NHL’s Top 12 UFAs of 2022: All the buzz on big contract years

Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov received the 2021 Frank J. Selke Award as the best defensive forward in the NHL.

Captains, trophy winners, Cup champs, No. 1 defencemen, and starting goalies.

Yes, even with a few major talents signing big deals way early (Seth Jones, Sean Couturier, Colton Parayko) and avoiding the stress of free agency, the NHL’s 2022 UFA class could be a deep one.

And with the salary cap expected to rise by $1 million, those spendy general managers should have all the 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.

Happy contract year, fellas.

1. Aleksander Barkov
Age on July 15: 26
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.9 million

The latest: Not since John Tavares hit the market in 2018 — to the tune of $77 million — could a franchise centreman command such a summertime bidding war.

Thing is, the Florida Panthers should do everything in their power to prevent that from happening with the franchise’s only Selke winner. And early reports on a long-term (eight years?) extension are positive.

“The team is thought to be close to, or Barkov has agreed to, a new contract,” Florida beat reporter George Richards wrote on Aug. 29. “Best guess? Between $9.5-11 million per season.”

Even with the Panthers operating in a tax-free state, we’d lean to the top end of that range.

Barkov is only 26. He’s one of the best two-way pivots in the sport. And this is a club that gave $10 million a year to Sergei Bobrovsky. Barkov should rightly become the highest-paid player in Panthers history.

GM Bill Zito must also extend star winger Jonathan Huberdeau in the not-so-distant future (2023) and may wish to use the eight-year, $62-million extension ($7.75 million AAV) Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier signed this summer as a low-end comparable to keep Barkov in check.

“I haven’t really thought about it yet,” Barkov said after the Cats lost their first-round playoff series to Tampa.

“Obviously, we’ll talk about it with my people and the organization too. We’ll come up with something. All I can say is that I love it here right now. I enjoyed this year the most.”

2. Mika Zibanejad
Age on July 15: 29
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.35 million

The latest: The Rangers’ top-line centre exploded for 65 goals and 125 points over his past 113 games. As one of the premier UFA forwards under 30, Zibanejad is poised for a monster payday.

The sides began talking extension in early August, and it sounds as if there’s a chance to lock up Zibanejad sooner rather than later.

“Individuals familiar with the situation have indicated that the parties share the mutual objective of getting something done and are earnest in trying to reach that end,” Larry Brooks reported on Sept. 7.

If Zibanejad were to hit the open market, it’s not crazy to think he could push for nearly an eight-figure deal.

Zibanejad has fine chemistry with the club’s top winger, Artemi Panarin, and holds a full no-move clause heading into his platform season.

The Rangers are ramping toward contender status, so walking Zibanejad out the door would be a major blow.

“Mika is a huge part of our team. I’m not going to discuss his contract or anyone else’s publicly,” GM Chris Drury said. “I have a ton of respect for him as a person and a player.”

3. Patrice Bergeron
Age on July 15: 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 high 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.

“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 should also be a Team Canada lock at the ’22 Winter Games.

Can Bergeron add to his crowded trophy case? Will 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.”

4. Johnny Gaudreau
Age on July 15: 28
Position: Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $6.75 million

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

A fabulous regular-season scorer who nearly hit the 100-point mark in 2018-19, the NHL’s last 82-game season, 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 fueled bouts of trade speculation.

And yet, instead of exploring a swap, Calgary GM Brad Treliving held conversations about a Gaudreau extension this 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 the 2021 season.

The slippery winger had his modified no-trade clause kick in over the summer. Now, he has submitted a short list of five teams to which he can approve a trade.

Some nice bit of leverage for a star playmaker (and potential Olympian) entering a critical campaign for both him and his team.

“No new update. We’re not going to play-by-play it,” Treliving told colleague Eric Francis as camp neared.

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

5. Evgeni Malkin
Age on July 15: 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. He’ll be unavailable for the start of training camp, but an update on his recovery is expected soon.

Like Bergeron in Boston, there is a sense time is running out to win (again) with the ageing core in Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby’s unavailability for Opening Night doesn’t help.

“It’s not ideal, let’s be honest,” GM Ron Hextall said. “But we’re not going to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves. We still have to find ways to win games.”

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 too low to us.

The guess is that Hextall & Co. hold off on any major extensions with their veterans until they see where their roster sits at the trade deadline.

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

6. Morgan Rielly
Age on July 15: 28
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5 million

The latest: For the second straight off-season, agent J.P. Barry might be negotiating the greatest windfall for a UFA defenceman.

Barry handled Dougie Hamilton’s $9 million AAV whopper with New Jersey and will soon prioritize the future of his client Rielly.

The Toronto Maple Leafs appear content to start the season without extending Rielly, who holds a 10-team no-trade list.

The window to trade Rielly would’ve been at the draft, when Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen were fetching nice returns.

Instead, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is doubling down on his current core, and Rielly stays put for one more season at excellent value.

“I don’t necessarily think we can look at what Chicago (with Seth Jones’s rich extension), Columbus (Zach Werenski) and Edmonton (Darnell Nurse) did and say that we have to follow suit with them,” Dubas told The Bob McCown Podcast in September.

“We know what our limitations are going to be. We like Morgan a lot, but we’ll keep all the contents of that private between J.P. Barry and myself.”

Unless the Leafs play themselves out of a playoff spot by the deadline, or Rielly takes an Adam Pelech–like discount ($5.75 million AAV), we suspect the situation plays out as it did with Zach Hyman.

Team loves the player; the player loves the team. Team can no longer afford the player; the player must set up his family with life-changing money.

7. John Klingberg
Age on July 15: 29
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.25 million

The latest: Much like fellow pending UFA Mattias 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.

A healthy Alexander Radulov (also UFA) and Tyler Seguin should only boost Klingberg’s power-play production this season.

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.

The player holds zero trade protection.

“This process doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time,” Stars GM Jim Nill said in May. “They’re going to want to see what the market is, we’re going to want to see what the market is, and we’re just going to have to walk through it. John does have a year left, so there is little less urgency there, but still he’s a big part of our team.

“When I talk about the core of our team, John is one of those members. He’s been a Dallas Star from Day One, he’s a big part of our franchise, and he is a top-level defenceman in the NHL.”

8. Filip Forsberg
Age on July 15: 27
Position: Left wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $6 million

The latest: David Poile’s Nashville Predators are undergoing a reset after watching Pekka Rinne retire and shipping out Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson in July trades.

Which brings Forsberg and fellow pending UFA Ekholm to a crossroads. Both ran through the rumour mill in 2021 but were retained as the Preds rebounded from a sluggish start and into the playoffs.

Forsberg was especially displeased with the Arvidsson move, and he doesn’t have the power to nix any deal Poile wants to make.

On the open market, would the impact winger command as much as $8 million? Perhaps.

Poile spoke with Ekholm’s agent in mid-August and will resume discussions with his big guns this month.

“Shortly before training camp we’ll reach out to Filip Forsberg and his camp and sort of get a lay of the land as to where Filip’s thoughts are right now,” Poile told NHL.com. “Those are the next two priorities.”

Forsberg registered 32 points in 39 regular-season games last season.

“It’s a lot of business decisions,” Forsberg said on June 2. “It’s going to be one of those things that obviously management and me and my agents are going to have to talk through. 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 said it’s imperative that Forsberg and Ekholm buy into the organization’s direction before signing any paperwork.

“I’ve certainly had talks with both of them at the end of the year a little bit on that, but I think as we get into negotiations, if you will, that those conversations will be taken up a notch,” Poile said.

“I’m going to give my viewpoints and my vision, but I certainly need to see how they see themselves fitting in because those type of players need to be our best players. They need to be leaders for us. And so they need to be totally bought in, or it’s not going to work for them or for us. They’ll be important discussions that will hopefully lead to future contracts with us. That would be the goal.”

9. Tomas Hertl
Age on July 15: 28
Position: Centre / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.625 million

The latest: Hertl perked the hockey world’s collective ear this summer with this juicy quote, given to iDNES.cz in his native Czech Republic.

“I wonder if San Jose will want to re-sign me, and if I’ll want to stay there,” Hertl said. “I’ll start the season and see how it turns out.”

The big, smart centreman is a star on a mediocre team that has committed a ton of money to great players that seem past their prime.

Hertl also carries a key piece of leverage into his contract year: a very short three-team trade list.

Following Hertl’s quote, colleague Elliotte Friedman reported that Sharks GM Doug Wilson has informed his competitors that it is San Jose’s desire to make this work. That message will be delivered once Hertl arrives at camp.

But if San Jose drops out of the playoff mix in a weak Pacific Division, one must believe a Hertl trade becomes a distinct possibility.

“We’ll see when I get there for camp and stuff. We’ll see if we get some talks,” Hertl told NHL.com’s Tracey Myers on Sept. 17. “If not, I’m not worried. I’m just going to play the best hockey and not think about it, because if you’re overthinking or [thinking] this is my contract year, I have to score goals because it’ll help.

“For me, it doesn’t matter because I think I’ve proven I can be a good player, I’ve shown I can be a leader, and I just want to do that and not think about my next deal.”

10. Kris Letang
Age on July 15: 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 Crosby until the wheels fall off.

But the defender’s modified no-trade clause allows for an 18-team trade list, and despite Letang’s age, there will always be a market for a top-pairing right shot.

New Pittsburgh shot-callers Hextall and president Brian Burke face a number of delicate decisions to make this season. Beyond Malkin and Letang, Bryan Rust and Jeff Carter are also impending UFAs. There’s a distinct Last Dance vibe going on.

“[Negotiation] is something that I’m not going to be involved in,” Letang told the Post Gazette on Sept. 2.

“It’s going to be Ron and my agent that are going to work all those details. If it’s during the summer, it’s during the summer. If it’s during training camp, season, mid-season, at the end of the year next year… I’m not in control of it right now.”

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.”

11. Ryan Pulock
Age on July 15: 27
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5 million

The latest: Not unlike partner Adam Pelech before him, Pulock is poised to be an under-the-radar free agent who may well make the case to climb higher up this list.

We love his game. We also wonder if his modest offensive numbers (125 points through 290 NHL games) will prevent him from a massive payday.

Also: Pelech’s $5.75-million cap hit pales next to some of the other deals top defenceman signed in the summer of 2021. Negotiating with Lou Lamoriello often means settling for a little less. We’re estimating an AAV between $6.75 and $7.5 million on a long-term extension.

Pulock is fantastic value on his bridge deal and routinely raises his effort in the most important games (see: The Block).

In addition to Pulock, Lamoriello will need to carve out cap space to give RFA Noah Dobson a raise on the back end. Seeing Leo Komarov and Johnny Boychuk’s millions come off the books will help big time.

12. Darcy Kuemper
Age on July 15: 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 Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Ryan Murray — Kuemper is the most compelling. (No small wrinkle: Nathan 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.

We’re betting Kuemper — hot off a golden performance with Canada at the 2021 world championships — shines backstopping a much better group of skaters than he had in the desert.

And although it pains us to leave Vezina champ Marc-Andre Fleury outside our top 12, Kuemper is five years younger and not hinting at retirement.

The guess is both sides will take a patient approach and see how Kuemper fits with the Avs.

More notable UFAs in 2022: Marc-Andre Fleury, Mattias Ekholm, Mark Giordano, Alexander Radulov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Ondrej Palat, Jeff Carter, Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Nazem Kadri, David Perron, Rickard Rakell, Jack Campbell, Max Domi, Joe Thornton, Claude Giroux, P.K. Subban, Joe Pavelski, Phil Kessel, Dustin Brown, Nick Leddy, Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson, Andrew Copp, Bryan Rust, Ryan Getzlaf

All contract info via the indispensable CapFriendly.com.

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