Bleacher Report 2022 NHL Unrestricted Free Agency's Big Board

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured Columnist IVJune 23, 2022

Bleacher Report 2022 NHL Unrestricted Free Agency's Big Board

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    With the 2022 Stanley Cup Final underway, fans and pundits will soon turn their attention toward the NHL's offseason business. That will include the start of the annual free-agent period beginning at noon ET on Wednesday, July 13.

    Contract negotiations should soon intensify among this summer's noteworthy unrestricted free agents and their current clubs. Some of them could end up signing contract extensions, following the examples of San Jose Sharks center Tomas Hertl, Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski and Pittsburgh Penguins winger Bryan Rust.

    Most, however, will likely test the market on July 13.

    The notable forwards could feature Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars could draw attention from teams seeking a puck-moving defenseman. Those in the market for a starting goaltender could pursue the Colorado Avalanche's Darcy Kuemper.

    Here's our look at this summer's top potential unrestricted free agents. Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on this subject in the comments section below.

The Selection Process

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    This list comprises 20 names based on CapFriendly's listing of this year's NHL unrestricted free agent class at all positions. We've evaluated the top 10 based on their level of talent, current contract, what they could seek on their next deal and recent media speculation.

    We've excluded Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron from this ranking. On May 16, the 36-year-old center told the Boston media that his intention is to sign with the Bruins or retire.

    Approaching July, our initial group is as follows in no particular order:

    Ville Husso, St. Louis Blues

    Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

    Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche

    Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning

    Marc-Andre Fleury, Minnesota Wild

    Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

    Vincent Trocheck, Carolina Hurricanes

    Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

    Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs

    Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

    Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche

    Andrew Copp, New York Rangers

    John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

    Claude Giroux, Florida Panthers

    Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche

    Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers

    Ryan Strome, New York Rangers

    Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights

    David Perron, St. Louis Blues

    Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche

10. Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    It was a tale of two seasons for Jack Campbell. In his first 25 games, the 30-year-old goaltender had a record of 17 wins, five losses and two overtime losses with a sparkling .939 save percentage. Hampered by a rib injury that sidelined him for 10 games, Campbell still won 14 of his final 24 games, but his save percentage sunk to .888 during that stretch.

    Campbell finished the regular season with 31 wins, a 2.64 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage with five shutouts. His playoff stats were also a hodgepodge of the good and the bad. In all three of the Leafs' victories against the Tampa Bay Lightning, his save percentage was .914 or better. In three of their four defeats, however, it was .886 or worse, though it was .920 in their Game 7 elimination.

    This season was Campbell's first as a full-time starter over a full 82-game schedule. His inconsistency could raise concerns over whether he can handle the workload and improve going forward. He is completing a two-year contract with a $1.65 million cap hit and could seek over $5 million annually on a long-term deal.

    The limited number of starting goaltenders in this summer's free-agent market could work in Campbell's favor. He shouldn't have difficulty finding a new home if the Leafs won't pay up. Suitors could include the Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild and New Jersey Devils.

9. Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers

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    The 2021-22 season was a turbulent one for Evander Kane. After he missed the first half serving a 21-game suspension and being buried in the minors, the San Jose Sharks terminated his contract on Jan. 9, making him a free agent. As the NHLPA filed a grievance on Kane's behalf, he signed a one-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 28.

    Despite the upheaval, Kane proved to be a terrific fit with the Oilers. Skating on the first line alongside superstar Connor McDavid, the 30-year-old left winger tallied 22 goals and 39 points in 43 games, marking the eighth time in his 13-year NHL career he's scored 20 or more goals. He was outstanding during the Oilers' playoff run, leading them with 13 goals in 15 games.

    That performance should make Kane an enticing target in this summer's UFA market. Oilers general manager Ken Holland indicated he'd like him back. However, they have just $7.1 million in salary-cap space and must find a goaltender to replace Mikko Koskinen. Restricted free-agent wingers Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi also require new contracts.

    Kane's contract termination grievance adds another layer of uncertainty. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said an arbitrator wouldn't be available to hear the case until the July 13 start date of free agency or possibly afterward. If so, Kane could be in limbo until that grievance is heard unless he and the Sharks reach an agreement on a settlement.

8. Claude Giroux, Florida Panthers

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    The Florida Panthers acquired forward Claude Giroux from the Philadelphia Flyers before the March trade deadline. The versatile 34-year-old became a terrific fit with his new club, netting 23 points in 18 regular-season games as well as eight points in 10 playoff games.

    Approaching the end of his eight-year deal worth $8.3 million per season, Giroux proved that he still has something left in the tank. He won't get another expensive long-term deal at this stage of his career but could get a two- or three-year contract worth around $6 million annually.

    On May 26, Florida Hockey Now's George Richards reported Giroux could picture himself returning with the Panthers. However, they have just $3.1 million in projected salary-cap space with 17 players under contract for next season. General manager Bill Zito will have to shed quite a bit of salary to make room for Giroux and whoever else he'd like to re-sign or replace.

    Giroux makes his offseason home in Ottawa. On March 25, the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reported Giroux was said to be intrigued by the rebuilding Senators. On June 8, The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun suggested the chance to win a Stanley Cup could factor into where he signs this summer.

7. Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche

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    Acquired by the Colorado Avalanche last summer from the Arizona Coyotes, Darcy Kuemper struggled earlier this season adjusting to his new club. However, the 32-year-old improved over the course of 2021-22, finishing fourth among NHL goaltenders with 37 wins while finishing fifth overall with a .921 save percentage and five shutouts among goalies with at least 25 games played.

    Those regular-season stats should put the 6'5”, 215-pound Kuemper in line for a significant raise over his current $4.5 million annual salary-cap hit. He's also helped the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Final with a playoff record of eight wins and three losses entering Game 4. However, his 2.76 GAA and .892 SP could dampen his value, especially if those stats don't improve over the rest of the series.

    Kuemper and backup Pavel Francouz have formed a solid goalie tandem for the Avalanche. They could attempt to sign him to a contract extension depending on his asking price. Given his age, however, they likely won't go beyond three years. While they have $25.7 million in cap space for next season, they must also re-sign or replace Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Josh Manson.

    Despite Kuemper's uneven playoff stats, he won't lack suitors in the free-agent market. On June 7, The Athletic's Daniel Nugent-Bowman observed the Edmonton Oilers attempted to acquire Kuemper before he was traded to the Avalanche. The Toronto Maple Leafs could come calling if they fail to re-sign Jack Campbell. The New Jersey Devils could also be in the market for an experienced starter.

6. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

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    If this was John Klingberg's final season with the Dallas Stars, he probably won't remember it fondly. The 29-year-old defenseman's public unhappiness in January over his stalled contract talks made him the subject of trade speculation. Though his play improved and he finished the season with the Stars, TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported on June 17 that he appears headed to the free-agent market.

    Klingberg spent the past seven seasons carrying an annual salary-cap hit of $4.25 million. It's expected he'll be seeking a substantial pay raise on his next deal. On Oct. 16, Sportsnet's Jeff Marek reported he sought an eight-year contract from the Stars worth between $62 million and $66 million. That's an annual salary-cap hit of between $7.75 million and $8.5 million.

    As one of the top defensemen in this summer's free-agent market, Klingberg could get between $7 million and $8 million annually with a different team. However, he turns 30 on Aug. 14, which could make interested clubs reluctant to offer up more than a five-year deal.

    In his eight NHL seasons, Klingberg has reached or exceeded 40 points six times. His puck-moving skills will draw the attention of teams looking to generate more offense from the blue line. The Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and Seattle Kraken have the cap room to make competitive bids. So could the Pittsburgh Penguins if Kris Letang departs as a free agent.

5. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The most famous name among this year's UFA class, Evgeni Malkin has enjoyed a long and successful NHL career during his 16 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins. On May 17, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported the two sides had discussed a three-year contract but were far apart on salary.

    Turning 36 on July 31, Malkin is completing an eight-year deal worth an annual average value of $9.5 million. While still capable of scoring at a point-per-game clip, he's not the dominating superstar of his youth. With $23.2 million in salary-cap space for 2022-23 and defenseman Kris Letang and winger Rickard Rakell also becoming UFAs on July 13, the Penguins might not have enough space to retain all three.

    At his age, Malkin won't be getting another lucrative long-term deal from the Penguins or any other club. He'll accept a pay cut on a shorter term, but the annual cap hit could still be high, perhaps over $6 million per season. On June 7, The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun reported there's been ongoing dialogue between the two sides but no breakthrough yet.

    Malkin will still draw interest from playoff contenders seeking an experienced scoring center if he hits the open market on July 13. The Boston Bruins could come calling if Patrice Bergeron retires. So could the Carolina Hurricanes if Vincent Trocheck departs via free agency in July.

4. Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche

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    This season was a career best for Nazem Kadri. The Colorado Avalanche's second-line center finished third with 87 points in 71 games during the regular season. He was also enjoying one of his best postseason performances with 14 points in 13 games until sidelined by a thumb injury during the Western Conference Final.

    Kadri, 31, is completing a six-year contract with a $4.5 million annual salary-cap hit. He was in line for a pay raise prior to 2021-22. His stellar numbers this season could push his asking price into the range of $7.5 million per season on a five-year deal. With $25.7 million in salary-cap space for 2022-23 and 14 players under contract, the Avalanche can afford to re-sign Kadri.

    However, goaltender Darcy Kuemper, defenseman Josh Manson and forwards Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin are also pending UFAs who must be re-signed or replaced. General manager Joe Sakic must ensure he has sufficient long-term cap space to re-sign Nathan MacKinnon and promising defenseman Bowen Byram next summer.

    Kadri could prove too expensive for the Avalanche to retain. The Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers could be in the market for a center with his two-way skills and gritty in-your-face style. The Detroit Red Wings are a rising team in need of a second-line center with the cap space ($35.8 million) to outbid most teams for his services.

3. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Kris Letang has been patrolling the Pittsburgh Penguins' blue line for 16 seasons, helping them win three Stanley Cups as one of the better puck-moving defensemen in the league. At an age when most blueliners are past their prime, the 35-year-old Letang enjoyed a career-best 68-point performance in 2021-22.

    That effort means Letang might not accept a pay cut from his current $7.25 million annual salary-cap hit. While he won't be getting another long-term deal like the eight-year contract he's completing this season, he could seek an annual average value of over $7 million.

    On May 17, Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported Letang and fellow Penguins UFA Evgeni Malkin hoped to stay in Pittsburgh and finish their playing careers alongside longtime teammate Sidney Crosby. With $23.2 million in cap space for 2022-23 and 16 players under contract, the Penguins re-signing both would leave little wiggle room to bolster their roster.

    On June 13, The Athletic's Rob Rossi reported the Penguins' priority is signing Letang to a multi-season contract. He's said he'd like to play another five seasons. The cost of keeping him could make it difficult to retain Malkin, depending on how much of a pay cut he's willing to accept.

2. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

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    Skating in the final season of a six-year contract, Filip Forsberg enjoyed a career-best performance in 2021-22. The 27-year-old Nashville Predators left winger finished second among his teammates with 42 goals and was third with 84 points.

    This season may also be Forsberg's last in Nashville. TSN's Chris Johnston reported on June 17 that there hasn't been much progress in contract negotiations since March with both sides dug in on their respective positions.

    Having earned $6 million annually on his current contract, Forsberg could seek a pay raise exceeding $8 million annually on an eight-year deal. That would be in line with what teammates Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen are making.

    Forsberg won't have difficulty attracting suitors if he heads to market on July 13. The Calgary Flames could be interested in his services if Johnny Gaudreau departs via free agency. The New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders could also be looking for an established scoring winger like him.

1. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

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    Coming off a career-high 115-point performance to finish tied for second overall among this season's leading scorers, Johnny Gaudreau is the top player potentially available in this summer's unrestricted free agent market. The 28-year-old left winger is completing a six-year contract worth an annual average value of $6.75 million with the Calgary Flames.

    On June 21, TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported the Flames already made a contract offer to Gaudreau and negotiations were ongoing. The Flames have the advantage of offering up an eight-year contract compared to the seven he'd get on the open market. They could ask him to accept a little less than market value for the security of that extra year.

    The Flames have $26.9 million in salary-cap space for 2022-23 but just 12 players under contract. With restricted free agents Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington also due for significant raises, Gaudreau could price himself out of the Flames' market. He could seek between $9 million and $10 million annually on the open market.

    On June 8, The Athletic's Hailey Salvian listed the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators as potential landing spots for Gaudreau. Meanwhile, LeBrun suggested the Seattle Kraken as a possible wild-card team, adding he wouldn't be surprised if Gaudreau opted to test the market on July 13.


    Stats via NHL.com and Hockey-Reference. Salary info via CapFriendly.

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