Happy New Year, hockey fans.
We don’t know what 2020 will bring, but we do know it’s coming in hot with plenty of speculation about the future of this year’s biggest crop of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents.
Here’s an updated (and re-ranked) look at the top 20 pending UFAs of 2020, which we’ll continue to update as the season — and all the rumours and reports that come with it — continues.
1. Taylor Hall, LW, Arizona Coyotes
2019-20 cap hit: $6 million
Taylor Hall Trade Watch is so last year. Now, as he settles into his new home on the Arizona Coyotes’ top line after being dealt from the Devils to the desert in December, the question shifts to this: Will he stay?
Hall’s agent, Darren Ferris, told The Athletic’s Craig Morgan it’s “absolutely a possibility” Hall sees a future with Arizona.
“Now you get a chance to have him in there, have him get an idea of what it’s like to be in Arizona, and I have the feeling with the way Hallsy approaches things that he will really like Arizona and the lifestyle there,” Ferris told Morgan. “He is going to see that, ‘This might be a place where I can play for a while.’”
While it hasn’t all been smooth sailing since Hall’s arrival – Arizona has gone 3-4 since Hall joined – the union feels like a good fit so far and chemistry begins to show. Hall set up the game-winner in his Coyotes debut, got another helper one game later and then scored his first goal with his new team in his third game with them. He’s got two goals and two assists through seven games as Arizona tries to re-capture the top spot in the Pacific Division.
2. Nicklas Backstrom, C, Washington Capitals
2019-20 cap hit: $6.7 million
The only thing more startling than seeing Alex Ovechkin put on another team’s sweater would be Nicklas Backstrom doing the same.
Both Ovechkin (who’s got one more year on his deal) and Backstrom, who has chosen to represent himself in contract negotiations, have made it clear they’d like to remain Capitals for life and they’re clearly on the same page as general manager Brian MacLellan and team owner Ted Leonsis in that regard.
“We’ll work it out. And I hope to build the organization so that carries over,” Leonsis said, via The Washington Post’s Samantha Pell. “I would expect an Alex, a Nick, they play here forever, then they retire and then they’re associated with us very, very closely through alumni, through who knows whatever kinds of relationships.”
According to Pell, the biggest factor in negotiations right now isn’t money but term, with the 32-year-old Backstrom vying for a five-year pact and MacLellan preferring three.
3. Alex Pietrangelo, D, St. Louis Blues
2019-20 cap hit: $6.5 million
Midway through last season, with the Blues in the league’s basement and the Maple Leafs shopping for defence, the hottest name in Toronto trade rumours was Pietrangelo.
One year and one St. Louis Stanley Cup run later, here we are again talking about whether the veteran rearguard might be the missing piece to solve the Maple Leafs’ blue line woes.
Both teams are tight to the cap, which makes signing (or re-signing) Pietrangelo a tricky prospect. A trade would make sense for Toronto, which could clear a little space, but considering the Blues are atop the Central and looking poised to run it back, it doesn’t make sense for them to trade away their captain right now.
4. Braden Holtby, G, Washington Capitals
2019-20 cap hit: $6.1 million
“They will wait until after the year. The focus will be on trying to win the Stanley Cup,” Friedman said in December when talking about where contract talks stand between the Capitals and their No. 1 netminder.
He elaborated on the situation in his latest edition of 31 Thoughts:
There are a couple of things to recognize. First, he’s not the type to be bothered by this. Second, neither are the Capitals, who had close shaves with both John Carlson and TJ Oshie before getting them extended. Third, a few people warned me about predicting what Holtby will do. He thinks differently, and I mean that as a compliment. He could surprise us. – Friedman on Holtby and Capitals, via 31 Thoughts
The Capitals’ recent signing history – they’ve inked franchise players like John Carlson and T.J. Oshie in the window between season’s end and free agency – means Washington can be a panic-free zone for those nervous about the lack of contract talks.
Adding interest to this situation is the performance of rookie backup Ilya Samsonov, whose strong play (10-2-1, 2.28 GAA, .918 SV%) will surely give GM Brian MacLellan plenty to think about – especially with the 2021 Seattle expansion draft potentially complicating matters.
5. Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins
2019-20 cap hit: $5.25 million
He’s one of the league’s best offensive defencemen with plenty of sandpaper in his game. In other words, should Krug hit the open market, there would be a mile-long lineup of GMs vying for his services. Only, it feels like it won’t get to that point. Krug told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan back in September that he’d be “interested in” taking less money to remain in Boston:
“How much less — that’s a question that will be answered at a certain time,” he told Kaplan. “I think something that’s fair will be able to be worked out both ways. As long as they want me, I think something could be done, realistically.”
It’s been half a hockey season since that report, during which Krug has only further proven his worth in Boston. His five goals and 26 points through 33 games has him on pace for a fourth straight campaign of 50-plus points. While teammate Matt Grzelcyk has filled in admirably during two brief injury-induced absences for Krug so far – including one that sidelined him over the holidays and could see him miss the first game of 2020 after taking a hard hit from Capitals forward Tom Wilson – the Bruins cannot afford to lose their most consistent offensive presence on the blue line and top power-play man.
Can they afford to keep him?
Like the Capitals and their goaltending, the Bruins could find themselves in a tough spot with expansion draft considerations among skaters – especially considering they locked up forward Charlie Coyle earlier this season.
6. Tyson Barrie, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
2019-20 cap hit: $5.5 million (this AAV is split between Colorado and Toronto)
Barrie’s poor start this season had teams calling GM Kyle Dubas, but his recent pick-up in play under new head coach Sheldon Keefe has the offensive-minded rearguard looking much more at home in blue and white. A flurry of injuries to his teammates makes Barrie’s role on Toronto’s blue line more important than ever as the Maple Leafs seek to add to their defence, not trade it away. Big play in bigger minutes will work wonders for Barrie’s wallet this off-season.
7. Evgenii Dadonov, RW, Florida Panthers
2019-20 cap hit: $4 million
Dadonov has quietly put up back-to-back 28-goal campaigns down in Florida, tallying 65 and 70 points in his past two seasons, and is on pace for more of the same in his contract year despite a recent dip in production (and the standings).
If Tallon’s decision is between re-signing Dadonov or teammate Mike Hoffman, who would you keep?
8. Jake Muzzin, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
2019-20 cap hit: $4 million
Muzzin has been excellent on the Maple Leafs’ blue line, and the team will now have to go back to life without their gritty rearguard as he’s out week-to-week with a broken foot.
GM Kyle Dubas smartly secured would-be UFA defenceman Justin Holl to a three-year, $6-million contract earlier this week, and will have plenty of decisions ahead as he pieces together the rest of his blue line:
9. Mike Hoffman, RW/LW, Florida Panthers
2019-20 cap hit: $5.1875 million
Florida might be one of the most intriguing teams to watch as the second half of the season gets underway, considering their current position in the standings straddling the line between contention and… not.
Hoffman is coming off the best season of his career (by a pretty wide margin) in 2018-19, leading the Panthers in goals (36) and tallying 70 points in his first year with the club, but he’s cooled off a bit and has some wondering whether he’s got a long-term future in Florida. Should he be made available, Hoffman would be a strong rental candidate at the deadline for clubs looking for a little more offence.
10. Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers
2019-20 cap hit: $4.625 million
If this was a list of players most likely to be dealt at the deadline, it feels like Kreider would be at the top. After Taylor Hall was dealt last month, all those offence-hungry teams vying for him seem to have shifted their focus to the Rangers forward as one of the next-best available.
“All the contenders from Colorado to Boston to St. Louis to Pittsburgh are all believed to be interested in [Kreider],” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said during the Headlines segment on Hockey Night in Canada. “Teams don’t believe, right now, the Rangers have made him available, but they are waiting to see if they decide they can’t keep him, and they want to trade him, there is a ton of interest.”
11. Robin Lehner, G, Chicago Blackhawks
2019-20 cap hit: $5 million
Last year’s Masterton Trophy winner thrived as part of an excellent tandem with the New York Islanders and then completely stole the show in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now paired with veteran (and fellow pending UFA) Corey Crawford, he’s bringing that same game-saving consistency to Chicago’s crease, and has more teams seeking the 1A, 1B approach to goaltending. As of Wednesday, Chicago can officially re-sign him. He’d be a hot name on the free agent market if they don’t.
12. Tyler Toffoli, RW/LW, Los Angeles Kings
2019-20 cap hit: $4.6 million
Toffoli had a down year in 2018-19 with 13 goals and 34 points on a floundering Kings squad. Considering how early the trade rumours began, it’s a bit surprising he hasn’t already been moved. He’s young, affordable, and capable of being a 30-goal scorer. And, most importantly, he knows what it takes to win it all.
13. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, C, Ottawa Senators
2019-20 cap hit: $3.1 million
Throughout so much change in Ottawa, Pageau has been the one constant for the Senators. Currently sitting second on the team in goals (18) and points (29) behind RFA-to-be Anthony Duclair, Pageau’s name will likely be present in the rumour mill considering Ottawa’s position in its rebuild. Might they keep him? He’s got enough experience to be a leader on this young rebuilding club but, at 27, is still young enough for a long-term commitment with his hometown team.
14. Mikael Granlund, C/RW, Nashville Predators
2019-20 cap hit: $5.75 million
Granlund was a deadline acquisition for the Predators a year ago, and his status with the club feels very much up in the air as we take an early look at this year’s deadline.
He’s shown great chemistry with Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg, but limited time with them (due to health and juggling lines) has been detrimental for Granlund’s stat line and Nashville’s struggles this season makes him an especially intriguing name to watch in trade rumours.
15. T.J. Brodie, D, Calgary Flames
2019-20 cap hit: $4.65 million
Brodie has been a key part of the Flames’ blue line over the past decade, especially when paired with captain Mark Giordano. Brodie’s name has been in trade rumours before. With the Flames on the edge of contention, does Brad Treliving make a trade to shake things up?
16. Travis Hamonic, D, Calgary Flames
2019-20 cap hit: $3.857 million
Hamonic logs big minutes on a nightly basis and his stay-at-home style complements the Flames’ offensive-minded group of blue liners. Like many in Calgary, Sportsnet’s Eric Francis will be watching this situation closely. Francis indicated there’s “no chance” Hamonic is dealt at the deadline, and boldly predicted the d-man will sign a long-term extension to stay.
17. Jaroslav Halak, G, Boston Bruins
2019-20 cap hit: $2.75 million
Signing Halak to a two-year, $5.5-million deal in July 2018 proved to GM Don Sweeney’s best move of the off-season, as his presence brought load management to the Bruins’ crease and has other teams attempting to build similar one-two punches in net. It paid off in the playoffs, with starter Tuukka Rask fresh and healthy and at his best all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
18. Alex Galchenyuk, LW/C/RW, Pittsburgh Penguins
2019-20 cap hit: $4.9 million
The Galchenyuk-for-Kessel experiment hasn’t exactly yielded strong results for Pittsburgh in the first half of the season, with Galchenyuk’s name once again showing up in plenty of trade rumours.
“The fact of the matter is, when we’re totally healthy, he’s going to have to work very hard just to get in the top 12,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said of Galchenyuk last month, via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe. “That’s just the way it is, because we have a lot of guys playing well. So, that’s the good news and the bad news.”
Now, with winger Jake Guentzel out long-term, Galchenyuk finds himself on the Penguins’ top line with a shot at turning things around.
19. Zack Kassian, RW, Edmonton Oilers
2019-20 cap hit: $1.95 million
Kassian is having the best season of his career and it couldn’t be coming at a better time with his contract about to expire. The 28-year-old has been excellent alongside Connor McDavid on the Oilers’ top line – his 13 goals and 27 points on the season has him just two points away from matching his best campaign yet, and he’s only halfway through 2019-20. Sportsnet’s Rory Boylen looked at players like Alex Chiasson ($2.16M AAV), Colton Sissons ($2.86M), and Brandon Tanev ($3.5M) as comparables for Kassian’s next deal.
20. Jacob Markstrom, G, Vancouver Canucks
2019-20 cap hit: $3.67 million
He’s putting up All-Star-worthy numbers and is definitely in Vancouver’s MVP conversation. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman indicated back in November that Markstrom is very much part of the team’s future, and suggested in his latest 31 Thoughts that they’ll “make a serious run” at re-signing him.
The question here has been the development of next-man-up Thatcher Demko, whose $1.05-million cap hit this season and next gives the Canucks some security in knowing they’ve got a good backup – he’s probably not ready to be a No. 1 just yet.
Other notable pending UFAs to keep an eye on: Erik Haula (CAR), Corey Crawford (CHI), Kevin Shattenkirk (TB), Thomas Greiss (NYI) Cody Eakin (VGK), Sami Vatanen (NJD), Wayne Simmonds (NJ), Chris Tanev (VAN), Cody Ceci (TOR), Justin Schultz (PIT), Michael Frolik (CGY), Vladislav Namestnikov (OTT), Marco Scandella (BUF), Erik Gustafsson (CHI), Pat Maroon (TB), Zach Bogosian (BUF), Kyle Clifford (LA), Radko Gudas (WSH), Anton Khudobin (DAL)