Even with Oliver Ekman-Larsson no longer an option, teams seeking to make major upgrades to their roster this summer likely will do better on the trade market than through free agency.
The amount of high-quality players rumored to be available via trade is far greater than the list of UFAs where, after John Tavares and John Carlson, there is a significant drop-off in impact stars.
Let’s take a look at the list of high-end players who could be dealt this summer.
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He was almost dealt at the trade deadline, so Erik Karlsson sits at the top of this list, 12 months shy of unrestricted free agency.
Can the Sens afford to sign the 28-year-old Karlsson to an extension befitting a two-time Norris Trophy winner and one of the best individual talents in the sport? Let’s just say faith in owner Eugene Melnyk is dubious at best. Plus, a potential Karlsson trade could fill myriad holes on the roster and in the organization.
No matter what happens, this is the last season Karlsson — with a cap hit of $6.5 million — will be viewed as a bargain.
MORE: What can Senators expect to get in an Erik Karlsson deal?
Coming off a career-high 92 points, and already a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh, there would seem to be little stomach for the Penguins to trade away 30-year-old Phil Kessel.
However, the mercurial Kessel reportedly was not happy with how he was deployed during this year’s failed postseason run, and head coach Mike Sullivan is not enamored with Kessel’s attitude and subpar efforts during the playoffs this past spring.
Sounds pretty toxic; and GM Jim Rutherford may just decide it’s time to move on from Kessel. The added bonus would be freeing up a $6.8 million hit over the next four years on what is a robust salary cap.
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Speaking of toxic, there’s Mike Hoffman’s situation in Ottawa. With recent allegations that his fiancee has been trolling and harassing Erik Karlsson and his wife since last fall — leading to a restraining order request — it’s hard to imagine the 28-year-old can co-exist with Karlsson as teammates in Ottawa.
Despite the ugliness of this still-developing story, Hoffman has high trade value. He is under 30, has four straight 20-goal seasons on his resume and is signed for two more years at a $5.188 salary cap hit.
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Even though he backpedaled on his negative end-of-season comments about the Sabres in April, 27-year-old Ryan O’Reilly could very well be traded this summer. He is a coveted center who reached 50-plus points six times in his career, is solid on the power play, outstanding on face offs and thrived for Team Canada at five World Championships and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Buffalo has Jack Eichel down the middle and Casey Mittelstadt on the way, making an O’Reilly trade more feasible.
The biggest stumbling block is O’Reilly’s contract which calls for another five years at a bloated $7.5 million a year.
MORE: Sabres weighing pros and cons of trading Ryan O’Reilly
Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk
These Canadiens forwards are paired because either Montreal will trade one — though not both — or neither this summer.
Pacioretty, the Habs captain, is 29, becomes a UFA next summer and is a solid value at $4.5 million this year coming off a disappointing 17-goal, 37-point season. There is no reason to believe Pacioretty will not return to form, which saw him score 30 goals or more the previous four years. If the Habs do make him available, they should be able to fill one of the holes on the roster — either on defense or at center. Of course, they could plan on re-signing Pacioretty, too.
There can’t be a trade rumors story involving the Canadiens without a mention of 24-year-old Alex Galchenyuk. It boils down to the Habs need for a top-flight center and do not believe that is Galchenyuk, who is a better fit on the wing. However, the former third overall pick scored 30 goals three years ago and totaled 51 points this past season and is owed $4.9 million a year over the next two seasons — and did we mention he is only 24-years-old?
There’s no real potential No. 1 goalie to be found in free agency, so the Capitals could get a solid return if they deal 26-year-old Philipp Grubauer.
Now that Braden Holtby backstopped the Caps to the Stanley Cup, Grubauer — a pending RFA this summer — is a luxury the Cap-stretched Capitals no longer can afford. One would think Lou Lamoriello and the Islanders will inquire and the Hurricanes likely will make a call, too.
Grubauer, who carried the flag of Washington D.C. at the Caps victory parade on Tuesday, established career-highs with 35 appearances, 28 starts and 15 wins this past season and helped the Caps finish strong down the stretch, though he nearly derailed the Cup run in losing the first two games of the playoffs before Holtby took over.
The Penguins have the league’s strongest group of centers, lining up with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brassard and Riley Sheahan. However, it might be a luxury they can not afford much longer.
Pressed up against the salary cap, especially if Phil Kessel remains on the roster, GM Jim Rutherford may look to deal Brassard, the 30-year-old who is one year away from UFA status anyway.
Brassard scored 21 goals last season — though only one in 12 playoff games — and a career-high 27 with the Rangers in 2015-16, and is a solid playmaker and quality teammate. Plus he plays center, and how many teams do not need a quality pivot this offseason?
Fitting to follow Derick Brassard with Mats Zuccarello, his best buddy from the Rangers days.
The diminutive Zuccarello hit the big 3-0, saw his point total slip for the second year in a row (to 53) and was not nearly the spark plug he was in prior seasons. He does remain one of the few veteran leaders on the Rangers, and his contract is a reasonable $4.5 million for one more year.
If Jeff Gorton believes he is not finished retooling this roster, Zuccarello could be gonzo this summer, though it might be more likely he chooses to trade one of his younger pending RFAs like Ryan Spooner or Vlad Namestnikov.
Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm
The Hurricanes are going to make some moves and shake things up this summer. That much is certain under aggressive new owner Tom Dundon.
Jeff Skinner is 26-years-old, has 204 career goals — including a career-high 37 two years ago, and one year at $5.725 remaining on his contract. By dealing him, the ‘Canes would make a statement and be able to fill some holes on the roster. Of course, they’d create a major hole in the top-six by trading Skinner, and could be better served by signing him to an extension.
Elias Lindholm has been a disappointment of sorts — as has Viktor Rask, who needs to be included on this list, too — but he did notch 44 points this season, one shy of his career-high. He is still only 23 and was the fifth overall pick in 2013. He is also an RFA this summer.
Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin
These names are out there, if for no other reason than Tom Dundon wants to shake things up in Carolina.
Justin Faulk has not quite lived up to expectations offensively, but is still a 30-point defenseman who plays in all situations and is captain of the Hurricanes. He also makes a relatively-modest $4.833 million per for the next two years.
And Noah Hanifin is only 21, coming off a ten-goal, 32-point season. and in line for a bridge deal as an RFA.
These seem like players to build around, not trade away.