Looking ahead to the NHL's top UFAs of 2023

Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) waits for a faceoff during the second period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, April 29, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Joshua Bessex/AP)

Take a peek at the pending unrestricted free agents eligible to pop up in 2023 and it’s easy to ask whether next off-season will seem strikingly similar to the current summer.

The Calgary Flames and John Klingberg certainly hope that’s not the case.

Just as the 2022 class was defined by a high-scoring (now former) Flame in Johnny Gaudreau, it’s possible one of the top free agents on the market next year could be Jonathan Huberdeau — now in Calgary following the blockbuster deal that sent Matthew Tkachuk to Florida — coming off scorching season in Southern Alberta.

Of course, Calgary also acquired defenceman MacKenzie Weegar in that deal. If he doesn’t ink an extension between now and next July, he’ll join Klingberg as one of the top defenders in what is a decidedly weak crop of UFA blue-liners.

Klingberg, naturally, likely never expected to be going through this process again so quickly after having his services available to the highest bidder this year. Following a change of agents, he signed a one-year deal — as opposed to the six- or seven-year contract we all expected — with rebuilding Anaheim and could now come back in 12 months’ time and take another crack at a long-term pact.

Who knows, maybe Klingberg will find Southern California to his liking and sign an extension to stay in the sun. We can definitely count on Flames GM Brad Treliving trying to lock up one or both of Weegar and Huberdeau — Sportsnet’s Elliotte Freidman reported Treliving recently broke bread in Montreal with the latter — to big commitments in the hope next year is a lot quieter in Calgary than this noisy off-season has been.

Even if we get some extensions in coming weeks, next summer figures to be a monster UFA market thanks to the sheer volume of high-end forwards currently entering the final year of their deals. We’re talking franchise-defining players here, so take the three guys mentioned above out of the equation and we still have no trouble identifying a dozen interesting potential UFAs with 12 months to go until next silly season.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane’s future is going to become the biggest subplot of the 2022-23 campaign about eight seconds after Colorado raises its banner. Chicago is already elbow-deep in a rebuild and the two sides are engaging in this semi-ridiculous dance of not wanting to be the party that triggers the next move.

Kane playing for another team is inevitable at this point, so it would be great if we all just cut to the chase. Chances are he will be dealt before the trade deadline next winter, but that doesn’t preclude him from headlining next summer’s UFA class. The only wingers with a better points-per-game mark than Kane in the past five years are Nikita Kucherov, Brad Marchand and Kane’s former teammate, Artemi Panarin. Even at 34-years-old next summer, he would command a massive deal.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

It feels like every Colorado transaction of the past two years has been mentioned in the context of knowing MacKinnon’s sweetheart deal will be up in 2023. His cap hit isn’t going to double from the $6.3 million it’s been at since his fourth year in the league, but it’s going to come very close. Still, the organization — remember, Chris MacFarland is now the GM under hockey prez Joe Sakic — has had its eye on the ball the whole way here and it seems unthinkable the defending champs and their top offensive player won’t figure it out long term.

David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

This situation is way too interesting for Bruins fans’ liking. There’s a long way to go, but with so much still up in the air in Boston — is Patrice Bergeron FOR SURE coming back and will Pastrnak’s friend and countryman, David Krejci, return to Massachusetts after a year abroad, too — Pastrnak hasn’t exactly sent out “Bruin for life” vibes. Only five players have scored more total goals than Pastrnak in the past three years and he doesn’t turn 27 until next May.

J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks

A month ago, it felt like if Miller was to get an extension this summer it might only come after a trade to a new team. That sense seems to have shifted a bit as he’s obviously still part of the Canucks with several big dates in the NHL off-season calendar having passed already.

Miller has found a new gear in Vancouver and appears genuinely open to the idea of staying. The caveat is that the dollars and cents of it all will be hard to sort out, especially with Canucks captain Bo Horvat also eligible to become a UFA next July.

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild

As mentioned, there’s not a ton to get excited about in terms of defencemen to woo next summer. Even if both Klingberg and Weegar make it to market, Dumba can expect some love. (One interesting note to file away, though; right-shot defenceman tend to be in high demand and all three of Klingberg, Weegar and Dumba are righties.)

It seems like we’ve been talking about Dumba as possible trade bait for years. Now, with Minnesota enduring a dead-cap crunch thanks to the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts, perhaps we’re finally entering the final days of Dumba — who just turned 28 — in a Wild uniform.

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

If the NHL had a ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ award, Tarasenko may well have claimed it. After playing just 34 games in 2019-20 and 20-21 combined — and making a trade request that went unfulfilled along the way — the Russian tank had a career season with 82 points in 75 outings this past season.

Even with Tarasenko — who turns 31 in December — and the Blues back in a much better spot, this could well be the right winger’s final go-round in Missouri. (Spoiler: This won’t be the last significant St. Louis name you see on this list). Tarasenko will have no trouble finding a new home, however, if his play this upcoming season is anything like we saw last year.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

On one hand, it seems like staying with the team that drafted and developed him — and has Sidney Crosby on it — would be a no-brainer for Jarry. On the other, if Jarry has another good season, he could enter the market as very clearly the best option for a team looking to upgrade its crease.

Frederik Andersen — even Semyon Varlamov or Jake Allen — could have something to say about that. But Jarry, who turns 27 next April, is at least five years younger than all those guys, making him much more likely to be on the receiving end of an offer than runs half-a-decade long.

Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues

Look, if you had to bet a nickel on whether the Blues would retain either O’Reilly or Tarasenko, you’d lay it without much hesitation on O’Reilly. The two-way centre has been so integral to the Blues identity — including winning playoff MVP during their 2019 championship run — that you almost forget he’s actually only been there four years.

O’Reilly turns 32 in February and while St. Louis is tossing the keys to the likes of Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou, O’Reilly is such a dependable player that it’s hard to imagine him and St. Louis parting ways while the team is still in a window to contend. Could they work out a contract that reflects the fact he may take a reduced offensive role in coming years while still being counted on heavily to match up against other teams’ top lines? You know he’s the kind of battle tested-player another club could look at and think, “That’s the guy we need to get over the playoff hump.”

Damon Severson, New Jersey Devils

Not a lot went right in New Jersey last season, but Severson — another righty — quietly put up a career year with 46 points and his production during the past four campaigns basically works out to that of a 40-point defenceman. He turns 28 on Sunday, meaning he’s still just inside that age range where d-men sometimes take a final leap.

With Dougie Hamilton already entrenched on the right side and both Luke Hughes and 2022 second-overall pick Simon Nemec on their way to the Devils blueline, maybe the writing is on the wall for Severson. Defencemen who produce like this guy do not grow on trees.

Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

A relatively short time ago, the thought of Monahan hitting the open market would have created cold sweats for Flames supporters. The past three years, though, have seen his production plummet, so it will be interesting to see if he can do anything this upcoming year to repair his reputation on the heels of having hip surgery this past spring.

It sure seems like there’s a decent chance he’ll be coming off the Flames books, though. When you consider the same is also true of Milan Lucic in 2023, you get a sense of how the club might be able to cobble together big deals to keep Huberdeau and Weegar.

Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings

Would the Michigan boy and team captain bolt just as things are starting to turn around? At some point, the guy who grew up cheering for Cup-winning clubs in Detroit is going to want some playoff action of his own beyond the five-game taste he got as a 19-year-old in 2016.

Larkin, who just turned 26 on July 30, would command all kinds of attention on the open market given what he’s achieved playing for subpar squads in Detroit. Still, it’s tough to imagine he doesn’t re-sign banking on the next chapter being far more enjoyable than the first seven years of his career.

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

A number of veterans, from Max Pacioretty to Father Time-dodging Joe Pavelski, figure to drum up more interest than Toews next summer, but it’s fun to float his name here nonetheless. After missing the entire truncated 2021 season thanks to chronic immune response syndrome, Toews needed 26 games to score his first goal last year.

Once he got going, though, the Blackhawks captain played at a 50-point pace in the 2022 portion of the NHL calendar. Toiling on a dismal team, his underlying numbers were entirely passable. With another season under his belt, Toews — who turns 35 next April — could still look very attractive to a contending club that might land one of the most accomplished players in the game on a team-friendly deal if it means he gets another crack or two at a fourth ring.

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