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National Hockey League general managers will need to dig deeper, and jobless players may need to lower their asking prices, but there are still a few gems — or at least some worthy gambles and depth additions — to be unearthed from 2019’s UFA class after the July 1 frenzy.

Here we round up the rumours and assess the value of the free agents who are taking a more patient approach this summer (in some cases, that’s even by choice).

1. Jake Gardiner

Age: 28
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.05 million

Gardiner, a Minnesota native, enjoyed being a Maple Leaf, and despite his defensive lapses — which can be magnified — the Leafs weren’t happy to let him walk.

The Canada Day acquisition of Tyson Barrie, however, officially brings Gardiner’s tenure in Toronto to a close. (Rumour had it, the defenceman was partly waiting to see if there was a way Kyle Dubas could make room for a return.)

That Gardiner’s back ailed him during the post-season and he considered surgery should serve as a yellow flag for pursuant teams.

Yet he’s a solid power-play quarterback, an excellent skater and passer, and a 50-point defender when healthy. He should be trying to fetch a long-term deal in the ballpark of $6 million to $7 million annually, using Tyler Myers’ deal in Vancouver as his base.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens are also rumoured to be interested in Gardiner, while the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons reported Florida, L.A. and hometown Minnesota as some of the player’s preferred destinations.

I made a case for Detroit’s Steve Yzerman to inquire.

Now that Habs GM Marc Bergevin swung and missed on the Sebastian Aho offer sheet, does Gardiner become his next serious target?

How much of the delay is based on Gardiner carefully selecting his next home versus clubs being wary of the puck-mover’s injured back?

For our money, he’s the best talent still unclaimed.

2. Ryan Dzingel

Age on July 1: 27
Position: Centre / wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $1.8 million

Dzingel has increased his production every year since breaking into the league in 2015-16 and is coming off back-to-back 20-goal, 40-point campaigns. He’s a versatile, speedy forward who can play any position up front, and he put up more points per game (0.72) in 2019-20 than anyone else available.

Dzingel’s healthy-scratching by John Tortorella during the Blue Jackets’ playoff run may have harmed his standing slightly, or at least reinforced the theory that he’s unwilling to pay a physical price for his goals, but he’s a late bloomer whose most productive days might still lie ahead.

Prior to being traded to Columbus from Ottawa at the deadline, Dzingel reportedly turned down a five-year extension offer worth in excess of $20 million.

A comparable Dzingel could use is Jordan Eberle, who inked a five-year, $27.5-million deal to remain an Islander. Eberle is a more proven commodity, but Dzingel is younger and put up significantly more goals (26 vs. 19) and points (56 vs. 37) in 2018-19.

Dzingel’s buzz was muted on July 1, and the door on a return to Columbus appears shut.

The Blackhawks and Avalanche are a couple teams that have reportedly expressed interest.

3. Micheal Ferland

Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $1.75 million

Age and injuries forced power forward Wayne Simmonds to settle for a one-year deal in New Jersey. Power forward Ferland, however, is seeking a deal with term and the late bloomer should be in for a significant raise after back-to-back 40-point campaigns and a career-best plus-13 rating.

There has been some buzz that Calgary’s Brad Treliving would like to reacquire Ferland, although he would need to move some salary out via trade (James Neal? Michael Frolik? T.J. Brodie?) to do so.

Carolina has plenty of cap space and should be in the running to bring Ferland back. He was a fine fit with the Jerks.

4. Marcus Johansson

Age on July 1: 28
Position: Centre / wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.58 million

We can safely rule out a return to Boston for Johansson, who excelled as a playoff rental (11 points in 22 post-season games) and would be a fine addition to most clubs’ middle six.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney already has his plate full, needing to re-sign RFAs Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen.

Johansson is a wizard through the neutral zone and was a two-time 20-goal man during his Capitals days. He will, however, bring a concussion history to his next team.

The rumour mill has him asking for $5 million on a five-year deal.

5. Joe Thornton

Age on July 1: 40
Position: Centre
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5 million

When the ageless Jumbo Joe announced at the NHL Awards that he was keen to keep playing, GM Doug Wilson described the news as “a pleasant surprise.”

The cap-crunched Wilson let UFAs Joonas Donskoi and captain Joe Pavelski walk for more money elsewhere Monday as he made re-signing RFA Timo Meier a priority (nice deal, by the way) and now turns his sights on RFA Kevin Labanc.

“I think you know the relationship we have with Jumbo. He and I have had conversations and talk every couple days. We’ll get that resolved in due time,” Wilson said of Thornton’s inevitable extension.

“Just getting Timo done as recently as we did was where most of my focus was. We’ll start exploring whatever else we may do.”

Question: If an active Jim Rutherford can be elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame, why can’t we just put Jumbo in there already?

6. Ben Hutton

Age on July 1: 26
Position: Defence
2018-19 salary cap hit: $2.8 million

Of all the UFAs still floating out there, none averaged more time on ice than Hutton (22:21). The left-shot defender is coming off a nice little bounce-back season after a dismal 2017-18 but was curiously not qualified by the Vancouver Canucks, and they lost a 26-year-old defenceman for nothing.

No doubt, Jordie Benn is an upgrade from Hutton as a third-pairing guy in Vancouver, so now does Montreal (Benn’s former club) take a look at Hutton? The L.A. Kings are also reportedly interested here.

If you’re a believer in plus/minus, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture here: Hutton has been a dash-21 or worse in three of his four NHL seasons. He’s a fifth-rounder who took a step last season, and at 26 his best days should still lie ahead. Next to Gardiner, he’s the most intriguing defenceman available.

7. Justin Williams

Age: 37
Position: Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $4.5 million

Age ain’t nothin’ but a number. Mr. Game 7 enjoyed his most productive season (23 goals, 53 points) in seven years last winter with the Hurricanes, captaining Carolina to its best season in a decade. Teammate-turned-coach Rod Brind’Amour called Williams the club’s most important player, and not just because he invented the Storm Surge.

The three-time Stanley Cup winner will be 38 when the puck drops on 2019-20, so it’s understandable that he’s seriously weighing retirement. Incredibly, Williams has missed just three games total over his past eight seasons — that includes six deep playoff runs.

“We’ve been in contact with Justin here recently,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said Tuesday. “He hasn’t given us 100 per cent yet which way he’s going to go. I think he potentially could be leaning toward playing, but I think in the next few weeks it will shake out.”

Williams built a house in Raleigh and would prefer not to move his family again.

“I’m going to take my time and make sure I make the right one, right?” Williams said upon season’s end.

“Because if I’m all in, I’m going to be all in. If I’m not quite all there, then I have to reassess the situation. I’m not going to be good if I’m 85 per cent all in. I’ve got to be all in. That’s the only [thing] that’s fair to me, fair to the teammates, fair to everybody.”

8. Derick Brassard

Age on July 1: 31
Position: Centre
2018-19 salary cap hit: $5 million

Brassard put up a career-best 60 points with the Rangers in 2014-15. The following season, he rang up 27 goals. Since then, he’s gradually been on a downward slide, playing with four franchises over the past two seasons and failing to stick.

Bad fits? Player in sharp decline?

Brassard is a centre who has shown in the past he can both check and score, and yet he’s nowhere near a $5-million asset anymore. Until he proves otherwise, he’s a third-liner.

Available centremen are scarce, however. This feels like a case of a player needing to lower his asking price, and we wouldn’t rule out a return to Columbus or New York, where Brassard enjoyed his most success.

9. Pat Maroon

Age on July 1: 31
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $1.75 million

Maroon took a one-year, best-on-himself deal at this time last summer to be able to spend more time with his son, Anthony. (Hometown discounts still exist!) And he was rewarded with some quality family time and a Stanley freaking Cup.

Now, he’s right back to square one.

Not the fleetest of foot, Maroon is a big body who can crash the crease and is well-suited to playoff hockey. The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are among the clubs who have expressed interest, and a return to the Blues — who have several RFAs to sort out — cannot be ruled out yet.

10. Brian Boyle

Age on July 1: 34
Position: Centre / Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $2.55 million

Mostly we wanted to include Boyle here because of his incredible July 1 tweet (see below), but it helps that the veteran role player is still an effective centreman who can do all the little things (kill penalties, win faceoffs, block shots, provide leadership) coaches and teammates respect.

Boyle would be a nice add for the Oilers’ culture, so it’s intriguing that Edmonton is one of the clubs reportedly on his list.

More notable UFAs of 2019: Ben Lovejoy, Ben Chiarot, Michael Del Zotto, Jason Pominville, Deryk Engelland, Brian Gibbons, Marc Methot, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf, Andy McDonald, Patrick Marleau, Valeri Nichushkin, Ryan Spooner, Marcus Kruger, Adam McQuaid, Devante Smith-Pelly, Magnus Paajarvi, Riley Sheahan, Dmitrij Jaskin, Troy Brouwer, Tobias Rieder, Marko Dano


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