Dark-Horse Destinations for Top 2022 NHL Free Agents

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2022

Dark-Horse Destinations for Top 2022 NHL Free Agents

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    Expect the usual bidding frenzy from NHL general managers for the top unrestricted free agents when the market opens at noon ET on July 13.

    Several big-name stars could be available to the highest bidder. Notable forwards include Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau, while the top defensemen include Malkin's teammate Kris Letang and the Dallas Stars' John Klingberg.

    Some of these players could re-sign on July 13 or soon afterward. Most who head to free agency will sign within hours of the market opening.

    Below, we looked at a dark-horse destination for this year's top UFAs, based on salary-cap space and roster need. We've excluded Patrice Bergeron given his intention to return to the Bruins or retire.

    Do you agree or disagree with our destinations for these players? Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.

Marc-Andre Fleury: Buffalo Sabres

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    Only a year removed from winning his first Vezina Trophy, Marc-Andre Fleury faces an uncertain future. In splitting this season between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, the 37-year-old goaltender completed a three-year deal worth $7 million annually.

    The Buffalo Sabres could be a good option for Fleury if he intends to continue playing but cannot land with a postseason contender. They could be in the market for an experienced starter if 41-year-old Craig Anderson retires. With just $39.4 million invested in 12 players next season, they can afford to invest in Fleury on a one-year deal worth around $5 million.

    Despite missing the playoffs in 11 straight seasons, the Sabres showed promising signs in 2021-22 under head coach Don Granato. Veterans such as Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo regained their scoring touch while younger players like Tage Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin enjoyed career-best performances. They need a reliable starting goaltender to become a possible playoff contender.

    Fleury would be an excellent mentor for promising Sabres netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen next season. His leadership and experience could help this team take a big leap in its development, perhaps even giving it a shot at a wild-card berth. Failing that, a strong effort on this rebuilding club could make him a valuable commodity by next season's trade deadline.

Filip Forsberg: New York Islanders

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    Following the Nashville Predators' elimination from the first round of the 2022 playoffs, Filip Forsberg said his goal was to return to the club. The 27-year-old left winger is completing a six-year contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $6 million and is due to become a UFA. If he and the Predators can't work things out, perhaps the New York Islanders will come calling.

    The Islanders missed the playoffs this season in part because of their offense. Their 2.79 goals-per-game average was 22nd overall, with only Brock Nelson and Anders Lee exceeding the 20-goal plateau. They need someone to skate alongside playmaking center Mathew Barzal, whose 59 points in 73 games this season was the second-lowest of his young career.

    Forsberg would be a terrific fit alongside Barzal, providing the Islanders with a potent scoring punch. He's completing a career-best 42-goal, 84-point campaign with the Predators and could seek between $8 million and $9 million on a long-term deal.

    Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello would have to shed some salary to make this work. His club has $70.5 million committed to 18 players next season, with defenseman Noah Dobson due for a big pay raise. However, he could clear some cap room by shopping goaltender Semyon Varlamov ($5 million) and perhaps a winger such as Josh Bailey ($5 million) or Anthony Beauvillier ($4.2 million).

Johnny Gaudreau: Detroit Red Wings

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    Coming off a career-best 115-point performance, Johnny Gaudreau is in line for a substantial raise over his $6.75 million annual salary-cap hit. Sitting second among this season's points leaders, the 28-year-old left winger could seek between $9 million and $10 million annually.

    If he can't get that much from the Calgary Flames, he could find it on the open market. The Detroit Red Wings are well-positioned cap-wise to make that type of bid, with just $46.7 million invested in 15 players for 2022-23.

    The Wings already have a first-line left wing in Tyler Bertuzzi. However, he's slated to become a UFA next summer. If he's unwilling to commit to a long-term extension, the Wings will need a replacement. They'll also require someone capable of helping them become a postseason contender after spending the past six years as an also-ran.

    Gaudreau would take a leading role among the Wings' core players. On a team stocked with young talent, he could help them become a contender for the full seven years of his new contract. Signing him would also allow the Wings to dangle Bertuzzi as trade bait to bring in a top-four left-shot defenseman or a second-line center.

Claude Giroux: Carolina Hurricanes

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    The Carolina Hurricanes could be in the market for a second-line center if Vincent Trocheck doesn't re-sign. Perhaps they'll set their sights on an experienced, versatile two-way forward such as Claude Giroux.

    After spending nearly 15 seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, the 34-year-old Giroux accepted a trade to the Florida Panthers before the March deadline. He fit in well with his new club, netting 23 points in 18 regular-season games and eight points in 10 playoff contests.

    Giroux's performance in Florida showed he still has a lot left to contribute to a playoff contender. He could be a good fit with the Hurricanes as Trocheck's replacement. His versatility would also enable him to skate on either wing if required.

    At Giroux's age, he won't get another contract like his expiring eight-year deal that sported an $8.3 million annual cap hit. The Hurricanes have $63.1 million invested in 14 players for 2022-23 but could exceed the $82.5 million cap ceiling by $4.1 million if necessary should Jake Gardiner stay on long-term injury reserve. That should provide sufficient cap room for a two- or three-year deal worth around $5.5 million.

Nazem Kadri: Philadelphia Flyers

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    On April 7, The Fourth Period's Anthony Di Marco cited a Philadelphia Flyers source who said the club intends to scour this summer's trade and free-agent markets for a top-nine center. Di Marco also noted Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman suggested the Flyers could use someone like Colorado Avalanche's Nazem Kadri.

    Kadri, 31, is completing a six-year contract that featured an average annual value of $4.5 million. He's also coming off a career-best 87-point campaign in 71 games and might've reached 100 points if not for a late-season upper-body injury. He's been on a tear in the postseason, with 10 points in as many games. He could provide a big boost to a Flyers offense that struggled this season.

    Uncertainty over the durability of centers Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes could motivate the Flyers to pursue Kadri. Couturier played just 29 games this season before he underwent back surgery. Abdominal surgery and a procedure to drain fluid from his adductor region limited Hayes to 48 games.

    With $77.4 million invested in 18 players for 2022-23, the Flyers would have to free up salary-cap space to sign Kadri, who could seek between $6 million and $7 million per season. One option could be trading winger James van Riemsdyk and his $7 million cap hit for next season. He's slated to become a UFA next summer and lacks no-trade protection.

John Klingberg: Nashville Predators

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    The Nashville Predators have yet to find a suitable replacement for Ryan Ellis since trading the skilled right-side defenseman to the Philadelphia Flyers last summer. John Klingberg could help them address that issue.

    Klingberg lacks Ellis' all-around defensive abilities, but he's a proven puck mover. The 29-year-old blueliner is completing a seven-year contract that carries an annual cap hit of $4.25 million. He's reached or exceeded 40 points in six of his eight NHL seasons. Given his age, he could get a five-year deal worth around $7 million on the open market.

    Predators captain Roman Josi enjoyed an incredible career-best performance, tallying 96 points to finish as this season's highest-scoring defenseman. However, it would be beneficial to add a skilled rearguard to spread the production around and provide more firepower from the blue line.

    With $58.1 million invested in 17 players for 2022-23, the Predators have the cap space to sign Klingberg, especially if they lose Filip Forsberg to free agency. In that case, they can invest in Klingberg and perhaps pursue a more affordable replacement for Forsberg via trade or free agency.

Kris Letang: Seattle Kraken

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    Having traded Mark Giordano to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the March deadline, the Seattle Kraken need an experienced top-pairing, puck-moving defenseman. Kris Letang could be a tempting target if he doesn't reach an agreement on a new contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    At an age when most players go into decline, the 35-year-old Letang is coming off a career-best 68-point performance this season. He finished third among Penguins scorers and seventh overall among NHL defensemen. That type of production plus his experience and leadership would provide much-needed offense from the blue line for the low-scoring Kraken.

    On May 17, Friedman reported Letang received a four-year offer from the Penguins for slightly less than his current $7.25 million average annual salary. If he'd prefer to test his value on the market, the Kraken are in an excellent position to make him a lucrative offer. They carry $22.9 million in cap space for next season.

    Kraken general manager Ron Francis proved capable of wooing free-agent talent to Seattle last summer, signing Philipp Grubauer and winger Jaden Schwartz. Perhaps he can sell Letang on the virtues of helping a growing team in the NHL's newest market.

Evgeni Malkin: Boston Bruins

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    It's difficult to imagine Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins will part ways after 16 seasons and three Stanley Cups. With the 35-year-old center eligible for free agency, however, there's no certainty the sides will reach an agreement. While they have discussed a three-year deal, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported on May 17 that they remain far apart on the dollars.

    Should Malkin become available, the Boston Bruins could be among his strongest suitors. Long-time center Patrice Bergeron could be leaning toward retirement, which would leave the Bruins in dire need of an established top-line center.

    While injuries have hampered Malkin in recent years, he's still been a point-per-game player. He could be an excellent fit alongside Bruins scoring wingers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

    Completing an eight-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $9.5 million, Malkin won't get that kind of deal again. Perhaps a two- or three-year pact worth around $7 million with the Bruins would work. With $80.1 million committed to 22 players for 2022-23, they'll have to shed some salary, but it could be worth it for Malkin.

    Stats via NHL.com with salary info via CapFriendly.

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