School is in, there's a chill in the air, and training camp is fast approaching.
While little top-line talent remains unclaimed, more than few notable athletes are still without employment for the 2021-22 season.
General managers may need to bargain harder, and jobless players may need to lower their asking prices (or settle for tryouts). But there are still gems — or at least worthy gambles and depth additions — to be unearthed from 2021’s UFA class after the midsummer frenzy.
We round up the rumours and assess the value of the free agents who are taking a more patient approach this summer (in some cases, that’s even by choice) and are still up for grabs in September.
1. Tuukka Rask
2020-21 salary cap hit: $7 million
The question isn’t whether Rask — a Vezina-winning, Cup-winning, Jennings-winning stud — is deserving of a rich, new short-term contract. 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 underwent surgery on a torn hip labrum in late July and says he could be ready to play as early as January. If and/or when he straps on the pads again, Rask only sees it being in Boston.
"For me, it's about that pride of playing for one team and one team only. I have no reason to chase the money anymore and go somewhere else. It's going to be one of those things where the Bruins are my home, Boston is my home. I've always wanted to play here, wanted to stay here. So the money won't be an issue. We had a conversation with [Bruins general manager Don Sweeney], and I will be a cheap goalie for them," Rask told WEEI 93.7 FM on Aug. 25.
"I would say I'm not looking for a $7 million contract anymore," he continued. "I just like to help the team out. I feel like I'm a veteran goalie and there are some young guys coming in, so whatever I can do to help the guys out I will do it and end my career as a Bruin."
The Bruins’ crease is already in overhaul mode, with Jaroslav Halak (Vancouver) and Dan Vladar (Calgary) moving on.
Expect Rask’s situation to simmer on the back burner, as the B’s roll into 2021-22 with a young, fresh tandem of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman.
“We needed to be prepared and allow Tuukka all the time he needs to get healthy. He just had surgery, spoke to him this morning, doing very well,” Sweeney said after signing Ullmark in free agency.
“We’ve always left the door open for Tuukka to return. And I think it just allows Jeremy to continue to progress at a natural rate but also give him the opportunity to be at the NHL level.
“When you’re trying to be a competitive team, you have to have depth. We felt that the last two playoffs, and we came up short. Now we’re trying to make sure that we’ve got the most competitive team we can, and identify if we have some needs going forward that we may have to have some changes as well.”
2. Jason Demers
2020-21 salary cap hit: $4.5 million
Right-shot defencemen were scooped up fast and furious on July 28, but this former Coyotes blueliner and steady, stay-at-home veteran is still available.
Demers only registered four assists in 2021, but he’s still logging more than 17 minutes a night and driving play north despite starting the majority of his shifts in the D-zone.
Another $4.5-million payday is unlikely, but some team will scoop him up.
Thank you to all the Coyotes fans, my teammates , the training staff I’ll never forget the years I spent in the desert #howling #enjoyedeverymin excited to see what comes next in my career and this upcoming season
— jason demers (@jasondemers5) July 28, 2021
3. Nikita Gusev
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $1 million
A right shot capable of playing either wing, Gusev made some noise in 2019-20 when he finally left the KHL, scoring 13 goals and 44 points in 66 games for a bad Devils squad.
The Russian's '21 campaign was split between New Jersey and Florida. His shooting percentage dropped, and he failed to find his groove in either lineup.
Gusev is only 29. He should have some game left, and he's garnered some interest on the market. Does he give the NHL another shot, or return to the KHL?
4. Travis Zajac
2020-21 salary cap hit: $5.75 million
Like so many other veteran Islanders who are technically unrestricted free agents, there is a quiet assumption that bottom-six centreman Zajac may have a deal in principle to return to the Eastern Conference finalists.
At this stage in a career, Zajac should be signing a one-year contract near the league minimum.
Despite seeing his 1,000th game drift in the rear-view mirror, the durable Zajac can still play.
He’ll kill penalties, chip in a bit of offence (20 points in 46 games in 2021), and remains an excellent faceoff asset, with a career 53.8 per cent success rate in the dot.
5. Sami Vatanen
2020-21 salary cap hit: $2 million
My how Vatanen’s stock has fallen since his days as an emerging Anaheim Duck. The right-shot D-man still has some offensive upside and could thrive in third-pairing minutes.
Bouncing from Anaheim to New Jersey to Carolina to New Jersey to Dallas over the past four seasons, there is still belief that if Vatanen finds the proper fit, he could resurrect his career and celebrate his 500th game this upcoming season.
Righties are tough to come by. The Islanders and Oilers are two teams that could poke around for depth here.
Not a lot left on the UFA market when it comes to centres. On defense I think Sami Vatanen would be an interesting player to take a flier on as a bottom pair right hand shot defenseman.
— HabsLinks (@HabsLinks) July 29, 2021
6. Zdeno Chara
2020-21 salary cap hit: $795,000
The oldest and tallest man in the NHL hasn't retired yet, so it remains unknown if his career ended in a handshake line against the Boston Bruins or if he'll give it another go on a one-year, team-friendly contract.
“Z is in Slovakia spending time with family. He is working out hard and leaving all of his options open. There is no rush on anything with him," Chara's agent, Matt Keator, told Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic.
Last season, Chara didn't sign with the Washington Capitals until about a week before training camp. If he's interested, we're certain a few GMs will kick tires at a third-pairing leader and excellent penalty killer.
During Chara's season-ending Zoom call, he was unsure if he’d play a 24th season.
“This season didn’t end the way we wanted, but that’s life,” Chara said.
“You have to move on. As far as myself and my future, I’m probably going to take a few days to talk to my family and make decisions after. I think that, obviously, it’s not always a decision I can make myself. Sometimes there are things in life you have to realize. I have to have those conversations with my wife and my children and see where we’re going to be in the next two days or weeks. After those conversations, I’ll probably let those emotions settle in and see where I’m at.”
Despite rumblings of the Blues' interest in the future Hall of Famer, that idea has been shot down in multiple reports.
"I’ve heard him linked to the Islanders recently, but it was more of hearsay and speculation," an anonymous source told Jimmy Murphy for an Aug. 19 story. "It makes a ton of sense but then look at the Rangers too; imagine Adam Fox getting even better under a mentor like Zee?”
7. Ryan Donato
Position: Centre / Left wing
2018-19 salary cap hit: $1.9 million
Rare that 25-year-old NHL centres appear on the open market. But with the San Jose Sharks trading for Donato in 2020 and not deeming the forward worth a qualifying offer in 2021, here we are.
The Boston native is coming off back-to-back 20-point seasons in shortened campaigns are should be able to find a bottom-six niche in the league.
But with a non-playoff club like the Sharks taking a pass, Donato's bargaining power has taken a hit. A short-term, low-money gamble could help Donato rejuvenate his career and wouldn't be a bad gamble for clubs looking for depth up the middle.
Donato was drafted by his hometown Bruins back in 2014 and is already looking to join his fourth franchise.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 26, 2021
Position: Centre / Wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $1.05 million
Feeling as if his NHL career was on the line, the determined winger certainly showed flashes in Toronto alongside John Tavares and William Nylander.
He’s exploring his options. Toronto has yet to close the door (at least publicly) on a return, and even the team that drafted Galchenyuk (Montreal) is said to have some level of interest in a reunion.
His last contract was one year at $1.05 million. Would he take that again?
9. Tyler Bozak
2020-21 salary cap hit: $5 million
Of all the unrestricted free agents unclaimed by September, none averaged more points per game in 2021 than Bozak. Most recently a third-line centre with the St. Louis Blues, the dependable but aging two-way pivot is in for a significant pay cut.
Still, Bozak is a Cup champ who should still be able to kill penalties, win faceoffs and chip in bottom-six scoring.
While buzz around potential landing spots has been quiet, the Montreal Canadiens should at least take a look in light of Phillip Danault’s departure to L.A. And if St. Louis finds a way to unload Vladimir Tarasenko, perhaps there’s a clearer path to keep Bozak in the fold. Both sides have interest, but money — as ever — is an issue. Bozak is still in St. Louis skating with some of his 2020-21 teammates, according to local reports.
10. Zach Parise
Position: Left wing
2020-21 salary cap hit: $7.5 million
Following his summer buyout from the Minnesota Wild, the 1,060-game veteran is set for a reunion with Lou Lamoriello — the GM who selected Parise in the first round of the 2003 draft.
Between the healthy scratches and the underwhelming production (seven goals, 18 points) in 2021, Parise will have a shot at a nice bounce-back season as a role player for the New York Islanders. Details of his contract have yet to be announced.
More notable UFAs still on the market: Eric Staal, Bobby Ryan, Devan Dubnyk, James Neal, Erik Gustafsson, Jimmy Vesey, Brian Boyle (PTO with PIT), Alex Chiasson, Tyler Ennis, Tobias Rieder, Artem Anisimov, Mark Jankowski, Colton Sceviour, Lucas Wallmark, Marcus Hogberg, Curtis McElhinney, Ben Hutton, Patrick Marleau, Jack Johnson (PTO with COL), Josh Ho-Sang (PTO with TOR)
All salary info via the excellent CapFriendly.com.