Canada

John Tavares changed free-agency game last summer

Like the rest of the hockey world, Taylor Hall watched as John Tavares listened to interested teams make their pitches a year ago.

Tavares, the captain of the New York Islanders, held all the cards. In the end, five clubs got in the room with the star centre and his camp.

The Islanders were among them, but so were the Toronto Maple Leafs.

While he felt a strong pull to the only franchise he’d ever known — New York picked the Oakville, Ont., product first overall in 2009 — Tavares eventually landed on going home, signing a seven-year, $77-million US deal with Toronto as an unrestricted free agent.

Fast-forward 12 months, and Hall said seeing that whole process play out has changed the free-agency game.

Wise to take your time

“You’re starting to see players want to — I don’t know if it’s paid what they’re worth — but they want to see what’s out there and see what the other 30 teams have to offer,” said Hall, a winger with the New Jersey Devils. “That’s in the players’ rights. That’s what we fought for.

“If you have time, I think it’s wise to take it and make sure you make the right decisions.”

This year’s crop of pending UFAs are following the road map laid out by Tavares in the leadup to Monday’s opening of free agency.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene — all of the Columbus Blue Jackets — have had well-documented visits clubs jockeying for their services.

Hall, who’s entering the final year of his contract and could be in a similar boat at this time next year, said things have shifted. Some stars are more keen to keep their options open before hitting the market as UFAs.

“[Tavares] did something that really hasn’t been done before,” said Hall, who has yet to begin talks with New Jersey on a new deal. “He made a decision for himself and was definitely aware of the ramifications in Long Island and all that, and I think he’s pretty happy about it.”

RFAs intriguing

This year’s restricted free agent class is perhaps even more intriguing than its UFA counterpart with so many young stars still without contracts.

Toronto winger Mitch Marner, Winnipeg Jets sniper Patrik Laine, Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brayden Point and Colorado Avalanche star Mikko Rantanen, along with a host of others, remained unsigned and have been able to see what else is out there during the window allotted to speak with teams ahead of free agency.

A team that signs an RFA has to provide hefty compensation to the franchise that loses the player — no general manager has signed an offer sheet since 2013 and one hasn’t seen one accepted since 2007 — but the fact the door’s open remains intriguing.

“There’s definitely a changing landscape,” Hall said. “You’re starting to see players have a little bit more of a voice.”

With that in mind, The Canadian Press takes a look at some of the notable pending UFAs, and a couple RFAs, to watch heading into Monday.

Unrestricted free agents

Artemi Panarin

A point-per-game player over his four NHL seasons, the 27-year-old is believed to be a target of both the Florida Panthers and the New York Rangers. But don’t count out other teams with salary cap space like the New York Islanders and Colorado Avalanche.

Sergei Bobrovsky

The two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s top goalie, the 30-year-old’s numbers were down a bit in 2018-19, but that won’t deter his suitors. Florida appears to be the most likely destination for Bobrovsky.

Matt Duchene

The third overall pick in 2009 behind Tavares, Duchene was acquired by Columbus from the Ottawa Senators prior to the trade deadline in February. The Nashville Predators look to be front-runners, but the Montreal Canadiens are also reportedly in the mix for the 28-year-old centre.

Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry

A couple of veterans that have played their entire careers with the same team should garner plenty of interest. Pavelski, the 34-year-old captain of the Sharks, appears to be on his way out with the San Jose after 13 seasons. Perry, also 34, was bought out by the Anaheim Ducks earlier this month after 14 seasons with the Anaheim Ducks. Pavelski, a centre, and Perry, a winger, could provide both leadership and production — at the right price.

Restricted free agents

Mitch Marner

Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said getting the star winger under contract was “priority one” back in the spring, but Marner remains unsigned. Toronto did get fellow RFA forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson inked to new deals Friday. With the clock ticking towards July 1, there’s a chance a rival team will throw a lot of money at the 22-year-old Marner, which would force the Leafs to choose between matching the offer sheet or accepting the compensation of up to four first-round draft picks.

Patrik Laine

Winnipeg’s star sniper is in the same boat as Marner. The two sides no doubt continue to talk, but Jets fans will be sweating if the 21-year-old Laine hits free agency. Another wrinkle to Winnipeg’s situation is that fellow RFA winger Kyle Connor, 22, also needs a new deal. Might a team target him in hopes that the Jets can’t afford to keep both players?

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