Want to feel like life can speed past you like a bullet train? It’s almost time to talk about Steven Stamkos as a pending-UFA again.
Yep, the man who scored career goals No. 500, 501 and 502 Wednesday night is about 18 months away from reaching the end of the eight-year deal he signed in 2016 to stay in Tampa, roughly 48 hours before he was eligible to get the hard sales pitch from other teams. (“He liked a tweet about playing for the Leafs!”)
Who else could be on the open market in 2024? Oh, just a few nobodies such as Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck and Ilya Sorokin.
Obviously, it’s always easy to get weak in the knees over the next free-agent class because a bunch (but not all!) of those guys will ink monster extensions when they’re eligible this summer.
With that in mind, let’s take a breath and focus on what’s right in front of us, which is the UFA class of 2023. With the trade deadline looming, many of these names are already buzzing in swap talk. All 32 teams, though, have some sort of business to consider in the coming months with respect to players who’ll be free to sign anywhere when, for the first time since 2019, Canada Day once again becomes synonymous with the start of NHL free agency.
1. Boston Bruins (35-5-4) If he actually hits the market, David Pastrnak might command the biggest free-agent contract we’ve seen in a long time. There seems to be quiet optimism in Beantown it won’t come to that, though. Do we do another summer-long dance with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci?
2. New Jersey Devils (29-12-3) We’re likely witnessing the final months of Damon Severson in a Devils uniform. New Jersey landed big fish Dougie Hamilton a couple summers ago through free agency and has Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes coming. Severson may be having a down year, but the right-shot, offence-first blue-liner has a strong enough body of work to know more than one team will come calling. Ryan Graves, who sometimes plays beside Severson, is also UFA-eligible.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (29-13-1) After years of speculation he’d be a cap causality via trade, will Alex Killorn finally leave Tampa as a UFA?
4. Carolina Hurricanes (27-9-8) It feels like a lot will be determined by how things play out in the next few months in Carolina, which has some interesting calls to make. Chances are captain Jordan Staal returns and — in a perfect world — retires in Raleigh. Frederik Andersen has been awesome when healthy and Max Pacioretty has four goals in three games. Both players will be 34 when next season begins.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (27-11-7) On one hand, it’s easy to think you can always find a guy to play with Auston Matthews and William Nylander. On the other, it’s hard to deny Michael Bunting has been a perfect top-line fit the past season-and-a-half. Other support players eligible to walk include Pierre Engvall, Justin Holl, Alex Kerfoot and David Kampf.
6. Winnipeg Jets (29-15-1) Realistically, the Jets’ biggest question revolves around restricted centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, who can flip to UFA in the summer of 2024 if he inks only a one-year deal. Backup David Rittich has been a nice fit in Winnipeg, so maybe team and player hammer out another deal.
7. New York Rangers (25-13-7) It’s safe to say the Sammy Blais experiment has not gone well on Broadway; he’s yet to score a goal since the Rangers acquired him from St. Louis for Pavel Buchnevich in the summer of 2021. (Of course, he missed a huge portion of last season with an injury). Backup Jaroslav Halak turns 38 in May, so we’ll see if the Rangers want to squeeze another season out of the vet.
8. Dallas Stars (26-13-7) The biggest UFA news for Dallas is that third-stringer Anton Khudobin can finally come completely off the books.
9. Seattle Kraken (26-14-4) His personal numbers may not be fantastic, but there’s no denying Martin Jones has played an important role for Seattle in the crease. We’ll see if the marriage lasts beyond this season.
10. Minnesota Wild (25-14-4) For years, we’ve heard about Matt Dumba being on the trade block and the situation finally has a pressure point with his contract expiring in July. With Minnesota’s pending dead-money cap crunch looming, it’s impossible to see a world where Dumba is in Minnesota next fall.
11. Los Angeles Kings (25-15-6) Before the season, Jonathan Quick indicated he’d like to keep playing beyond this summer, when the 10-year contract extension he signed in 2012 expires. Quick turns 37 this weekend and hasn’t played great this year, so it’ll be interesting to see how things play out. Current starter Pheonix Copley is also UFA-eligible.
12. Edmonton Oilers (25-18-3) The Oilers’ long-term injured reserve situation will clear up, with both Oscar Klefbom and Mike Smith set to come off the books. The last of Milan Lucic’s retained salary will also evaporate.
13. Vegas Golden Knights (28-15-2) Will Phil Kessel get one more ride after this year or are we witnessing the final months of the NHL Ironman’s career?
14. Colorado Avalanche (23-17-3) With Nathan MacKinnon’s extension hammered out before the season, the Avs don’t have any huge pieces of business this summer. That said, their longest-tenured player — Erik Johnson, who turns 35 in March — is on an expiring deal.
15. Washington Capitals (24-17-6) Get ready for some turnover in Washington: 11 guys who’ve played at least 20 games for the Caps this year are UFAs this summer. So is the injured Connor Brown. The only Washington defenceman who has a contract for next season at the moment is John Carlson.
16. Florida Panthers (21-20-5) Patric Hornqvist is on LTIR and the Cats will be happy to see his $5.3-million cap hit disappear this summer.
17. Calgary Flames (21-16-9) The seven-year deal Milan Lucic signed in the summer of 2016 to play beside Connor McDavid in Edmonton finally expires in a few months.
18. Pittsburgh Penguins (22-15-7) The stakes may not be as high as last summer, when the Penguins had to hammer out new deals with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, but the team does have a No. 1 goalie – the injured Tristan Jarry – on an expiring deal as well as key defenceman Brian Dumolin and support scorer Jason Zucker.
19. Nashville Predators (21-17-6) Kevin Lankinen has been a great backup to fellow Finn Juuse Saros this season; do the Preds try to keep him around a bit longer while Yaroslav Askarov marinates in the minors?
20. St. Louis Blues (22-20-3) There’s obviously a strong sentiment pending-UFAs Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko will be with new teams before the March 3 trade deadline. They may not be headline-grabbing names like that, but Ivan Barbashev and Thomas Greiss both also need new contracts.
21. New York Islanders (23-19-4) Since the start of the 2017-18 season, only four goaltenders — Darcy Kuemper, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros and Connor Hellebuyck — who’ve played more than 200 games have a better save percentage than Semyon Varlamov’s .916. You have to think, even at 35 this summer, teams will view him as a capable backup, even a 1B option.
22. Buffalo Sabres (21-19-3) Captain Kyle Okposo and the longest-tenured Sabre, Zemgus Girgensons, are both UFA-eligible.
23. Philadelphia Flyers (19-19-7) James van Reimsdyk and his $7-million cap hit will be gone before the deadline if Philly finds a taker.
24. Detroit Red Wings (18-17-8) Dylan Larkin has seen this organization through its darkest days since the early 1980s. We may still be a ways away from this team really turning a corner, but it’s still hard to see the team captain and Michigan boy walking away.
25. Montreal Canadiens (19-23-3) Evgenii Dadonov and Jonathan Drouin (dinged-up at the moment) have quietly been pretty good lately; does this make them low-key buy-low candidates at the deadline?
26. Ottawa Senators (20-21-3) The Sens already took care of important business by locking Artem Zub up before Christmas. The real question, of course, is what happens with RFA Alex DeBrincat?
27. Vancouver Canucks (18-23-3) Six months ago, it seemed improbable – if not unthinkable – Bo Horvat’s days in Vancouver were waning, even if he was set to become a UFA in 2023. Today, it feels like a fait accompli he’ll be somewhere else before March.
28. Chicago Blackhawks (12-26-4) There’s been just enough “maybe they won’t” to make you wonder if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews finish the season in Chicago after all. For the rest of us, it’s just so much more fun if they don’t.
29. San Jose Sharks (14-23-9) I’m not sure I can recall a situation like Timo Meier’s, whereby the player is actually a pending-RFA, but because the number required to qualify him and retain his rights is so high – $10 million – he’s almost being viewed as a pending UFA. If Meier gets dealt, the rebuilding Sharks can expect a nice haul. And should he wind up a UFA this summer, he may not get $10 million per season, but it will still be a huge number on a long-term deal.
30. Arizona Coyotes (14-25-5) Normally, you’d assume a pending UFA like Shayne Gostisbehere would bolt a tear-it-down team like Arizona the first chance he gets. But the defenceman has revitalized his career with the Coyotes and living in the Southwest all winter isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe there’s a long-term fit here.
31. Anaheim Ducks (12-28-5) If coaches are hired to be fired, John Klingberg was signed to be traded last summer. For the second consecutive off-season, he’ll be one of the top free agent D-men on the market and, even after a down season in Orange County, the right-shot defender should make out just fine.
32. Columbus Blue Jackets (13-29-2) It seems like the team would, all things being equal, like to keep pending-UFA Vladislav Gavrikov, but the interest he’ll attract ahead of the deadline might prove too much to turn down. You could also see a squad taking a chance on Gustav Nyquist, hoping he can provide some middle-six scoring in the playoffs.