8 Bold Predictions for NHL Free Agency

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2020

8 Bold Predictions for NHL Free Agency

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    On Monday, TSN's Frank Seravalli reported the NHL's free-agent period will begin at noon ET on Oct. 9. In July, he also reported the one-week free-agent interview period was eliminated under the new NHL collective bargaining agreement. That means it's back to the opening-day bidding wars by general managers for the top available talent.

    Once the market opens, there will be considerable interest in this season's top unrestricted free agents. This year's crop features such notables as St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, Arizona Coyotes left wing Taylor Hall and Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner.

    With the salary cap remaining at $81.5 million, a restricted free agent star on a cap-strapped club could sign an offer sheet with another club. That would give his club seven days from the date he signed the offer to match it.

    Many of the best free agents could re-sign with their current clubs by Oct. 9. But where could they end up if they test the market? Here are some bold predictions for this year's NHL free agency.

Anthony Cirelli to the New York Rangers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    With $76.1 million invested in 15 players for next season, the Tampa Bay Lightning lack the cap room to re-sign restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev. It's a golden opportunity for New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton to sign away Cirelli with an offer sheet.

    The Rangers need a skilled second-line center. Ryan Strome did a good job at that position last season, putting up a career-high 59 points, but the 27-year-old is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights who's a year away from becoming an unrestricted free agent. A long-term investment in Strome might not be worthwhile, especially with a tempting offer sheet target like the younger Cirelli in Tampa Bay.

    Cirelli, 23, has quickly established himself as a strong two-way center in just two full NHL seasons. He netted 44 points in 68 games before the regular season was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. He's completing an entry-level contract and lacks arbitration rights, giving the Lightning leverage to ink him to an affordable bridge deal.

    The Rangers, however, have $68 million invested in 16 players for next season. They could get an additional $8.5 million if Henrik Lundqvist retires or perhaps an additional $3 million-4 million if they pick up part of his salary to facilitate a trade or by buying him out.

    That should give Gorton room to sign Cirelli to a lucrative, long-term deal worth between $6 million-7 million annually, provided he is willing to sign.

Taylor Hall to the Montreal Canadiens

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Winner of the 2018 Hart Memorial Trophy, Taylor Hall is the best forward among this year's crop of unrestricted free agents. On Sep. 2, TSN's Darren Dreger reported the Arizona Coyotes are attempting to re-sign the 29-year left winger. If he opts for the open market, the Montreal Canadiens are a prime destination.

    The Coyotes have $80.3 million invested in 17 players. Even if they put Marian Hossa ($5.275 million) on long-term injured reserve, that wouldn't free up enough cap room to keep Hall. They're also searching for a full-time general manager following John Chayka's messy departure. Meanwhile, Arizona Coyotes insider Craig Morgan reported Friday they were late paying bonuses to several players, though they were eventually paid up.

    Hall could opt for a stable club in a passionate hockey market in need of skilled offensive punch. On Friday, the Montreal Gazette's Stu Cowan cited Dreger's suggestion that Hall might be interested in playing in a big hockey market like Montreal.

    The rise of promising centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi appears to have addressed the Canadiens' longstanding need for depth at the position. One of those kids would benefit skating alongside a true scoring star like Hall.

    Luring Hall to Montreal could cost more than $9 million annually on a seven-year deal. The Habs, however, have $67.4 million invested in 17 players. Rather than re-sign restricted free agent Max Domi, they could use that cap room to invest in Hall.

Mike Hoffman to the New Jersey Devils

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    A lack of scoring depth contributed to the New Jersey Devils' failure to qualify for this season's playoffs. Signing a top-six winger such as Mike Hoffman of the Florida Panthers would help to address that issue.

    The Devils sat 24th in goals for per game (2.68) when the regular season was paused in March. Kyle Palmieri was the only one to reach 20 goals, tallying 25 in 65 games.

    Hoffman is among the NHL's most consistent scorers. The 30-year-old tallied 20-plus goals in six consecutive seasons and 59-plus points in five straight. He has terrific speed and offensive instincts. While right wing is his strong side, he can also play on the left.

    Completing a four-year contract worth an annual average value of $5.187 million, Hoffman could seek more than $6 million per season on his next deal. With $55.2 million invested in 13 players, the Devils have sufficient space to re-sign key players like goalie Mackenzie Blackwood and winger Jesper Bratt and still have enough left over to bring in Hoffman.

    Signing Hoffman would provide the Devils with a winger for first-line center Nico Hischier. If they prefer Palmieri on the top line, they could drop Hoffman to the second line alongside the promising Jack Hughes.

Braden Holtby to the Colorado Avalanche

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Braden Holtby's 10-year affiliation with the Washington Capitals is expected to end when the unrestricted free-agent market opens in October. Supplanted as starting goaltender by Ilya Samsonov, the 30-year-old's next stop could be the Colorado Avalanche.

    Holtby had a good run as the Caps' starting goalie, winning the Vezina Trophy in 2016 and backstopping them to their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2018. He struggled at times over the past two seasons, but perhaps a change of scenery will help him regain his form.

    The Avalanche have made do with affordable goaltenders Pavel Francouz and former Holtby backup Philipp Grubauer for the past two seasons. However, those two still haven't proved themselves as reliable starters. General manager Joe Sakic should be in the market for an experienced starter with championship experience like Holtby.

    With $59.1 million committed to 14 players next season, Sakic has the cap space to make a splash in the UFA market. He can free up a little more by shopping Grubauer ($3.33 million) or Francouz ($2 million) and put it toward Holtby.

Torey Krug to the Detroit Red Wings

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Torey Krug becomes an unrestricted free agent in October. NBC Sports Boston's Joe Haggerty believes the 29-year-old defenseman has played his final game for the Boston Bruins, pointing to Krug's intent to seek a lucrative long-term deal. That should put him on a path toward the Detroit Red Wings.

    The Bruins have $65.9 million invested in 20 players, with long-time captain Zdeno Chara and second-line winger Jake DeBrusk among their other noteworthy free agents. An expensive new deal for Krug would be difficult to fit within their cap constraints without shedding some salary, trading DeBrusk or waving goodbye to Chara.

    Krug should be targeted by the Detroit Red Wings if he hits the open market. This rebuilding club badly needs skilled, experienced defensemen. General manager Steve Yzerman should make bolstering the blue line among his priorities.

    Born in Michigan, Krug played NCAA hockey at Michigan State University. An opportunity to play in his home state on a big-money contract should prove tempting. The Wings' blue line would benefit from his puck-moving abilities.

    With $46.8 million committed to 10 players, the Wings have the cap room to re-sign key players like Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi. They will also have enough to bring in some quality veteran talent via free agency.

Robin Lehner to the Carolina Hurricanes

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    The Carolina Hurricanes can't be considered a serious Stanley Cup contender with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer as their goaltending tandem. They need a true starting goalie, something they have lacked since Cam Ward was in his prime around 10 years ago. They need look no further than Robin Lehner of the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Lehner, 28, turned his life around after receiving treatment for mental health and addiction in 2018. After signing a one-year contract with the New York Islanders, he won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 2018-19 and was also a Vezina Trophy finalist.

    Signed to a one-year deal by the Chicago Blackhawks last summer, Lehner posted solid numbers behind a porous defense. Traded to the Golden Knights at the trade deadline, he's taken over the starter's job from Marc-Andre Fleury, backstopping his new club to the Western Conference Final.

    Lehner will seek a raise over his current $5 million salary, but a long-term deal will likely mean more to him. Perhaps a five-year deal with a rising club like the Hurricanes worth $6 million annually will prove enticing.

    The Hurricanes have $72.3 million tied up in 16 players next season. They can free up more than $3 million by moving Mrazek or Reimer. They can shed another $5.25 million by moving winger Nino Niederreiter, who dropped down the Hurricanes' depth chart this season. That should provide enough to sign Lehner.

Jacob Markstrom to the Edmonton Oilers

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Edmonton Oilers must answer nagging questions regarding their goaltending. Is Mikko Koskinen finally ready to become a reliable starting goaltender? Will they re-sign Mike Smith? If the answer to both questions is no, they should cast their eyes westward toward Jacob Markstrom.

    An unrestricted free agent, Markstrom put up good numbers behind a weak Vancouver Canucks defense corps this season. The 30-year-old netminder won 23 of 43 starts with a 2.75 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.

    With the Canucks investing $64.4 million in 16 players, re-signing Markstrom won't be easy. Earlier in September, Sportsnet's Josh Beneteau speculated he could command more than $6 million annually on the open market. That would take a big chunk out of their cap space, hurting their chances to re-sign Tyler Toffoli and Chris Tanev.

    Rookie Thatcher Demko played very well replacing the sidelined Markstrom in their playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights. That could give Canucks management reason to part ways with their veteran starter.

    The Oilers, meanwhile, must improve their goaltending if they are to become a Stanley Cup contender. They have $70.2 million tied up in 17 players and must also re-sign promising defenseman Ethan Bear. However, they could free up cap room for Markstrom by trading defenseman Adam Larsson and his $4.16 million salary-cap hit.

Alex Pietrangelo to the Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    The Toronto Maple Leafs need a true first-pairing, right-side defenseman. If St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo hits the open market, this is his most likely destination.

    A lack of skilled right-side blue-line depth is an ongoing issue for the Leafs. It's a big reason why they can't seem to stage a deep playoff run despite their high-octane offense powered by Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner.

    Pietrangelo, 30, would more than addresses that issue. He's among the league's elite defensemen, captaining the Blues to their first Stanley Cup last year. He brings a solid mix of skill, experience, and leadership that's lacking on the Toronto blue line.

    The Leafs have $73.7 million invested in 16 players for 2020-21. General manager Kyle Dubas has already started shedding salary, shipping Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins in August. He could have more cost-cutting moves in mind to land a big fish like Pietrangelo in the UFA pool.

    Signing Pietrangelo will be expensive, but the flattened salary cap could work to the Leafs' advantage. It could cost $9 million annual average value for at least five years.

                            

    Player stats and info via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly

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