10 Most Intriguing Unrestricted Free Agents this Summer

With the offseason nearly upon us, teams will spend the summer looking for ways to make their organization better. One of the best ways of instantly bolstering any roster is through free agency. In 2022, some of the biggest names in the NHL will be unrestricted free agents (UFAs). At various ages, they each have their own situation, their own contract expectation, and their own idea of where they want to play. Let’s explore the 10 of the most interesting UFAs this summer.

Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin is one of the most intriguing players to hit free agency this summer. A member of the longest-tenured trio to play together in the history of the NHL, it will be interesting to see if that trio of Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Kris Letang is broken up this summer. The Pittsburgh Penguins will have to decide whether they think they can still win with this group or if it’s time to move on from their infamous trio. The trio has expressed their desire to stay together in Pittsburgh, so, realistically, Malkin stays. However, early reports of Pittsburgh offering him a four-year deal around the $5 million per year range have been turned down by the future Hall of Famer.

Evgeni Malkin Penguins
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Malkin, when healthy, has been a consistent point per game player the last couple of years. With 42 points in 41 games in 2021-22, there’s no question that when healthy he’s a legit second-line center on most teams. However, at 35 years old staying healthy is not exactly going to get any easier for the three-time Stanley Cup winner.

Despite the early disagreement in numbers between the two parties, a deal between the Penguins and Malkin will likely get done. Not only is it too hard to see him in another uniform, but choosing not to sign him could result in a disgruntled Crosby. Between Letang and Malkin, Letang has more value on the open market and will be harder for the Penguins to compete with outside interest for him. With money likely a major factor for Malkin, he’ll likely get a deal somewhere around the $7 million per year mark. What will be interesting will be whether the Penguins or any other team be willing to take the risk of offering a deal greater than three years given the injury issues at his age. If another team offers Malkin that fourth year, look for him to take the deal. However, ultimately it is very likely a deal will get done between the Penguins and Malkin.

Patrice Bergeron

The Boston Bruins captain’s future is up in the air at this time. He has not decided on whether he’ll be suiting up in 2022-23, let alone if he wants to play for the Bruins again. With head coach Bruce Cassidy fired earlier this month, many wondered if the move had something to do with keeping Patrice Bergeron happy. Many rumors have surfaced that Bergeron was not happy with his former coach, and removing Cassidy could only help in the team’s attempt at keeping Bergeron in a Bruins jersey. Regardless, the 37-year-old can still play at a high level. He won the Selke Trophy for the fifth time in his career in 2021-22 while having 65 points in 73 games.

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Whatever the contract, the actual dollar amount doesn’t necessarily seem to be the biggest deal to Bergeron. Although, I don’t think even he knows if he wants to play at this time, making a deal harder to predict. If he decides he would like to continue playing, look for the Bruins to make him their top priority. A two-year deal around the $6 million per year range seems fair for someone already considering retirement. With him on that top-line, the Bruins are still a team that can compete for a playoff spot in 2022-23.

Kris Letang

The other member of the Pittsburgh trio on the market this summer is Letang. Reports are he’s a high priority for the Penguins, and that they will make him an offer that will put the ball in his court as to whether he wants to return to Pittsburgh. Similar to Malkin, his play his current level of play is not the issue as he had 68 points in 78 games in 2021-22. While still a premier puck-moving defenseman in our game, at 35 years old, similar to Malkin, the Penguins will have to decide if re-signing him is a smart plan for the future.

Kris Letang Pittsburgh Penguins
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Letang test the market. His skill set is much more unique than Malkin’s at this point in time, and I’d assume he’ll have a lot more outside interest. Specifically, the Montreal Canadiens have been linked to him, primarily because Montreal is his hometown team. They have plenty of cap space to make the offer, but signing a 35-year-old defenseman after finishing at the bottom of the league doesn’t exactly make tons of sense.

The more outside interest he gains throughout the summer, the smaller the chance that the Penguins are able to put up a competitive offer. He’s due for at least $6.5 million per year this summer. With just over $23 million in cap space, the Penguins will have the money to make that deal happen. However, the direction that general manager Ron Hextall wants to take the Penguins is completely up in the air. Don’t be surprised if we see him another jersey, and the longest-tenured trio in NHL history is broken up for 2022-23.

Johnny Gaudreau

“Johnny Hockey” is perhaps the best offensive talent on the UFA market this summer. With 115 points in 2021-22, he’s one of the most dynamic offensive players in our game. Nevertheless, his current team will have some tough decisions to make this offseason, with signing Johnny Gaudreau at the top of that list. The Calgary Flames have to make a decision on each of their two best players in Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. The only difference is that Tkachuk is only a restricted free agent (RFA) and won’t have as much freedom to test the waters outside of Calgary. Gaudreau’s flexibility will force Calgary’s hand on a high-value contract.

Early rumors are for a seven or eight-year deal around the $9.5-10 million range to be thrown Gaudreau’s way. One team that may be willing to offer that deal is the New Jersey Devils. They have young center depth up the middle with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, and plenty of cap space available. Not to mention that he’s from New Jersey. Needless to say, they’re just one spot that makes sense as a potential landing spot.

Johnny Gaudreau Calgary Flames
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There is some risk for the team taking on a massive contract for him. He’s had his playoff struggles, and size has always been a detriment to Gaudreau’s ability to play in his own zone. His 2021-22 season was the best offensive season he had by 16 points, playing at less than a point per game pace the two seasons prior. The only thing that this may affect is the length of the contract, as teams may be weary about giving him an extra year or two on what will already be a deal stretching into his mid-thirties.

At the end of the day, both sides have a desire to get a deal done, regardless of the cost. I feel Calgary will be willing to give the extra term that could be the deciding factor for Gaudreau. Regardless of where he signs this summer, look for this to be the most money given out to a UFA this summer.

Nazem Kadri

Another player coming off a career year in 2021-22 is Nazem Kadri. With 87 points in 71 games, it was his best offensive year by 26 points. His toughness, grit, and ability to play in all three zones are going to earn him a lucrative deal this summer. The question is how many years teams will be willing to give him?

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

At 31- years old, he’s played himself out of the price range of the Colorado Avalanche. With limited cap space to spend on a plethora of open roster spots, the greater than $7 million per year mark Kadri will likely ask for won’t be in the cards for the Avalanche financially. However, if the Avalanche don’t win the Stanley Cup this year, perhaps he’ll take a team-friendly deal to stay on a Cup contender. More likely though is for him to seek out the raise that he’s earned, putting him in a new uniform come 2022-23.

There are a couple of teams who could use the grit and leadership that Kadri can provide. Specifically, the Detroit Red Wings could use more firepower on their top-two lines to compete for a playoff spot moving forward. Kadri can provide experience and toughness to a young top-six, and the team that has the cap space to get a deal done. The Columbus Blue Jackets are another team with a competitive young core that could benefit from Kadri’s skill set. Any young team with the cap space to take on a deal in the four to five-year, $7-8 million range would instantly benefit from the signing.

Claude Giroux

After spending over a decade in Philadelphia, Giroux was traded at the deadline for the first time in his career. Intended on providing another outlet of offense, he failed to help the Panthers succeed come playoff time. The President Trophy winners in 2021-22 now have a load of roster spots to fill with just $3 million in cap space. Needless to say that Giroux’s interest in returning may have little sway in the Panthers’ ability to bring him back.

Claude Giroux Florida Panthers
Claude Giroux, Florida Panthers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Coming off an eight-year, $66.2 million deal, and at 34 years old, Giroux has a little more than money on his mind. Even as one of the league’s superstars for over a decade he’s been unable to win a Stanley Cup. Playing on a team that has a chance to win will likely be a large contributor to his decision. Some teams with a fair amount of cap room whose roster may intrigue him include the Carolina Hurricanes, St. Louis Blues, and Avalanche. The Avalanche are an interesting dynamic as they will lose a lot of their roster to free agency, yet he could be a cheaper option over re-signing Kadri. He’d likely cost Colorado at least $2 million less than Kadri. However, that may not be enough for the Avalanche to afford him. With Nathan Mackinnon hitting free agency following the 2022-23, likely ringing the Avalanche close to double his current $6.3 million per year, the Avalanche needs to start saving in every way possible.

Needless to say, the ball is in Giroux’s court as far as what type of deal he’d be willing to take. With over $78 million in career earnings, it’s up to him whether he wants to take a team-friendly deal to play on a contender or seek the most lucrative deal he can while he’s still a wanted commodity in the NHL.

Evander Kane

Perhaps the most unpredictable situation this summer will be where Evander Kane signs. The meagre 1-year deal with a $2.1 million cap hit he signed mid-year with the Oilers won’t be enough this summer. Similar to Kadri, he may have played his way out of Edmonton’s budget. Kane’s 13 playoff goals in 15 games put him in rare company this summer. Off-ice issues aside, he proved his goal-scoring ability is worth consideration.

Evander Kane Edmonton Oilers
Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kane has had more than his fair share of off-ice issues. Whether it be bankruptcy, domestic issues, or trouble with the league’s COVID-19 protocols, trouble seems to find him at every turn. This will be at the forefront of team’s minds when deciding whether to sign him. Will one year of good behavior be enough for teams to forgive all the trouble he’s had in the past?

Ultimately his short tenure in Edmonton has earned him a raise. Someone will be willing to take the risk and sign him. I’d be surprised for a team to give him a long-term deal given his age and past issues. A two or three-year deal for $6-8 million per year seems like the starting point for negotiations this summer.

Ondrej Palat

The anchor on the top line that has won the last two Stanley Cups is on the market this summer. With another historic playoff run, the Tampa Lightning’s second-leading playoff goal scorer in franchise history will be due for a raise. At 31 years old and a lot of miles logged on the ice, teams will be weary of offering him a deal greater than four years.

Related: Lightning Fans Should Be Prepared for a Future Without Ondrej Palat

However, Ondrej Palat be a perfect fit for any up-and-coming team ready to make to take the next step. A good example would be the Carolina Hurricanes who need a veteran top-six forward to take them over the hump. Being an early-round exit the last few years, he could be the piece that gets them to the next level if they can fit him within the salary cap.

Ondrej Palat Tampa Bay Lightning
Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With the Lightning currently over the cap for 2022-23, fitting Palat in their budget would take some serious number crunching by general manager Julien BriseBois. Already winning the Cup twice in Tampa Bay, Palat will likely look for the most lucrative deal he can find. Since the Lightning likely will not be the team offering that deal, look for him to play in a new uniform in 2022-23.

Filip Forsberg

The Swedish forward is yet another player coming off a career year in 2021-22. Going for over 40 goals, he’s due for a massive raise from the $6 million per year he made on his last deal. At only 27 years old, he’ll likely see over $7.5 million per year on his next deal.

Filip Forsberg Nashville Predators
Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Nashville Predators do have over $20 million in cap space to sign Filip Forsberg. However, signing him would mean that they’d be spending in the $30 million range for their top-four forwards in Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, and Mikael Granlund, and just under $50 million on their top-six players when including Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm. This would make for a similar situation to the money the Toronto Maple Leafs have invested in their top-end talent.

With Nashville stuck between a true Cup contender and a lottery team, the Predators are stuck in a tough spot. In the end, don’t be surprised if the Predators elect to take on another large salary while they have their core in place, this one likely ringing them for around $8 million a year.

Phil Kessel

One of the most polarizing personalities in hockey hits the market at age 34. On the back nine of his career, Phil Kessel had just eight goals in 2021-22, a career-low. With two Stanley Cups and over $90 million in career earnings, he has a few options for how he would like to end his career. He could either decide to take on a ‘role player’ position with a playoff-ready roster similar to Jason Spezza or Joe Thornton, or he could decide to continue to play top-six minutes on a non-contender such as the Arizona Coyotes.

Phil Kessel Arizona Coyotes
Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While I would be very surprised if Arizona had any interest in re-signing him given the current state of the franchise, other teams will be more than willing to take Kessel. Look for a 2-year deal somewhere where he sees fit, which can be unpredictable given the personality we are talking about.

Sign up for our 'DAILY BEST Newsletter' for the latest & greatest hockey news & analysis.