NHL’s top 11 UFAs of 2023: Latest rumours, reports

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins Matt Marchese to discuss the biggest surprises in the NHL buyout window, including Matt Duchene, and to weigh in on why Matt Murray didn't make that list with the Maple Leafs?

Let’s get something straight off the top.

The NHL’s 2023 class of unrestricted free agents is thin on elite talent in its prime, and the league’s 32 general managers should keep that in mind before getting swept up in their Canada Day bidding wars.

Instead, this summer’s collection of UFAs is brimming with intriguing role players, risky goaltenders, and fading all-stars.

Overpays and shrewd bargains will both be had.

The 2023 class of UFA forwards took a midseason beating, as David Pastrnak, Bo Horvat, Dylan Larkin, Joe Pavelski and Andrei Kuzmenko all inked extensions.

While a pair of intriguing defencemen, Vladislav Gavrikov and Damon Severson, were wiped off the board in June as the L.A. Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets jumped to take care of business.

As a result, the July market lacks sure bets up front, particularly difference-makers in their late-20s, and the competition should heat up for established defencemen. We’re betting a handful of D-men sign for term and dollars that raise eyebrows.

Friday saw a welcome curveball, with Matt Duchene, Mike Reilly, Blake Wheeler, and Kailer Yamamoto all joining the UFA lot due to buyouts.

Behold, the latest buzz surrounding the best 11 UFAs heading to market Saturday — ranked.

1. Dmitry Orlov

Age on July 1: 31
Position: Defence
2022-23 salary cap hit: $5.1 million

The latest: Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan waved the white flag at the trade deadline, shipping UFAs Orlov and Garnet Hathaway off to Boston in a rich-get-richer rental splash.

Orlov, a Cup champion with skill and smarts at both ends of the rink, can play on any team’s top four. Of the entire ’23 UFA class, no one logs more ice time per game (22:33).

But turning “Bobby Orrlov” into more than a rental is as long as Boston is beset with cap-recapture pain.

The D-man was looking for a seven-year commitment from the Caps for big dough, and MacLellan only wanted to go three or four years, according to an Elliotte Friedman report.

Orlov enjoyed his time in D.C., though, and he’s not completely ruling out a return.

Bank on Orlov landing the most expensive deal among UFA D-men. He should have no trouble entering the ballpark of the $6.25 million Damon Severson will rake from Columbus over a long-term deal. 

Orlov spoke to Sport-Express on June 2 and had this to say on free agency (via Google translate):

“This hasn’t happened to me. I won’t say that it’s scary, but I look forward to when the market opens, negotiations begin. However, nothing is happening right now. Until July 1, I belong to Boston, so until that time, I can only sign a new contract with them. But in a month, everything will change. Of course, I would like a long contract. It gives stability and peace of mind. But there are many nuances. You can’t take everything into account.”

At the draft, GM Don Sweeney announced he was “unlikely” to re-sign his pending UFAs.

2. Ryan O’Reilly

Age on July 1: 32
Position: Centre
2022-23 salary cap hit: $7.5 million

The latest: The St. Louis Blues prioritized locking up the next wave of Blues forwards (Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas) over its veterans during the summer of 2022, and O’Reilly agreed to set extension talks aside until midseason.

By then, it became apparent GM Doug Armstrong — who knows a contender when he sees it — would be selling.

O’Reilly (and Noel Acciari) helped Armstrong recoup useful draft picks, while the forwards felt rejuvenated by a high spot in the playoff race and the potential for a Stanley Cup run.

When former Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas traded for O’Reilly, the parties did not discuss an extension.

The team and the Ontario returnee sparked a quick, mutual appreciation. O’Reilly said he’d “absolutely” consider re-signing. And yet: a hazy future.

“Going forward here, I have a lot to think about, what I’m going to do. But this organization is incredible,” O’Reilly said on May 16. “Obviously, you guys see the players that they have and such, but the people in the organization, every facet that’s looked after — the strength training, the nutrition, everyone on the staff is just incredible and the best at what they do. It’s such an amazing place. I’m so thankful that I was brought into it.”

O’Reilly said he would always cherish his time with the Maple Leafs, but we’re skeptical the organization is prepared to match competing offers.

Toronto GM Brad Treliving was in talks to bring back O’Reilly, but a gap remains.

“We like our [UFA] players. Prices are high right now, and it’s got to fit,” Treliving said Thursday. “We’ve got some guys higher up the food chain that require contracts. So, we’ve got to be smart in how we look at things.”

With Horvat and Larkin signing midseason, O’Reilly should be the most coveted UFA centre this summer — and the Blues have not closed the door on a return to his championship home.

3. Tyler Bertuzzi

Age on July 1: 28
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $4.75 million

The latest: Bertuzzi, an impactful power forward, is wrapping a two-year bridge pact and erupted for 10 points in his first-ever playoff series. He’s had a number of health issues in the past and blocked a painful shot on Oct. 16 that sidelined him until January.

Despite Bertuzzi’s wish to commit to Motown — “I want to be a Red Wing,” he said — Detroit GM Steve Yzerman shipped him off to Boston as a playoff rental.

Yzerman committed to Larkin but cut his centreman’s good pal, Bertuzzi, loose at the deadline in favour of both a first- and fourth-round pick.

“I did have some discussion early in the season with Tyler’s representative, Todd Reynolds,” Yzerman told reporters. “We really didn’t get anywhere. Talked briefly before the trade deadline, and it really didn’t lead to anything.”

No doubt, Reynolds will be gunning for the type of payday hard-on-the-puck forwards like Zach Hyman and Andrew Copp found on the open market. (How does six times six sound?)

Bertuzzi’s brand certainly falls in line with Bruins hockey, but Sweeney says he is unlikely to retain his UFAs.

“Everybody knows our overage at [$4.5 million]. So, we have some constraints, as do several other teams around the league. Our goal was to put the season on the absolute best roster we could put together and try and take a real legitimate run. And we failed, no question,” Sweeney said.

“So, we have to pay that forward a little bit. That might mean we’re instituting younger players. That might mean roster changes, which we would like to make. That might mean I might be able to sign… one of those three players or other unrestricted players. We have to address the two RFAs in [Trent] Frederic and [Jeremy] Swayman, which we will do. And roster changes are likely coming.”

The market is hungry for his blend of skill and edge, and Bertuzzi will test the market.

4. Matt Dumba

Age on July 1: 28
Position: Defence
2022-23 salary cap hit: $6 million

The latest: Boy, time flies.

It feels like yesterday that the cap-crunched Minnesota Wild and Dumba agreed to a five-year, $30-million extension.

Now Dumba, a right shot in his prime, is skating toward the open market. No stranger to trade rumours, Dumba surely understands that GM Bill Guerin’s cap space is extremely limited in 2023-24, when Ryan Suter and Zach Parise’s buyout penalty jumps to $14.74 million and Matt Boldy’s raise to $7 million kicks in.

He should also understand that the price for top-four D-men isn’t coming down, and with so few of them heading to unrestricted free agency, there will be options.

Guerin held steadfast that he would not move Dumba midseason unless it was for a comparable return. Multiple teams — Edmonton, Vancouver, and Ottawa among them — reportedly kicked tires.

No offer came close to getting a trade done.

“And we wouldn’t have done it,” Guerin said post-deadline. “Matt is playing too well right now, helping us too much. The last month he’s been fantastic.”

Dumba is the only pending UFA defenceman who shoots right, skates 21 minutes a night and is under 30 years old.

“Dodged another one,” a smiling Dumba told reporters after the March 3 deadline passed. “You guys can’t get me out of here. It feels good though. It’s where I want to be. I want to help this team. I definitely want to win.”

Despite mutual interest, simple economics will likely force Dumba to try to win elsewhere.

The Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings are among the teams said to be kicking tires.

5. Patrick Kane

Age on July 1: 34
Position: Right wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $10.5 million

The latest: Kane’s situation was arguably the most fascinating of any individual player in 2023.

Great player, horrendous team.

Massive trade, high expectations, underwhelming playoffs.

Holding all leverage, Kane orchestrated his emotional deadline deal to the New York Rangers.

Extending this commitment beyond rental status would require Kane to accept a severe pay chop and GM Chris Drury to make some hard decisions with his young RFAs in need of pay raises (K’Andre Miller, Alexis Lafreniere).

This was all about borrowing a big-time star for some big-time games in spring — cap implications be damned.

“We definitely took that into consideration. There probably wasn’t another situation where we would have pushed the limits. But to get a Patrick Kane, you don’t get an opportunity like that very often,” Drury said at the time of the deal.

Kane underwent hip resurfacing surgery that could keep him out of action until December. That will have most teams balking at a commitment.

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is open to remaining in New York.

“If I can feel better, with this team and with this opportunity, I would love that chance,” Kane told reporters. 

“I know they have young guys to sign and probably other priorities. But I don’t have a bad thing to say about the organization and the situation. I thought it was an amazing experience for me. I know I’m turning 35 next year, but it’s not like I feel old. I still feel pretty young. I feel like the passion is still there. I still know that I can be a top player if my focus is solely on hockey, instead of how I feel that day.”

Rumours of a Buffalo homecoming will always linger. The big question is: Does any team sign an injured player, or does the market wait and see how Kane’s rehab goes?

6. Vladimir Tarasenko

Age on July 1: 31
Position: Right wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $7.5 million

The latest: In July of 2022, reports surfaced that Tarasenko had not rescinded his year-old trade demand. So, it came as little surprise to see the pending UFA rented to the mighty New York Rangers well ahead of the trade deadline.

“It’s something we’ve been looking at for a while,” GM Chris Drury said, following the deal. “When the pieces started to come together, I didn’t really see any reason to wait.”

The Rangers need to build with their young forwards and don’t have the salary room to accommodate Tarasenko’s next contract.

We feel safe declaring the power forward a pure rental who will be one of the most sought-after wingers on July 1, when he’ll seek a long-term deal.

“My family was taken care of very well, and I cannot say a single bad word about my time here,” Tarasenko told New York reporters, following the Rangers’ first-round exit. 

“It’s important to know you have a family, too, so it’s important to be set. Of course, I want play on a competitive team. I’ve been lucky enough to win one [Stanley Cup], and I want to win more, if possible.”

7. Patrice Bergeron

Age on July 1: 37
Position: Centre
2022-23 salary cap hit: $2.5 million

The latest: While 2022-23 certainly carried all the feels of a last dance — for real this time — the Boston Bruins captain and 2023 Selke champ still deserves to be on this list.

Even if 2023-24 signals another Boston-or-bust negotiation for this all-business star whose decline seems forever on hold.

Bergeron considered the toll hockey has taken on his body and seriously weighed retirement before reupping last summer for a team-friendly, one-year contract.

Of every player on this list, we’ll label him Least Likely to Sign Elsewhere.

Several people close to the team can see Bergeron returning for yet another season if this one doesn’t end in a parade. Surely, the door for another extension is open.

Ditto David Krejci.

It’s the players who will decide.

Sweeney will not press his top two centremen for a quick answer on next season. 

The organization’s July 1 game plan is to assume Bergeron and Krejci won’t be back, but they’ll remain hopeful and keep talking.

If the players wish to return, the door is open.

Said Bergeron, after the Presidents’ Trophy winners bowed out to Florida in Round 1: “It hurts right now, so I’m going to have to step back and give it some thought with my family.”

8. Alex Killorn

Age on July 1: 33
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $4.45 million

The latest: This is Killorn’s last shot at a hefty deal. Suitors will be lining up around the block to sign a three- or four-year deal. Heck, there is already speculation he could be lured to Montreal.

The Tampa Lightning seemingly drain from its double-championship core every summer. The club has already handed out raises to younger players Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Nick Perbix, and Michal Eyssimont for 2023-24.

Tampa must sign a backup goalie and sort out the future of RFA Tanner Jeannot — who holds arbitration rights and is deserving of a pay bump.

Where does that leave Killorn, hot off a career-best 27-goal, 64-point performance? (That’s more points than any other 2023 UFA, by the way.)

Does he accept less than market value to play 1,000-plus games in Tampa and possibly get his sweater in the rafters?

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Lightning GM Julien BriseBois said. “What helps us is that I know Alex loves it here. He wants to stay here. We’d love to have him here. He’s coming off a career season and means so much to our organization, both on the ice and off the ice.”

With his future uncertain, Killorn admitted on locker cleanout day that the loss to Toronto “hit a little harder.”

What now?

“All season, it’s something I thought about,” Killorn said. “Going forward, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

In BriseBois’s effort to clear cap space, he dealt a useful player in Ross Colton this week to the Colorado Avalanche.

9. Michael Bunting

Age on July 1: 27
Position: Left wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $950,000

The latest: The Maple Leafs made out like bandits on Bunting’s expiring two-year pact at a $950,000 AAV. Bunting broke out for 23 goals, 63 points and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy in 2021-22. He’s posted another 23 goals and played all 82 games in 2022-23.

“I’m a Toronto boy. I love playing for the Maple Leafs. This is my home. I grew up in Scarborough, and, yeah, it’s so much fun putting on that sweater every single night. That’s what I will say about it, and I hope everything else figures out itself,” Bunting said as his contract campaign began.

Bunting’s agent, Paul Capizzano, was said to be amenable to a long-term deal to keep the player’s AAV in check. Yet no meaningful negotiations were had with fired GM Kyle Dubas in-season.

“This is the unfortunate part of this business when contracts are up and decisions have to be made,” Bunting said, following elimination. “I’m going to be honest. I haven’t even really thought about it. It’s only been a couple days. I’ll kind of let my agent handle that stuff going on, and just be ready to make a decision when the time comes. But I’m not really sure. 

“That being said, coming home, playing in Toronto, it’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to play for this team and put the jersey over my head. It’s been pretty special to play here, and it’s been even more special meeting this group of guys. I’m sure you’ve heard many guys say that we’re very close, and this is definitely the closest team I’ve ever been on. So, it’s been special every day, and I definitely haven’t taken it for granted.”

Bunting has a tight relationship off the ice and nice chemistry on it with franchise star Auston Matthews — whom the organization will attempt to re-sign long-term come July 1.

At this point, however, a Bunting return is highly doubtful.

This is the winger’s chance to get paid, and with cap space slim in Toronto, his future is low on the priority list.

10. Matt Duchene

Age on July 1: 32
Position: Centre
2022-23 salary cap hit: $8 million

The latest: Twenty-four hours before free agency’s opening, we have ourselves a stunner.

New Nashville Predators GM Barry Trotz is making good on his vow to be bold, altering the culture of his dressing room and the look of his top six by dumping Ryan Johansen and now buying out Duchene.

The centreman had three more seasons at an $8-million cap hit on the books.

Duchene scored 43 goals and 86 points in 2021-22, then saw a drop-off to 22 goals and 56 points in 2022-23.

The man can still play, and centre is a premier position on the market. A fascinating add to the list.

11. Max Domi

Age on July 1: 28
Position: Centre / Left wing
2022-23 salary cap hit: $3 million

The latest: Bouncing around the league, Domi accepted a one-year, bet-on-yourself contract with rebuilding Chicago, and played it perfectly. He developed chemistry with Kane, seized advantage of extra ice time, and earned himself a trade to a legit contender.

“They’re built to win,” Domi said, hopping on the Dallas Stars’ journey to the final four. “Huge honour to get the call to join this group.”

Domi enjoyed his first 20-goal campaign since 2018-19 in Montreal and racked up a career-best 56 points, setting himself up for much more attention on the open market than he commanded last summer.

Stars GM Jim Nill told reporters he’s had an eye on Domi for a while: “I’ve known him ever since his junior days in London, watching him as a draft pick. I played against his dad, and I know the family well. We watched him last year in the playoffs for Carolina, and he did a good job for them. His pedigree speaks for itself.”

Domi will be using his bounce-back season as currency when he hits the market Saturday.

More notable UFAs in 2023: Shayne GhostisbehereJ.T. Compher, Tristan Jarry, Blake Wheeler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Scott Mayfield, Radko Gudas, John Klingberg, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Toews, Frederik Andersen, Connor Brown, David Krejci, Tomas Tatar, Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin, Ryan Graves, Cam Talbot, Jonathan Quick, James van Riemsdyk, Paul Stastny, Kailer Yamamoto, Phil Kessel, Corey Perry, Gustav Nyquist, Alexander Kerfoot, Craig Smith, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer, Justin Holl, Jonathan Drouin, Evan Rodrigues, Erik Gustafsson, Martin Jones, Antti Raanta, Semyon Varlamov, Luke Schenn, Carson Soucy, Pierre Engvall, Joonas Korpisalo, Zach Parise, Miles Wood, Matthew Phillips, Ryan Reaves, Pius Suter, Mike Reilly

All salary info via the indispensable CapFriendly.com.

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