NHL’s Top 12 UFAs of 2022: Latest rumours, reports

Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau joins Scott Oake and Greg Millen on After Hours to discuss free agency, the incredible season he's having, his parent's support, and more.

Hart candidates, Cup champs, No. 1 defencemen, and all-stars.

Yes, even with a slew of major talents inking juicy extensions early — Seth Jones, Aleksander Barkov, Mika Zibanejad, Sean Couturier, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Mattias Ekholm, Tomas Hertl, Hampus Lindholm — and avoiding the stress of free agency, the NHL’s 2022 UFA class is still percolating with compelling names.

And with the salary cap set to rise by $1 million, those spendy general managers will have a little more reason to splash the pot on next summer’s Dougie Hamilton or John Tavares.

Here’s a rundown and ranking of hockey’s best impending unrestricted free agents, plus the latest buzz circulating about their future as we speed toward the post-season — a fine time to boost one’s own value.

Free agency opens July 13.

1. Johnny Gaudreau
Age on July 13: 28
Position: Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $6.75 million

The latest: Gaudreau’s future has been a constant source of consternation in Calgary.

A fabulous regular-season wonder who crushed the 40-goal and 100-point benchmarks and played his way deep into the Hart Trophy conversation, Johnny Hockey has taken flak for not carrying the Flames deep in the post-season. That and his close ties to Boston and New Jersey have occasionally fueled spurts of trade speculation.

And yet, instead of exploring a swap, Calgary GM Brad Treliving held conversations about a Gaudreau extension over the off-season.

“I love playing here. I don’t think I’ve ever once said I haven’t wanted to be here,” Gaudreau said at the conclusion of 2020-21.

The slippery winger had his modified no-trade clause kick in over the summer and submitted a shortlist of five teams to which he can approve a trade.

But with the Flames a legit contender, there was no way he was going to get moved mid-season.

“We all know his situation here,” Treliving said. “We’d certainly like to get him extended. We’ve had lots of discussions, and we’ll see where this goes.”

Where Gaudreau’s price has gone so far is through the roof. Check the comparables.

The all-star winger is earning praise from coach Darryl Sutter for improved defensive responsibility and is rolling above a point-per-game pace for the first time in three years.

Assistant GM Craig Conroy told Sportsnet 960 on Feb. 23, “That’s a done deal. We’re gonna get that done…. You know what they call me. They call me Santa Claus giving contracts.”

We asked Gaudreau about his free agency in February.

“I’m super excited to be a Calgary Flame, playing for the Flames. Things are going well. I don’t look too much into my future,” Gaudreau said.

“I haven’t really talked to anyone [for advice]. I don’t look at it as a big decision. I’m playing hockey right now, we’re playing well as a team, and we’ll go from there.”

During his April 17 appearance on After Hours, Treliving said just because the sides agreed to keep things quiet, that by no means suggests the Flames don’t want to re-sign Gaudreau.

They’ll “move heaven and earth” and “do everything we possibly can to get Johnny back,” Treliving said. 

Fellow 100-point man RFA Matthew Tkachuk also needs a new deal. This won’t be easy.

2. Kris Letang
Age on July 13: 35
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $7.25 million

The latest: “Of course,” Letang said, he’d like to re-up with the only team he’s known and keep trying to win Cups alongside Sidney Crosby until the wheels fall off.

Pittsburgh’s new shot-callers, GM Ron Hextall and president Brian Burke, face a number of delicate decisions to make this summer. Even after extending Jeff Carter mid-season, they still have a handful of impending UFAs. There’s a distinct Last Dance vibe going on.

What Letang’s heart wants seems clear, though.

“You hear about those guys who decide to go with another team trying to look for another Cup or bigger salaries,” he said. “The thing we built in Pittsburgh with Sid and Geno, I think it’s special. Obviously, there’s always an end to an era. I cannot predict when it’s going to be done.”

Letang leads all impending free agents in time on ice and all impending free agent D-men in points — and neither race is even close.

With his long-serving agent, Kent Hughes, landing a gig as GM of the Montreal Canadiens, naturally there has been speculation that Letang might play out his career for his hometown.

“That noise been in my ear for eight years, so it doesn’t really matter. You know, at the end of the day, I’m like, 34-years old. I’ve been through those things. It doesn’t really bother me anymore,” Letang laughed on March 2.

“Whatever happens, happens. You know, it’s out of my control for right now. And I just want to focus on what’s important — that’s our team this year and trying to win a championship.”

Mark Madden of Trib Live floated a four-year extension at $8.6 million per season would be fair.

Hextall has begun extension talks with all his major pending UFAs.

“Certain players, if they want the most money, they’re probably going to go elsewhere,” Hextall said on Jan. 27.

3. Filip Forsberg
Age on July 13: 27
Position: Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $6 million

The latest: David Poile’s Nashville Predators went through a mini reset after watching Pekka Rinne retire and shipping out Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson in off-season trades.

Which has thrust Forsberg and Poile to a crossroads. Having already been run through the rumour mill in 2021, uncertainty around Forsberg’s future lingers as Nashville continues to play winning hockey.

Forsberg was especially displeased with the Arvidsson move, but certainly put that behind him in his first 40-goal, 80-point campaign.

On the open market, would the impact winger command more than $8 million? Perhaps.

Poile prefers to keep Forsberg’s salary under captain Roman Josi’s $9.06 million; Forsberg would like more than the $8 million Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen earn.

The sides have been banging away but failed to find common ground before the trade deadline.

“It’s a lot of business decisions,” Forsberg said. “But I’ve loved every minute of my time here in Nashville, and I don’t see why I wouldn’t love the future here too. It’s definitely something that I want to do.”

Polie told Adam Vigan of The Athletic in late November that he’s not putting a timetable on a Forsberg decision.

“Guys sign when it’s the right time, and teams do the same thing. It takes two to find a common denominator. There’s been some reporting that there hasn’t been much happening, but we’ve stayed in contact with his agents. It’s just a process. I think both sides would like to be together.”

Poile shot down Andy Strickland’s Feb. 23 report that he was shopping his best forward. But surely he’s received calls.

“No, I’m not trying to trade Filip Forsberg. I’m trying to sign Filip Forsberg,” Poile told 102.5 The Game in Nashville on March 1. “It hasn’t been done. I don’t know when it’s going to get done. I don’t have the crystal ball to say it will get done. Both sides want it to happen, but it hasn’t happened now.

“As of today, I can tell you, clearly, we are trying to sign Filip Forsberg.”

Discussions continue.

4. Nazem Kadri
Age on July 13: 31
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.5 million

The latest: One of this season’s biggest bargains, Kadri is overdelivering big-time on his $4-million salary.

Before temporarily going down to injury, Kadri was top-five leaguewide in scoring.

GM Joe Sakic and Kadri (who owns a 10-team no-trade list) are content to ride out the post-season before hunkering down and negotiating.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it, but you try not to focus on it too much,” said Kadri, who ramped up his focus and training over the summer in anticipation of his contract showcase.

“I just want to play out the season and focus on one game at a time, because I feel like that’s the best mentality and best preparation for it.”

Unless Kadri takes another discount, the cold math says there won’t be room for him in Denver next fall.

Sakic has already promised $16.25 million annually to younger core forwards Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog, and he must begin carving out serious cap space ($12 million?… more?) for Nathan MacKinnon in the summer of 2023.

Further, the Avs don’t have a single NHL goalie under contract beyond this season and will have other holes to patch.

Paying Kadri — what, $6.5 million? — into his mid-30s feels like a luxury they won’t be able to afford.

Kadri switched agents, from Brian MacDonald to Darren Ferris, in anticipation of finding the best possible deal this summer.

Why?

“I just felt like it was time, you know. Through my career, I feel like I’ve given myself an opportunity to explore, and I’ve had the same agent for a long, long time now. And I just wanted to see what else was out there for me,” Kadri explained.

“It was just difficult to do, in general. [MacDonald] was a great friend of mine. And we formed a great relationship. So it’s always tough to have those conversations, but at the end of the day, I think I owe it to myself, and it’s something that I’ve definitely earned.”

Ferris — who negotiated Mitch Marner’s lucrative 2019 deal and got creative with Taylor Hall’s one-year bid in Buffalo as a UFA in 2020.

5. John Klingberg
Age on July 13: 29
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.25 million

The latest: Much like Nashville’s Ekholm, a younger Klingberg signed a sweetheart team-friendly deal and is finally due a meaningful raise.

While Klingberg’s production has dipped from his 67-point performance in 2017-18, top-four right-shot blueliners who can play in all situations never fail to command bidding wars.

The Stars have already committed significant money to Miro Heiskanen ($8.45 million) for eight years, Esa Lindell ($5.8 million) for four, and Ryan Suter ($3.65 million) for four. Giving Klingberg his due will make for a pricy D corps in 2022-23.

In October, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek reported that Klingberg was looking for a deal worth between $62 to $66 million on an eight-year term.

The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta reported in January that Klingberg had requested a trade in the fall, once extension talks hit a wall.

“I don’t think it’s entirely true. It’s not like I’ve been going out there and asking, ‘I want to get traded now,’ or something like that,” Klingberg responded. “It’s something that’s been going on with the negotiations and stuff like that. I’m not going to lie — it’s been a few frustrating years individually.

“Other guys have signed right before the season before. I wanted to do that as well. Lately, it has been going more quietly and quietly. For me, as a player, I don’t feel that I’ve been appreciated in that way when we don’t even negotiate. It’s quiet. For me, as a player, my agent, we talked to Jim a couple months back. He agreed that we could start talking with other GMs and see where we were at. Negotiation-wise, the Stars have been very quiet.”

Klingberg is coveted, but with the Stars in the playoff contention, they held firm.

“We’ve had open dialogue with John and his representatives,” GM Jim Nill told The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun. “In the end, the best thing is, and we’ve talked about this, is just ‘John, go play some good hockey and good things are going to happen. We’ll figure things out.’ I fully understand their position. They know our position. But the bottom line is, if John plays well and the team has success, things will look after themselves.”

Elliotte Friedman suggested that Klingberg — a classic “own rental” — could ultimately sign with the Seattle Kraken.

6. Patrice Bergeron
Age on July 13: 36
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $6.875 million

The latest: Despite his age and potential retirement, Bergeron is still an all-world player. It would be disrespectful not to place the Bruins captain and four-time Selke champ on our list.

Bergeron announced in the fall that he’ll be skating out the final year of the eight-year, $55 million contract he inked with Boston back in 2013 before making a call on the next stage of his career.

There is a chance the Selke frontrunner (again) retires elite.

“I’m going to play out this year, and then talk about that after,” Bergeron said. “I want to concentrate on this year. I have a year left on my contract, and I think it’d be useless of me to think about the future.”

Boston GM Don Sweeney had previously said he intends to open extension talks with Bergeron, who wrapped up a 13th 20-goal, 50-point campaign.

Can the Bruins rally around their leader in a win-one-more-for-Bergy campaign?

“I want to create something special, as I said. We obviously want to work towards winning a Stanley Cup. I know everyone says that, but it’s definitely our goal as a team,” Bergeron said. “And I think we always are competitive to be in that group of teams. So, I think that’s where my focus is at right now.”

According to Jimmy Murphy, Bergeron would have plenty of interest around the league as a UFA. Certainly his former agent, Montreal’s Hughes, would dial up.

Bergeron is loyal, though. If he wants to keep playing, bet on a one-year deal with the Bruins.

7. Bryan Rust
Age on July 13: 30
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $3.5 million

The latest: One of the most underrated, underpaid and dependable forwards in the league, Rust is frequently overshadowed by all the star power in Pittsburgh.

Yet this should be the summer he finally secures the bag.

Despite seeing his platform season false-started due to injury, Rust came out flying, putting up 24 goals and 58 points through his first 57 games while improving any line he’s on. That makes three consecutive 20-goal campaigns with fewer than 60 games played in any of them.

Yes, his production dipped in late April. Still, a solid post-season would improve his bargaining position.

Penguins’ Bryan Rust Has Become Team’s MVP” reads one mid-season blog headline.

The future of Letang and Malkin hogs the dialogue, but Rust’s next contract might be the most important one for Hextall here.

How about six years at a $6.5 million AAV?

8. Claude Giroux
Age on July 13: 34
Position: Centre / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $8.275 million

The latest: Since the all-in Florida Panthers adopted the former face of the Philadelphia Flyers, Giroux has looked like he’s been playing in Sunrise his whole life.

Better than a point per game, the veteran has added more firepower and another power-play weapon to a roster that has already established itself as the league’s most dangerous.

Considering the price GM Bill Zito paid to bring Giroux into the fold, and considering the player handpicked his landing spot, one has to imagine re-signing the accomplished playmaker will be a priority — even with the Panthers’ tricky cap situation.

“Florida was at the top of my list,” Giroux said. “If there was a team I wanted to go to, it was here. I had a chance to play against them three times this year, watched a few of their games. Asked around about the guys on the team, the coach, management, and I didn’t hear a lot of bad things. I’m just happy the deal got done.”

Giroux seems freer now, and an opportunity to re-up should be there.

“We’ll worry about that stuff later on,” Zito said. “We haven’t closed the door on anything. We’re open-minded to whatever we can to have the best team.”

9. Ville Husso

Age on July 13: 27
Position: Goaltender
2021-22 salary cap hit: $750,000

The latest: Husso had long been considered the best goaltending prospect in the St. Louis Blues’ system, but a fairy-tale 2019 Cup run authored by Jordan Binnington demanded a juicy raise.

With Husso coming into his own this season, the bargain backup has morphed into starter material. His record (25-6-6) and save percentage (.921) now dwarf Binnington’s, whose paycheques dwarf Husso’s.

Considering Husso’s age and freshness, he’s likely to be the most in-demand goaltender on July’s open market.

GM Doug Armstrong has already invested $71.6 million in payroll for 2022-23, and executives are rightly hesitant to dish out more than $10 million on a goalie tandem.

The Oilers, Sabres, Maple Leafs, Devils, Blackhawks, and Wild are among the teams that will either need to re-sign their own UFA netminders or go hunting for an upgrade.

10. Andrew Copp
Age on July 13: 27
Position: Centre / Wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $3.64 million

The latest: Controlling his fate in Winnipeg and opting not to sign long-term, the steadily improving Copp was a sensible trade target for the New York Rangers.

Their hand forced, the Jets moved Copp plus a sixth-rounder to the Big Apple in return for Morgan Barron, two conditional second-round picks and a fifth-round pick in 2023.

Bruising and productive, Copp has elevated his game even further since the deal. The versatile two-way forward has cracked the 20-goal and 30-assist marks for the first time in his career.

The Blueshirts have decisions to make on a number of free agents — Alexandar Georgiev, Justin Braun, Kaapo Kakko, Tyler Motte, Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano — but with how seamlessly he’s fit in, Copp may be worth keeping as more than a rental.

11. Evgeni Malkin
Age on July 13: 35
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $9.5 million

The latest: Following the Penguins’ third consecutive first-round exit, Malkin underwent surgery on his right knee. After a lengthy rehab, the onetime Hart winner now believes his knee is “100 per cent stronger” and that he can play another three or four seasons.

Like Bergeron in Boston, there is a sense time is running out to win (again) with the aging core in Pittsburgh, and Malkin is but one of a handful of key impending UFAs on the roster.

Plagued by injuries, Malkin scored just eight goals and 28 points in 33 games last season — far off his usual Hall of Fame numbers. Some have suggested his next deal might only command a $4 million cap hit, but that seems low to us.

A fitting comparable might be the deal veteran centre Joe Pavelski signed as a UFA in Dallas a few years back: three years, $21 million.

Even as Malkin slows down (or gets suspended), his production has rebounded back to a point per game.

Hextall & Co. have already opened extension talks with Malkin and Letang.

“We’ve had discussions with both guys. Certainly, they’re a top priority for us. We have a limited amount of cap space to squeeze everybody in, but that’s certainly our goal,” Hextall said on Jan. 27.

“Negotiations have been fine, and we’ll continue on.”

Malkin holds a full no-move and cashed a $5 million signing bonus to start the season, bringing his salary down to $4.5 million for 2021-22.

Having raked more than $116 million in career earnings, Malkin said in December that his next deal isn’t weighing on his mind.

“No, no, I’m not thinking about my contract. I’m not thinking about money, I’m, like, a pretty rich guy,” Malkin said with a smile.

“I know it’s a little bit not easy, but I want three, four more years. And I feel like I can.”

12. Darcy Kuemper
Age on July 13: 32
Position: Goaltender
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.5 million

The latest: Another tense off-season awaits Avs GM Joe Sakic in ’22. Of his dozen impending free agents — a list that includes Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Pavel Francouz, and Ryan Murray — Kuemper may be the most compelling. (No small wrinkle: MacKinnon will also become eligible to sign an extension next summer.)

Scrambling to fill his crease once UFA Philipp Grubauer bolted for Seattle, Sakic paid a hefty price to Arizona for one year of Kuemper: a 2022 first-round draft choice, a 2024 third-round draft choice, plus defenceman Conor Timmins.

Colorado does not have an NHL-level goalie under contract beyond this season.

Yes, Kuemper has once again battled injury issues, but he has a sparkling 37-12-4 record and .921 save percentage through 57 appearances in Denver. And 2022’s UFA market will be thin on starters at the game’s most important position. He’ll have plenty of interest.

Both sides are taking a patient approach and will see how Kuemper and the Avalanche fare in the post-season.

More notable UFAs in 2022: Vincent Trocheck, Jack Campbell, Phil Kessel, Mark Giordano, Mason Marchment, Alexander Radulov, Ondrej Palat, David Perron, Rickard Rakell, Max Domi, Joe Thornton, P.K. Subban, Evan Rodrigues, Nick Leddy, Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson, Nino Niederreiter, Mikko Koskinen, Ryan Strome, Paul Stastny, Ilya Mikheyev, Martin Jones, Braden Holtby

All contract info via the indispensable CapFriendly.com.

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