NHL Free Agency: Latest News, Predictions for Ilya Kovalchuk, Zdeno Chara, More

Jenna CiccotelliCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2020

NHL Free Agency: Latest News, Predictions for Ilya Kovalchuk, Zdeno Chara, More

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    NHL free agency has been ongoing for the better part of a month, but there are still a number of top players who have yet to find their homes for the upcoming season.

    The league and the NHLPA are targeting a Jan. 1 start date for the 2020-21 campaign, but top talent, including veterans Ilya Kovalchuk and Zdeno Chara and winger Mike Hoffman, are still without teams as the free-agent market thins.

    Here's the latest updates on their free-agent searches thus far and some predictions as to where they might end up come January.

Ilya Kovalchuk, LW (Most Recent Team: Washington Capitals)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    After spending the strange 2019-20 season, his 13th in the league, on three teams, Kovalchuk has one requirement for whatever place he lands next.

    "We will try to find the right place, the right fit, that's good for everybody," he told The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun.

    Kovalchuk is spending the offseason with his family in Miami and continuing his training in the hopes that he and his agents, Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry of CAA Sports, will be able to find him a home for the 2020-21 season after a lack of stability in a pandemic-shortened year.

    The Los Angeles Kings ended his contract in December, and soon after he slotted into the top six for the Montreal Canadiens on a league-minimum agreement in a deal that was exactly what he and the team wanted. Through 22 games with the Habs, Kovalchuk added six goals and seven assists for 13 points, with a plus-six rating while averaging 18:54 minutes on ice—his highest since the 2012-13 season. 

    "That's what I say from Day 1, I feel like I was here for a long time," Kovalchuk told The Athletic's Arpon Basu in February. "The fans, but the most important is the way the players welcomed me to the team, the leadership group and everybody. It feels really good and it's great to be a part of it."

    The Canadiens ended up sending him to the Capitals at the deadline in exchange for a third-round pick. His usage dropped in the seven regular-season games he appeared in for Washington. 

    Brisson told LeBrun that Kovalchuk wants to keep playing, but the 37-year-old was not shy about explaining what he wants—"both parties interested"—and that he'll take his time until he finds it.

    "Yeah, it's all about the right place and the right time," he said. "Like I said, I'm not in a rush. We talk to Pat all the time. He said right now the market is slow because teams don't know what to expect. Everyone is waiting to see the results on the season and everything.  So I'm not in a rush, either."

    Kovalchuk thrived in Montreal, where he was used on the ice and valued off of it. As someone who has shown before that he will sign for the league-minimum salary, he is a prime target for a team with minimal cap space that needs a bit of an extra push from veteran leadership. 

    The Carolina Hurricanes have room to play around with contracts, especially in the case of a league-minimum deal that would bring in another veteran to work alongside captain Jordan Staal in an effort to give the 2018-19 Eastern Conference finalists a facelift heading into 2020-21.

    Prediction: Kovalchuk signs with Carolina on a one-year, league-minimum deal.

Zdeno Chara, D (Most Recent Team: Boston Bruins)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy is bracing himself for the possibility that his team captain, a 14-year veteran of the team, may not be donning the black and gold next season.

    In an interview with NBC10 Boston's Raul Martinez, Cassidy said that in the case of Zdeno Chara's departure, the team will simply look to the next man up.

    "If Z ends up in another uniform, then we have to rely on these young guys. I guess that’s the way I look at it. I look at it as a coach. You try to separate the personal side of it. You go to bat with these guys every day, it’s a privilege to coach them but then people change, there’s trades and then you move on and then you gotta worry about the next guy."

    Chara is exploring free agency for the second time in his 22-year career, and Boston general manager Don Sweeney said they are waiting for the seven-time All-Star to "initiate what he'd like to do moving forward," according to Boston Hockey Now's Joe Haggerty.

    LeBrun reported earlier in October that Chara's agent has indicated that he is "looking at all options," while LeBrun added that the format of the season is important to the veteran, citing his "young family."

    At the end of the season, Chara indicated that he wants to stay in Bolton, and while the Bruins have seemingly taken a roundabout route to showing that they are committed to their captain, he will stick around to finish his professional career with the Bruins.

    Boston has strong defenders in much younger bodies, but even more important than Chara's on-ice contribution is his veteran leadership in the locker room. Even if he sees less time on the ice, as has been the case with his average minutes every year since 2015-16, the Bruins will keep him around to guide the next generation of Boston blueliners.

    Prediction: Chara re-signs in Boston on a short-term deal.

Mike Hoffman, LW (Most Recent Team: Florida Panthers)

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Like his veteran counterparts on the free-agent market, Mike Hoffman is taking his time on signing with a team for his 10th season in the league. But it's not for lack of interest, according to Hoffman's agent, Robert Hooper.

    Hooper told The Athletic's Adam Vingan that 13 teams had showed interest in Hoffman, with "five or six" expressing a "serious" desire to sign the former Ottawa Senator, who joined the Panthers ahead of the 2018-19 season. Hoffman thrived with the Panthers, posting a career-high 70 points in his first year on the team (by way of a career-best 36 goals, coupled with 34 helpers), and he continued his success into this past season with 29 goals, tying his second-most.

    His power-play presence rivals that of nearly every other forward in the league, with five goals on the advantage coming on one-timers, good for sixth-most in the league, per Vingan.

    "Who doesn’t want a 30-goal scorer in your lineup?" Hooper said. "Raise your hand."

    Hooper noted that Hoffman doesn't mind signing a one-year deal, which Vingan expects could draw a salary ranging from $5 million-$8 million.

    A team in need of a quick fix is the Nashville Predators, who cleared three of their top goal scorers from the roster this offseason, with Nick Bonino (18 goals) traded to Minnesota and Craig Smith (18 goals) and Mikael Granlund (17 goals) leaving via free agency. Even with them, the Predators were a middle-of-the-road offensive team, scoring 212 goals to rank 17th in the league. Nashville also has money to play with as they seek their new goal scorers, as CapFriendly lists them as having $12.9 million projected cap space as of Tuesday night.

    Prediction: Hoffman signs a short-term deal with the Nashville Predators.