One more reason this 2020-21 NHL season is different than all others before it? NHL free agency begins July 28 instead of July 1. More than that though, this class of unrestricted free agents (UFAs) is arguably deeper than in the past, with a single Vezina Trophy finalist and two former Hart Memorial Trophy winners poised to hit the market. Here are the top 15 names of all the UFAs poised to be available and in the greatest demand:
15. Ryan Getzlaf (C)
It’s hard to determine what Ryan Getzlaf gives you at this stage, other than leadership and a name. Regardless, someone will definitely take a flyer on the 36-year-old based his 1,000+ career games played (and near-1,000 career points scored).
Of course, anyone that does should realize only 17 of those points came in 2020-21. So, while Getzlaf may have something still to offer deeper down a lineup, teams shouldn’t have all that much to offer him, all due respect to his career up to this point, which should realistically continue. What’s uncertain is where that will be and for how long.
14. Keith Yandle (D)
If you’re looking for an offensively inclined defenseman, perhaps with some defensive limitations, you probably can’t go wrong with Tyson Barrie, who just scored 48 points in 56 games with the Edmonton Oilers… except for the price tag. While Keith Yandle halved Barrie’s production for all intents and purposes, having just been bought out by the Florida Panthers, he will likely come much cheaper as well.
The 35-year-old Yandle, who’s just one season removed from scoring 45 points, should be the ticket for a team looking for a third-pairing, power-play specialist at a bargain-bin price. With a projected flat $81.5 million salary cap, sometimes that makes all the difference in terms of who will be in demand and who won’t.
13. Ryan Suter (D)
It’s a similar situation with regard to Ryan Suter, who just got bought out alongside Zach Parise by the Minnesota Wild. Suter makes this list while Parise does not simply because injuries have arguably taken more of a toll on the latter’s game.
Regardless, Parise, who in many circles had been seen as, as good as in decline a few seasons ago only to respond with a team-leading 61 points in 2018-19, should still garner interest. That means Suter should fetch significantly more as a decent all-around defenseman, albeit one entering the twilight of his career.
Buyer beware, though. Remember: Both Parise and Suter signed 13-year, $98 million deals back in 2012 with the Wild in the hopes that they would push the team over the top. As in-their-prime players, they only helped bring the Wild as far as the second round (twice), admittedly losing to the juggernaut Chicago Blackhawks both times.
Now that Suter is 36, he’s not so much a complementary piece relative to Parise, but a complementary piece in general. He’s likely not the missing piece anywhere, but rather someone who can plug a hole in a lineup at the right price.
12. Kyle Palmieri (RW)
There’s no disputing Kyle Palmieri had a good playoffs, scoring seven goals for the New York Islanders. His regular season left something to be desired though, with just four points in 17 games after having been traded there. So, assuming Palmieri doesn’t work things out with his hometown Islanders in terms of an extension, he’s probably hoping recency bias plays into demand for his services on the open market.
Palmieri’s a one-time 30-goal scorer who’s scored at least 24 in each of the previous five seasons playing on some sub-par New Jersey Devils teams. So, the hope would be that the mere 10 he scored last regular season (albeit through 51 games) are an aberration. Of course, he is 30, so it could be a sign of things to come. Likelier still? His playoff performance is indicative of what he’ll fetch come free agency.
11. David Savard (D)
At one point, David Savard was an 11-goal, 36-point scorer for the Columbus Blue Jackets. That was 2014-15, which for a hockey player is a lifetime ago. His offensive numbers have taken a hit since, but Savard, despite scoring just six points last season (and five during the playoffs), is still seen as a reliable defenseman who can bring a physical presence at 6-foot-2, 233 pounds. Adding a Stanley Cup to his resume as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning certainly won’t hurt.
10. Blake Coleman (F)
Another year, another Stanley Cup ring for Blake Coleman, not to mention another key highlight-reel goal. Coleman’s buzzer beater in the final second of Game 2’s second period in the Stanley Cup Final put the Lightning up 2-1 over the Montreal Canadiens in a pivotal moment in the series. The Canadiens had been pushing hard, and it’s fair to say the goal helped secured a 2-0 series lead for the Bolts, who obviously went on to win in five.
Now, Coleman’s unlikely to fill anyone’s need for a top-six forward. However, as a two-time 20-goal scorer who can play anywhere in the lineup, not to mention on the penalty kill, on which he has scored 10 shorties over the last four seasons, the soon-to-be 30-year old has earned his fair share of suitors come fre agency.
9. Phillip Danault (C)
No player on this list did as much for his market value these playoffs more than Phillip Danault with the Canadiens. Amazingly, he accomplished the feat scoring a solitary goal (and three assists). Rather, Danault’s impact was felt at the other end of the ice.
As a Canadiens Conn Smythe Trophy candidate not named Carey Price, Danault helped limit Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to a single goal combined in Round 1. In Round 2, the Winnipeg Jets got only one goal combined from Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois. In Round 3, only Max Pacioretty and Reilly Smith notched solitary goals, while Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Alex Tuch were held scoreless.
Needless to say, Danault, who has finished as a top 10 Frank J. Selke Trophy finalist in each of the last three seasons, lived up to his reputation and arguably exceeded expectations in the playoffs. The question now is will someone meet his arguably excessive demands, with him having reportedly turned down a six-year, $30 million offer last fall. Just 28, Danault has a lot to offer, but he may find himself realizing a flat cap means there simply isn’t enough money to go around, especially for defensive specialists.
8. Philipp Grubauer (G)
A Vezina Trophy finalist, Philipp Grubauer helped his cause as a pending unrestricted free agent, earning a 30-9-1 record with a 1.95 goals-against average and .922 save percentage with the Colorado Avalanche. It was his best season to date as a starter. Oddly enough, in spite of the shortened season, it was the season in which he played the most games in his career (40).
As Grubauer is going to be 30 and still has a reputation as a 1B goalie, he definitely needed a campaign like he just had to up his value. Teams searching for goaltending will have to ask themselves how badly they need him in turn and how much they’re willing to pay. However, with Boston Bruin Tuukka Rask’s injury history, Grubauer is probably the best option in net, meaning, even with a flat cap, Grubauer can likely write his own check.
7. Zach Hyman (LW)
Having missed a significant amount of games over the last three seasons due to a variety of injuries (including several to the knee), Zach Hyman is probably the biggest question mark on this list. He’s a 20-goal scorer playing alongside the likes of Matthews and Marner on the Maple Leafs, but will he be anywhere else?
If it’s playing with Connor McDavid on the Oilers, one of Hyman’s rumored destinations, quite possibly. However, even Milan Lucic put up solid numbers his first season with the Oilers under similar circumstances. That’s the rub.
As long as the general manager in question keeps the term of Hyman’s next deal reasonable, the puck hound has the propensity to be a valuable forward. However, this is free agency and reason is one of the first things out the window along with the kitchen sink trying to get the players you covet the most under contract. More often than not, that translates into a long-term deal when only a short-term one makes sense.
6. Alec Martinez (D)
Be wary of 34-year-old defensemen who just had a career season. That’s the situation in which Alec Martinez finds himself, after scoring nine goals and 23 assists in 53 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season.
Granted, it probably pays to be warier of 29 or 30-year-old defensemen coming off career seasons looking for long-term deals. In that sense, Martinez may be a smart option for teams looking to improve their puck-moving, assuming his demands are reasonable.
Martinez is unlikely to duplicate the numbers he produced over parts of two seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights, with whom he proved to be a perfect fit. However, he has a lot to offer as a skater of his size (6-foot-1, 209 pounds). Suitors just need to be sure not to offer a lot going the other way, especially with regard to term, especially as Martinez’s coming off a broken foot (through which he played during the playoffs).
5. Brandon Saad (LW)
Brandon Saad’s star has undeniably shined less bright in recent seasons, but, once upon a time, he was the key piece going the other way to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Artemi Panarin.
A one-time 31-goal scorer with the Columbus Blue Jackets prior to that deal, Saad’s struggled to replicate the same numbers since. As a result, he was seen as more of a secondary scorer on the high-powered Avalanche rather than a front-line option this past season, sustaining a drop in ice time all the while (from ~17 minutes to ~14 minutes).
Saad still scored 15 goals in 44 games (~28 over 82 games) and, at just 28 (going on 29), there’s theoretically a lot of runway left in his career. So, this next deal probably won’t be the last contract of his career. It could also rival his last one as the biggest of ($6 million per season on average), even though it arguably won’t be merited.
4. Taylor Hall (LW)
One season after being one of the most in-demand free agents in history, Taylor Hall is at it again. The difference is the former Hart Memorial Trophy winner is one year maybe wiser that signing with the Buffalo Sabres probably wasn’t the best way to go about upping his value in search of a long-term deal.
Not to worry though, even if Hall’s also one year older and closer to being in decline. Despite scoring just two goals and 19 points in 37 games with the Sabres, he came to life following a trade to the Boston Bruins, with whom he scored eight goals and 14 points in 16 games to close out the regular season.
Ultimately, all last season proved is Hall’s no longer capable of leading a team on his own. He needs to be put in the right situation to succeed, but he still can succeed. As a result, some team will inevitably present him with big bucks. One has to believe if the bucks are big enough, Hall won’t stop to consider the ramifications of where he signs… unless he’s truly learned his lesson.
3. Gabriel Landeskog (LW)
If there’s a forward who checks all the boxes this free agency, it’s probably Gabriel Landeskog. Leadership, as captain of the Avalanche? Check. Scoring ability, following the eighth 20-goal season of his career? Check. (Relative) youth, as a 28-year-old? Check.
About the only thing that should concern teams is a fairly long injury history, including a lower-body one that limited him to 54 games in 2019-20. However, he still played 54 of 56 games this past season and has played at least 72 games in the previous six seasons. So, as far as teams courting him in a few weeks’ time are concerned, it’s probably going to be an ill-advised non-issue.
2. Dougie Hamilton (D)
While the argument with Martinez above was such that teams should be warier of defensemen coming off career seasons in their late twenties, Dougie Hamilton is an exception.
Of course, there’s always a risk signing a player long term, but the difference with Hamilton, who just scored 10 goals and 42 points in 55 games with the Carolina Hurricanes, relative to other defensemen in his situation is consistency, at least on a season-by-season basis. Hamilton has consistently been a 40-plus-point rearguard.
Furthermore, Hamilton just turned 28, making him one of the younger players looking for a contract. He’s going to get one and it’s going to be big. However, unlike with many other names on this list, it stands a good chance at being worth it.
1. Alex Ovechkin (LW)
It’s hard to imagine Alexander Ovechkin in another jersey beside a Washington Capitals one. Admittedly, even as a pending unrestricted free agent, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t re-sign with the Caps before hitting free agency, with Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman reporting everyone he’s talked to believes an extension is “already in the drawer.”
Regardless, for the purposes of this piece, Ovechkin is still in play. More importantly, as a three-time Hart winner who continues to score goals like the all-time great he is, Ovechkin, if he does hit free agency, will be on every single team’s wish list. No one should or will care that he’s going to be 36. He just scored 24 goals and 42 points in 45 games for the Caps and is two seasons removed from the eighth 50-goal campaign of his career.
All that to say, Ovechkin is likely going to get paid as much as he wants moving forward, playing wherever he wants. Whether that’s with the Caps, who knows? It probably is, even if only due to the fact the Caps are in the best position to have the required cap space reserved for him. One of the benefits of having had to set aside ~$10 million for him for the last decade already. Nevertheless, stay tuned up until July 28 to find out for sure. One way or another, Ovechkin is unlikely to last long on the open market.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.