2018 NHL Free Agent Watch: James Neal and Paul Stastny

2018 NHL Free Agent Watch: James Neal and Paul Stastny

James Neal could be one of the top 2018 NHL free agents

Taking a closer look at two of the top pending 2018 NHL unrestricted free agents.

James Neal – Vegas Golden Knights

For the expansion Vegas squad slowing a bit with two straight losses after defying NHL logic in an 8-1-0 kickoff, Neal’s been the clear leader.

That’s big on a squad facing everything the region has gone through and down to their fourth and fifth organizational goalies. It’s probably not coincidental that their two-game skid has coincided with the inexperienced Maxime Lagace’s unexpected tenure in net.

What’s more, Neal’s stats look great eleven games in with seven goals, three game-winners, and three assists.

Like the squad, his production has dipped of late with two points in their last five contests. But he’s shown good chemistry with linemates Cody Eakin and David Perron that may endure over the long haul.

With 61 and 58-point seasons in the past five years, ample playoff experience, and his latest heroics, the 30-year-old is versatile enough to play left, or right wing could attract significant attention on the open market.

In his tenth NHL year, Neal has a bit more tread on the tire than other upcoming UFA wings like 26-year-old Evander Kane, James van Riemsdyk, and Cam Atkinson at age 28, and Josh Bailey at 29.

It’s hard to imagine Vegas not pushing hard to re-sign him though if the rest of the year is at all like the first month. I’m not sure he’ll increase his pay above the $5M he’s getting this campaign though.

Paul Stastny – St. Louis Blues

With Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko pacing St. Louis in points, registering 17 and 14 respectively during the Blues’ 10-3-1 start, Stastny’s 11 in 14 contests shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Following a prolific eight-year run as a distributor with Colorado, the 31-year-old pivot hasn’t quite lived up to expectations with production totaling 46, 49 and 40 points as he’s fought through a few injuries with the Blues.

But his contract year’s been different thus far while primarily alternating between linemates Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, and Vladimir Sobotka.

His power play presence has increased with the aid of injuries to Steen and Robby Fabbri, and he’s taking more shots as his 34 in 14 early-year contests for a 2.43 average outpace the 1.65 he’s averaged over the past two years.

I’m not sure that will last with Steen back, but it has the potential to help get him over the 50-point hump, if not higher, for the first time since 2013-14.

In a market with some good names among UFA centers, and comparatively a bit long in the tooth, Stastny looks very unlikely to land upwards of the $7M AAV he’s collected over the last four seasons.

But his outstanding face-off numbers (55.4% wins over the past five years) and work on the penalty kill would likely be welcome in many spots.

He could offer veteran leadership and mid-level scoring potential for perhaps a young, developing squad.

I could see him signing an incentive-laden deal with a club bowing out in the early rounds of the Cup Playoffs. Perhaps one closer to his Quebec home.

2018 NHL Free Agent Watch – John Tavares and John Carlsson

Follow me on Twitter @KWcrosscheck