Predicting 2023 Landing Spots for Each Top NHL Free Agent Post-Trade DeadlineMarch 9, 2023
Predicting 2023 Landing Spots for Each Top NHL Free Agent Post-Trade Deadline
With the NHL's March 3 trade deadline now history, fans and pundits have shifted their focus toward the remainder of the regular season as teams jockey for playoff position. It's a good opportunity to examine the possible landing spots for this summer's top unrestricted free agents.
For the first time since 2019, the free-agent period will begin at noon ET on July 1. The bidding for the best available UFA talent, however, will be as frenzied as it always is whenever the market opens.
The number of top-tier stars slated to become UFAs this summer has thinned over the past month. The New York Islanders signed Bo Horvat to a new contract, David Pastrnak re-signed with the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings inked center Dylan Larkin. Nevertheless, there remain several notable players who will draw considerable attention.
Clubs in need of scoring punch will have plenty of interest in New York Rangers winger Patrick Kane. Those seeking a two-way center will pursue the Toronto Maple Leafs' Ryan O'Reilly.
Here's our early prediction on where those players could land by the end of the day on July 1. We'll look at the teams we believe are the best fit based on factors such as roster need and salary-cap space.
We've excluded Patrice Bergeron from our list. The long-time Boston Bruins center indicated last year that he wants to retire as a Bruin.
David Krejci, Boston Bruins
After spending last season playing in his native Czechia, David Krejci returned to the Boston Bruins on a one-year contract for 2022-23. Under his previous deal with the Bruins, Krejci earned an average annual value of $7.3 million. This time, however, the 36-year-old center accepted a $1 million base salary with $2 million in bonuses.
Any concerns over Krejci's performance quickly disappeared as he seamlessly transitioned back with his former teammates. With 50 points in 57 games centering the second line, he's third among Bruins scorers and a key reason behind the club's dominant performance this season.
Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron and winger David Pastrnak convinced Krejci to return to Boston for another run at the Stanley Cup. Perhaps one or both will attempt to sway him into signing another contract with the Bruins.
Krejci showed no interest in joining another NHL club before his departure to Czechia in 2021. The opportunity to skate for another season alongside countryman Pastrnak could be tempting even if Bergeron were to retire following this season.
The Bruins have $10.6 million in projected salary-cap space for 2023-24 with 13 roster players under contract. Squeezing a new contract for Krejci within their limited cap payroll could be difficult, even if he's willing to accept another discounted one-year deal.
Regardless of the Bruins' cap situation, they'll reach an agreement with Krejci on another low-cost, one-year contract worth a base salary of $1 million.
Patrick Kane, New York Rangers
After struggling through the worst season of his career with Chicago, Patrick Kane was traded on Feb. 28 to the New York Rangers. The 34-year-old winger has gone from one of this season's worst teams to a potential Stanley Cup contender.
Kane's tenure with the Rangers will likely be a short one. They have $16 million in projected cap space for 2023-24 with 13 roster players under contract and restricted free agents such as K'Andre Miller, Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil to re-sign. Unless Kane accepts a significant pay cut, he won't be back on Broadway following this season.
Kane is completing an eight-year contract with a $10.5 million average annual value. He's not going to get a deal that lucrative again, given his age and concern over a nagging lower-body injury. The former Art Ross Trophy winner has just 45 points in 54 games this season but is also only a year removed from a 92-point campaign in 2021-22.
A team with young talent and playoff aspirations, such as the Buffalo Sabres, could look at Kane to bring experience and leadership to their roster. They've got a projected $20.4 million in projected cap space for 2023-24 with their young core players signed through at least next season.
The Sabres could be a good fit for Kane. The Buffalo native could prove to be the missing piece that turns this team from a promising club into a serious playoff team.
Kane comes home by signing a three-year deal worth $6.5 million annually with the Sabres.
Ryan O'Reilly, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired Ryan O'Reilly from the St. Louis Blues in the hope that he could help them win their first Stanley Cup since 1967. Regardless of the outcome of this year's playoffs or O'Reilly's performance, it's doubtful the Leafs can afford to re-sign him with just $9.9 million in projected cap space next season and only 13 roster players under contract.
O'Reilly is in the final season of a seven-year contract with an average annual value of $7.5 million. He struggled this season with the Blues, managing just 19 points in 40 games and missing 14 games with a broken foot. The 32-year-old center has five points in eight games with the Leafs but will miss four weeks recovering from a broken finger.
A 14-season NHL veteran, O'Reilly has exceeded 50 points 10 times and won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 2013-14. He also took home the Frank J. Selke in 2018-19 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP leading the Blues to the Stanley Cup.
The combination of O'Reilly's age and decline in production could raise some concern over whether his best seasons are now behind him. He will likely have to accept a cut in pay on his next contract. Nevertheless, he should draw plenty of interest in the free-agent market from clubs seeking an experienced, skilled two-way center.
One of those clubs could be the Carolina Hurricanes. They've been in need of a reliable second-line center since Vincent Trocheck departed last summer via free agency. His two-way versatility and championship experience could be enticing to the Hurricanes if they can get him on a reasonable short-term contract.
The Hurricanes have a projected $30 million in cap space for 2023-24. They can afford to sign O'Reilly to a three-year contract with an average annual value of $5.5 million.
Vladimir Tarasenko, New York Rangers
After several seasons of rebuilding, the Detroit Red Wings entered this season hoping to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016. However, general manager Steve Yzerman became a seller once again leading up to the trade deadline as his club struggled to stay in contention for a wild-card spot.
Yzerman showed a willingness last summer to bring in some veteran depth via free agency by adding David Perron, Ben Chiarot, Andrew Copp, Dominik Kubalik and Olli Määttä. Perhaps he'll go that route again this summer by bringing in a reliable sniper with Stanley Cup experience, such as Vladimir Tarasenko.
Acquired by the Rangers on Feb. 9 to provide scoring punch at right wing, Tarasenko is completing an eight-year contract with an average annual value of $7.5 million. New York will need to use most of its cap space if it wants to bring back its key RFAs.
Tarasenko has struggled at times this season, with 14 goals and 38 points in 50 games split between the Rangers and St. Louis Blues. The 31-year-old winger also missed 11 games to illness and an injured hand. However, he's only a year removed from a career-best 82-point campaign. He won't get $7.5 million on his next contract but could still get a reasonable deal.
With $32.3 million in projected cap space for next season and 13 roster players under contract for 2023-24, the Red Wings can afford to make a big free-agent addition. Tarasenko could provide the Wings with the offensive jolt that helps them get over the playoff hump.
The Red Wings sign Tarasenko to a four-year contract worth $6 million annually.
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
It's been a difficult season for Chicago captain Jonathan Toews. The club is in the midst of rebuilding its roster, he hasn't played since late January as he deals with long COVID symptoms, and his long-time friend and teammate Patrick Kane was traded to the New York Rangers.
Toews is completing an eight-year contract with a $10.5 million average annual value. With the Blackhawks' glory years receding ever further into history, the 34-year-old center could face an uncertain future after spending his entire 15-season NHL career in Chicago.
In his playing prime, Toews was among the league's elite two-way centers and leaders. He captained Chicago to three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015, won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2010 and took home the Frank J. Selke Trophy in 2013.
Age and illness, however, have taken their toll on Toews. He missed the entire 2020-21 season battling chronic immune response syndrome. He tallied a career-low 37 points through a full season in 2021-22 and managed 28 points in 46 games before hitting the shelf.
Toews is at the stage in his career where he'll have to decide if he can physically continue as an NHL player. He could also be reluctant to move on to a new club after so many years with one team. His recent health issues and the toll it's taken on his performance could bring about the end of his career.
Toews will announce his retirement this summer, perhaps before the free-agent market opens on July 1.
Stats (as of March 7, 2023) via NHL.com, salary information via Cap Friendly with additional info via Hockey-Reference.com.