's future with the Sabres has never been on strong footing. He's nearing the end of a six-year contract, but it's fair to wonder if Buffalo is going to be able to afford Kane and center Jack Eichel, who is expected to eventually sign an eight-year contract extension that could pay him upwards of $10 million annually. The Sabres also have Ryan O'Reilly making $7 million and Kyle Okposo $6 million, not to mention Jason Pominville, $5.6 million, and Matt Moulson, $5 million. All are signed beyond this season. Moulson could be a buyout candidate. Kane could be a trade deadline rental acquisition even if the Sabres are in the playoff race.

Video: BUF@TBL: Kane nets Gionta's pass for 300th point

 

Jonathan Marchessault, C 
Team: Vegas Golden Knights
Cap charge: $750,000
Age: 26
2016-17 stats: 30-21-51 in 75 games

Marchessault must prove he isn't a one-hit wonder to get a long-term contract. He had eight goals in 49 NHL games during three seasons with the Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning before breaking out with the Florida Panthers last season. Marchessault should be put in a scorer's role in Vegas, and his coach, Gerard Gallant, was his coach at the start of last season. Marchessault averaged 0.454 goals per game (10 goals in 22 games) before Gallant was fired by the Panthers on Nov. 27, 2016. His goals per game average dropped to 0.377 (20 in 53 games) under Tom Rowe, who replaced Gallant.

 

Rick Nash, RW
Team: New York Rangers
Cap charge: $7.8 million
Age: 33
2016-17 stats: 23-15-38 in 67 games

Nash is entering the last year of an eight-year contract he signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He said this season is huge because he's playing for a new contract, but he understands he'll most likely have to take a pay cut. He would like to remain with the Rangers, but they may not be able to afford him with forwards Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller and defenseman Brady Skjei in need of new contracts after the season. All can become restricted free agents.

Video: OTT@NYR, Gm3: Nash finishes a two-on-one rush

 

James Neal, LW
Team: Vegas Golden Knights
Cap charge: $5 million
Age: 30
2016-17 stats: 23-18-41 in 70 games

Neal, entering the final year of a six-year contract, is a prime candidate to be traded at the deadline, with the idea that he gives the Golden Knights around 20 goals through the first 4 1/2 months before they trade him to a contender. At 30, Neal doesn't seem to be a long-term fit in Vegas considering general manager George McPhee's plans to build through the draft. All this makes Neal a likely candidate to land on the open market on July 1, 2018.

 

Paul Stastny, C
Team: St. Louis Blues
Cap charge: $7.0 million
Age: 31
2016-17 stats: 18-22-40 in 66 games

Stastny signed a four-year contract with his hometown team in 2014, knowing the term put him in line for at least one more big contract. He basically bet on himself because he could have signed for a longer term. Stastny hasn't come near the 60-point season he had in 2013-14 with the Colorado Avalanche, but he's scored in the 40s in each of his three seasons with the Blues. While he may not get close to $7 million per year again, he'll land another considerable contract if he has a big season for the Blues, who will have to re-sign forward Robby Fabbri before next season.

 

John Tavares, C
Team: New York Islanders
Cap charge: $5.5 million
Age: 27
2016-17 stats: 28-38-66 in 77 games

Tavares' contract situation has Islanders fans on edge. Tavares, who is celebrating his 27th birthday Wednesday and is entering the last year of a six-year contract, has said on numerous occasions that his priority is to stay with the Islanders. His negotiation doesn't appear to be about money. It's more about getting answers on the future of the organization, the direction it is headed and where it will be playing, as in if a new arena is coming to the New York area. Tavares said he is willing to negotiate during the season, which is a good sign for the Islanders.

Video: BOS@NYI: Tavares weaves into zone and nets wrister

 

Kyle Turris, C
Team: Ottawa Senators
Cap charge: $3.5 million
Age: 28
2016-17 stats: 27-28-55 in 78 games

Turris, entering the last year of a five-year contract, is coming off a strong season and is expected to again be the first-line center. Another big season will put him in line for a significant raise. He's making $4 million this season even though his cap charge is $3.5 million. Ottawa has to re-sign forward Mark Stone, who also carries a $3.5 million cap charge and can be a restricted free agent. In addition, goalie Craig Anderson, 36, can be an unrestricted free agent after the season. The Senators' future cap structure also has to account for a raise for defenseman Erik Karlsson, who has two years remaining on a contract that carries a $6.5 million charge.

 

James van Riemsdyk, LW
Team: Toronto Maple Leafs
Cap charge: $4.25 million
Age: 28
2016-17 stats: 29-33-62 in 82 games

Van Riemsdyk, entering the last year of a six-year contract, is a valuable piece of the puzzle but might be more valuable in a trade. Toronto will have to re-sign William Nylander after this season and leave room on its cap for new contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner after the 2018-19 season. Van Riemsdyk fits in the cap structure in the short term but might not in the long term, and he is certainly in line for a long-term contract. It's possible forward Patrick Marleau's three-year, $18.75 million contract means van Riemsdyk's time in Toronto is near an end.

 

Note: The top 35-and-older potential UFAs next summer are Joe Thornton (San Jose Sharks), Henrik Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Daniel Sedin (Vancouver Canucks), Craig Anderson (Ottawa Senators) and Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins).

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