2022 NHL Free Agency: Early Rankings for the Top Players on the Market

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2022

2022 NHL Free Agency: Early Rankings for the Top Players on the Market

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The NHL's annual free-agency period will begin at noon ET July 13. In December, we published our way-too-early rankings of the top 10 unrestricted free agents. With the trade deadline now history and the end of the regular season only a month away, it's worthwhile to revisit that list.

    Several notable players will not be available, as they recently signed contract extensions. San Jose Sharks center Tomas Hertl, who was No. 8 in our previous top 10, is among them. And honorable mentions go to Joe Pavelski, who re-signed with the Dallas Stars, and Hampus Lindholm, who inked an eight-year deal with the Boston Bruins after they acquired him from the Anaheim Ducks.

    Still, a number of big-name stars could be available when free agency opens. They include Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Minnesota Wild goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

    Here's our reevaluation of this summer's top unrestricted free agents. The assessment was based on previous and current performance. You can express your views in the comment section.

Honorable Mentions

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche: Burakovsky has steadily improved in his three seasons with the Avs. While his production has slowed a bit from his nearly point-per-game effort in his first 35 games, the 27-year-old winger has already set a career-high with 46 points in 63 contests.

    Mark Giordano, Toronto Maple Leafs: The first captain of the Seattle Kraken, the 2018-19 winner of the James Norris Memorial Trophy had a respectable 23 points in 55 games with the expansion franchise. The 38-year-old defenseman was shipped to the Maple Leafs before the trade deadline.

    Ville Husso, St. Louis Blues: The 27-year-old has taken over the starter's job from Jordan Binnington. He has a 16-5-4 record with a 2.33 goals-against average and a save percentage of .925.

    Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche: The 31-year-old has overcome a shaky start to his Avalanche tenure. He has 30 wins, nine losses and just two overtime defeats in 45 starts with a 2.39 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage and five shutouts.

    Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning: Palat, 30, remains a valuable core member of the defending Stanley Cup champions. The two-way winger has 36 points in 58 games, putting him on pace to reach 40 points for the seventh time in his 10 campaigns.

    Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins: Overshadowed by fellow pending free-agent teammates Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the 29-year-old winger has 21 goals and 52 points in 44 games. He's on pace to surpass his career bests in goals (27) and points (56).

    Ryan Strome, New York Rangers: With 45 points in 61 games, the 28-year-old is on track to score 50 points for the third time in nine seasons. The Rangers could re-sign him given his solid play alongside star winger Artemi Panarin.

    Vincent Trocheck, Carolina Hurricanes: With 43 points this season, the 28-year-old has exceeded the 40-point plateau for the fifth time in his nine-year career. He will draw interest from clubs seeking a second-line center if he tests the market.

10. Jack Campbell, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    In his first 25 games, Jack Campbell was putting up stats worthy of the Vezina Trophy. The 30-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender sported a record of 17-5-2 with a sparkling .939 save percentage and four shutouts.

    Since Jan. 8, however, Campbell's numbers have tumbled to 7-4-2 with an .872 save percentage. He has been out since March 8 with a rib injury, but that decline could also be attributed to his first full season as a starter. The 40 games he's appeared in are nine more than his previous high.

    Campbell was a good backup for the Los Angeles Kings, but he emerged last year when Leafs starter Frederik Andersen was injured. Overall, he won 17 of 22 starts with a 2.15 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. However, that performance came during a season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic and a schedule against only Canadian teams.

    On a two-year contract with a $1.7 million annual cap hit, Campbell may have earned more than $6 million annually if he finished among the Vezina finalists. His second-half decline could reduce that amount unless he regains his form over the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.

9. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    This season has been a difficult one for John Klingberg. The 29-year-old defenseman was the subject of trade speculation after he complained in January about stalled contract talks with the Dallas Stars. He's completing a seven-year deal worth $4.3 million annually.

    Jockeying for a Western Conference wild-card spot with top defenseman Miro Heiskanen sidelined by mononucleosis, the Stars opted against shipping out Klingberg before Monday's trade deadline. He's been reunited with Esa Lindell on their top defense pairing, and his production has improved with 11 points in his last nine games.

    Klingberg is on pace to eclipse the 40-point mark for the sixth time in his eight seasons. That, however, might not salvage his contract discussions with the Stars, who already have $17.9 million invested in blueliners Heiskanen, Lindell and Ryan Suter for next season. With young Stars Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger in line for raises, this could be Klingberg's final year with Dallas.

    Early this season, Sportsnet's Jeff Marek reported Klingberg was seeking between $62 million and $66 million on an eight-year deal. He'll have to accept a shorter pact if he goes to free agency, but he could still earn an average annual value of around $8 million.

8. Marc-Andre Fleury, Minnesota Wild

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

    Marc Andre-Fleury won the Vezina Trophy in 2020-21, but this season has been one of movement. Traded in July by the Vegas Golden Knights to the Chicago Blackhawks, he was shipped to the Minnesota Wild in one of the most notable deals of the 2022 deadline. The 37-year-old is in the final season of a three-year deal with an average annual value of $7 million.

    Like his Blackhawks teammates, Fleury struggled through the first part of the season. He recorded just one win in his first eight games and at the time of the trade had a 19-21-5 record with a 2.95 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

    Those stats, however, are skewed. Over his final 37 games with the Blackhawks, he was 18-14-5 with a 2.72 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and four shutouts. He drew plenty of interest from rival clubs seeking goaltending help until the Wild acquired him.

    Fleury has three Stanley Cup championships and 511 career victories. A solid finish with the Wild will ensure his stock remains high for this summer's free-agent market. At Fleury's age, landing a lucrative long-term deal is out of the question. However, he could ink a one-year contract for close to his current salary of $6 million.

7. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators

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    In the final season of a six-year, $36 million contract, Filip Forsberg is enjoying a career-best performance with the Nashville Predators. With a career-high 36 goals, he set the club's single-season record. He's also the all-time goal-scoring leader with 214 and has already matched his single-season best of 64 points.

    Nevertheless, Forsberg faces an uncertain future as contract talks continue with Predators general manager David Poile. Those negotiations are expected to continue following this season. 

    Forsberg's performance this season and his place among the Predators' franchise leaders should be worth a long-term extension worth $8 million annually. The problem for Poile, however, is he already has two forwards earning that much in Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene. Tying up $24 million in three forwards would take a hefty bite out of the club's payroll.

    Finding a franchise willing to pay that much won't be a problem on the open market. Teams with cap space and in need of scoring depth, such as the New Jersey Devils, could come calling if Forsberg becomes available.

6. Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Nazem Kadri is enjoying a career-best performance in his contract year. The 31-year-old has already set personal bests with 54 assists and 79 points and leads the Colorado Avalanche in both categories. He could exceed his previous high of 32 goals and perhaps reach 100 points.

    That production will boost Kadri's stock as a potential unrestricted free agent. He's in the final season of a six-year contract worth $4.5 million annually. He'll get a significant raise on his next contract, which could be worth more than $7.5 million annually. That could make him too expensive for the Avalanche to retain, especially with superstar Nathan MacKinnon due for a new contract in 2023.

    Kadri will be 32 in October and could encounter difficulty landing a deal longer than four years. Considering his previous career-high was 61 points with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016-17, teams could question whether he'll maintain this production.

    Kadri's playoff performance could also determine what his next contract looks like. He has received suspensions in three of the last four postseasons. Should that happen again, playoff contenders may decide he's not worth the risk.

5. Claude Giroux, Florida Panthers

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    On March 17, Claude Giroux played his 1,000th game with the Philadelphia Flyers. Two days later, the 34-year-old center waived his no movement clause to allow the only team he's ever played for to trade him to the Florida Panthers.

    The move gave Giroux the opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup contender. He's in the final year of an eight-year deal worth $8.3 million per season. With the Flyers in decline, it seems unlikely he would return to be part of a rebuild.

    Giroux's best seasons are behind him, but he remains a productive and versatile two-way forward and one of the best faceoff men in the game. With 44 points in 58 games, he should easily reach the 50-point plateau for the 10th time in 15 seasons.

    Given Giroux's age, he is not going to get another lucrative long-term offer. Nevertheless, he shouldn't have difficulty finding a new home among teams with Stanley Cup aspirations, if that's his preference. A good performance with the Panthers would only bolster his stock, and a two- or three-year deal for $6 million annually could be in the cards.

4. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Part of the honorable mentions in our earlier rankings, Kris Letang has improved his standing as the season progressed. The 34-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman sits third among his teammates with 53 points in 62 games as well as fourth among upcoming unrestricted free agents and tied for sixth among blueliners.

    Letang is still productive as a puck-mover and is on pace to reach 66 points. He's in the final season of an eight-year contract with an annual salary of $7.3 million.

    Having spent his 16-season career with Pittsburgh, Letang would prefer to finish with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins. That, however, could prove difficult with Malkin and Bryan Rust also eligible for unrestricted free agency.

    On Jan. 26, The Athletic's Josh Yohe reported that "Letang believes he is in line for a raise." That might be possible if Malkin is willing to accept a pay cut. How much of a raise and for how long could determine if Letang finishes his career as a Penguin or heads elsewhere.

3. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Calgary Flames' best forward, Johnny Gaudreau is once again proving his value in a contract year. He leads the Flames in scoring and sits fifth in the NHL in assists with 55, and his 85 points rank fourth overall.

    Gaudreau should also exceed his career-best 99-point campaign of 2018-19. It's an impressive rebound effort by the 28-year-old left winger, who struggled over the previous two seasons. He and his teammates are thriving under head coach Darryl Sutter, sitting comfortably atop the Pacific Division with 86 points and second in the Western Conference.

    Gaudreau is in the final season of his six-year contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $6.8 million. His strong performance assures him of a significant raise on a long-term deal that could be worth more than $9 million annually.

    Whether Gaudreau gets that deal with the Flames remains to be seen. Last September, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported the winger and general manager Brad Treliving have declined to discuss the situation with the media. It's a good bet the playmaker won't have difficulty finding suitors on the free-agent market if he and the Flames fail to hammer out a new contract.

2. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Along with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin has been responsible for the Pittsburgh Penguins' place among the NHL's top teams for over a decade. With 1,132 points in 16 seasons, he is fourth among scorers during that period. He's won multiple individual awards and helped the Penguins win three Stanley Cups since 2009.

    Malkin is completing an eight-year, $76 million contract with an average annual value of $9.5 million. Injuries, however, have hampered the 35-year-old center. He's skated in 75 or more games only five times and appeared in just 33 games last season. This season, he's played only 29.

    In May, Kris Letang indicated he, Malkin and Crosby want to finish their careers together as Penguins. That could depend on how much Pittsburgh will pay per season and for how long. Malkin won't get another long-term, big-money deal at this stage of his career and may have to accept a significant pay cut to stay with the Pens.

    His best years are well behind him, but Malkin would be the most recognizable name on the market. He can still average a point per game, and that level of production plus his previous accomplishments will ensure he gets plenty of interest. However, his injury history and the cost of his next contract could make him a risky investment.

1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    A four-time winner of the Frank J. Selke Trophy, Patrice Bergeron continues to defy Father Time. Despite his age, the 36-year-old Boston Bruins captain continues to center his club's first line. With 45 points in 56 games, Bergeron is fourth among Bruins scorers. He also remains the NHL's top faceoff man, winning 62.4 percent of his draws.

    Bergeron's ability to maintain a high level of performance should make him among the most pursued free agents. His two-way skills, experience and leadership would be a welcome addition to any team. A Selke finalist in each of the last 10 seasons, it wouldn't be shocking if he's once again in the running for that award.

    Whether Bergeron will be willing to part ways with the Bruins after 18 seasons is uncertain. He could be reluctant to change teams at this stage in his career, and management will likely do what it can to ensure he finishes his career with Boston.

    It could come down to the offer. Bergeron is completing an eight-year contract with an average annual value of $6.9 million. He won't get another long-term offer, but perhaps a three-year pact worth around $6 million annually will entice him to stay put.

                  

    Stats accurate through Friday and via NHL.com. Salary information via CapFriendly. Additional information via Hockey Reference.

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