For anyone who feels like NHL free agency hasn’t been nearly enough fun this summer, don’t fret: the drunken sailors are scheduled to make landfall again in 12 months.
There’s been an element of forced restraint on the open market the past few years thanks to the pandemic-flattened salary cap. But the bump is coming. The players are expected to have paid back the escrow debut incurred when the league had to stop or shorten seasons because of COVID-19 by next summer, which will result in about a $4-million salary-cap spike.
That noise you heard during free agency this year was the sound of cans being kicked down the road, as several players opted for one-year deals with the idea they would re-enter the market under more fertile conditions again next summer.
The next sound you could hear is general managers licking their lips as they mull over an extremely tasty list of players who are eligible to gain unrestricted free agent status next July.
Obviously, any number of these players will ink extensions with their existing clubs — or ones they’re traded to — between now and then. Still, there figures to be a slew of talented players at every position ready to be wined and dined by executives who’ve had their salary cap handcuffs removed.
With that in mind, we thought it prudent — albeit a little over-eager — to assemble a list of guys who have the option to enter the open market in less than a year.
It only made sense to group these two Leafs together, even though their situations feel quite different. The sense around Matthews — even after Kyle Dubas was replaced as GM by Brad Treliving — is that one way or another, he’ll be a Leaf for a long time. Nylander, of course, is a slightly more complicated conversation. His last contract was signed only after a standoff that lasted well into the 2018-19 season. Of the great players on this squad, he’s the one most often mentioned in trade rumours and after providing tremendous value for a cap hit just under $7 million, it might be time for “Willy Styles” to get his.
While we’re here, we can talk about Tyler Bertuzzi, who might have been the poster boy for one-year contracts this summer. With no long-term offers to his liking on July 1, Bertuzzi pivoted and bet on himself — and that rising cap — on July 2, inking a short deal with Toronto. The left winger will still be just 29 next summer.
As you’ll no doubt recall, the contract Aho is on originated when former Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin got the Finnish centre to accept an offer sheet as a restricted free agent. The Canes immediately matched and told the social media team to commence mocking the Habs for even dreaming Aho would bolt from Carolina. While the $8.5-million cap hit was never going to scare the Hurricanes away, one little ploy the Habs hoped might deter Carolina was signing Aho to a five-year term that would walk him right into free agency.
We’re now 11 months from the end of that deal and Aho doesn’t turn 26 for a few more days. It’s highly unlikely, but if he ever did hit the open market at that age, teams would be battery-ramming through the Finn’s front door.
How is this for a marker of how time flies? It was seven years ago Stamkos went down to the wire with then-Tampa GM Steve Yzerman before inking an eight-year extension on the eve of free agency that punctured the dreams of every team — including a different blue-and-white one — that was about to pounce. It’s worth noting Stamkos — who had a long stretch of tough injury luck in the middle of his career — has played 81 games in each of the past two seasons. He turns 34 in February, and although it’s hard to imagine No. 91 anywhere but Tampa, we’re clearly in the final act of the Bolts’ run.
This is a fascinating situation because, as good as Hellebuyck has been, we know teams are loathe to commit too much dough to goalies, and the long-time Jets netminder will be 31 when his deal expires. All we can say with confidence is, it would be shocking if Hellebuyck’s next pact was with Winnipeg. Whether he plays out the final year of his deal in Manitoba remains to be seen.
Even before his fantastic playoff run with the Panthers — he scored six goals in Florida’s first eight post-season games — Montour made a name for himself with a breakout 73-point performance. The defenceman, who’ll have just rounded 30 by next July, was a minutes monster this past season and racked up 33 power-play points. Even if those numbers represent his apex, Montour — an always-coveted righty on the back end — will be in high demand. Off-season shoulder surgery might slow him a bit at the start of the season, but he’s a fierce competitor who just had a two-month playoff run to showcase his abilities.
Speaking of raising your stock with a strong playoff showing, how about Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Marchessault? An original Golden Misfit, Marchessault now has a playoff MVP on his resume to go along with his slew of 25-to-30-goal seasons. He turns 33 in December, and although you’d assume the Knights will find a way to keep him around, Vegas also has to find money for centre Chandler Stephenson. Heisted from the Washington Capitals in 2019 for a fifth-round pick, Stephenson — who turns 30 in April — is due a big raise on the $2.75 million he’s been drawing annually in the desert.
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
Five years ago, it felt incredibly in play that Scheifele would one day lift the Cup with Winnipeg as the team’s top centre. But — for a variety of reasons — the Jets’ young core veered off course. It now feels inevitable Scheifele will be playing for a new team as early as October. The conversation around Scheifele and the Jets has soured so much in the past couple of seasons that it’s easy to forget what a needle-moving player he could be for a new team.
We’re talking about a right-shot, six-foot-three centre who just posted a career-high 42 goals. Scheifele turns 30 next spring, and it’s fair to assume he’s going to carry a chip on his shoulder to his next landing spot.
The Flames’ off-season has been defined by how many quality players they have who can hit the open market in 2024. Tyler Toffoli has been dealt to the Devils and the scoring winger will certainly be in demand — especially thanks to his playoff chops. Defenceman Noah Hanifin will also likely be moved at some point this summer and would create a lot of heat on the open market should he make it that far. Centre Mikael Backlund could also go, but it feels like there’s a path to the career Flame sticking around.
Lindholm’s future, meanwhile, is much more up in the air. The Swede’s best years, by far, have come in Calgary. The two-way pivot turns 29 in December, so he’s still got a good amount of tread left on the tire.
The Avs pounced when the cap-crunched Islanders traded Toews three years ago, and he’s been a fantastic fit in Denver. When you have as many good players as Colorado does, however, it can be tough to keep everybody around. Toews will be 30 years old next summer, and depending on how the chips fall, he could be the top D-man available on the open market.
A last-minute entry in the 2023 UFA class, Duchene inked a one-year deal with the Stars that you could easily see transitioning into a longer stay. Still, if he has anything close to the 43-43-86 line he put up in 2021-22 with Nashville, he’s going to be looking at a lot more money than the $3 million he signed for in Dallas. Duchene, who had to make a tough personal pivot after being bought out by the Predators, is one of those players who looked at the landscape and said, why not grab a nice seat for one season and bank on hitting it big next summer? Even at age 33 next July, teams are going to come calling.
Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals
If the Caps are out of playoff contention by February and Wilson has not inked an extension, GM Brian MacLellan’s phone is going to be a smoking fire hazard from all the GMs on playoff-bound teams calling about Wilson’s availability. The six-foot-four right winger missed more than half of last season with a knee injury and still scored at a 32-goal pace after he returned. Wilson, who turns 30 in March, will be seen as the type of player who can put a team over the top come playoff time.
So whether it’s ponying up in a trade at the deadline or handing him a new contract next summer, we could see some diamond-studded offers.