Way-Too-Early Predictions for Pending NHL Free Agents in 2022

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2021

Way-Too-Early Predictions for Pending NHL Free Agents in 2022

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    It's been nearly two weeks since the NHL's free-agent market opened July 28. Almost all of the top unrestricted free agents signed.

    With the talent pool nearly drained, this is a good opportunity to look toward next summer's crop of potential UFA standouts.

    Long-established superstars such as Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron could become available next July. So could younger stars in their prime such as Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov, Nashville Predators winger Filip Forsberg and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly.

    Some of these players could sign with the highest bidder on the open market. Others could re-sign well before their UFA eligibility date.

    Here are our way-too-early predictions for the top talent in the 2022 free-agent class. Feel free to sound off in the comments section.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

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    Aleksander Barkov had the makings of a future franchise player when the Florida Panthers chose him with the second pick in the 2013 NHL draft.

    A big center with impressive two-way skills, the 6'3", 215-pound Barkov overcame injuries early in his career to become one of the NHL's top stars. He's tallied 52-plus points in each of the past six seasons, averaging 1.06 points per game since 2017-18. The big Finn is also just two points behind teammate Jonathan Huberdeau in overall points (465) since 2013-14.

    Barkov helped establish his elite status by winning the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 2018-19 and the Frank J. Selke Trophy last season. Turning 26 on Sep. 2, he's staring down the final season of a six-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $5.9 million.

    The Panthers have a projected $60.5 million tied up in 13 players for 2022-23. A new contract for Barkov will take a big bite out of their remaining cap space. Fortunately, he's the only core player due for free agency next summer. With the Panthers on the verge of Stanley Cup contention and their team captain and franchise player in his prime, it's doubtful they'll risk losing him to the open market.



    The Panthers lock up Barkov to an eight-year extension worth $9 million per season.

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

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    One of the Boston Bruins' greatest players, Patrice Bergeron is also among the best two-way centers in NHL history. A four-time winner of the Selke Trophy, he helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reach the Final in 2013 and 2019.

    The 36-year-old has spent his entire 17-season career with the Bruins. He sits third among their franchise leaders with 1,143 games played, fifth in total goals (375) and assists (542) and fourth in points with 917. He was named captain in 2020-21 following the departure of Zdeno Chara.

    In the final season of an eight-year contract worth $6.88 million annually, Bergeron remains the Bruins' first-line center. Over the past two pandemic-shortened seasons, he reached 56 and 48 points, respectively.

    Bergeron is also reaching the stage in his career when decline is inevitable. He's unlikely to get another lucrative long-term deal from the Bruins. However, he could be willing to accept a bit of a pay cut to stay with the only NHL team he's ever played for.



    Bergeron inks a two-year contract with the Bruins worth an annual average value of $6 million.

Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

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    This summer has been one of change for the Philadelphia Flyers. Out went Jakub Voracek, Shayne Gostisbehere, Philippe Myers, Brian Elliott, Nolan Patrick and Robert Hagg. In came Cam Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, Keith Yandle and Martin Jones.

    One wonders if those changes will continue next summer, especially among their unrestricted free agents. One of them will be center Sean Couturier. He's entering the final season of a six-year deal with an annual average value of $4.33 million.

    The Flyers have received excellent value for that contract, as Couturier became one of the NHL's top two-way forwards. The 6'3", 211-pounder has averaged 0.91 points per game since 2017-18, leading the Flyers with 104 goals and sitting second with 252 points. He won the Selke Trophy in 2019-20 and was a finalist in 2017-18.

    Couturier's style of play has resulted in frequent injuries, with the most recent being a rib setback last season. Now 28, it's possible his performance could suffer from the wear and tear of his game. Nevertheless, he remains their most important core player, one they could be reluctant to lose.



    The Flyers re-sign Couturier to a seven-year contract worth $8 million annually.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Chicago Blackhawks

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    It's been a difficult offseason for Marc-Andre Fleury. After winning the Vezina Trophy for the first time, the 36-year-old goaltender was traded by the Vegas Golden Knights to the Chicago Blackhawks. It was a cost-cutting move, as they couldn't afford to carry the $7 million cap hit in the final season of his contract.

    Fleury has gone from a potential Stanley Cup contender to the rebuilding Blackhawks. It could prove challenging to adjust to a less-talented defense in front of him.

    Last season's performance, however, showed Fleury remains highly competitive. A strong effort in 2021-22 could earn him a contract extension with the Blackhawks. It would also draw interest from other clubs in next summer's free-agent market, perhaps even from one of his former teams.

    After 13 seasons and three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury agreed to waive his no-movement clause, enabling the Golden Knights to select him in the 2017 NHL expansion draft. Following his trade to Chicago, there was speculation he might not report to the Blackhawks, sparking the thought that they might flip him to the Penguins.

    Fleury, of course, reported to the Blackhawks. On July 27, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Matt Vensel reported the Penguins didn't look at reacquiring their former netminder, opting to stick with the tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.

    The Penguins, however, could be in the market for a goaltending upgrade next summer if Jarry or DeSmith fail to elevate their play. Pittsburgh might come calling if Fleury decides to test next summer's free-agent market. For the right price, perhaps he'd consider returning to finish his career where it began.



    Fleury goes back to the Penguins on a one-year deal worth $5.75 million.

Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

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    Since joining the Nashville Predators full time in 2014-15, Filip Forsberg has been their most reliable scoring forward. As a result, he'll be well-paid in next summer's free-agent market.

    He's completing a six-year contract worth $6 million annually. Since '14-'15, he's tallied 21 or more goals and 48-plus points six times. An upper-body injury last season cost him 17 games and perhaps another opportunity to reach 20 goals and 40 points.

    A highly-skilled left winger with good two-way abilities, the 26-year-old Forsberg is an invaluable part of the Predators' lineup. However, the club has undergone a roster shake-up this offseason with Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson shipped out in separate trades last month. Those moves could factor into management's negotiations with Forsberg.

    On April 13, general manager David Poile said signing Forsberg and defenseman Mattias Ekholm were a priority. He'll have to dig deep to come up with a big raise to keep the talented winger. Poile must also sell him on the club's direction since falling out of Stanley Cup-contender status following their Presidents' Trophy season of 2017-18.

    The Predators already have two forwards earning $8 million annually in Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene. Forsberg's been a better performer than those two, but is Poile prepared to have another $8 million forward in his ranks? Unless he's planning on rebuilding, he could have little choice.



    Forsberg inks an eight-year deal with the Predators worth $9 million annually.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

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    Speculation over Johnny Gaudreau's future with the Calgary Flames has been ongoing since last year. The 27-year-old winger's status as an unrestricted free agent next summer could keep him a hot topic in the NHL rumor mill this season. His annual salary-cap hit is $6.75 million.

    A gifted offensive winger despite his 5'9", 165-pound frame, Gaudreau reached or exceeded 61 points in five straight seasons from 2014-15 to 2018-19, culminating in his career-best 99-point performance in '18-'19. However, his production has dropped over the past two seasons, making him the target of criticism by Flames followers as the club's fortunes also declined.

    Gaudreau has indicated he's open to signing a contract extension with the Flames, per the Calgary Sun's Wes Gilbertson. With his modified no-trade clause kicking in July 28, it seems unlikely he'll be shopped before the start of this season. That suggests perhaps a new deal could be worked out. Should negotiations carry over into the season, a rebound in his performance could give him considerable leverage.

    If a new contract isn't worked out, Gaudreau won't lack for suitors in next summer's free-agent market. One of them could be the Philadelphia Flyers, the team he grew up cheering for. In 2017, he said he'd welcome the opportunity one day to play for them. With 33-year-old left winger Claude Giroux also slated to become a UFA next July, perhaps Flyers management would consider Gaudreau as a replacement.



    Gaudreau joins his childhood team by signing a seven-year contract with the Flyers worth an annual value of $8 million.

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

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    Since his impressive 40-point debut in 2014-15, John Klingberg has provided the Dallas Stars with reliable production from the blue line. He exceeded 40 points over the following four seasons, followed by 32 and 36 points during the last two pandemic-shortened campaigns.

    A talented offensive defenseman with a powerful shot, the 6'3", 190-pound Klingberg remains an invaluable part of the Stars' scoring punch. Entering the final season of his seven-year contract, the skillful Swede is due for a big raise over his current $4.25 million annual cap hit.

    The Stars are keen to keep Klingberg. On July 28, the Dallas Morning News' Matthew DeFranks reported general manager Jim Nill indicated extension talks have started, citing the rearguard's importance as a core piece. His age, however, could be a factor in determining the length of his next contract, as he'll turn 29 on Aug. 14.

    DeFranks believes the Stars must be careful. With top-four defensemen Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell and Ryan Suter under contract for 2022-23, an $8 million annual cap hit for Klingberg would push their combined blueline core total to $25.9 million. He could give them a bit of a hometown discount to ensure their top-four defense remains intact.



    Klingberg signs a six-year contract with the Stars worth $7.5 million per season.

Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Two of the longest-tenured active members of the Pittsburgh Penguins behind Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will both complete their respective contracts next summer. After 15 seasons and three Stanley Cup championships, their best seasons are behind them.

    Malkin, 35, is among the Penguins' career leaders with 940 games, 424 goals, 680 assists and 1,104 points. A two-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy, he's also taken home the Hart Memorial Trophy, Calder Memorial Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award and the Conn Smythe Trophy. He's in the final season of an eight-year contract, which carries an annual cap hit of $9.5 million.

    Letang has been the mainstay of the Penguins blue line for most of his NHL career. Now 34, he's the club leader among defenseman with 863 games played, 448 assists and 582 points. His eight-year deal ($7.25 million per season) expires next summer.

    On May 28, Letang said he, Malkin and Crosby wanted to finish their careers as Penguins. Crosby is signed through 2024-25 with an annual average value of $8.7 million. Given how much they have meant to the franchise, their wish will likely be granted.

    With $48.7 million invested in 11 players for 2022-23, the Penguins have sufficient cap space to re-sign Malkin and Letang. While they're still effective, their ages and the respective decline in their performances mean they'll have to accept pay cuts on short-term deals to ensure sufficient cap room remains to address other roster needs.



    Malkin and Letang sign three-year contracts to finish their careers at the same time Crosby's contract expires. Malkin's new deal could be worth $6 million annually, while Letang's could be $4.25 million.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    With a 54-year Stanley Cup drought and no playoff series victories since 2004, the Toronto Maple Leafs face lots of pressure in 2021-22. Another early postseason exit (or worse) could result in a roster shake-up next summer. Their limited projected salary-cap space could also make it difficult to re-sign Morgan Rielly.

    The Leafs' top defenseman, Rielly is heading into the final season of a six-year contract, which carries an annual average value of $5 million. That's been a welcome bargain for the Leafs as they've bumped up against the cap in recent years. However, the 27-year-old will seek a raise worthy of a big-minute puck-moving blueliner.

    Rielly has tallied 27 or more points in each of his eight NHL seasons. That includes a career-best 72-point performance in 2018-19. Over the last two shortened campaigns, he posted 27 points in 47 games and 35 points in 55 contests.

    After seeing Dougie Hamilton haul in $9 million annually on a seven-year deal with the New Jersey Devils, Rielly could set his sights on a similar pact. With $67.8 million already invested in 14 players for 2022-23, the Leafs can't afford to keep him in the fold unless they ship out a high-salaried forward such as Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

    The Seattle Kraken could be in the market for a top-pairing left-side defenseman, especially if Mark Giordano retires or departs via free agency next summer. With $54.5 million invested in 14 players, they'll have the cap space to make a big splash in next year's UFA pool similar to this year's signings of goaltender Philipp Grubauer and left winger Jaden Schwartz.



    Rielly departs the Leafs and signs a seven-year deal with the Kraken worth $9 million per season.

Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers

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    The New York Rangers are often mentioned as a possible trade destination for Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel. They already have a talented first-line center in Mika Zibanejad. However, his potential unrestricted free agency next July seems to be fueling some of the recent Eichel-to-the-Rangers speculation.

    Zibanejad, 28, surged into stardom in New York with a 74-point effort in 2018-19 followed by a career-high 41-goal, 75-point performance in 57 games. Hampered earlier this year by the effects of COVID-19, his production improved along with his health, as he finished with 50 points in 56 games.

    On July 24, the New York Post's Larry Brooks reported the Zibanejad camp sought $10 million annually on a seven- or eight-year extension during preliminary contract talks. That's a hefty raise over his $5.35 million cap hit. Brooks indicated the Rangers prefer a shorter deal, reluctant to tie up that much money on a player who could be 37 when that contract expires.

    That might explain the rumors of the Rangers exploring an Eichel trade. As Brooks pointed out, the Sabres center is earning $10 million annually, but his contract expires in five years when he's 30.

    A major sticking point, however, is whether the Sabres would trade Eichel to a nearby rival. On the same day as Brooks reported Zibanejad's initial asking price, The Athletic's Rick Carpiniello cited a league source claiming Sabres owner Terry Pegula wants Eichel shipped to a Western Conference team.

    Assuming the Rangers don't land Eichel, they'll be hard-pressed to find a suitable replacement for Zibanejad via trade or next summer's free-agent market. Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, Boston's Patrice Bergeron and Florida's Aleksander Barkov will each likely re-sign.



    The Rangers and Zibanejad reach an agreement on a six-year deal worth an annual average value of $9 million.


    Stats via NHL.com. Salary information via Cap Friendly. Additional info via Hockey Reference.