NHL Free Agency Predictions and Projections
As NHL free agency inches ever closer we wanted to have a little fun and make some predictions about what we think could transpire over the next few days. We’ve identified five forwards and five defensemen to make some predictions on. Four in each category are unrestricted free agents while the other two are top trade candidates. For the free agents, we have given contract projections that we arrived at using our internal methods (sorry, we won’t be disclosing them at this time). All the team picks are solely our opinions and little to no statistical analysis has been done to come to those predictions. Justin and Kyle came up with their picks completely independently without comparing notes.
Kyle’s Pick: New York Islanders
Contract Prediction: $92.5M over 8 years; $11.56M AAV
Had I been writing this a few weeks ago I might not pick the team I will but the more things develop, the more I think John Tavares stays with the Islanders. The team has stabilized their front office and hired a Stanley Cup winning coach. They just had a tremendous draft and have plenty of cap space to sign Tavares to the contract he commands. Tavares is just too valuable to the Islanders for them to lose him. The team will certainly still have some holes to fill his offseason on their blueline and in net but it will be much easier for the team to draw some talent if Tavares stays. I think the Sharks could be a dark horse here but ultimately Tavares will stay with what he knows.
Justin’s Pick: New York Islanders
John Tavares is arguably the best player to reach free agency in recent memory. If I were Tavares I would look to get out of Long Island. He will be able to handpick his next team and judging on some of the media reports he would be willing to consider teams in California. After the recent moves made the team I think he would fit best on is the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks have the cap space and the young talent that should be enough to attract the best free agent in the class. His speed and skill would blend nicely with a player like Evander Kane. However, I think the fun is not going to happen and Tavares is going to resign and stay a member of the New York Islanders. From what has been made public, Tavares is a very loyal player and the new arena is enticing to him. I hate to take the easy way out, but the Islanders have the cap space and enough young talent to make it worthwhile for Tavares to hang around. A team does not fire its coach and general manager if it does not feel that it has a great chance of holding onto its star player. As teams are making the pitch to Tavares this week, the Islanders will probably be the team to beat.
Kyle’s Pick: Colorado Avalanche
Contract Prediction: $24.7M over 4 years; $6.17M AAV
I think Paul Stastny goes full circle and returns to the place where he started his career. The Avalanche have plenty of cap space and could certainly use a boost at center behind Nathan MacKinnon. The team made the playoffs this season and if they want to keep the momentum going next season, they are going to have to add talent to keep pace with the central division arms race. I don’t think a return to the Blues or Jets is out of the question. Going back to the Jets would likely have to be for less money or less term but it might give Stastny the best chance at lifting the cup. I think dollars and term from a contending team win out with Stastny back in Denver.
Justin’s Pick: Colorado Avalanche
If I am Paul Stastny I would do everything in my power to stay in Winnipeg. Stastny is aging and the 32-year-old forward only has a handful of seasons left and the Jets figure to be one of the strongest teams in the league again next season. With that being said, there will be other teams interested in his services. Teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues would make sense to sign Stastny. The Flyers could use two-way center to help some of their young forwards and figure to have the space to sign Stastny. Stastny has been asked about a return to the Blues and he did not shoot down the idea. The Blues still feel that they should be a contending team and Stastny is a player that would help the team immediately. The former Blue provides exactly what the Blues are looking for and I would not be surprised to see the Blues in the Stastny sweepstakes. The Canadiens and Avalanche are rumored to be interested in Stastny and my pick is the Avalanche. Stastny started his career in Colorado and now seems like the perfect time to return. The team is stacked with young talent and Stastny could step in and help lead the team into the playoffs for the second straight season.
James Van Riemsdyk
Kyle’s Pick: Dallas Stars
Contract Prediction: $38M over 6 years; $6.3M AAV
James van Riemsdyk has to be the toughest to predict. On one hand, he is probably the second best forward available on the free agent market behind Tavares. On the other hand, there are probably some trade dominoes that could fall between now and July 1st that could completely change the landscape for JVR. Tavares’s decision could take a potential suitor out of the mix for JVR. Once Tavares makes his decision, you would have to look at what happens with Ryan O’Reilly and Erik Karlsson. Though both players are players at different positions, adding their salaries will likely shift the amount of cap space available. If Buffalo flips O’Reilly for little salary in return, they suddenly have a plethora of cap space with a need on the wing. If a team trades for O’Reilly or Karlsson, they will likely be committing too much cap space to that player to also add JVR. I think the Stars are a team who are rumored to be looking to make a splash this offseason but will lose out on both Karlsson and Tavares will turn their attention to JVR. I would also watch out for Vegas if they miss out on any of those players as well.
Justin’s Pick: Dallas Stars
Depending on which reporters you are willing to trust it seems like more than half the league has expressed interest in James van Riemsdyk. At this point the most reliable reporters have confirmed most of the rumors so JVR will be a player to watch in free agency. Making a prediction here is going to be tough since so many teams are rumored to be showing interest. I think van Riemsdyk would fit nicely in Dallas. The Stars are in the Tavares sweepstakes so their willingness to pay for a forward is there. JVR would fit nicely in their lineup and the team will be looking to bounce back after missing the playoffs.
Kyle’s Pick: Vegas Golden Knights
This pick will likely come as a surprise but I think this makes plenty of sense. Vegas will have to add some salary this offseason and can easily absorb O’Reilly’s cap hit for years to come. O’Reilly might not have the speed of other Vegas players but everything else he brings would be a great fit in Vegas. Vegas doesn’t have a great second-line shutdown center that O’Reilly brings. By acquiring a player who is thought of as one of the best two-way players in the game, Vegas could put their dominant scoring line in an even more favorable position. We can debate how important faceoffs are but Vegas was exposed at the dot in the Stanley Cup Finals. It seemed like they lost nearly every important draw. Ryan O’Reilly solves that. Vegas also has the assets to make a deal happen. I could see a deal revolving around Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch making a lot of sense. Rumors have swirled forever connecting O’Reilly to Montreal and St. Louis that I think if a deal was going to be made that it would have been made already.
Justin’s Pick: Buffalo Sabres
Ryan O’Reilly is not a free agent, but his name has been circulating in trade rumors since the season ended. The Sabres are looking to get faster and moving the $7.5M cap hit would help their cause. The Canadiens and Blues were rumored to be trying to deal for O’Reilly at the draft, but the deals fell through. The Sabres could have been looking to acquire picks in the deal so now that the draft has past I think the he will start the season in Buffalo. Some media members are reporting that the Canadiens have stayed in contact with the Sabres about making a deal. The Sabres have no reason to move him for anything less than maximum value, they are not a cap team and O’Reilly is tremendously valuable to the team.
Kyle’s Pick: Nashville Predators
Contract Prediction: $36.6M over 6 years; $6.1M AAV
If my prediction comes true, Neal could sign quickly but will likely end up with a smaller AAV than we have predicted. Since I’m likely wrong with my team prediction, Neal will likely wait until the JVR domino falls. As I was typing this, Pittsburgh just cleared $5M in cap space so they could find themselves in the mix but it looks like the Neal ship in Pittsburgh has already sailed. It seems like Nashville is looking to add again and was certainly disappointed to lose Neal last year so this gives them the opportunity bring Neal back. Basically, what I typed for JVR applies to Neal as well if he doesn’t go to Nashville.
Justin’s Pick: Winnipeg Jets
James Neal is an interesting case, when he was drafted by Vegas it was assumed that he would be traded at the deadline to a contending team. As we all know, Vegas was a contending team, so it would have been a horrible look to trade Neal. Now Vegas is in a tough spot as Neal is an unrestricted free agent. It seems like Vegas will not be bringing him back, so I think a team that misses out on Tavares is a potential fit for Neal. However, Neal is rumored to be looking for a very large contract and the market could dry up rather quickly. It is for this reason that I think Neal will sign a short-term deal in Winnipeg. I suggested Stastny opt for a short-term deal but if he goes to the Avalanche the Jets will have room to add a forward in the short term and Neal fits the bill perfectly. If Neal is unable to get the long term deal he desires, Winnipeg looks to be a good fit in the short term.
Kyle’s Pick: Vegas Golden Knights
If both this prediction and my Ryan O’Reilly prediction come true, Vegas will likely have severely depleted their organization depth but would have an awesome team for next season. Vegas could also take on Bobby Ryan’s contract to lessen the price they would have to pay for Karlsson. Ryan would be a great replacement for James Neal, who seems destined to leave the team. Acquiring Ryan, O’Reilly, and Karlsson would put Vegas close to the cap and it remains to be seen if they would be comfortable operating there. I would imagine Tomas Tatar would have to go back to Ottawa in this type of trade so if this is going to happen it would have to be before July 1st, when Tatar’s No-Trade kicks in. I’ll probably be wrong on this or the O’Reilly prediction but I’ll hedge my bet. Vegas will make a splash this offseason.
Justin’s Pick: Ottawa Senators
John Carlsson signing was the first defensive domino to fall. Many people expect Erik Karlsson to be the next domino to fall, but I am not one of those people. I think he starts the season in Ottawa. The Senators are facing tons of pressure to put a good product on the ice this year, especially after they kept their first-round pick. The organization is not in good standing right now, a player like Karlsson is the only stabilizing force, moving him would only make matters worse. Holding onto Karlsson could put the team in a tough spot at the trade deadline but I think it is something the organization will do. The way things are going for the Senators I am expecting the worst and holding onto Karlsson and selling him for 50 cents on the dollar the deadline seems like the worst-case scenario.
Calvin de Haan
Kyle’s Pick: New York Islanders
Contract Prediction: $21M over 4 years; $5.2 AAV
I frankly have no clue what will happen with de Haan so I’m going to predict he returns to the Islanders. With new management and coaching in place, de Haan doesn’t have to move to get a fresh start. De Haan wasn’t the problem on the blueline last season and the Islanders are going to have to fill some spots up and down the roster. Retaining de Haan would be one less player they would have to find in free agency. Calvin de Haan would be a great option for teams who wanted to pursue Carlson and miss out on Mike Green. He should have plenty of suitors so a team striking quickly will likely be the one to land him.
Justin’s Pick: New Jersey Devils
Despite a shoulder injury there are several teams who are interested in de Haan. A team I can see signing him are the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have a few free agent defensemen of their own and f they are unable to resign them de Haan could be a fit there. The Devils will have the cap space and a high upside player like de Haan fits exactly what they are looking for. He could be a nice complement to Will Butcher and his puck moving ability would help the forward group as well.
Kyle’s Pick: Edmonton Oilers
Contract Prediction: $17M over 4 years; $4.2 AAV
I think Montreal will also be in the mix here. Are we seeing a trend? Ultimately, I think it is Edmonton that makes the move. They seem desperate to add another defenseman and they have yet to do so. Jack Johnson fits everything Edmonton wants. A player with experience who can move the puck and is probably not as good as many hockey people think he is. Edmonton must improve their roster around McDavid and they will think this will do it (though it likely won’t).
Justin’s Pick: Montreal Canadiens
I am not a big Jack Johnson fan, but he will have a handful of teams looking to sign him come July 1st. The defenseman is aging but there still appears to be quite the demand and willingness to pay. The Penguins are rumored to have interest, but I think trading Sheary and Hunwick was done to go after a bigger fish. The Montreal Canadiens are also rumored to have shown interest and I can see the team being willing to pay. The Habs are in a win now mode despite not having the strongest roster, that is a recipe for a big free agency splash. Johnson fits the bill and would fill a need on the back end. This would seem like a panic move to me, but I would not be surprised to see it go down.
Kyle’s Pick: Washington Capitals
Contract Prediction: $7.4M over 2 years; $3.7M AAV
Kempny is probably an underappreciated player who we will probably over shoot with our contract prediction. Teams should be interested in Kempny but if Kempny ultimately wants to stay in Washington, that’s what will happen.
Justin’s Pick: Washington Capitals
This seems like an easy one. Kempny is going to stay in Washington, why would he want to leave and why would the Capitals let him go? After being acquired from the Blackhawks Kempny found his game in Washington and played a key role during the playoff run. He shouldn’t cost the team a crazy amount and his style of play fits the style of play. When the player comes out and says the goal is to resign, it is obvious what the plan is. Kempny will not have to take a large “hometown discount” because his price will not be all that high to begin with.
Kyle’s Pick: Philadelphia Flyers
Contract Prediction: $24M over 4 years; $6M AAV
This is another pick I don’t feel overly confident in but Philadelphia will be poised to make a splash in free agency and this is the biggest fish I think they have any sort of chance at landing. Green is probably an upgrade over Brandon Manning and with cap space and few holes on their roster, the Flyers are in a position to pay for any sort of upgrade they can get. They are probably in a win now window so a short-term deal with Green would make loads of sense.
Justin’s Pick: Detroit Red Wings
Mike Green is an interesting case, he has a very specific skillset that some of the better teams in the league should be looking to acquire. The Capitals and Green are connected for obvious reasons, but I do not see the Caps having enough cap space to make it happen. I can see Green joining the Lightning, but they may need to clear some cap space to make it happen. For those reasons I am predicting that he stays in Detroit. I hate to make the boring prediction, but it looks like Green isn’t chasing the most money and the better teams in the league may not have the cap space required to sign a player like Green.
We hope you enjoyed reading! Please check back often for more free agency related content!
UPDATE (6/28): We have published our free agent contract predictions here
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.
JUSTIN WHITE is an intern AFP Analytics. Justin is a graduate of St. John Fisher College where he earned his degree in Sport Management and Statistics. He has worked with the Rochester Americans and members of their coaching staff on various analytics and statistics-based projects.