NHL's Top 12 UFAs of 2021: Latest rumours, reports

HC analyst Kevin Bieksa joins Hockey Central to discuss what makes the league's top scoring defenceman Tyson Barrie such a good fit on the Oilers, and why he should do whatever he can to sign long term in Edmonton.

A star-studded group featuring future Hall of Famers, No. 1 goalies and defencemen, team captains and league MVP winners are all playing right now without guaranteed employment in 2021-22.

Yep, we're in the middle of critical contract years here. With just 56 games to impress (or disappoint), the pressure to perform has intensified — and could have a direct impact on these players’ financial future.

This group has been well and able to ink extensions with their current clubs for months, and we’ve already seen the Minnesota Wild (Jonas Brodin, seven years at $6 million), Montreal Canadiens (Jeff Petry, four years and $6.25 million; Brendan Gallagher, six years, $22.5 million), and St. Louis Blues (Jordan Binnington, six years at $6 million) take care of business early — weakening 2021’s UFA crop in the process.

Unlike past seasons, general managers already know 2021-22’s cap ceiling (flat at $81.5 million), yet many are playing wait-and-see with their UFAs as July 28’s open market looms.

Here is a look at the latest trade and negotiation rumours surrounding the top 12 impending UFAs of the Class of 2021.

1. Alex Ovechkin
Age on July 28: 35
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $9.5 million

The latest: If Ovechkin (718) 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 to 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 find common ground.

The superstar is negotiating his own deal.

Ovechkin and MacLellan had a conversation upon the conclusion of 2019-20 to set the table for parameters of an extension.

In November, Ovechkin gave an interview, in his native tongue, to Russian Television International and addressed his vision for wrapping his playing career.

“It is not a question of money,” the superstar said of his desire to remain in D.C. “It is just a matter of principal. I have only played for two teams, [KHL’s Moscow] Dynamo and Washington. Obviously, I will stay with Washington for another two… three… four… five years. And then I would like to finish on a high note, to play my final game with Dynamo.”

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.

Owner Ted Leonsis won’t want to disrespect the face of his franchise, who deserves to cash some of the biggest cheques in the league, but with a flat cap, the more team-friendly the deal, the greater chance of building a contender around the captain.

"I don't really have an update," MacLellan said on March 12. "It's the same as it's been all year. We want him to finish his career here, and I think he wants to finish his career here, and at some point we'll get it done.

“We've just got to find a sweet spot that we agree on.”

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

The latest: The Hurricanes traded for Hamilton, in part, because they liked his cost certainty. Well, after this sprint 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). With Carolina already having four other D-men signed long-term at $4 million-plus per year, you’ll occasionally hear trade rumours around solid right shots like Brett Pesce and Hamilton, already on his third franchise.

In mid-November, GM Don Waddell said the sides were getting close to opening extension discussions.

“He is a UFA at the end of the year, so we’d like to get that one done sooner than later. [With] that one, you would have doubts if you play out the season, so it makes sense to try to get something done before the start of the season,” said Waddell, per NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti.

“You’ve got a flat cap for the next two years,” Waddell went on. “We also know that the market’s changed. I’m not saying we’re not going to do a long-term deal, but the long-term deals, if you look at free agency, you’ve only got a few guys that got more than three years in the whole market.… So I think the market has changed, and it should change because of the situation we’re all in.”

Extension talks cooled in early March, according to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, but with the Hurricanes shaping into a Cup contender, a deadline deal would shock us.

Hamilton’s camp would use Alex Pietrangelo’s $8.8-million AAV with Vegas on a long-term deal as the ceiling, while the Canes would likely try to use Torey Krug’s $6.5-million AAV with St. Louis as a comparable.

Hamilton is in a class of his own when it comes to 2021’s UFA D-men; Carolina prefers to ball on a budget. Should be interesting.

3. Philipp Grubauer
Age on July 28: 29
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $3.33 million

The latest: Grubauer is enjoying a fabulous season for a Stanley Cup–contending team. Named First Star of the Week on March 14, the German rolled into the season’s halfway point with a sparkling 16-7 record, 1.85 GAA, .925 save percentage, and a career-best four shutouts.

How you knock your contract year out of the park is by putting together a Vezina-finalist-type campaign.

GM Joe Sakic has been mum on Grubauer’s next contract, but the goalie’s leverage is increasing. His next AAV could start with a six, and the Avs have the cap space to accommodate.

The catch is, they've been a budget team and some other big pieces (namely, RFA Cale Makar) need to be taken care of as well.

4. Tyson Barrie
Age on July 28: 30
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $3.75 million

The latest: Stumbling in Toronto, Barrie bet on himself big-time in the 2020 off-season.

The power-play quarterback reportedly turned down a $6-million offer elsewhere so he could feed pucks to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, rebound his stock and rediscover his confidence.

“For me, it was a no-brainer, with everything that’s going on and coming off the year that I had, to be able to have a chance to go into Edmonton and play with this team on a one-year deal,” Barrie said of the gambit. “For me, it just wasn’t about money this year, just coming into re-establish myself and show the league that I’m still a pretty good player.”

Mission accomplished.

Barrie has thrived offensively and found his groove again. He should ring the cash register this summer.

“If there is an opportunity for me to stay here long-term in Edmonton, it could be a great fit,” Barrie told colleague Mark Spector.

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

The latest: 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 Sakic should lock up Landeskog for the rest of his prime.

“Actually, back in Edmonton [during the 2020 playoffs], we started a dialogue,” Sakic revealed in October. “We'll revisit that. We'd like to have something done during the year, but if it has to go through the year, we're confident we have a pretty good relationship with Gabe and that we'll be able to figure something out by next year.

“I think everyone's figuring out where the landscape is going to be in the next few years. The dialogue is going to continue, so hopefully we'll be able to extend.”

How does five years and $35 million sound?

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

The latest: A friend of the 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 preliminary extension talks took place in October between the Oilers and Nugent-Hopkins' camp. Then… silence.

The best flat-cap comparable here may be Brendan Gallagher’s six-year, $39-million extension in Montreal.

Asked about RNH’s future on a Zoom call in late February, Holland thought back to some of his overcommitting in Detroit.

“You sign some contracts and they don’t work out. And the way the [cap] system is built, it makes it more difficult to compete,” Holland said. “He’s an important part of our team, and he’s got good chemistry with our players, but it’s got to work for both sides.”

7. Taylor Hall
Age on July 28: 29
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $8 million

The latest: Depending how harshly you grade recent results, Hall could become the most coveted UFA winger on the market two years running — or take a hit to the wallet. All thanks to his rare and surprising one-year, show-me deal with the Buffalo Sabres.

“Things can turn pretty quick, especially if you have elite pieces like the Sabres do,” Hall said, upon becoming 2020's most surprising signing. “Obviously, I’m betting on myself, but I’m betting that the Sabres can improve and have a good hockey season. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.

“Honestly, the best thing for both sides is that this goes really well, and I’m a Sabre for a long time.”

Welp.

Hall used his no-move protection to steer a trade to the contending Bruins at the trade deadline. Then he wasted no time matching his goal total as a Sabre.

The player would love to earn an extension, but his performance in the postseason will sway that outcome.

"I'd love to be a Bruin for a few years," Hall said. "It's been a bad year for me personally. I need to play well."

8. Frederik Andersen
Age on July 28: 31
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $5 million

The latest: Andersen is easily the best netminder the Maple Leafs have employed since Ed Belfour, and yet there is much uncertainty surrounding his future with the franchise.

At the very least, GM Kyle Dubas entertained tire-kicking last off-season on his workhorse No. 1 netminder, a valuable asset whose price in 2021-22 would strain the organization’s salary structure. (Carolina was one team that inquired.) Dubas was reportedly only interested in parting with Auston Matthews’ part-time roomie for a top-four defenceman.

Andersen holds a 10-team no-trade clause, but we don’t envision him being shipped out before April 12. That said, we believe Dubas will prioritize a Zach Hyman extension over an Andersen one.

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

“Whatever’s gonna happen, happens,” he said, following the team’s fourth consecutive post-season series loss.

Andersen says there was “a little bit” of contract talks prior to puck drop. Jordan Binnington’s six-year, $36-million extension with St. Louis looks like the ceiling for Andersen on his next deal — which should be dependent on his post-season performance.

“If I play well, things are going to be easier for me going forward. And if I play well, it’ll be good for the team,” Andersen said of his contract year. “My focus right now is just having fun with it. Enjoy being part of this group.”

Andersen was 13-8-2 with an .897 save percentage when he was sidelined with a lower-body injury.

The Maple Leafs expect him to be ready for the postseason. If and when he wears that sweater again, there will be immense pressure to perform.

9. Zach Hyman
Age on July 28: 29
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $2.25 million

The latest: The Maple Leafs love Hyman; Hyman loves the Maple Leafs.

“I would love to stay in Toronto. It’s where I grew up. I want to be a Leaf for a long time. That’s first and foremost,” Hyman said. “I would love to be a long-term Leaf and would love to re-sign here and would love to be here and ultimately win a Stanley Cup here.”

The all-situations winger has upped his bargaining power with another fantastic campaign and is proving to be coach Sheldon Keefe’s fixer, as he jostles from line to line, helping energize teammates who need a bump.

Hyman’s brand of hockey would make him a unique commodity on the open market, and all reports say no extension talks have taken place. Leverage rests with the player here.

Signing Hyman in-season would place the Leafs in an expansion-draft bind, so an extension will likely have to wait.

“Regardless of who he's playing with or where in the lineup, whether he's on the power play or not, he comes and works and is an outstanding leader and person for us,” GM Kyle Dubas said on March 16.

“With regards to his future, I'm not going to comment on he or any of the pending free agents, restricted or unrestricted. I just don't think it's productive at this time to do so.”

10. Kyle Palmieri
Age on July 28: 30
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $4.65 million

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

Extension talks with GM Tom Fitzgerald resulted in the winger's rental to nearby Long Island, and Palmieri made a heckuva rental trade chip.

Along with veteran pivot Travis Zajac, Palmieri yielded his former club a first-round pick. And he'll have a legitimate shot at a deep playoff run in New York, which is relaying on him to contribute to an offensive hole vacated by injured captain Anders Lee.

11. Tuukka Rask
Age on July 28: 34
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $7 million

The latest: 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.

The flat cap might prevent Sweeney from offering Rask a raise in an off-season during which Boston 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 have no intention of playing anywhere else but the Bruins," Rask said on Jan. 6.

"I'm comfortable where we are. I just wanna start the season in a good groove, and if the talks happen during the season, so be it. My main goal is to start season right, worry about future after."

The Bruins are not opposed to re-signing Rask or backup Jaroslav Halak in-season, but there appears no urgency on either side. Feels like a decision for the summer.

Rask was 8-4-2 with a .906 save percentage at the midway mark.

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

The latest: Danault’s name was “out there” this off-season, per Elliotte Friedman, 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-46 player over the past three seasons.

GM Marc Bergevin was quick to commit to Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher, and he reportedly offered a six-year, $30-million deal to Danault in the off-season that was rejected.

“At this moment, there are no negotiations,” Danault said on Nov. 24. “Letting emotions get in the way of business doesn’t really work. I understood that pretty quickly.”

Yes, Danault wishes he’d been take care of, the way Gallagher and Petry were, but he’s still bringing a winning attitude to the rink.

“The Canadiens gave me a three-year contract two years ago, and I still have a year to play with the Canadiens,” Danault said. “After that, we’ll see. I really have the intention of honouring my contract and then, after that, we’ll see what the future holds.”

Danault may consider hiring Nathan MacKinnon as his agent. Asked, during a Spitttin’ Chiclets interview to name his toughest matchup, MacKinnon pointed to Danault.

“Such a good centreman. It’s hard to get space on him,” MacKinnon said. “I don’t know if he’s in Selke talks, but he should be. Hopefully he wins one. Good versus everyone, not just me.”

More notable 2021 UFAs: Mike Hoffman, Brandon Saad, David Krejci, Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, Tomas Tatar, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Bobby Ryan, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Adam Larsson, Derek Stepan, Paul Stastny, Alexander Edler, Petr Mrazek, Travis Zajac, Jaden Schwartz, David Savard, Tyler Bozak, Ryan Murray, Nikita Gusev, Nick Foligno, Brandon Sutter, Nick Bonino, Alec Martinez, Blake Coleman, Sean Kuraly, Barclay Goodrow, Pekka Rinne, Jamie Oleksiak, Jordan Martinook, Jordie Benn

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