Way-Too-Early Predictions for the 2021 NHL Free-Agency Class

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistNovember 2, 2020

Way-Too-Early Predictions for the 2021 NHL Free-Agency Class

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The 2020 NHL free-agent market opened on Oct. 9. As usual, many of the top unrestricted free agents were quickly signed. With most of this year's best players now off the market, it's a good opportunity to cast an early eye toward the top talent of the 2021 free-agent class.

    A number of standout NHL stars, including Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin and Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, are slated to become unrestricted free agents following the 2021 season. Some could re-sign with their current clubs before then, while others are bound to test the market.

    Here are our way-too-early predictions for the 2021 NHL free-agency class. Current player salaries, performance and team roster needs factored into this list.

Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks on June 20, 2016, Frederik Andersen has been the NHL's busiest starting goaltender since then. Over the past four seasons, he's faced an NHL-leading 7,798 shots. He's also led the league in total saves with 7,142.

    Despite Andersen's hard work behind a porous defense, he's struggled in the postseason. The 31-year-old netminder is winless in eight potential series-clinching games. Andersen was also the subject of frequent trade speculation this offseason. However, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas indicated on Oct 5 that he'll return as their starter next season.

    The heavy workload could be catching up with Andersen. Last season was his worst as a starter, with a 2.85 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Even if he has a bounce-back effort in the regular season, it won't satisfy Leafs Nation if he doesn't carry the club deep into the 2021 postseason.

    Another early playoff exit could spell the end of Andersen's tenure in Toronto. Even if he plays well, they could be unable to re-sign him. He's entering the final season of a five-year, $25 million contract and may seek more than $6 million annually on his next contract. With the Leafs already having $67.9 million tied up in 13 players for 2021-22, they'll be squeezed for cap space.

    The Nashville Predators could emerge as a suitor if Andersen tests the market. Longtime starting goalie Pekka Rinne is also an unrestricted free agent and is coming to the end of his career, while Juuse Saros still hasn't established himself as a reliable starter. They have $59.7 million committed to 14 players for 2021-22, with all their core players under contract.

    Prediction

    The Predators sign Andersen to a four-year contract worth $6.5 million annually.

Taylor Hall, Buffalo Sabres

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The best forward in the 2020 free-agent class, Taylor Hall surprised the hockey world by signing a one-year, $8 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres. The 28-year-old left wing is eligible to once again become an unrestricted free agent following the 2020-21 season.

    Winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy as a New Jersey Devil in 2017-18 with a career-high 93-point regular season, Hall was sidelined by a knee injury for all but 33 games in 2018-19. He tallied a respectable 52 points in 65 games with the Devils and Arizona Coyotes last season, but that was well below his personal best.

    Hall could return to the 90-point plateau next season skating alongside superstar center Jack Eichel in Buffalo. That performance would bolster his value if he returns to the free-agent market seeking a lucrative long-term deal.

    The Sabres have $44.7 million already invested in 10 players for 2021-22. If ownership is willing to spend toward the salary cap, perhaps they will invest over $9 million annually in a five- to seven-year contract for Hall. Just because they can, however, doesn't mean they will. Much will depend upon Hall's performance alongside Eichel, and if the Sabres significantly improve as a result.

    Hall has only appeared in the playoffs twice in his 10 NHL seasons, and playing for a contender could also determine his course of action. Such a club with cap room in need of scoring punch at left wing, like the Columbus Blue Jackets, could make a big pitch next year.

    Prediction

    Hall signs a five-year deal with the Blue Jackets worth an annual average value of $9 million

Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Despite his skills as a puck-moving defenseman, Dougie Hamilton has bounced around during his eight NHL seasons. He began his career with the Boston Bruins in 2012-13 but was traded to the Calgary Flames in 2015. Three years later, he was shipped to the Carolina Hurricanes as part of a multiplayer swap.

    Nevertheless, Hamilton has put up good offensive numbers over the past six seasons, reaching or exceeding 40 points five times. With 40 points in 47 games in 2019-20, he could have become a candidate for the James Norris Memorial Trophy had he not suffered a broken leg in January.

    In the final year of a six-year, $34.5 million contract, Hamilton could get a big raise over his $5.75 million annual salary-cap hit. A career performance like the one he was headed toward last season would only boost his value in the free-agent market.

    The Hurricanes have $52.6 million committed to 12 players for 2021-22, and a big raise for Hamilton would take a big chunk out of their cap space. It could also complicate efforts to re-sign restricted free-agent winger Andrei Svechnikov and signing or replacing UFA goaltenders Petr Mrazek and James Reimer.

    Hamilton may seek a seven-year deal worth around $7.5 million, especially if he has a Norris-worthy performance next season. That could price him out of the Hurricanes' comfort zone. A team with cap room in need of a skilled puck-moving defenseman, like the Detroit Red Wings, could sign him away.

    Prediction

    Hamilton signs a seven-year, $49 million contract with the Red Wings.

Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    A skilled, physical winger, Gabriel Landeskog has spent his entire nine-year NHL career with the Colorado Avalanche. Their captain since 2012-13, the 27-year-old has 20-or more goals and 44-plus point seven times.

    After completing a seven-year, $39 million contract, Landeskog could seek a substantial raise over his $5.571 million annual salary. As one of the better forwards among the 2021 free-agent class, he could receive a seven-year deal worth more than $7 million annually on the open market.

    With $55.1 million invested in 12 players for 2021-22, the Avalanche can afford to re-sign Landeskog. However, rising star Cale Makar is a restricted free agent next year and is in line for a big raise. The Avs must also decide whether they will re-sign goaltender Philipp Grubauer and winger Brandon Saad, who are also UFAs next summer.

    The Avalanche might be reluctant to invest too much in one player if the salary cap remains flat for 2021-22. However, their Stanley Cup window appears wide-open heading into next season. Retaining their core players could be crucial in maintaining their status as Cup contenders.

    Letting Landeskog depart next summer via free agency would deplete the Avalanche's talent and leadership core. The two sides could quibble over the length of the deal and the cap hit, but they should reach an agreement to keep him in Colorado.

    Prediction

    The Avalanche sign Landeskog to a six-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $6.8 million.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The first overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hasn't turned into a superstar like Edmonton Oilers teammate Connor McDavid. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old forward is a versatile two-way player capable of playing center or wing. He's exceeded 50 points five times, including consecutive 60-plus point performance in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

    Nugent-Hopkins has become an important member of the Oilers' core. Re-signing him, however, could prove difficult. He's in the final season of a seven-year, $42 million contract. On June 9, Sportsnet's Mark Spector suggested Nugent-Hopkins could seek something comparable to teammate Leon Draisaitl's $8.5 million annual average value, though he's skeptical the Oilers would go that high.

    Finding the right salary for Nugent-Hopkins could be a tight fit within Edmonton's salary-cap payroll. They have $52.8 million invested in 12 players for 2021-22 and must also re-sign or replace UFAs such as goaltender Mike Smith, defensemen Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie and winger Alex Chiasson. Winger Kailer Yamamoto will also be a restricted free agent.

    The Oilers could wait to see how Nugent-Hopkins performs over the course of next season before attempting to re-sign him. Another 60-plus point campaign would boost his value in the free-agent market and could make him more expensive to re-sign.

    If the Oilers put an emphasis on shoring up their goaltending and blue line, Nugent-Hopkins could price himself out of Edmonton. Given his value as one of their core players, however, the team will try to find a way to keep him. On Oct. 5, general manager Ken Holland indicated re-signing the longtime Oiler was a top priority.

    Prediction

    Nugent-Hopkins signs a seven-year, $49 million contract with the Oilers.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The biggest star in the 2021 free-agent class, Alex Ovechkin has spent his entire 15-year NHL career with the Washington Capitals. The 35-year-old left winger has blazed a path to the Hall of Fame, winning multiple individual awards and leading the Capitals to their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2018.

    Despite being at an age when a player's skill deteriorates, Ovechkin's shown no sign of slowing down. He won the Maurice Richard Trophy last season for the ninth time with 48 goals in 68 games, marking the 11th time he's exceeded 45 goals in his career. Another 45-plus goal performance in 2020-21 would ensure his value remains sky-high in the 2021 free-agent market.

    The greatest player in Capitals history, Ovechkin is entering the final season of a 13-year, $124 million contract worth an annual average value of $9.538 million. He's in position to earn a similar annual cap hit on his next contract, though the term will be considerably shorter given his age and NHL contract limits.

    On Aug. 23, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said he and Ovechkin agreed to wait until training camp to talk about a new contract. On Sep. 11, Capitals blog Russian Machine Never Breaks cited a report from Russian website Metaratings that said MacLellan offered his captain between $9.5 million and $10 million annually on a three- to five-year deal. However, there's no confirmation of this from either side.

    With $66.2 invested in 15 players for 2021-22, a $9.5 million per season deal for Ovechkin would bite deeply into the Capitals' remaining cap space. Nevertheless, it's unlikely they will part with their franchise player while he's still on top of his game.

    Prediction

    Ovechkin signs a three-year deal with the Capitals worth $9 million per season.



Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    If the New Jersey Devils were still in their Stanley Cup heyday, perhaps Kyle Palmieri would have a brighter spotlight. He's been a consistent offensive presence for the Devils since his arrival from the Anaheim Ducks more than five years ago. 

    Tallying at least 24 goals and 44-plus points in each of the past five seasons, Palmieri was also the Devils' leading scorer in every season except 2017-18. The 29-year-old winger has been an alternate captain over the past two seasons and could be a prime candidate to take over as captain for 2020-21.

    Palmieri is in the final season of a five-year, $23.25 million deal with an annual average value of $4.65 million. On June 23, NJ.com's Randy Miller reported Palmieri hoped to stay with the Devils. The feeling could be mutual, as The Fourth Period's Dave Pagnotta reported on Sep. 23 the two sides had preliminary contract talks.

    Pagnotta also noted Palmieri had surfaced in trade speculation. That's not unusual for a player a year away from UFA status skating on a non-playoff club retooling its roster. The question is how much will it cost to keep him in New Jersey. Miller suggested New York Rangers winger Chris Kreider (seven years, $45.5 million) as a comparable player.

    The Devils have $39.6 million invested in just nine players for 2021-22. That's plenty of room to re-sign Palmieri to a significant raise. The length of the deal could be a sticking point. The Devils might be reluctant to invest too long in a player who will be 30 when the contract goes into effect. If that can be sorted out, Palmieri may stay put.

    Prediction

    Palmieri signs a four-year contract with the Devils worth an annual average value of $6.5 million.

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Tuukka Rask would be the best goaltender among the 2021 unrestricted free-agent class if he makes it that far. Since joining the Boston Bruins on a full-time basis in 2009-10, he's become among the top goalies in their history. He won a Stanley Cup with them in 2011, took home the Vezina Trophy in 2014, backstopped them to two Cup Finals (2015, 2019) and holds the franchise records for wins (291) and save percentage (.922).

    In the final year of an eight-year, $56 million contract, the 33-year-old remains among the NHL's elite netminders. He won't get another eight-year deal at this stage of his career. However, he would still be in a good position to land a short-term deal for the same annual cap hit ($7 million) of his current deal with the Bruins or on the open market.

    Rask has also flirted with the notion of retirement at the end of this contract. On March 21, NBC Sports Boston cited an interview with The Boston Globe's Matt Porter in which Rask hinted about hanging up his pads. He also received some criticism from Bruins fans when he left the club during the 2020 playoffs to attend to a family medical emergency, but he had the full support of the team.

    The Bruins lack someone in their system capable of replacing Rask if he departs via free agency or retirement after next season. With $45.1 million committed to 10 players for 2021-22, they have the cap space to keep him in the fold on a short-term deal for around the same annual average value. 

    It could come down to whether Rask wants to continue his NHL career and if the Bruins are willing to pay to keep him in Boston. Another solid performance on his part next season should seal the deal.

    Prediction

    The Bruins re-sign Rask to a two-year, $14 million contract.

             

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