NHL Free Agents 2020: Latest Predictions for Ilya Kovalchuk, Joe Thornton, More

Jake RillSenior Analyst IIIJuly 21, 2020

Washington Capitals left wing Ilya Kovalchuk (17), of Russia, skates with the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

Ilya Kovalchuk and Joe Thornton have a combined 35 seasons of NHL experience. They've been standout players in the league for two decades, and both have shown that they can still be contributors at this stage of their careers.

It's also possible that Kovalchuk and Thornton will both be on the move during the upcoming offseason. They're both set to become unrestricted free agents, and because neither has ever won a Stanley Cup, it would be surprising to see them sign with a team that isn't currently in win-now mode.

Kovalchuk and Thornton could provide veteran leadership, so there will surely be teams interested in signing them for the 2020-21 season.

Here are predictions for where several of the more experienced players set to become free agents will land this offseason, including Kovalchuk and Thornton.

     

Ilya Kovalchuk, LW

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During the 2019-20 season, Ilya Kovalchuk has played for three teams—the Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals. He's currently with the Caps and will be looking to help them win their second Stanley Cup in three years after the season resumes next month.

Despite 13 seasons in the NHL, Kovalchuk doesn't have much playoff experience, playing in only 32 postseason games. The last came while with the New Jersey Devils in 2011-12. That will change soon, however, considering he's with Washington.

But Kovalchuk's time with the Capitals could be short-lived. Although the Canadiens traded him in February, the 37-year-old could be heading back to Montreal. Sportsnet's Eric Engels reported it was "all but assured" that Kovalchuk would sign with the Habs during the offseason. More recently, Kovalchuk even said he hopes the Capitals face the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Finals, per NHL.com's Tom Gulitti.

So, it appears Kovalchuk enjoyed his time in Montreal, where he had six goals and seven assists in 22 games. Expect him to be back on the ice for the Canadiens in 2020-21, regardless of how the rest of this season goes with the Capitals.

Prediction: Kovalchuk signs with Montreal

       

Joe Thornton, C

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Over 22 NHL seasons and 17 trips to the playoffs, Joe Thornton has never won a Stanley Cup. So, whatever decision the 41-year-old center makes this upcoming offseason, it's likely going to be with winning it all in mind.

That might not be with the San Jose Sharks, who are one of the seven teams that won't be in action when the 2019-20 NHL season resumes. They went 29-36-5 this season.

Although Thornton has played for the Sharks since getting traded to them from the Boston Bruins in 2005, he may be open to heading elsewhere. In fact, he said in February that he would have waived his no-trade clause in a potential deal that would have sent him to the Philadelphia Flyers, but it never materialized, per NHL.com's Adam Kimelman.

As long as Thornton decides to keep playing, the prediction here is that he'll sign with a new team. One potential fit could be with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have a talented young core and could be looking for affordable options to fill out their roster. Thornton, who has seven goals and 31 points in 70 games, would provide veteran leadership on a team that should contend in the Eastern Conference.

Prediction: Thornton signs with Toronto

     

Braden Holtby, G

Nick Wass/Associated Press

One of the more experienced goaltenders on the free-agent market will be Braden Holtby, a 30-year-old who has spent his entire 10-year NHL career in Washington. He's a former Jennings and Vezina Trophy winner, and he led the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in 2018.

However, it appears likely that Holtby's time in Washington may be nearing an end. His numbers have been a bit down this season (.897 save percentage and 3.11 goals-against average), while Ilya Samsonov has emerged as the Caps' likely starting goaltender into the future, although head coach Todd Reirden said in June that Holtby is still No. 1 for now, per J.J. Regan of NBC Sports.

Holtby's playing time will likely decrease if he stayed in Washington the next few seasons, and he'll likely make more than a team would want to pay its backup goaltender. So, it would make sense for both sides for the veteran to sign with a new team this upcoming offseason.

The Vancouver Canucks are one team that could be looking to sign a goaltender this offseason, as it's possible they'll lose Jacob Markstrom to free agency. Holtby could pair nicely with Thatcher Demko to give the Canucks a strong goaltending duo for 2020-21.

Prediction: Holtby signs with Vancouver