With hope on the horizon as far as the 2020-21 NHL season goes, comes the possibility that we could soon see the free agent heat up.
With Jan. 13 set as the target date to start up the new season, it won’t take long for teams to emerge and scoop up some of the biggest names still left unsigned. And we all know how fast the dominoes can fall once they do.
While uncertainty – about COVID-19, about how the season will work, about how long the flat cap will stay flat – still abounds, we’re likely to get some answers on all those fronts soon.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said last week that teams are “bracing for” the possibility that it’ll be a while before the salary cap goes up.
With an eye to the market (hopefully!) re-igniting in the coming days, here’s an updated list of the best unsigned UFAs still available, plus the latest on where things stand in a market that’s likely to heat up again soon.
1. Mike Hoffman, LW/RW, Florida Panthers
2019-20 cap hit: $5.1875 million
That Hoffman is still on the market so far into free agency has been one of the more surprising parts of this unpredictable off-season, but just because he hasn’t signed anywhere doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of interest – when you average around 30 goals a season, there’s going to be a lineup for your services. But with the flat cap forcing teams into a more conservative approach to free agency, it’s players like Hoffman, who’s likely to demand anywhere from $5.5 to $6.5 million, who land in the grey area forced to wait for interested clubs to find space by moving assets either via trade, long-term injured reserve, etc. Of course, that’s not even taking into account the matter of Hoffman exercising patience in order to ensure he’s finding the right fit in terms of chemistry and contention.
Back in October, Hoffman’s agent, Robert Hooper, told The Athletic‘s Adam Vingan that Hoffman was open to signing a one-year pact and that there had been interest from as many as 13 clubs.
“There’s no issues on a one-year deal,” Hooper told Vingan. “Obviously, if you’re going to take a one-year deal, you want to put yourself in a good situation, because you’re going to be back in the market next year again.”
So, which teams might be a good fit? Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman previously suggested the Montreal Canadiens were interested in Hoffman before signing Tyler Toffoli. Nashville also had interest, and teams like Boston, Carolina and Columbus are looking for more scoring. The Philadelphia Flyers have also shown up in rumours more recently.
Of the teams that ranked in the bottom third of team scoring last year, two stand out: Columbus (ranked 27th) and New Jersey (25th) could obviously use help in the goal-scoring department, but the biggest factor is that they can actually afford Hoffman. The Blue Jackets currently have about $9 million in cap space while the Devils have the most of anyone, with $17 million available and a growing crop of exciting young forwards to play with. Columbus presents a particularly intriguing case, as GM Jarmo Kekalainen still needs to sign star RFA Pierre-Luc Dubois. But with six players heading into UFA contract years in 2020-21, now feels like as good a time as ever to sign a high-scoring winger to a one-year deal to see if you can’t build on this summer’s post-season success.
The Bruins, whose need for depth scoring has been noted, are also intriguing and could perhaps be able to offer Hoffman a chance to win it all, considering how close they’ve come in recent years. GM Don Sweeney recently re-signed RFA Jake DeBrusk to a two-year contract, which brings a little more clarity to his cap situation but also obviously eats up more money. (It’s still unclear whether he’s saving some of his remaining $2.9 million for UFA Zdeno Chara.) Either way, he doesn’t have enough to sign Hoffman without some unique circumstances – like, say, having your two leading scorers start the season on injured reserve.
After promising change and clearing plenty of cap space, Nashville Predators GM David Poile also remains one to watch here – he’s got $12 million in projected cap space and has never been shy to make a splash.
2. Mikael Granlund, C/LW, Nashville Predators
2019-20 cap hit: $5.75 million
Letting Granlund walk after a failed experiment with Nashville is one of the many cap-clearing moves made by Poile, who didn’t re-sign the 28-year-old forward for whom he traded at the 2018-19 deadline. But… is Poile looking to circle back on the free agent?
Andy Strickland of Fox Sports Midwest tweeted earlier in December that Carolina and Columbus are possibilities to bring him in, but also indicated that Nashville is interested.
While the Predators could certainly use offensive help, it feels unlikely that they’d circle back to Granlund considering the fit just didn’t feel right there.
Granlund’s fate (and rate) feels connected to Hoffman. When Hoffman finally signs, the teams who didn’t get him could very quickly turn their attention to Granlund — which means Columbus, New Jersey, and Boston are all among teams that make sense here from both a depth scoring-need and a cap-space perspective.
But Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently indicated that Granlund news could be coming soon as he looks to get his family settled in before the season.
“Granlund, apparently, kind of wants to situate his family,” Friedman said. “It wouldn’t be a surprise if he made his decision in the next few days, and I think there’s a number of guys who want to do that.”
That could also mean perhaps a longer-term deal for the Finn, who’s looking to revive his production.
3. Travis Hamonic, D, Calgary Flames
2019-20 cap hit: $3.857 million
Hamonic’s Manitoba roots, combined with the Jets’ blue line needs, makes Winnipeg a potential match. The club re-signed Dylan DeMelo earlier this off-season, and perhaps aren’t done addressing defence.
According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman earlier this off-season, Vancouver spoke with Hamonic but Nate Schmidt’s arrival via trade saw those talks break off. Friedman noted that Hamonic would like to stay in the West, despite interest from some Eastern Conference teams (including Philadelphia).
Interestingly, one team that could really use a little more blue line depth in the form of a stay-at-home, right-side rearguard is… Calgary.
4. Erik Haula, C/LW, Florida Panthers
2019-20 cap hit: $2.75 million
A string of injuries has hindered Haula’s ability to match the success he had with the Golden Knights in 2017-18, and he wasn’t able to strike up any chemistry with the Panthers upon being traded to Florida at the deadline. There’s no doubt he’s been a much-loved and valuable member of each team he’s played on, but durability will factor into his next deal.
There were early rumours of a reunion with Vegas – an excellent fit, as we know — but the Golden Knights have since acquired pricey defenceman Alex Pietrangelo and are currently sitting above the cap.
5. Carl Soderberg, C, Arizona Coyotes
2019-20 cap hit: $4.75 million
A resurgence in 2018-19 saw him just one point shy of 50 points on the season while scoring a career-high 23 goals with the Colorado Avalanche and he wasn’t too far off pace to do it again when the season stopped back in March. Effective also as a winger, Soderberg should be a strong target for teams seeking a reliable, versatile third-line centre at a fair price. Once things get moving on the free agent market again, it won’t be long before Soderberg finds his new home.
6. Anthony Duclair, LW, Ottawa Senators
2019-20 cap hit: $1.65 million
Duclair’s status went from RFA to UFA after the Senators did not extend a qualifying offer to their leading goal-scorer as the two sides couldn’t agree to terms on a new deal. Coming off a career-high 23 goals after re-finding his stride as a Senator, the speedy 25-year-old – who is representing himself — should have plenty of options as he determines his next destination as one of the top wingers still on the market.
Asked about Duclair during a Hockey Central interview last month, Senators GM Pierre Dorion indicated the door is not closed for a return:
“Out of respect for Anthony, we gave him a head’s up of what was going on yesterday morning (with the signing of fellow winger Dadonov). We really like Anthony. He had a great season for us last year. We offered him a substantial raise … he chose not to accept it, wanted to test the free agency waters,” he said.
“We’ve kept great contact, talked almost every second or third day since the process started. He chose to go, and we’re always keeping the door open, but he would have to understand what his role would be. But we do like him as a human being and a hockey player.”
While we don’t yet know where he’ll be playing his next season, we do know he’s poised to be at his best – just look at who his training partners have been. As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wrote on Monday, Duclair was among those hitting the ice regularly with Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid in Arizona this off-season. Matt Dumba, Jonathan Toews, Alex Galchenyuk, and Jake Bean were among the other skaters training together.
7. Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, Washington Capitals
2019-20 cap hit: $700,000
During a successful stint in Montreal, Kovalchuk proved he’s still got a little magic left in him. His success looked even better with a $700,000 price tag attached, which is most likely around what he’d earn on another NHL deal. Will it be with Montreal? It certainly felt like his deadline deal to Washington wasn’t the last we’d see of him with the Canadiens – both player and team spoke highly of that short-but-sweet relationship – but this one feels like a deal that would come closer to training camps. Should an NHL contract not emerge, might he return to Russia?
8. Sami Vatanen, D, Carolina Hurricanes
2019-20 cap hit: $4.875 million
His long injury history is likely why he’s still available, but there’s always a market for smooth-skating rearguards. Clubs who were in on Tyson Barrie or T.J. Brodie could be teams to look at here.
Per Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman last month, Vancouver could still be searching for another defenceman in addition to Schmidt, and Vatanen could be a fit there.
Boston, who’s currently still playing a mutual waiting game with longtime leader Zdeno Chara, could be interesting here. If Chara chooses not to return, maybe the Bruins emerge for Vatanen.
9. Andreas Athanasiou, LW, Edmonton Oilers
2019-20 cap hit: $3 million
Athanasiou wasn’t extended a qualifying offer by Edmonton, setting the speedy winger loose on the open market. He’s just one year removed from a 30-goal season and is a great candidate for rebound deal – maybe a short-term pact to wait out the flat cap?
10. Derick Brassard, C/LW, New York Islanders
2019-20 cap hit: $1.2 million
His 10 goals and 32 points through 66 games with the Islanders gave us a glimpse of the Brassard we knew with the Rangers and Senators. He fit in well on Long Island, and could find similar success on a short-term pact elsewhere.
11. Corey Perry, RW, Dallas Stars
2019-20 cap hit: $1.5 million
He may not be the Scorey Perry he once was, but the veteran winger came up clutch for the Stars in the playoffs this summer and was a thorn in opponents’ sides all post-season. Another contender should scoop him up once we know what to expect from this upcoming season.
12. Zdeno Chara, D, Boston Bruins
2019-20 cap hit: $2 million
This is a situation that would likely take some time even in normal situations. Stir in the unpredictability of COVID-19 and the upcoming campaign, and it’s understandable why this one is still unresolved, with both sides waiting for a little more clarity in terms of what the NHL will look like.
General manager Don Sweeney told reporters in October that he had had “a great deal of communication” with Chara and his representatives.
“We have our own feelings as to where these things will go. We’ve certainly relayed them. We’ll continue to relay them,” Sweeney said at the time. “As I’ve mentioned before, he’s an iconic player, a person and a leader, and things that we want to make sure that we’re dealing with this with the utmost respect as we try to treat all our players with and communicate it as effectively as possible.”
Asked again during a media availability in November, Sweeney indicated it was “status quo.”
13. Matt Martin, LW, New York Islanders
2019-20 cap hit: $2.5 million
Lou Lamoriello has twice acquired Martin – first as a free agent in Toronto and then via trade upon landing in New York’s front office, bringing the gritty forward back to Long Island. There’s still time to make it three.
14. Conor Sheary, RW/LW, Pittsburgh Penguins
2019-20 cap hit: $3 million
A short reunion with the Penguins this past spring after winning back-to-back Stanley Cups alongside Sidney Crosby and Co., Sheary looks like a prime candidate for a one-year show-me deal to get his numbers back on track.
15. Cory Schneider, G, New Jersey Devils
2019-20 cap hit: $6 million (bought out)
After having the final two seasons of his deal bought out by the Devils, Schneider made it clear he wants to continue his career. He could be a welcomed veteran addition to a locker room.
16. Ron Hainsey, D, Ottawa Senators
2019-20 cap hit:
An underrated depth option who provided a good veteran presence on Ottawa’s young blue line, Hainsey could be an insurance policy for a contender next season.
Other notable UFAs to keep an eye on: D Yannick Weber (NSH); F Trevor Lewis (LA); D Andy Greene; F Brian Boyle (FLA); G Jimmy Howard (DET); G Ryan Miller (ANA); F Michael Frolik (BUF); G Craig Anderson (OTT); F Frederik Gauthier (TOR)