Updated List of Way-Too-Early Predictions for 2022 NHL Free Agency

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2021

Updated List of Way-Too-Early Predictions for 2022 NHL Free Agency

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    It may seem premature to take a look at the NHL's 2022 class of unrestricted free agents when the current season is just two weeks old. Free agency doesn't start until noon ET on July 13, 2022, and a lot can happen between now and then regarding the top UFA talent.

    Following this summer's free-agent signing frenzy, we predicted where next year's top UFAs could end up. Among them were Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad and Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier. They've all since re-signed with their respective clubs, forcing us to revise our list.

    The market still contains a good mix of veteran talent such as Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron and Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux. Younger stars such as Nashville Predators winger Filip Forsberg and Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg will also be enticing for clubs with salary-cap space looking to bolster their rosters next summer.

    Do you agree or disagree with the following predictions? Feel free to express your opinion on this topic in the comments section below.

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

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    A four-time winner of the Selke Trophy, Patrice Bergeron is in his 18th NHL season, all of them spent with the Boston Bruins. Named team captain at the start of last season, the 36-year-old remains their first-line center.

    Bergeron is in the final season of an eight-year contract worth an annual average value of $6.87 million. On Aug. 6, general manager Don Sweeney said the two sides had discussed a contract extension and how long his captain wanted to stay was up to him. A month later, Bergeron indicated his intention to play out this season before resuming those talks.

    Despite his age, Bergeron remains among the NHL's best two-way centers. One of the all-time great Bruins, he was a finalist last season for the Selke for the 10th consecutive season. The Bruins captain remained productive during the last two COVID-shortened seasons, tallying 56 points in 61 games in 2019-20 and 48 points in 54 games last season.

    Bergeron is reaching the point in his career where his performance could soon begin to decline. Nevertheless, the Bruins' willingness to re-sign him makes it unlikely he'll be shipping out of Boston anytime soon. With the club sitting at $68.2 million invested in 16 players after re-signing defenseman Charlie McAvoy, they must ensure they have sufficient cap space to re-sign their captain.

    Prediction

    Our previous prognosis had Bergeron signing a two-year extension worth $6 million annually. At their present cap situation, that would push them to $75.3 million. With the cap expected to reach $82.5 million, that would leave them $7 million to complete the remainder of the roster. They could instead consider a longer term of three years at $5 million per season.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Chicago Blackhawks

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    After four seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights, Marc-Andre Fleury was traded this summer to the Chicago Blackhawks in a cost-cutting move. The 36-year-old goaltender found himself going from a potential Stanley Cup contender to a rebuilding club.

    Fleury won his first Vezina Trophy last season with a record of 26 wins and 10 losses, a 1.98 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and six shutouts. His early numbers with the Blackhawks, however, are anything but Vezina-like, losing his first four games with a bloated 5.75 GAA and a .839 save percentage.

    It's still early in this season with plenty of time for Fleury and the struggling Blackhawks to turn things around. If things don't improve, however, he might not finish the season in Chicago. The Blackhawks could attempt to move him if they're out of playoff contention before the March 21 trade deadline. He's in the final season of a three-year contract with an annual average value of $7 million.

    We previously forecasted Fleury could return to the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent for a last hurrah. He spent 13 seasons with the Penguins, winning three Stanley Cups before agreeing to the traded to the Golden Knights in 2017. Perhaps he ends up there before the trade deadline if they feel the need to bolster their goaltending depth for the playoffs.

    Prediction

    Fleury's career coming full circle in Pittsburgh next summer on a one-year, $5.75 million contract was our original forecast. We see little reason to change that opinion.

Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

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    Filip Forsberg is completing a six-year contract with an annual cap hit of $6 million with the Nashville Predators. While we originally predicted the 27-year-old left winger would re-sign with the Predators, recent reports suggest that's no longer a certainty.

    The Predators signed Mattias Ekholm to a four-year, $25 million contract extension on Oct. 13. The 31-year-old defenseman signaled his intent to re-sign on Sept. 29, telling The Tennessean's Paul Skrbina he wanted to stay in Nashville. Forsberg, however, told Robby Stanley of 102.5 The Game Nashville he wasn't in any rush, preferring to play out his contract first.

    Predators general manager David Poile said in July the club was undergoing a "competitive rebuild." Forsberg seems to be waiting to see how this season unfolds. He could decide his future lies elsewhere if the Predators fail to show signs of improvement. The cost of re-signing him could also prove too expensive for them.

    A skilled two-way forward, Forsberg has reached or exceeded 21 goals and 48 points six times since 2014-15. The Carolina Hurricanes could be among his suitors if he hits the open market. Left wing Nino Niederreiter and center Vincent Trocheck are also UFAs next summer. Forsberg could replace Niederreiter and they could shift Jesperi Kotkaniemi from left wing to his natural position at center to replace Trocheck.

    Prediction

    Forsberg signs a five-year deal worth $8.5 million per season with the Hurricanes.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

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    Since his full-time NHL debut in 2014-15, Johnny Gaudreau has been the Calgary Flames' top offensive forward with 500 total points. With $52.2 million invested in 12 players for 2022-23, the Flames could afford to re-sign Gaudreau to a long-term extension worth between $8 and $9 million annually. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

    Despite Gaudreau's production, the Flames' struggles over the past three seasons have made him a frequent target of trade conjecture and criticism. In the final season of a six-year contract with an annual cap hit of $6.75 million, it's uncertain if he has a future with the Flames.

    On Oct. 6, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported Gaudreau and the Flames will keep their contract discussions private during this season. Friedman speculated it'll take an expensive, long-term commitment to keep the 28-year-old winger in Calgary. He also felt how the season plays out could be a determining factor.

    We originally projected Gaudreau signing with the Philadelphia Flyers but their re-signing of Sean Couturier means they lack sufficient cap space to add an expensive free agent. The New Jersey Devis could be a better destination for the Salem, N.J. native. They're a promising club that made a major signing in Dougie Hamilton this summer and have $49.1 million invested in 14 players for 2022-23.

    Prediction

    The Devils have the cap room to make another big free-agent splash by signing Gaudreau to a seven-year contract worth an annual average value of $8.5 million. 

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    With the Philadelphia Flyers signed Sean Couturier to an eight-year contract extension, the focus shifts toward team captain Claude Giroux. The 33-year-old is in the final season of his eight-year contract carrying an $8.25 million salary-cap hit.

    A versatile playmaker who can skate at all three forward positions, Giroux's been a reliable offensive for the Flyers throughout the course of his career. He's eighth in total points (862) among NHL scorers since his full-time NHL debut in 2008-09.

    Giroux, however, faces an uncertain future with the Flyers. On Oct. 12, TSN's Pierre LeBrun reported the two sides agreed to shelve contact talks until season's end. LeBrun still believes there's a chance Giroux re-signs with the Flyers but found it interesting he chose not to do so before the start of the season.

    Assuming the Flyers rebound well from last season's disappointing effort, Giroux could return on a more cost-effective, short-term deal. With the Flyers carrying $67.5 million invested in 12 players for 2022-23, they might have to shed some salary to retain him. Perhaps they'll consider trading winger James van Riemsdyk, who's slated to become a free agent in 2023.

    Prediction

    Giroux agrees to a three-year contract worth an annual average value of $6.5 million.

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

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    Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg is in the final season of a seven-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $4.25 million. That's proven to be quite a bargain for the Stars as the 27-year-old Klingberg is among the league's best puck-moving blueliners. Since his NHL debut in 2014-15, he's 10th in points among all rearguards with 327.

    The Stars want to re-sign Klingberg and he wants to stay in Dallas. However, they already have a lot of money invested in their blue line. On Sept. 22, Matthew DeFranks of The Dallas Morning News pointed out they're already paying Miro Heiskanen $8.45 million per season, Esa Lindell $5.8 million and Ryan Suter $3.65 million.

    On Oct. 16, Sportsnet's Jeff Marek reported Klingberg's camp seeks an eight-year deal worth between $62 million and $66 million. The Athletic's Saad Yousef added that's the starting point, with his representatives believing he's worth between $9 million and $9.5 million per year. Those figures would be comparable to new contracts signed by New Jersey's Dougie Hamilton, Chicago's Seth Jones and Edmonton's Darnell Nurse.

    Yousef suggested the Stars can afford Klingberg with older UFAs such as Joe Pavelski and Alexander Radulov coming off their books. They have $58.3 million committed to 14 players in 2022-23. With Klingberg turning 30 when his new contract begins, Yousef felt he'll have to accept a lesser term if he wants over $9 million or less money if he seeks a full eight-year deal.

    Prediction

    We originally predicted Klingberg would sign a six-year extension with the Stars with an annual average value of $7.5 million. We still see him staying in Dallas on a six-year term. Based on the recent reports, it will be worth $9 million annually.

Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche

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    The Colorado Avalanche needed a new starting goaltender after losing Philipp Grubauer to the Seattle Kraken via free agency. On July 28, they shipped promising defenseman Conor Timmins, their first-round pick in 2022 and a conditional third-round in the 2024 draft to the Arizona Coyotes for Darcy Kuemper.

    Kuemper spent the first six seasons of his NHL career as a backup with the Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings. However, he blossomed into a starter with the Coyotes, finishing fifth in Vezina Trophy voting in 2018-19 and seventh the following season. He has a career record of 108 wins, 85 losses and 32 overtimes losses with a 2.49 goals-against average, a .916 save percentage and 20 shutouts.

    Lower-body injuries sidelined Kuemper last season and in 2019-20. When healthy, the 31-year-old goaltender has proven himself as a reliable starter. He backstopped the underdog Coyotes to a qualifying round upset of the Nashville Predators in 2020. Last spring, he helped Canada win gold at the 2021 World Championships.

    Kuemper is in the final season of a two-year deal with a $4.5 million annual average value. A solid performance with the Avalanche this season should earn him a contract extension. Considering they gave up a first-round pick and a promising young player to get him, the Avalanche could be keen to keep him in the fold.

    Prediction

    The Avalanche sign Kuemper to a four-year deal worth an annual average value of $6 million.

Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have spent their entire 16-season NHL careers with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Malkin, 35, became one of the league's top centers while the 34-year-old Letang was among the best puck-moving defensemen. The duo is among the franchise leaders in games played and several offensive categories, including career assists and points.

    Both players are in the final season of their eight-year contracts. Currently recovering from offseason knee surgery, Malkin is making $9.5 million per season. Letang, meanwhile, is earning $7.25 million annually.

    The Penguins will have a projected $48 million invested in nine players for 2022-23. Letang has indicated that he, Malkin and team captain Sidney Crosby hope to finish their playing career in Pittsburgh. Crosby's contract expires at the end of 2024-25.

    Now in their mid-30s, Malkin and Letang are at the point in their careers where their best seasons are behind them. While still valuable members of the Penguins core, their respective performances will continue to decline. They'll have to accept short-term contracts for considerably less than they're currently earning to remain in Pittsburgh beyond this season.

    Prediction

    Our previous prediction had both players signing three-year contracts to finish their careers when Crosby's contract expires, with Malkin accepting $6 million annually and Letang $4.25 million. We are sticking with that prognosis. 

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs' top defenseman, Morgan Rielly is in the final season of a six-year contract with an annual average value of $5 million. A talented puck-moving blueliner, the 27-year-old Rielly sits ninth among NHL rearguards since 2017-18 with 189 points.

    On Sept. 11, The Toronto Star's Chris Johnston predicted Rielly won't accept less than $8 million annually. He could set Dougie Hamilton's seven-year deal ($9 million annually) with the New Jersey Devils as a comparable. With the Leafs carrying $68.6 million tied up in 14 players for 2022-23, that will be difficult to absorb without shedding a considerable salary to make room. 

    The Leafs' well-documented 54-year Stanley Cup drought and lack of playoff success since 2004 has this season's roster facing intense pressure to succeed. Another disappointing performance could lead to big changes in the front office, behind the bench and on the roster. That could mean parting ways with Rielly if his asking price proves expensive.

    We originally predicted the Seattle Kraken as a destination for Rielly if they part ways with captain Mark Giordano. If they retain Giordano, Rielly could instead set his sights on a promising young club with lots of cap space like the Detroit Red Wings. It might sound far-fetched, but the rebuilding Devils surprised the hockey world by signing Hamilton. The Wings could follow the Devils' example to bolster their blue line. 

    Prediction

    The Red Wings sign Rielly to a seven-year contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $8.5 million.


    Stats (as of Oct. 25, 2021) via NHL.com, salary information via Cap Friendly and addition info via Hockey-Reference.com.

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