2021 NHL Free Agency: Early Rankings for the Top Players in the Market

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2021

2021 NHL Free Agency: Early Rankings for the Top Players in the Market

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    Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The 2021 NHL free-agent market is scheduled to begin at noon ET on July 28. With the 2021 trade deadline now history and the playoffs fast approaching, this is a good opportunity to evaluate the best unrestricted free agents who could be available in this summer's market.

    This year's crop of pending UFAs includes one of the NHL's greatest goal scorers in Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. There's also a skillful puck-mover in Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton and a former Vezina Trophy winner in Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask.

    Some of this year's UFA stars could end up re-signing with their clubs before July 28. However, there's a good chance some will become available to the highest bidder when the market opens. Here's our ranking of this year's top free agents. Performance, previous contracts and how much they could seek on their next contracts factored into this compilation.

10. Zach Hyman, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    Despite being overshadowed by superstar teammates such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, Zach Hyman is an invaluable member of the Toronto Maple Leafs core. Completing a four-year, $9 million contract, he's going to get a big raise over his current $2.25 million annual cap hit.

    A hardworking two-way player who can skate at any forward position, the 28-year-old usually plays on one of the Leafs' top-two lines. He scored 21 goals in each of the past two seasons along with 40 points in 2017-18 and 41 in 2018-19. With 33 points in 43 games, he was on track for his third 40-point campaign until suffering a sprained right knee on April 19 that will sideline him at least two weeks.

    How much Hyman could get on his next contract is already a topic of discussion in Leafs Nation. On Tuesday, TSN's Pierre LeBrun speculated he might have to accept something within the $4 million range to stay with the cap-strapped Leafs but could get more than $5 million annually on the open market.

9. Taylor Hall, Boston Bruins

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Taylor Hall's stock has plummeted since winning the Hart Memorial Trophy with the New Jersey Devils in 2017-18. A left knee injury sidelined him for most of the following season and he struggled to regain his form in 2019-20, which he split between the Devils and Arizona Coyotes.

    Signing a one-year, $8 million contract last fall with the Buffalo Sabres, Hall endured the worst performance of his 11-year NHL career. The 29-year-old left winger managed just 19 points in 37 games before the floundering Sabres shipped him to the Boston Bruins prior to the April 12 trade deadline.

    Joining the Bruins seems to have rejuvenated Hall, as he tallied three points in his first five games skating alongside second-line center David Krejci. Nevertheless, he will need a strong performance over the remainder of this season and in the playoffs to bolster his sagging value in this year's free-agent market.

8. David Krejci, Boston Bruins

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    A model of consistency since his sophomore season (2008-09), David Krejci has spent that period as a reliable second-line center with the Boston Bruins. Now 34, this season could be his last with the Bruins as free agency beckons.

    Krejci has tallied at least 43 points 10 times in every season in which he's played 60-plus games. He's also achieved those numbers despite ever-changing linemates throughout his tenure in Boston. The veteran center helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and to reach the Final in 2013 and 2019. With 28 points in 40 games, he should reach between 35 and 40 points.

    Coming off a six-year, $43.5 million contract, Krejci won't attract lucrative offers like that at this stage of his career. With $50.4 million committed to 15 players, the Bruins can afford to keep him if he accepts a short-term deal and a pay cut from his $7.25 million annual cap hit to around $5.75 million. He might get a little more than that on the open market.

7. Tyson Barrie, Edmonton Oilers

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    Larry MacDougal/Associated Press

    After four 49-plus point performances in five seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, Tyson Barrie struggled through a 39-point campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2019-20. That sent his free-agent stock tumbling. Completing a four-year deal with an annual average value of $5.5 million, the 29-year-old defenseman inked a one-year, $3.75 million deal last fall with the Edmonton Oilers.

    Barrie is enjoying a solid bounce-back performance this season in Edmonton. With 38 points in 45 games, he leads all Oilers blueliners and sits fifth among NHL rearguards. He could finish this season with between 45 and 50 points at his current rate of production.

    A skillful and mobile defenseman, Barrie seems at home on the Oilers blue line. Whether he'll be back on a longer-term contract remains to be seen.

    His stats this season could land him multiyear offers worth more than $6 million annually. With $55.6 million tied up in 13 players, the Oilers can afford to re-sign him but must also re-sign or replace UFAs like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson and Mike Smith.

6. Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Colorado Avalanche's Philipp Grubauer is enjoying a career-best performance in his contract year. Among this season's goalies with 20-plus games played, the 29-year-old Avs starter is the leader in goals-against average (2.00), tied for the shutout lead (five) with Vegas' Marc-Andre Fleury, sits second with 25 wins and eighth with a .920 save percentage.

    Grubauer was a backup for the Washington Capitals when they won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Now in his third season as a starter, he will be expected to do what Braden Holtby accomplished with the Capitals and backstop the Avalanche to their first championship in 20 years. His play this season should make him a finalist for the 2021 Vezina Trophy.

    Completing a three-year, $10 million contract, Grubauer is in a terrific position to command a more lucrative deal. His asking price could shoot up to more than $7 million annually on a five- or six-year contract.

    The Avalanche have $57.5 million invested in 11 players next season but must also re-sign other notable players such as Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar. Other clubs could meet his price if the Avs don't.

5. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers

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    Larry MacDougal/Associated Press

    Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is certain to garner plenty of interest as the top center in this summer's UFA market. The 28-year-old has spent his entire 10-year NHL career with the Edmonton Oilers. In the final year of a seven-year, $42 million contract, he's in line to command another lucrative new deal.

    A versatile two-way forward who can play center or wing, Nugent-Hopkins has seven seasons with 40 or more points, including back-to-back 60-plus point performances in 2018-19 and 2019-20. He has 29 points in 41 games this year. He's also averaging 21:05 of ice time per game and sees plenty of special teams action.

    The Oilers have $55.6 million invested in 13 players for 2021-22. GM Ken Holland will like want to avoid enduring another season with limited cap space. It would be ideal to re-sign Nugent-Hopkins for around the same cap hit on a shorter-term deal. Holland must also re-sign or replace other UFAs such as goaltender Mike Smith and defensemen Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie.

    Nugent-Hopkins' two-way skills and consistency could fetch offers on the open market of $7 million annually on a five- or six-year contract. That could make it difficult for Holland to keep him in Edmonton.

4. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    The top defenseman among this year's UFA class, Dougie Hamilton is enjoying another solid performance with the Carolina Hurricanes. Whether he's still with them following this season or skating elsewhere is another matter.

    A skilled puck-moving blueliner, the 6'6", 229-pound Hamilton sits third among Hurricanes scorers with 37 points in 45 games. He's also among this season's top-10 scorers at his position. Coming off a six-year, $34.5 million contract, Hamilton will be seeking a big raise over his annual average value of $5.75 million. His asking price could come between $7.5 million and $8 million annually.

    Hamilton, 27, is among the Hurricanes' core players and a key reason behind their recent rise as Stanley Cup contenders. During a March 22 appearance on the DFO Hockey Rundown podcast (stick tap to TSN's Frank Seravalli), general manager Don Waddell indicated there's mutual interest in a contract extension. However, both sides agreed to put off those discussions until the end of the season.

    With $52.1 million tied up in 11 players next season, the Hurricanes have the room to re-sign Hamilton
    Doing so, however, could be a tight fit. Restricted free agents such as wingers Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic require raises. They must also re-sign or replace UFAs like goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask remains among the NHL's elite goaltenders. He was a winner of the Vezina Trophy in 2013-14 and was a finalist for the award in 2019-20. He also shared the William M. Jennings Trophy with Jaroslav Halak last season, won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins as a backup in 2010-11 and backstopped them to two Final appearances in 2013 and 2019.

    Now 34, Rask continues to put up solid numbers for the Bruins. Despite missing 11 games to an upper-body injury, he has a record of 11 wins, four losses and two overtime losses with a 2.22 goals-against average, a .916 save percentage and one shutout.

    Rask will garner attention if he hits the free-agent market, but the Bruins could make every effort to re-sign him. He won't get an offer comparable to his current eight-year, $56 million contract at his age. However, he could land a two- or three-year deal comparable to his $7 million annual average value. With $50.4 million invested in 15 players, the Bruins have sufficient cap room to retain him.

2. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog is one of the big factors behind his club's rise into Stanley Cup contention over the past two years. The 28-year-old left winger is among the best in the league at his position. He's going to be paid as such following this season, either by the Avalanche or another NHL club.

    Landeskog's been a model of consistency through his 11 NHL seasons. With 16 goals in 41 games, he's on pace to reach 20 goals for the eighth time. His 41 points also mark the eighth time he's exceeded the 40-point plateau. The 6'1", 215-pounder also brings a physical edge to his game.

    The Avalanche have enjoyed Landeskog's performance for a bargain price. He's completing a seven-year, $39 million contract worth an annual average value of $5.6 million. For what he brings to the team in terms of production, leadership and physical play, it's going to cost them a lot more to keep their captain in Colorado.

    With $57.5 million committed to 11 players for 2021-22, the Avalanche have sufficient cap space to re-sign Landeskog to a significant raise between $7 million and $8 million annually on a long-term contract. However, they must also ensure they have sufficient space to re-sign starting goaltender Philipp Graubauer and defenseman Cale Makar and fill out the remainder of the roster.

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    One of the greatest goalscorers in NHL history, Alex Ovechkin is unquestionably the best player in this year's UFA market. The 35-year-old Washington Capitals left winger is completing a 13-year, $124 million contract with an annual average value of $9.54 million.

    Ovechkin remains among the NHL's elite stars despite being at an age when a player's skills begin to fade. The Capitals captain has a team-leading 24 goals in 42 games and sits among this season's top-five goal scorers. With 730 career goals, he's poised to move past Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne into fifth place on the all-time goal-scoring list.

    It's difficult to imagine Ovechkin playing anywhere else after 16 NHL seasons in Washington. On March 12, NHL.com's Tom Gulitti reported Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said he had no update on where the two sides stood in contract negotiations. He was optimistic about getting a deal done but admitted they had to find a "sweet spot" they could agree on.

    That sweet spot will be expensive. On Jan. 8, Sportsnet's Luke Fox cited Russian site metaratings.ru claiming McLellan floated a three- to five-year extension with an annual average value between $9.5 million to $10 million. Assuming Ovechkin accepts that offer, the Capitals must shed salary to retain him. They have $72 million invested in 18 players for 2021-22.

    Ovechkin will draw considerable attention if he tests the open market. At his age, he's unlikely to sign with a rebuilding club. However, it could prove difficult to find a playoff contender with sufficient space under the flattened salary cap to pay him more than $9.5 million annually on a multiyear deal.

                    

    Stats (as of April 22, 2021) via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly