The National Hockey League’s free agency period kicked off back on July 28. While a ton of money was handed out over the first few hours, some high-quality veterans are still available, like Zdeno Chara, Devan Dubnyk, James Neal, and Eric Staal.
If you were unhappy with how your favorite team fared in free agency, you could take some comfort in knowing that the 2022 class has a ton of heavy hitters in it. No offense to guys like Dougie Hamilton, Zach Hyman, or Philip Danault, but next summer’s free agents are big on star power. This list will also come in handy as the 2021-22 season moves along, as many of these players could be targeted at the trade deadline.
Aleksander Barkov: The 2021 Frank J. Selke Trophy winner should expect to have an armored truck driven right to his front door after signing his new contract. His current deal with the Florida Panthers comes with a $5.9 million salary-cap hit, and you bet the farm his next average annual value (AAV) will be a lot higher.
Barkov will be 27 at the start of the 2022-23 season. He has evolved into one of the best two-way forwards in the entire league. This past season, he scored 26 goals and put up 58 points in 50 games while being voted the best defensive forward in the NHL. With him just entering the prime of his career, he will break the bank next summer.
Johnny Gaudreau: The “Gaudreau Trade Watch” will likely start as soon as the puck drops on opening night. Although he said he wants to re-sign with the Calgary Flames, there have yet to be any serious contract negotiations between the two sides. (From “What I’m hearing about the Flames’ offseason,” by Hailey Salvian – The Athletic, 7/9/21). A lot can change between now and next summer, but heading into the new season without a new agreement done is less than ideal.
Gaudreau has been quite the steal for the Flames, who drafted him in the fourth round (104th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He has 170 goals and 494 points in 520 career games. He will be 29 at the start of the 2022-23 season. His current AAV is $6.75 million, and you know he will be looking to cash in on one last big contract.
Filip Forsberg: The Nashville Predators are in a strange position as they are in a transitional phase. Goaltender Pekka Rinne retired, and they have already traded veterans like defenseman Ryan Ellis and forward Viktor Arvidsson. General manager David Poile has committed to younger players in the organization, and it makes you wonder where Forsberg will fit in after this season.
Forsberg, who will be 28 next summer, is entering the final year of his contract that pays him $6 million per season. He has shown the ability to score with two seasons of over 30 goals and at least 26 goals between 2014-15 and 2018-19. Durability has been a bit of an issue as he missed 50 games over the past four seasons, including 17 in 2020-21. He could be a really nice fit for a Cup contender looking for a second-line center who can find the back of the net.
Mika Zibanejad: The New York Rangers are a team in flux after going through major changes in the front office, behind the bench, and on the ice. New general manager Chris Drury has gone out of his way to add toughness to his lineup with Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais, Jared Tinordi, and Ryan Reaves. The change in philosophy has led to Zibanejad’s name to start appearing in the rumor mill.
The Rangers have been getting great value out of Zibanejad’s contract that comes with a $5.35 million AAV. The center, who turns 29 in April, has been great on Broadway ever since he was acquired in 2016. He has 135 goals and 282 points in his 323 games for the Rangers. He had a career-high 42 goals and 75 points when the 2019-20 season was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He will be due for a raise when he signs his next contract. Whether that is in New York or elsewhere remains to be seen.
Patrice Bergeron: Thought of seeing Bergeron wear the uniform of a team that isn’t the Boston Bruins is hard to imagine. He is entering the final year of his current contract that has come with a $6.8 million AAV. Good news for Bruins fans; the nightmare of seeing their captain in a different sweater may never happen as both sides have had discussions about a contract extension.
If Bergeron does hit the open market next summer, he will be highly coveted. Despite turning 37 before the start of the 2022-23 season, the four-time Selke Trophy winner has shown no signs of slowing down. He had 23 goals and 48 points in 54 games this past season. He has had at least 30 goals in five of the past eight seasons. Bringing in Bergeron not only gives your team a first-line center but also one of the best defensive forwards the league has ever seen. That will be worth a pretty penny to whoever acquires his services after this season.
The Best of the Rest
Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, Alexander Radulov, Dustin Brown, Tomas Hertl, Ondrej Palat, Max Domi, Nino Niederreiter, Jeff Carter, Reilly Smith, Andre Burakovsky, Vincent Trocheck, Nazem Kadri, Ryan Strome, Sean Couturier
Top Restricted Free Agents
Patrick Laine, Matthew Tkachuk, Brock Boeser, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Jack Hughes, Dominik Kubalik, Jack DeBrusk, Kaapo Kakko, Kirby Dach, Kasperi Kapanen, Victor Olofsson, Dylan Strome
Morgan Rielly: The Toronto Maple Leafs’ top defenseman has already been mentioned in numerous trade rumors this offseason, but that is the nature of the beast in the market he plays in. He is entering the final season of the six-year, $30 million contract he signed back in 2016. His $5 million AAV has been quite the bargain for the Maple Leafs. He will be 28 next offseason, so he will be due for significant raise based on the market value set this offseason with the huge contracts given to defensemen.
Rielly looked like he was heading to superstardom with 20 goals and 72 points during the 2018-19 season. While his numbers have been very good the past two shortened seasons, he has not produced offensively at the same pace. He has averaged over 23 minutes a game the last three seasons and has established himself as a solid top-pairing defenseman. A blueliner with his production and seemingly plenty of good seasons still ahead will garner a lot of attention if he hits the open market.
John Klingberg: The Stars have gotten tremendous value out of Klingberg after selecting him in the fifth round (131st overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. His $4.25 million AAV for the past six seasons has been quite the bargain. He will be 29 when the 2022-23 season begins, so he will be due for a large pay increase for the duration of his next contract.
Klingberg has been a major offensive contributor ever since breaking into the NHL back in 2014-15. He had a career-high 59 assists and 67 points during the 2017-18 season, the only season in which he didn’t miss any games. He is a combined minus-25 over the past two seasons, yet still has a career Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 57.0 thanks to starting over 60% off his shifts in the offensive zone.
Colton Parayko: The former third-round pick was a big part of the St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup championship back in 2019. However, the last two seasons have been a struggle, with a quick first-round exit in 2020 and missing the postseason altogether in 2021. Parayko will have to prove he’s back to 100% if he wants to cash in on the open market. He missed nearly half of the 2020-21 season with a back injury and will need to return to a top-level if the Blues want to compete in 2021-22.
When healthy, Parayko will eat up a lot of minutes and block a ton of shots. He brings a big frame and a physical style to the ice. His defensive metrics may be on the negative side of things, but that is because he starts most of his shifts in the defensive zone against his opponents’ top lines. He will be 29 when his current contract expires and will be looking for a raise from the $5.5 AAV he’s been cashing in.
Ryan Pulock: The New York Islanders probably wish they had re-signed Pulock for more than just two years back in 2020. While he enjoyed a raise of nearly $4 million, his next deal will be for more than his current $5 million AAV and come with a much longer term.
Pulock’s offensive game took a hit during the shortened 2020-21 season. He went from three straight seasons of at least 32 points to just 15 in 56 games this past go-round. However, while he has shown that he can provide some offense when needed, he has become half of New York’s top shutdown pairing with Adam Pelech. He will be the anchor to any defense he suits up for in 2022-23. He will be 28 at the start of next season, so he will cash in on a big contract.
Kris Letang: It certainly would be strange to see Letang in any colors besides the black and yellow of the Penguins. The two-time All-Star has been a core member of the Penguins’ success since his debut in the 2006-07 season. Pittsburgh has gotten a ton of return on their investment of a 2005 third-round pick in the mobile defensemen.
Despite turning 35 in April, Letang has shown few signs of slowing down. When healthy, he is a big-time contributor. He had seven goals and 45 points while being a plus-19 in 55 games this past season. He averaged 24:39 of ice time per game, his first season under 25 minutes a game since the 2013-14 season. He will garner plenty of attention if he hits the open market, even with his advanced age. It is doubtful that he will come anywhere close to his current $7.25 million AAV, but stranger things have happened.
Best of the Rest
P.K. Subban, Mark Giordano, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Rasmus Ristolainen, Hampus Lundholm, Alex Goligoski, Calvin de Haan, Jason Manson, Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy, Mattias Ekholm, Ben Chiarot, Brayden McNabb
Top Restricted Free Agents
Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy, Ethan Bear, Adam Boqvist, Jack Rathbone, Noah Dobson, Erik Brannstrom, Alexander Romanov
Marc-Andre Fleury: The 2020-21 season was a roller coaster for Fleury. He won the first Vezina Trophy of his career for going 25-10-0 in the regular season with a .928 save percentage (SV%), 1.98 goals-against average (GAA), and six shutouts. He then lost his starting job during the Stanly Cup Semifinals before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for nothing but salary cap space.
After taking a few days to think over his future, Fleury decided to play for the Blackhawks this season. There is little doubt that the 36-year-old will be playing with a chip on his shoulder in 2021-22. The Blackhawks have improved their team defense, which could lead to another big season for the veteran netminder. The former first overall pick will have plenty of suitors if he decides to play beyond this season. He will have to take a pay cut from his current $7 million AAV, but there appears to be plenty left in his tank.
Darcy Kuemper: When talking about the elite goaltenders in today’s NHL, Kuemper’s name won’t come up, but he is certainly part of the tier just below this group. He has been under the radar the last three seasons playing with the Arizona Coyotes, but he has put up solid numbers. He was traded this summer to the Colorado Avalanche, where he will be given a chance to be the starter on a legitimate Stanley Cup contender; an opportunity he has yet to have in his career.
Kuemper had a .920 SV% and 2.43 GAA in his 121 games with the Coyotes. If he has a huge season and successful playoff run with the Avalanche, he could ride that wave all the way to the bank. He will be 32 at the start of the 2022-23 season, which is hardly a fossil for goaltenders. A big season in Denver could land him a huge contract next July worth a lot more than his current $3.5 million cap hit.
Elvis Merzlikins: The Blue Jackets have been fortunate to have two talented young goaltenders man their crease the past couple of seasons. Unfortunately for them, both will become unrestricted free agents following this season. The first of those is Merzlikins, who had been fantastic in his two seasons in the NHL.
The 27-year-old Latvian native was drafted by Columbus in the third round (76th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. In 61 games over the past two seasons, he has a 21-21-13 record with a .920 SV%, 2.54 GAA, and seven shutouts. Merzlikins seems about ready to enter the prime of his career, which could pay off big if he hits the open market. His current contract comes with a $4 million AAV, and another solid season will lead to a large pay increase.
Joonas Korpisalo: The second Columbus goaltender on this list, Korpisalo is hoping to make a hard choice for the front office even more difficult. He has eight more games of NHL experience than Merzlikins and comes with a cheaper price tag at $2.8 million AAV. He too, will be 28 when his contract expires and has yet to play his best hockey at the game’s highest level.
Korpisalo struggled mightily during the 2020-21 season with just nine wins to go along with a career-low .894 SV% and 3.30 GAA. The team in front of him surely did not help in those low numbers as the Blue Jackets were a hot mess down the stretch. He hopes to turn the page and prove that he can be a legit starter in the NHL. If he can do that, he should have little problem securing a new contract next summer.
Cal Peterson: The Los Angeles Kings have had benefitted from Jonathan Quick’s long and successful career for over a decade. However, with him entering the twilight of his career, the Kings need to look toward securing their goaltender of the future. Peterson is the front-runner for this title after finally getting a chance to establish himself as the starter in 2020-21.
Petersen played 35 games for the Kings last season and put up a .911 SV% and 2.89 GAA. Not the greatest numbers in the world, but he has been solid throughout his career. He has been a workhorse for the Ontario Reign in the American Hockey League before spending all of last season with the Kings. A big-time performance in 2021-22 will lead to a massive raise and security going forward.
Best of the Rest
Mikko Koskinen, Thomas Griess, Jaroslav Halak, Braden Holtby, Martin Jones, Jack Campbell, David Rittich, Casey DeSmith, Collin Delia, Brian Elliot, Malcolm Subban, Kevin Lankinen, Alex Stalock
Top Restricted Free Agents
Alexander Georgiev, Ilya Samsonov, Jake Ottinger, Cayden Primeau
A lot will happen between now and July 1, 2022. Many of the players on this list will probably be traded, and some with re-sign extensions with their current clubs. Hockey fans tend to love free agency and trade rumors so let the speculation begin!
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.