An early ranking of NHL's top 12 UFAs from star-studded 2021 group

Any financial advisor will tell you: it’s never too early to start planning for the future.

So, as the NHL races toward the opening of 2020’s free agency period (Oct. 9), it’s worth keeping in mind a star-studded group about to enter pivotal contract seasons in 2020-21.

This group is well and able to ink extensions with their current clubs, and we’ve already seen the Minnesota Wild (Jonas Brodin, seven years at $6 million) and Montreal Canadiens (Jeff Petry, four years and $6.25 million) take care of business early — weakening 2021’s UFA defencemen crop in the process.

Unlike past off-seasons, general managers already know the 2021-22 cap ceiling (flat at $81.5 million) and can start mapping a roster for the next two seasons or start identifying impending UFAs they’ll be hard-pressed to afford. Which is why this lipest shares a few names in common with the trade-bait lists floating around.

Here now is a very early preview of 2021’s class of unrestricted free agents, including a round-up of the latest buzz around their next deals.

1. Alex Ovechkin
Age on July 1: 35
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $9.5 million

The skinny: If Ovechkin (706) is serious about taking a run at Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record (894), he’ll need a fresh multi-year commitment from the franchise that drafted him first overall way back in 2004. It’s blasphemous to envision the Great Eight in any other sweater.

Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin have expressed a mutual desire to play alongside each other for as long as possible, and the centreman negotiated his own $46-million extension that should see him setting up Ovechkin’s one-timer through 2024-25.

“My only concern going forward is that maybe Ovi might hire Nick to do his next contract,” quipped GM Brian MacLellan, confident the sides will work on an extension when talks with Ovechkin pick up at training camp.

The superstar is reportedly negotiating his own deal.

“We had a good conversation at the end of the year with Ovi, just to have both parties communicate what they’re thinking and kind of set the table for what could happen next year as far as keeping him around and moving forward with a contract with him.”

According to Russian outlet metaratings.ru, MacLellan has already floated a three- to five-year extension to the captain that would carry an AAV between $9.5 million and $10 million.

2. Dougie Hamilton
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $5.75 million

The skinny: The Hurricanes traded for Hamilton, in part, because they liked his cost certainty. Well, after one more season, the price tag for the top defender in 2021’s UFA class won’t be so certain.

Hamilton will be due for a raise the same summer as breakout star Andrei Svechnikov (RFA), and Carolina already has four other D-men signed long-term at $4 million-plus per year. Which is why you’ll hear trade rumours around solid right shots like Brett Pesce and Hamilton, already on his third franchise.

“It makes more sense to get to it sooner than later,” GM Don Waddell said of Hamilton’s negotiations. “Dougie is going to be an unrestricted free agent come next year after the upcoming year. Andrei will be coming off his entry-level deal. So, it’s two different kind of negotiations we’re looking at. There’s no timetable. There’s no deadlines. They both have another year left.

“We have a good relationship with both players. I fully expect both players to want to stay here.”

3. Tuukka Rask
Age on July 1: 34
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $7 million

The skinny: The question isn’t whether Rask — a Vezina-winning, Cup-winning, Jennings-winning stud — is deserving of an extension. The question is whether he wants one.

Rask openly pondered 2021 retirement this past season and drew criticism in some (unkind) circles for departing the playoff bubble early to attend to a family matter and leaving the Bruins’ crease to backup Jaroslav Halak.

GM Don Sweeney assures that Rask and his family are doing well, adding he has “zero reservations about where Tuukka will be both on and off the ice for us” in 2020-21.

“You have to respect his privacy and allow him the latitude to take care of (personal issues),” Sweeney maintained. “And ultimately it hasn’t affected his play on the ice. We have good goaltending, and we’ll continue to do so.”

The flat cap might prevent Sweeney from offering Rask a raise in an off-season during which it will also face decisions on several other free agents, but it would be difficult to argue that an engaged Rask isn’t worth at least $7 million somewhere.

“I’m sure we’re going to have good conversations with (Sweeney) after this season and go from there,” Rask said on WEEI 93.7 FM’s The Greg Hill Show. “But I’m only 34 (when my deal expires), so it’s not too old. So, I might play another year or two and then go from there.

“But I don’t want to promise anything either way because you never know what’s going to happen.”

4. Gabriel Landeskog
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $5.57 million

The skinny: True, the budget-conscious Avalanche have a track record of dealing away talent before they hit paydirt: Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene, Tyson Barrie….

But Colorado has an open window to contend for the grand prize, and anything other than a long-term extension for the captain would rock the core in a bad way. Real dollars are more of a concern than cap space in Denver, so Joe Sakic should lock up Landeskog for the rest of his prime.

How does seven years and $49 million sound?

5. Frederik Andersen
Age on July 1: 31
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $5 million

The skinny: Andersen is easily the best netminder the Maple Leafs have employed since Ed Belfour, and yet there is no certainty he’ll start for Toronto in 2020-21.

GM Kyle Dubas is open to offers for his workhorse No. 1 netminder, a valuable asset whose inevitable raise in 2021 would strain the organization’s salary structure. The executive is reportedly only interested in parting with Auston Matthews’ roomie for a top-four defenceman.

Andersen holds a 10-team no-trade clause. That he’s collected a $4-million signing bonus and will only command $1 million in actual salary through 2020-21 makes his contract all the more enticing.

Trade or no trade, long-term commitments to core pieces like Andersen or Zach Hyman don’t exactly feel imminent.

“Every one of these decisions takes on a more pronounced importance,” Dubas said during his season-ending press tour. “We have space, but we don’t have it in overabundance, and especially if things are going to be locked in for a couple years with the cap, we’ll probably not be able to act as quickly as we’d like to with some of these guys coming up.”

Andersen’s thoughts on a second contract with the Leafs?

“Whatever’s gonna happen, happens,” he said.

6. Jordan Binnington
Age on July 1: 27
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $4.4 million

The skinny: “You've got to be bold, because fortune favours the bold,” Binnington explained of the bet-on-yourself bridge deal he signed after backstopping the Blues to their first championship.

After a stellar regular season in 2019-20, the brash, late-blooming goalie was force-fed some humble pie, going 0-5 with an .851 save percentage in his second post-season. Yikes.

Free of recency bias, St. Louis traded away the hotter goalie (Jake Allen), essentially reinforcing its faith that Binnington will carry the club in his contract season.

Unlike current UFA Alex Pietrangelo, the timing of Binnington’s payday aligns nicely, as the cap-straining contracts of Alexander Steen and Tyler Bozak will come off the books right when he asks for a raise.

Does he look nervous?

7. Kyle Palmieri
Age on July 1: 30
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $4.65 million

The skinny: An unsung star on a bad team, the hardworking Palmieri is quietly riding a five-year streak of 20-goal seasons and is one of the last leaders standing on a roster that is getting younger by the trade.

Extension talks with GM Tom Fitzgerald are reportedly underway, and cap space is no issue in New Jersey. If the club cannot find common ground with a consistent forward who contributes in all situations, Palmieri will make a heckuva trade chip now or at the deadline.

The Islanders, Avalanche and Oilers are among the playoff-seeking clubs looking to add scoring on the wings.

8. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Centre / Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $6 million

The skinny: A regular to the trade rumour mill, Nugent-Hopkins enters his contract year hot off back-to-back 60-point campaigns. One of the few mainstays of the Oilers’ top six, RNH has improved his two-way game and has the versatility to complement Edmonton’s superstars from the wing or centre his own middle-six line when necessary.

Although Nuge cannot be replaced internally, until he is re-signed, speculation around the 2011 first-overall pick’s future will linger. He does not hold trade protection.

Writes colleague Mark Spector: “I’d guess he’ll be looking for Leon Draisaitl money ($8.5 million), though the Oilers may think that’s high. But with Connor McDavid ($12.5 million) and Draisaitl ($8.5 million) atop the salary structure, Nugent-Hopkins could be signed for a number that does not leave Edmonton like Toronto — top-heavy with three forwards averaging over $11 million apiece.”

Positive extension talks were reported to have taken place this week between the Oilers and Nugent-Hopkins' camp.

9. Phillip Danault
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Centre
2020-21 salary cap hit: $3.08 million

The skinny: Danault’s name is “out there” this off-season, Elliotte Friedman reports, but trading responsible centremen before they hit age 30 is seldom advisable. Even if the future looks bright at the position (see: Nick Suzuki, Jasperi Kotkaniemi).

Danault doesn’t exactly put up Xbox numbers — he’s never surpassed 13 goals and has reached 50 points just once — but he tilts the ice, nullifies the opposition’s top centre regularly and is a plus-35 player over the past two seasons.

Yes, GM Marc Bergevin was quick to commit to Petry, but his decisions for 2021 UFAs don’t end there.

10. Brendan Gallagher
Age on July 1: 29
Position: Right wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $3.75 million

The skinny: Gallagher says it would be great to sign a long-term extension in Montreal this off-season and return the focus to winning in Montreal.

“For me, it’s pretty much everything,” Gallagher told reporters in September. “The money’s important. I’m not going to sit here and lie and say it’s not going to be important to me. But it’ll be enough money regardless of what it is. I’ll be able to live a happy life post-hockey, and that’s not going to be a worry. I want to enjoy my time and I want to enjoy my experience and I want to have an opportunity to be a winner. And that’s really what you want to be remembered for.”

Gallagher has juiced up his offensive contributions over the past three seasons, hitting the 50-point mark twice and thriving in Montreal’s top six. Sportsnet’s Eric Engels points to Chris Krieder’s recent seven-year, $45.5-million extension with the Rangers as a fair comparable.

Bergevin is on record saying preliminary negotiations have begun and he’s confident a new deal can be worked out. The GM intends to lock up Gallagher and make him the club’s best-paid forward.

11. Brandon Saad
Age on July 1: 28
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $6 million

The skinny: Don’t worry. If Stan Bowman elects to trade Saad, he can always trade back to get him at a later date.

Ah, we jest. But dealing Saad (again) is an option that must be at least considered with younger forwards coming up in the system (Dominik Kubalik, Dylan Strome) and Chicago staring at some tricky cap manoeuvring.

Saad is a five-time 20-goal man who has enjoyed a solid career in Chicago’s top six and is responsible on the defensive side of the puck. He’s not in line for a noticeable pay chop.

So, Bowman will be forced into the difficult decision of either trading away a room favourite or committing significant dollars and term to a player who rides into 2020-21 with a career-best 15 per cent shooting percentage and may have already peaked offensively.

12. David Krejci
Age on July 1: 35
Position: Centre
2020-21 salary cap hit: $7.25 million

The skinny: The highest-paid Bruin will have to take a paycut, but Krejci’s performance in the 2020 playoffs — a team-leading 12 points in 13 games — reasserted the value a dependable two-way pivot can bring.

Krejci is only a year removed from a 70-point performance, and unlike Boston’s top-line players, he is seldom surrounded by elite offensive weapons. The legs are getting older, the contract needs to get shorter, but Krejci’s hockey sense reminds us of the value in having a second-line centre you can trust in important situations.

“I’m not planning on retiring, that’s for sure,” Krejci said. “I plan on still playing. But for how long or what’s going to happen after (this contract), I guess we’ll see. I’m definitely not planning on going into next season as my last.”

Whether it will be his last with the Bruins could depend partly on the internal development of touted centre prospect Jack Studnicka.

More notables: Eric Staal, Tomas Tatar, Zach Hyman, Ryan Getzlaf, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Adam Larsson, Derek Stepan, Paul Stastny, Philipp Grubauer, Alexander Edler, Petr Mrazek, Travis Zajac, Matt Niskanen, Jaden Schwartz, Tyler Bozak, Ryan Murray, Nikita Gusev, Nick Foligno, Brandon Sutter, Nick Bonino, Alec Martinez, Adam Lowry, Blake Coleman, Sean Kuraly, Barclay Goodrow, Pekka Rinne, Jamie Oleksiak, Jordan Martinook, Tanner Pearson, Jordie Benn

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