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.

Massive decisions and intense bidding wars are nigh.

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

These pending unrestricted free agents have been able to ink extensions with their current clubs for months.

We’ve 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), and Edmonton Oilers (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, eight years, $41 million) take care of some business early — weakening 2021’s UFA crop in the process.

But we’ve also seen new UFAs emerge with big-time buyouts in Florida and Minnesota.

Even with the Seattle Kraken scooping Adam Larsson and Chris Driedger during its exclusive window, plenty of marquee names remain in limbo.

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 comments and 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 (730) 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 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 had 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 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.

In May, Leonsis said he’s “not concerned” about his captain’s pending UFA status. MacLellan said it’s just a matter of finding “a sweet spot” in years and dollars.

“Obviously, I want to finish my career here,” Ovechkin said at his season-ending press conference. “I’m pretty sure we will do something soon.”

To allow the Capitals another protection slot for the expansion draft, there is an assumption that a new deal is already tucked in a drawer.

“I have no worries,” Ovechkin told Match TV’s Pavel Lysenkov in July, “because in principle, if I do not sign a new contract with Washington, I will become an unrestricted free agent.

“But, of course, I would like to stay in Washington. Negotiations are still underway. So, let’s wait and see.”

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, the price tag for the top defender in 2021’s UFA class is far from certain.

Hamilton is in a class of his own when it comes to available D-men.

He is due for a significant raise, as is star forward Andrei Svechnikov (RFA). With cash-conscious Carolina already having four other D-men signed long-term at $4 million-plus per year, and extension talks cool throughout the season, the sides could be headed for a split.

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

On June 14, Elliotte Friedman reported that Carolina granted the pending UFA’s agent, J.P. Barry, permission to speak with rival clubs and explore an eight-year contract. This could result in a rare sign-and-trade.

Alternatively, after dipping his toe in the market, Hamilton may wish to stay put.

Talk has been quiet of late, and Philadelphia has since found its impact right-shot defender by trading for Ryan Ellis.

With Shea Weber’s health in doubt and Montreal eyeing LTIR relief, the Habs could be interested.

“I really enjoy it here. I've got some really good friends, met really, really good people in the room and away from the room, off the ice too,” Hamilton said on June 11.

“I have nothing bad to say about my experience here and being a Carolina Hurricane, and I've really enjoyed it. Hopefully we can keep going.”

The monster deal agreed to by Seth Jones in Chicago (eights years at $9.5 million per) only helps Hamilton's case for a summer of riches.

3. 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, 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.

No member of the 2021 UFA class put up more points (52) or points per game (0.96) than Landeskog, who logged 20 minutes a night complementing younger stars Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon on the most dangerous line in the West.

Sakic said the dialogue began in the 2020 Edmonton playoff bubble and that “hopefully we'll be able to extend.”

Following Colorado’s playoff elimination and Landeskog’s poor showing in the Vegas series, Mike Chambers of the Denver Post speculated that Sakic could offer the captain a “take it or leave it” deal at $5 million per year.

Certainly, it would take more to retain a talented leader who should fetch closer to a $7 million AAV on the open market.

Landeskog went unprotected in the expansion draft and told The Athletic he’s “disappointed” to be without contract this close to July 28.

“I can’t help but be honest with you that I’m a little bit disappointed that it’s gotten this far and it’s had to come to this point,” Landeskog said.

“I’m still hopeful that we can agree on something and come to terms, but if it was up to me, I would have liked it to be done eight months ago, 10 months ago.”

4. 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 in April of 2020. “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.”

Love isn't always enough.

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

Hyman’s brand of hockey makes him a unique commodity on the open market.

Leverage rests with the player here, and Hyman has already settled for one hometown discount.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” Hyman said on June 2.

GM Kyle Dubas said he “very interested” in keeping Hyman in the fold. Properly compensating the heart-and-soul winger is a different story, so the club granted Hyman permission to speak with other clubs.

All signs point to Hyman signing long term in Edmonton.

The question is whether the Oilers compensate the Leafs with a pick in order to give Hyman the eight-year maximum term and lower his cap hit.

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

The latest: Grubauer enjoyed a fabulous season for a Stanley Cup contender. The Colorado starter delivered a sparkling 30-9-1 record, 1.95 GAA, .922 save percentage, and a career-best seven(!) shutouts.

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

GM Joe Sakic has been mum on Grubauer’s next contract, but with UFAs Tuukka Rask and Frederik Andersen hampered by injury, the goalie’s leverage has only increased. 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, Landeskog and RFA Cale Makar) must be taken care of as well.

Does Grubauer wish to re-sign?

"One hundred per cent," the goalie told the Denver Post, while participating in the MLB All-Star Celebrity Softball Game at Coors Field on July 11. "I think we have an incredible team next year too. Joe and [assistant GM Chris MacFarland], they always do a great job putting a team together that's performing at a high level and playing in the playoffs. And I want to be a part of that.

"Everything is uncertain right now. Every team is waiting for the expansion draft. I would love to stay in Denver. Denver has become home. I love the team, love the organization. So, it would be nice to work something out.”

Unlike Landeskog, Colorado did protect Grubauer in the expansion draft, thus shielding him from negotiations with Seattle.

6. 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. “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’s playmaking complemented the Oilers stars. He thrived as quarterback of Edmonton’s power play and got his groove back. After racking up 48 points in 56 games, Barrie 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.

Barrie is believed to be seeking long term and maximum money after smartly betting on himself.

Early this summer, the Oilers were instead prioritizing an extension with the more defensively minded Adam Larsson, betting a healthy Oscar Klefbom can resume PP1 duties. But Klefbom’s health is still in doubt.

With word that Larsson committed to Seattle, Edmonton has refocused its efforts to lock up Barrie.

7. David Krejci
Age on July 28: 35
Position: Centre
2020-21 salary cap hit: $7.25 million

The latest: The highest-paid Bruin will need to take a pay cut, but Krejci’s 2021 performance — 44 points in 51 games, behind only Landeskog and Barrie on this list — reasserted the value a dependable two-way pivot can bring.

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.

The Bruins, however, could be in for another summer of turnover. There is opportunity to go younger.

“It’s not about money,” Krejci said on June 11, still mulling his future. “I guess that’s all I can tell you: My next deal is not going to be based on money. Today, I can tell you, it’s not going to be about money. And at the same time, I just can’t see myself playing for a different team. We’ll see what happens, I guess. I don’t even know. I talked to my parents, and they asked me. I can’t even give them a straight answer.”

Krejci had previously hinted at wrapping his career in his native Czech Republic.

“You guys write a lot that I wanted to finish my career in Czech, which has not changed,” Krejci said. “But when I said that, I was younger. I’m a husband. I’m a dad, I have two kids. They’re getting older. So, yes, I still, at one point, would like to finish my career in Czech for different reasons now than when I first said it. I would like my kids to speak my language because my parents don’t speak any English. My kids don’t speak Czech. I would like them to learn the language.”

8. 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” in the 2020 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 pivot regularly (see: Matthews, Auston) and is a plus-44 player over the past three seasons.

GM Marc Bergevin was quick to commit to Jeff Petry and Brendan Gallagher in 2020, and he reportedly offered a six-year, $30-million deal to Danault in the off-season that was rejected.

Yes, Danault wished he’d been taken care of earlier, the way Gallagher and Petry were, but he didn’t let that hinder some superb defensive play en route to the Stanley Cup final.

“We love Phil,” Bergevin said at his end-of-season availability. “He’s still in our plans, and we hope he remains with our team.”

With Weber heading for LTIR, Bergevin may have the cap space to keep Danault happy. Certainly, he’ll have other suitors.

“I think we see across the league that if you want to win, then you need three quality centre players — that was the case for the New York Islanders and ourselves this year — and players who are good at both ends of the ice,” Danault said.

“I know who I am, and I know what I can bring to a team. And I know I can win.”

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

The latest: Beginning 2021 as an unsung star on a rebuilding team, the hardworking Palmieri is quietly riding a five-year streak of 20-goal seasons.

Extension talks with Devils 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 now he's in the throes of a deep playoff run in New York, which is relaying on him to contribute to an offensive hole vacated by injured captain Anders Lee.

Palmieri’s two goals in 17 regular-season games for the Isles underwhelmed, but he has exploded for seven more in the postseason.

GM Lou Lamoriello should prioritize RFAs Anthony Beauvillier and Adam Pelech this summer, but Palmieri has been a wonderful addition to his middle six.

There is rampant speculation that Lamoriello will sign sudden UFA Zach Parise, whose price should be cheaper than Palmieri’s.

10. 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 his body is up for 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.

He’ll undergo surgery on a torn hip labrum this off-season and won’t be ready to play until January or February. If and/or when he straps on the pads again, Rask only sees it being in Boston.

"I'm not going to play for anyone else than the Bruins. This is our home," Rask said on June 11.

“At this point of my life and my career, I don't see any reason to go anywhere else, especially with the health I'm looking at now and a recovery time of five or six months. Hopefully it works out that I recover well, and we can talk about contracts when the time is right for that.”

The Bruins’ crease is already in for an overhaul, with fellow UFA Jaroslav Halak moving on.

11. Ryan Suter
Age on July 28: 36
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $7.54 million

The latest: With plenty of game in the tank, the minutes-munching Suter was the most stunning buyout of the summer by a mile.

“Lots of teams are interested in Ryan. Lots,” Neil Sheehy, who represents Suter, told The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

“I was talking to somebody yesterday that said, ‘There’s not a single team in the league that could have gone through all of their offseason scenarios and exercises and ever thought that Ryan Suter would be available.’ Now, he is.”

The player has an estimated $104 million in career earnings, so we’d have to imagine a shot with a (U.S.-based) Cup contender will be a priority for the Wisconsin native.

The Bruins fit the bill of club with money to spend and an obvious hole on the left side of their top four.

“Lots of expectation Boston going hard for Ryan Suter,” Friedman wrote on July 19. “One source called him ‘the Corey Perry of 2021-22.’”

12. Alec Martinez
Age on July 28: 34
Position: Defence
2020-21 salary cap hit: $4 million

The latest: Martinez appears to be caught in that position where a man must choose comfort versus money.

The Golden Knights love the player. Who wouldn’t? A shot-blocking, made-for-playoffs beast, Martinez logs more than 22 minutes per night and managed to contribute 32 points in 53 games last season without betraying his defensive responsibilities.
His plus-26 rating is better than that of any other UFA heading to market.

The Knights reportedly made Martinez a multi-year offer he is considering, but more money should be sitting behind free agency’s door.

The Boston Bruins have made it no secret they are looking for a top-four left shot. Martinez and Suter have to be right at the top of their list.

More notable 2021 UFAs: Mike Hoffman, Brandon Saad, Frederik Andersen, Keith Yandle, Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, Tomas Tatar, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Zach Parise, Tony Deangelo, Bobby Ryan, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Derek Stepan, Paul Stastny, Alexander Edler, Petr Mrazek, Travis Zajac, Jaden Schwartz, David Savard, Jake McCabe, Tyler Bozak, Ryan Murray, Nikita Gusev, Nick Foligno, Brandon Sutter, Nick Bonino, Blake Coleman, Sean Kuraly, Jordan Martinook, Jordie Benn, Joe Thornton, Alexander Wennberg, Mike Reilly, Mattias Janmark, Corey Perry, Devan Dubnyk, Jonathan Bernier, Jaroslav Halak, Linus Ullmark, James Reimer, Michael Bunting

All contract info via the indispensable CapFriendly.com.

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