Team MVPs and top scorers.
Stanley Cup champions and No. 1 goaltenders.
All-stars and bargain breakouts.
Yes, even with a cluster of coveted names re-signing with their current teams in the week leading up to free agency — Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Filip Forsberg, Evander Kane, Marc-Andre Fleury, Valeri Nichushkin, Rickard Rakell, Ville Husso — and avoiding the stress of the unknown, the NHL’s 2022 UFA class is still percolating with plenty of compelling players.
And with the salary cap set to rise by $1 million, those spendy general managers will have a little more incentive to splash the pot on this summer’s Dougie Hamilton or John Tavares.
Here’s a rundown and ranking of hockey’s best impending unrestricted free agents, plus the latest buzz circulating their future as most of the league has already shifted to off-season mode.
Free agency opens Wednesday, and rumours are a-flying.
1. Johnny Gaudreau
Position: Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $6.75 million
The latest: Gaudreau’s future has been a constant source of consternation in Calgary.
A fabulous regular-season scorer who crushed the 115 points and played his way deep into the Hart Trophy conversation, Johnny Hockey has taken flak for not carrying the Flames deep in the postseason. That and his close ties to Boston and New Jersey have occasionally fueled spurts of trade speculation.
And yet, instead of exploring a swap, Calgary GM Brad Treliving held conversations about a Gaudreau extension last summer and is trying hard to get him locked up again now.
Where Gaudreau’s price has gone so far is through the roof. Check the comparables.
The all-star winger has earned praise from coach Darryl Sutter for improved defensive responsibility and posted an NHL-best plus-64 rating.
Assistant GM Craig Conroy told Sportsnet 960, on Feb. 23, “That’s a done deal. We’re gonna get that done… You know what they call me. They call me Santa Claus giving contracts.”
Gaudreau followed up his superb regular season with the most productive playoffs of his career. He sounded torn at his season-ending availability.
“Obviously, Calgary has a special place in my heart,” Gaudreau told reporters.
“I’ve been part of this organization for 11 years now. Ever since Day 1 I got here, the fans, the organization, my teammates, even (the media). Sometimes, when I’m playing bad, you guys give me a hard time. But that’s alright. But everything about this city I love. My wife loves it here.
“You guys can tell on Twitter, my uncle, my dad, my mom, my sisters, my brother, everyone loves Calgary. It’s a special place in our heart, and we love it here, so we’ll see what happens.”
Gaudreau was reportedly offered an eight-figure deal by Calgary and decided to leave less than 24 hours before free agency’s opening.
It was not about money; it was a family decision.
The Philadelphia Flyers are just one team trying to clear the decks and take a run. The New Jersey Devils will surely be in the bidding, too. Look to the U.S. Northeast.
2. Nazem Kadri
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.5 million
The latest: One of 2021-22’s greatest bargains, Kadri over-delivered big-time on his $4-million salary.
Before temporarily going down to injury, Kadri was top-five leaguewide in scoring. The Cup champ enjoyed a phenomenal post-season, avoiding suspension, ripping hat tricks, scoring a big goal with a busted thumb, and proving the haters wrong.
Unless Kadri takes another discount, the cold math says there won’t be room for him in Denver next fall.
Sakic has already promised $16.25 million annually to younger core forwards Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog, and he must begin carving out serious cap space ($12 million?… more?) for Nathan MacKinnon in the summer of 2023.
Further, the Avs don’t have a single NHL goalie under contract beyond this season and will have other holes to patch.
Paying Kadri — what, $8 million? More? — into his mid-30s feels like a luxury they won’t be able to afford.
Kadri switched agents, from Brian MacDonald to Darren Ferris, in anticipation of finding the best possible deal this summer.
“I just felt like it was time, you know. Through my career, I feel like I’ve given myself an opportunity to explore, and I’ve had the same agent for a long, long time now. And I just wanted to see what else was out there for me,” Kadri explained.
“It was just difficult to do, in general. [MacDonald] was a great friend of mine. And we formed a great relationship. So, it’s always tough to have those conversations, but at the end of the day, I think I owe it to myself, and it’s something that I’ve definitely earned.”
Ferris negotiated Mitch Marner’s lucrative 2019 deal and got creative with Taylor Hall’s one-year bid in Buffalo as a UFA in 2020.
The New York Rangers and Islanders have interest, according to Elliotte Friedman.
How about Seattle? Detroit? Or dark horse Calgary, which now has Gaudreau’s money to spend?
Still, Colorado is Kadri’s first choice.
“How could it not be? The Kroenkes have been great supporters of mine and made it clear to me that they’d like me to stay also, but we understand that there’s a business aspect involved. We’re going to try to work together,” Kadri told Real Kyper & Bourne on June 29.
“I think I’ve shown what my worth is and just looking forward to things playing out.”
3. John Klingberg
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.25 million
The latest: Much like Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm, a younger Klingberg signed a sweetheart team-friendly deal and is finally due a meaningful raise.
While Klingberg’s production has dipped from his 67-point performance in 2017-18, top-four right-shot blueliners who can play in all situations never fail to command bidding wars.
The Stars have already committed significant money to Miro Heiskanen ($8.45 million) for eight years, Esa Lindell ($5.8 million) for four, and Ryan Suter ($3.65 million) for four. Giving Klingberg his due will make for a pricy D corps in 2022-23.
In October, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek reported that Klingberg was looking for a deal worth between $62 to $66 million on an eight-year term.
The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta reported in January that Klingberg had requested a trade in the fall, after extension talks hit a wall.
“I don’t think it’s entirely true. It’s not like I’ve been going out there and asking, ‘I want to get traded now,’ or something like that,” Klingberg responded. “It’s something that’s been going on with the negotiations and stuff like that. I’m not going to lie — it’s been a few frustrating years individually.
“Other guys have signed right before the season before. I wanted to do that as well. Lately, it has been going more quietly and quietly. For me, as a player, I don’t feel that I’ve been appreciated in that way when we don’t even negotiate. It’s quiet. For me, as a player, my agent, we talked to Jim a couple months back. He agreed that we could start talking with other GMs and see where we were at. Negotiation-wise, the Stars have been very quiet.”
Friedman suggested that Klingberg — a classic “own rental” — could ultimately sign with the Seattle Kraken.
“John has an opportunity to be a free agent, and I don’t blame him,” GM Jim Nill said. “He’s got to look after his family. He’ll see what the market is, and we’ll see what the market is, and get a feel for that and see if it’s a fit for both parties. It all depends on term and money. He knows where we’re at; I know where he’s at. He’s earned this right, and I give him full credit for that.”
With righty Tony DeAngelo leaving Carolina for Philadelphia, the Hurricanes are a favourite here. The Red Wings are looking for a top-four defenceman.
Marek also floated the Senators as a dark horse, as Ottawa attempts to turn the corner.
4. Patrice Bergeron
2021-22 salary cap hit: $6.875 million
The latest: Despite his age and potential retirement, Bergeron is still an all-world player. It would be disrespectful not to keep the Bruins captain and five-time Selke champ high on our list.
Bergeron announced in the fall that he’d skate out the final year of the eight-year, $55 million contract he inked with Boston back in 2013 before making a call on the next stage of his career.
His body has been through the spin cycle. There is a chance he simply retires elite.
Upon a Round 1 elimination by the Hurricanes, Bergeron said that were he to continue skating, he only has interest in Boston. But he wants time to rest and ponder signing a one-year deal with the B’s.
Club president Cam Neely wants to give the captain his space but would prefer an answer soonish.
“He understands that we have decisions to make coming up here,” Neely said. “I hope he feels good about his game still, because he had a pretty damn good year. So, hopefully he’s mentally prepared to have another one. You’ve got to give him some time to digest all that and talk with his family about it. But we have decisions to make coming up as well.
“It’s tough to find a Bergeron. Hopefully, he does come back. But if he doesn’t, we’ve got to go to work.”
Speaking again in early June, Bergeron said he is in no rush to make a retirement call.
“I still think I have a lot of time ahead of me to make that decision,” Bergeron said. “I’m going to make sure that I take all the time I need to make the right one.”
Then came this eyebrow-raising report from plugged-in Boston reporter Joe McDonald:
Sweeney won’t rush his first-ballot Hall of Famer into a choice. Still, what a pressure point for the organization.
“You could look at plans B and C and such, but let’s be honest: You don’t replace that type of player and what he means to our organization. That might take years to replace that player in that sense,” Sweeney said. “He’s given us indications that he’s not going to hold us up in terms of what we may have to do subsequent to making a decision. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think there’s a timetable on it.”
5. Andrew Copp
Position: Centre / Wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $3.64 million
The latest: Controlling his fate in Winnipeg and opting not to sign long-term, the steadily improving Copp was a sensible trade target for the New York Rangers.
Their hand forced, the Jets moved Copp plus a sixth-rounder to the Big Apple in return for Morgan Barron, two conditional second-round picks and a fifth-round pick in 2023.
One of those seconds improved to a first-rounder once Copp and the Blueshirts reached the Eastern Conference Final.
Bruising and productive, Copp only elevated his game since the deal. The versatile two-way forward cracked the 20-goal and 30-assist marks for the first time in his career. He proved even more valuable in the playoffs, skating more than 20 minutes a night, scoring big goals, and contributing to special teams.
The Rangers have decisions on a number of free agents — Justin Braun, Kaapo Kakko, Tyler Motte, Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano — but with how seamlessly he’s fit in, Copp may have been worth keeping as more than a rental.
His new AAV should come in around $4.5 million.
Both Strome and Copp will hit the market, according to Larry Brooks of the New York Post. Copp could always circle back to the Blueshirts, but GM Chris Drury is exploring other 2C options — Trocheck? Kadri? — in the meantime.
6. Darcy Kuemper
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.5 million
The latest: Of brand-new GM Chris MacFarland’s 10 impending free agents — a list that includes Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Valeri Nichushkin, and Josh Manson — Kuemper is now the most certain to leave. (No small wrinkle: MacKinnon will also become eligible to sign an extension this summer.)
By extending backup Pavel Francouz midseason (two years at $2 million a pop) and executing a trade-and-sign for projected starter Alexandar Georgiev (three years at $3.4 million), the Avalanche ensured two NHL goalies for a combined price that should come under Kuemper’s next deal.
Yes, Kuemper once again battled injuries, but his sparkling 37-12-3 record and .921 save percentage through 57 appearances gave the Avs stability. And 2022’s UFA market is incredibly thin on starters at the game’s most important position. He’ll reap plenty of interest.
The Cup champ’s reported ask — six years in the ballpark of Philipp Grubauer’s $5.9-million AAV — simply priced himself out of town.
The Washington Capitals are the frontrunner, with Edmonton and Buffalo eager for a No. 1 goalie as well.
7. Jack Campbell
2021-22 salary cap hit: $1.65 million
The latest: Until it’s signed, the topic of Campbell’s next contract won’t go away.
There were reports that Leafs GM Kyle Dubas tiptoed into extension talks early in the season before Campbell’s stellar first-half performance vaulted him to his first all-star game nod.
A concerning post-Christmas dip in performance may have reduced his bargaining power and shaken his confidence, but Campbell rebounded nicely down the stretch and was the Leafs’ undisputed No. 1 in the postseason.
“Winning here means everything to me,” Campbell said after the Round 1 defeat. “I love the city of Toronto, I love the fans, the support. My teammates are absolutely incredible, the coaching staff, really everything.
“I absolutely love being a Leaf.”
Would he take a little less than market value to remain one?
“As far as me loving the city and doing everything I can to stay here,” Campbell replied, “that’s up to Kurt and Kyle to discuss.”
The sides never got close, and Dubas replaced Campbell with Matt Murray on Monday.
Campbell’s career earnings fall under $4.2 million. This summer is his chance to hit it big.
With Campbell pricing himself out of Toronto, the Edmonton Oilers are said to be willing to float an offer of five years and $25 million when he goes to market Wednesday.
8. Claude Giroux
Position: Centre / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $8.275 million
The latest: When the all-in Florida Panthers adopted the former face of the Philadelphia Flyers, Giroux looked like he’s been playing in Sunrise his whole life.
Better than a point per game, the veteran added more firepower and another power-play weapon to a roster that has already established itself as the league’s most dangerous.
Then the Lightning came to town and unravelled the Presidents’ Trophy winners, their power play, and their pricy rentals.
Considering the price GM Bill Zito paid to bring Giroux into the fold, and considering the player handpicked his landing spot, one must imagine re-signing the accomplished playmaker will be a priority — even with the Panthers’ tricky cap situation.
“Florida was at the top of my list,” Giroux said. “If there was a team I wanted to go to, it was here. I had a chance to play against them three times this year, watched a few of their games. Asked around about the guys on the team, the coach, management, and I didn’t hear a lot of bad things. I’m just happy the deal got done.”
An opportunity to re-up will be there, as Zito is interested in extending the relationship.
But it’s complicated.
Zito must find out what star Jonathan Huberdeau (UFA 2023) is going to cost. The GM also would like to extend top-four defender Mackenzie Weegar (UFA 2023) sooner rather than later.
Giroux holds the leverage here, and more money and term is likely to be found elsewhere.
“As crazy as it might sound, I haven’t really talked about it or thought about it yet. I think it’s very important to have a few weeks to turn off the brain before you go back to thinking business, before you go back to training. A little time off is very important so you don’t go crazy,” Giroux told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun on June 8.
“Me and my family, we’ll obviously talk about it, do a little bit of homework, and see how things are going. But I’ve definitely enjoyed my time in Florida.”
The Ottawa Senators keep popping up as likely pursuers of the Hearst, Ont., native’s services.
9. Ondrej Palat
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.3 million
The latest: Tampa Bay’s frontline winger flies under the radar through most of the winter but never fails to elevate his game (and his game-winners) when it matters most.
Who wouldn’t want a versatile, responsible game-breaker with two Cup rings and 94 points through his first 138 playoff games?
The Lightning are trying to keep Palat in the fold — hence the Ryan McDonagh trade to Nashville — and the organization loves its homegrown talent.
“It’s not July 13 yet,” BriseBois said at the draft. “Those guys may all be signed by then.”
But every decision GM Julien BriseBois makes this summer will be with an eye to accommodate his arbitration-elligible 2023 class of RFAs. Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak will all be in line for raises.
Does the underpaid Palat go the way of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow? (Nichushkin’s eight-year, $49-million windfall set quite a bar.) Or does he accept a shade less to remain with a contender in a tax-free state?
Flip a coin.
At this point, Palat will at least sneak a peek at the other side. (But so did Steven Stamkos.)
Keep an eye on the Kraken.
10. Vincent Trocheck
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.75 million
The latest: The Carolina Hurricanes have already moved on from Tony DeAngelo but have decisions to make on UFAs Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, Ian Cole and Max Domi.
Trocheck is a solid second-line pivot good for an easy 20 goals if healthy.
GM Don Waddell has expressed interest in re-signing his 2C, but there is risk committing major term for what could be his declining seasons, and Waddell has been loath to dish out term to his pending UFAs (see: Hamilton, Dougie).
Teams that miss out on Kadri and Malkin should look to Trocheck as a secondary option.
More notable UFAs in 2022: David Krejci, Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak, Reilly Smith, Phil Kessel, Mason Marchment, Alexander Radulov, David Perron, Max Domi, Joe Thornton, P.K. Subban, Evan Rodrigues, Nick Leddy, Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson, Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Strome, Paul Stastny, Ian Cole, Ilya Mikheyev, Justin Schultz, Alexander Edler, Martin Jones, Braden Holtby, Andreas Athanasiou, Michael Stone, Calle Jarnkrok, Marcus Johansson, Zdeno Chara, Colin White, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik, Frank Vatrano, Jan Rutta, Ondrej Kase, Ilya Samsonov, Sonny Milano, Danton Heinen
All contract info via the indispensable CapFriendly.com.
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