Way-Too-Early Ranking of the Top 10 NHL Players Heading to Free Agency in 2022

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2021

Way-Too-Early Ranking of the Top 10 NHL Players Heading to Free Agency in 2022

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    Next year's NHL free-agent market opens at noon ET on July 13, 2022. As 2021 draws to a close, it's a good time to evaluate the best players slated to become unrestricted free agents next summer.

    The UFA class of 2022 contains several well-known stars. Teams in the market for first-line talent and leadership will closely follow Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron and Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux. The Dallas Stars' John Klingberg will be enticing to clubs seeking an elite puck-moving defenseman, while those looking for a starting goalie could covet the Chicago Blackhawks' Marc-Andre Fleury.

    Who will be the best in the next free-agent talent pool will depend not just on previous accomplishments but also on performance during this season. Based on what we've seen thus far, here's our way-too-early ranking of the top 10 pending NHL UFAs for 2022.

    Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Should a player have ranked higher or lower on this list in your estimation? Let us know by posting your comments below.   

Honorable Mentions

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    Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche: Following two straight 40-plus point performances during shortened seasons, Burakovsky has 12 goals and 21 points in 25 games in 2021-22. He's well on his way to reaching 50 points for the first time, which will boost his free-agent value.


    Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes: No longer an elite scorer, the 34-year-old Kessel's Stanley Cup experience could be enticing to contenders on a short-term deal. He has 17 points in 29 games with the low-scoring Coyotes this season.


    Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche: The 31-year-old goaltender has had some difficulty adjusting to the Avalanche after three-plus seasons with the Coyotes. He has recorded 13 wins and five losses with a 2.77 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.


    Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: Letang, 34, remains the linchpin of the Penguins defensive corps. He's logging a team-leading 25:51 of time on ice per game and sits third in points with 20.


    Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks: A big-minute defenseman, Lindholm has 13 points and a team-best plus-minus of plus-eight. The 6'4", 216-pounder's combination of size and all-around skill will make him an attractive target in the free-agent market.


    Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning: A solid two-way winger, Palat was part of the core that brought back-to-back Stanley Cups to the Tampa Bay Lightning. His all-around skills will garner considerable interest from contenders if he tests next summer's market.


    Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars: Pavelski is 37, but he remains an effective top-six forward. He's the Stars' leading scorer with 27 points in 29 games. At that level of production, he could exceed 60 points for the ninth time in his 16-season career.


    Ryan Strome, New York Rangers: Strome, 28, has solid chemistry with high-scoring Rangers linemate Artemi Panarin. The versatile forward can play center or wing and has 21 points in 26 games this season.

10. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

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    A gifted two-way forward, Filip Forsberg has been the Nashville Predators' most consistent scorer since his breakout 63-point performance in 2014-15. He's reached or exceeded 21 goals and 48 points six times, leading the Predators in total goals (190) during that period. The 27-year-old winger is also tied with team captain Roman Josi for most points with 401.

    Now that Forsberg is in the final season of a six-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $6 million, his future with the Predators is uncertain. Once thought to be in a rebuilding mode, the Predators have exceeded expectations by jockeying for first place in the tightly packed upper echelon of the Western Conference. However, re-signing him could prove to be expensive for the Predators.

    Forsberg could see $8 million per season on a long-term contract. Despite being hampered by injuries since 2017-18, he should draw attention from contenders if he and Nashville fail to reach an agreement on a new deal.

9. Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche

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    In the final season of his six-year contract, Nazem Kadri is on pace for what could be a career-best season. The 31-year-old center leads the Colorado Avalanche with 38 points in 24 games. Sitting fourth among NHL scorers, Kadri could reach 100 points for the first time.

    His production could slow down as the season progresses, but his performance thus far could elevate his stock in next summer's free-agent market. He's already exceeded 40 points six times in his previous 12 NHL campaigns and would've done so in the previous two if not for COVID-19 derailing one season and shortening another.

    The only downside is Kadri has a short fuse that has gotten the better of him in playoff action, resulting in three suspensions in the last four postseasons. Still, he shouldn't have much difficulty landing a lucrative raise well above his current $4.5 million annual cap hit.

8. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

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    San Jose Sharks center Tomas Hertl could become one of the most coveted players in the 2022 free-agent market. Despite a long history of knee injuries, he's been one of the Sharks' most consistent players. A skilled two-way forward, he's reached 43 or more points in four of his last eight NHL seasons.

    Hertl, 28, is enjoying good health thus far this season. As one of only four Sharks to appear in every one of his club's games this season, he has a team-leading 14 goals while sitting third in points with 22. He could finish this season with 35 goals and between 55-60 points, which would be his best performance since his career-best 74-point campaign in 2018-19.

    In the final year of a four-year contract with an annual average value of $5.6 million, Hertl will be in line for a substantial raise on his next deal. With $65.4 million invested in 12 players for 2022-23, however, the Sharks might not be able to afford him. There could be clubs willing to pay Hertl around $8 million annually on a long-term deal if he takes the plunge in next summer's free-agent pool.    

7. Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    A first-round pick by the Dallas Stars (11th overall) in the 2010 NHL draft, Jack Campbell has become a late-blooming star with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Acquired from the Los Angeles Kings during the 2019-20 season, he's taken over this season as Toronto's full-time starter.

    Campbell garnered attention during last season's coronavirus-shortened campaign, supplanting Frederik Andersen as the Leafs' starter with a 17-3-2 record, a 2.15 GAA and a .921 save percentage. He also acquitted himself well in his first postseason appearance, winning three of seven games with a 1.81 GAA and .934 save percentage as the Leafs were upset in the opening round by the Montreal Canadiens.

    The 29-year-old Campbell didn't let that playoff disappointment get him down. He's among this season's leaders in wins (15), GAA (1.94), save percentage (.937) and shutouts (three). In the final season of a two-year deal worth $1.7 million annually, Campbell will be in line for a substantial raise from the Leafs or another club if he hits the open market.

6. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

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    The Calgary Flames have undergone plenty of highs and lows over the past three seasons, from finishing first in the Western Conference in 2018-19 to missing the playoffs during last season's coronavirus-shortened campaign. Through it all, Johnny Gaudreau was their most consistent forward, leading the club in scoring in 2018-19 and 2020-21.

    Gaudreau leads the Flames in total points with 523 since his rookie campaign in 2014-15. A talented playmaker, the 28-year-old winger has exceeded 60 points five times and would've done so under normal circumstances over the previous two seasons.

    Whether Gaudreau gets that hefty raise from the Flames or another club remains to be seen. He's in the final season of a six-year contract with an annual average value of $6.8 million and could seek over $8.5 million annually on a long-term deal. If Gaudreau decides to test the market, he's bound to draw plenty of interest from clubs looking for first-line scoring talent. 

5. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

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    A skillful puck-moving defenseman, John Klingberg has been an invaluable part of the Dallas Stars blue-line corps since his 40-point full-season debut in 2014-15. He's since gone on to lead all Stars rearguards in total points with 341 and sits eighth overall among NHL defensemen during that period. That puts him in a position to be next summer's top blueliner in the free-agent market.

    Klingberg, 29, is in the final season of a seven-year contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $4.3 million. That's been quite a bargain for the Stars, but he's now seeking a more lucrative deal. On Oct. 16, Sportsnet's Jeff Marek reported that Klingberg wants an eight-year extension worth between $62 million and $66 million. That would be an annual cap hit of between $7.8 million and $8.3 million.

    If Klingberg and the Stars fail to reach an agreement on a contract extension, he shouldn't have difficulty finding clubs willing to meet his asking price. With 14 points in 24 games, he could reach 40 points for the sixth time in his eight-year NHL career. 

4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Chicago Blackhawks

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    This season didn't begin well for the Chicago Blackhawks or Marc-Andre Fleury. The club stumbled from the gate with a record of 1-9-2, with Fleury sporting one win in eight contests with a .881 save percentage. Since replacing head coach Jeremy Colliton with Derek King on Nov. 7, the Blackhawks are 10-6-2, while Fleury has a record of 8-3-1 with a save percentage of .933 and two shutouts.

    At 37, Fleury is at an age when a goaltender's performance is in decline. However, he's the defending Vezina Trophy winner and recently became just the third netminder in NHL history to reach the 500 career wins plateau. Fleury is also a proven playoff performer with three Stanley Cup rings on his resume.

    With Chicago rebuilding, Fleury could prefer an opportunity for one more shot at the Stanley Cup. He should garner a lot of attention if he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He's completing a three-year contract with a salary-cap hit of $7 million. Given his age, he might have to accept a two-year deal worth around $6 million annually.

3. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

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    It's been a difficult season thus far for the Philadelphia Flyers, who replaced head coach Alain Vigneault with Mike Yeo on Dec. 6 following an eight-game losing skid. The play of Claude Giroux is among the few bright spots. The 33-year-old Flyers captain leads his club with 25 points in 29 games. He's in the final year of an eight-year contract with an annual average value of $8.3 million.

    Giroux and the Flyers agreed to shelf contract talks until the end of this season. He's been consistently the team's best offensive player since his 76-point breakout performance in 2010-11. Since then, he's fourth among all NHL scorers with 809 total points. A versatile forward who can play center or wing, his 61.6 faceoff win percentage this season ranks third overall among all skaters. 

    While Giroux might never again reach the heights of his career-best 102-point campaign of 2017-18, he remains an effective offensive presence who would've reached between 60-70 points under normal circumstances during the previous two seasons. He won't get another deal like his current one but could receive offers of three years and over $6 million annually.

2. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

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    One of the NHL's greatest two-way forwards, Patrice Bergeron is a four-time winner of the Frank J. Selke Trophy and the first-line center of the Boston Bruins. While he's at a stage in his career in which performance usually declines, the 36-year-old Bruins captain is second among his teammates with 23 points. He also leads all NHL skaters with a faceoff win percentage of 63.1.

    Bergeron is completing an eight-year contract with an annual average value of $6.9 million. In September, he said he didn't plan on making a decision about re-signing with the Bruins until after this season is over. It's difficult to imagine him playing for another club after he spent his entire 18-season career in Boston.

    The Bruins could work out a short-term extension in which Bergeron accepts a bit of a pay cut to between $5.5 million and $6 million annually on a three-year deal. Nevertheless, he will attract plenty of attention from playoff contenders. His ongoing high standard of play suggests he'd be among the most pursued of next summer's free agents.    

1. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Sidelined by offseason knee surgery, Evgeni Malkin recently resumed skating with his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates. How long he takes to regain his form once he returns to action remains to be seen. While it could have some effect on his contract negotiations with the Penguins, it's unlikely to affect his value in the free-agent market.

    Malkin's been among the NHL's superstars since his 2006-07 rookie campaign. Sitting fourth in points (1,104) among all skaters since that season, the 35-year-old center has won multiple individual awards and helped the Penguins win three Stanley Cups. He's completing an eight-year contract with an annual cap hit of $9.5 million.

    Injuries have prevented Malkin from playing a full 82-game schedule since 2008-09, but he remains productive. He and the Penguins could work out a short-term deal, but he'll have to accept a pay cut to stay in Pittsburgh. If he feels he can do better on the open market, he won't lack suitors willing to meet his asking price. 


    Stats (as of Dec. 21, 2021) via NHL.com and salary info via Cap Friendly. Additional info via Hockey-Reference.com


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