NHL’s Top 12 UFAs of 2021: Rumours around big contract years

Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan discusses the team's desire to lock up superstar Alex Ovechkin, says right now, "it's status quo," but is hoping to make time to negotiate before the season.

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

Yep, we're talking critical contract years here. With just 56 games to impress (or disappoint), the pressure to perform will intensify — 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) and Montreal Canadiens (Jeff Petry, four years and $6.25 million; Brendan Gallagher, six years, $22.5 million) take care of business early — slightly weakening 2021’s UFA crop in the process.

Unlike past seasons, general managers already know the 2021-22 cap ceiling (flat at $81.5 million) and can start mapping a roster for the future or start identifying impending UFAs they’ll be hard-pressed to afford.

Here is a preview of July 28, 2021’s class of unrestricted free agents, featuring a round-up of the latest buzz surrounding their next deals.

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

The latest: 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 begin working on an extension this month.

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.

During training camp, Ovechkin was confident the sides would carve out time to talk turkey.

“I don’t think we’re in a rush. We’ve got plenty of time,” Ovechkin said. “Whenever it’s done, it’s done.”

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), and Carolina already has four other D-men signed long-term at $4 million-plus per year. Which is why 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.”

3. Taylor Hall
Age on July 28: 29
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $8 million
The latest: For the second straight off-season, Hall could become the most coveted unrestricted free agent on the market, thanks to his rare and surprising one-year, show-me deal with the Buffalo Sabres, desperate to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

“Things can turn pretty quick, especially if you have elite pieces like the Sabres do,” said Hall, citing Colorado’s accelerated rise from the league’s basement. “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,” he said.

Rookie GM Kevyn Adams says Hall’s 2021 rental status doesn’t preclude the two sides agreeing to a lengthier deal next off-season.

“We believe in Taylor as a player and a person, and we hope this turns into a long-term relationship for both sides that works,” Adams said. “We’ll see where that goes.”

In Jack Eichel, Hall will be blessed with an elite playmaking centre in his prime. And in coach Ralph Krueger, Hall has been reunited with a favourite motivator and a man he trusts.

“If we get this atmosphere right, we get the results right, and he's having fun, that will be a major driver in him,” Krueger said. “The end result will take care of itself. It's not the length of the contract that matters in this case; it's how the process evolves.”

4. 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.

“You have to respect his privacy and allow him the latitude to take care of [personal issues],” GM Don 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 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."

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 GM Joe 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 seven years and $49 million sound?

6. 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 this off-season on his workhorse No. 1 netminder, a valuable asset whose likely raise in 2021-22 would strain the organization’s salary structure. (Carolina was one team that inquired.) The executive was reportedly only interested in parting with Auston Matthews’ parttime 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 in the off-season. “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, following the team’s fourth consecutive post-season series loss.

On Oct. 5, Dubas quieted some of the noise surrounding his goalie by stating that he expects Andersen to be the starter on opening night.

“I know where the Fred speculation started and comes from, and rather than address it publicly or be hostile about it, I just addressed it directly with Fred,” said Dubas, who was irked that info went public.

“So, he and I have had many discussions over the last month or so about that. So, he knows where we stand directly.”

Andersen reported to Toronto for training earlier than ever before.

“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.”

7. Jordan Binnington
Age on July 28: 28
Position: Goaltender
2020-21 salary cap hit: $4.4 million

The latest: “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) to Montreal, essentially reinforcing its faith that Binnington will carry the club in his contract season.

Unlike the case with Alex Pietrangelo, who ended up joining Vegas, the timing of Binnington’s payday aligns nicely here. The cap-straining contracts of Alexander Steen, Carl Gunnarsson and Tyler Bozak will come off the Blues’ books right when he asks for a raise.

Does he look nervous?

8. 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 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 to all situations, Palmieri will make a heckuva rental trade chip at the April deadline.

The Devils and Palmieri reportedly opened extension discussions in late September, but no deal is imminent.

9. 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 were reported to have taken place in October between the Oilers and Nugent-Hopkins' camp.

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

10. 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-35 player over the past two seasons.

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

“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 going to bring a winning attitude to the rink.

“I’ll be at camp. 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.”

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

The latest: Dealing Saad is the route Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman went (again) this off-season, with younger forwards coming up in the system (Dominik Kubalik, Dylan Strome) and Chicago embracing a reset.

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 a consistent play-driver and should not be in line for a big pay chop just because he’s now with the budget-conscious Avalanche.

Saad is riding into 2020-21 with a career-best 15 per cent shooting percentage and may have already peaked offensively, posing an intriguing call for Sakic.

The player told the NHL @ The Rink podcast that he’s already falling in love with Denver and is excited about the prospect of playing with such a young, talented team.

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

The latest: The highest-paid Bruin will have to take a pay cut, 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 [the 2021] season as my last.”

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

More notable 2021 UFAs: Tyson Barrie, Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, Tomas Tatar, Zach Hyman, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Adam Larsson, Derek Stepan, Paul Stastny, Philipp Grubauer, Alexander Edler, Petr Mrazek, Travis Zajac, Matt Niskanen, Jaden Schwartz, David Savard, 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, Mikko Koivu

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