Ranking the NHL's top 50 (plus) free agents

With 102 goals in his last 290 games, teams know what to expect if they sign James Neal this summer. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It's often said that the general managers who win the NHL free-agency frenzy are the ones who don't dabble in the dark arts of inking players looking for a large salary bump. While that may be true in many cases, there are also some valuable additions and diamonds in the rough for teams looking hard enough at their options.

Such is the case this offseason, as you'll see in our tiered look. It breaks down the unrestricted free agents into categories ranging from sure things to big gambles to players to avoid like they're marinated in toxic waste. Oh, and one franchise-redefining center as well.

Here's a look at the key players hitting the market on July 1:

Note: Ages listed are as of June 19.

Tier 1: The best bets


John Tavares, C, New York Islanders
Age: 27 | 2017-18 cap hit: $5,500,000

Franchise players in their prime almost never make it to free agency. Franchise centers going UFA in their prime is like spotting a unicorn riding Halley's Comet. The last guy close to that stature was Brad Richards, who signed a nine-year deal that paid him $24 million in the first two seasons -- and that was in 2011 dollars.

Tavares has the sixth-most points in the NHL since 2014 (306). He is the No. 1 center your team is always chasing. If he goes to market, is a record-setting $11 million cap hit out of the question? Or will Tavares settle in a little lower for the sake of a Stanley Cup pursuit?

Again, the big question is if he goes to market; smart money is he remains with the Islanders. But these suitors will be hot for him if he doesn't re-sign.


Ilya Kovalchuk, LW/RW, St. Petersburg SKA (KHL)
Age: 35 | Previous NHL cap hit: $6,666,666

Kovalchuk hasn't played in the NHL since 2013, and there was some concern about his level of engagement during his KHL years. But those who have watched him also say his game has rounded out away from the puck. He has a tremendous shot, is an elite power-play performer and an underrated playmaker. He will be coveted by any team with a need for a top-six winger -- the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues among them.


James Neal, LW/RW, Vegas Golden Knights
Age: 30 | 2017-18 cap hit: $5,000,000

"The Real Deal" was a standout for the first-year Golden Knights, netting 25 goals. He has 102 in his past 290 games. He lost the thread a little bit during the regular season due to injuries but roared back with six goals and five helpers in the playoffs. He's a steady, physical presence who's good for 25-30 tallies a season. Will Vegas retain him?


James van Riemsdyk, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs
Age: 29 | 2017-18 cap hit: $4,250,000

JVR should send Evander Kane a fruit basket for getting seven years and $49 million out of the San Jose Sharks, setting a comfortable market standard. Especially since van Riemsdyk has 201 points in his past 285 games, compared to Kane's 154 in his past 250. He's proved he can be a solid, complementary top-line winger who could end up too rich for the Maple Leafs' cap considerations.

Tier 2: The smart gambles


Riley Nash, C, Boston Bruins
Age: 29 | 2017-18 cap hit: $900,000

This could be a total steal for someone if the contract is right. Nash had 15 goals and 26 assists in a breakout 2017-18 season, where his ice time increased by 1:37 per game. He's in his prime and made peanuts on his last deal.


Patrick Maroon, LW, New Jersey Devils
Age: 30 | 2017-18 cap hit: $6,000,000

Maroon was fine with the Devils, posting a 0.76 points-per-game average in 17 appearances despite seeing his offensive-zone starts decrease. That 27-goal campaign on Connor McDavid's wing in 2016-17 was probably an anomaly, but Maroon could get a team around 42 points and be a physical presence. Not a bad addition if the price is right, and he is a thrifty fallback for teams that miss out on the better left wings.


Michael Grabner, RW, New Jersey Devils
Age: 30 | 2017-18 cap hit: $1,650,000

Whatever happened with Grabner and the Devils, it was ugly: two goals and three assists in 21 games after his acquisition at the trade deadline, and then a healthy scratch in the playoffs. But we're wagering that Grabner is still the guy who has the same goals-per-game average as Phil Kessel and Nathan MacKinnon (0.35). If anything, his flop with the Devils might make the speedy forward an even greater bargain.


John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals
Age: 28 | 2017-18 cap hit: $3,966,667

Why is the best defenseman on the open market not a "best bet"" Two reasons. First is that he's going to get an average annual value on his contract north of $7 million, and it'll be hard to live up to that. Second, he has 144 points in his past 210 games, and 62 of them were on a power-play unit that featured Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, which gives us pause. But shift-to-shift, he's a solid defenseman that would be an asset to any team -- especially the reigning Stanley Cup champions.


Mike Green, D, Detroit Red Wings
Age: 32 | 2017-18 cap hit: $6,000,000

The Young Gun is now an Elder Statesman. Green's game is well-rounded, and he was an asset on the Red Wings, with whom he'd like to remain. If he goes to market, you know what you're getting: around 35 points and, unfortunately, only about 70 games at most due to injuries. With the right contract, he can help.


John Moore, D, New Jersey Devils
Age: 27 | 2017-18 cap hit: $1,666,667

This is a value move for someone. Moore had a strong season in 81 games for the Devils, relative to recent years, including a little more offense than expected (seven goals and 11 assists). Overall, a solid defenseman who's a pain to play against, and a good addition for any team looking for a left-handed depth defenseman.


Jonathan Bernier, G, Colorado Avalanche
Age: 29 | 2017-18 cap hit: $2,750,000

Bernier was impressive last season for the Avs, going 19-13-3 with a .922 even-strength save percentage and saving the club's collective bacon when Semyon Varlamov was out with an injury. He's turning 30 in August, but consecutive seasons of strong backup work might warrant adding him to a tandem.


Jaroslav Halak, G, New York Islanders
Age: 33 | 2017-18 cap hit: $4,500,000

He can't handle the crease on his own, and he's not worth $4.5 million against the cap. But he had a .917 even-strength save percentage during the past three seasons combined on a leaky defensive team. He's worth it for the right price and term.

Tier 3: The boom-or-busts