NHL’s top 12 UFAs of 2023: Latest rumours, reports

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Ryan O'Reilly skates during the second period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

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 soon-to-be 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, in particular, took a midseason beating, as David Pastrnak, Bo Horvat, Dylan Larkin, Joe Pavelski and Andrei Kuzmenko all inked extensions.

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.

Behold, the latest buzz surrounding the best dozen UFAs-in-waiting — ranked.

1. Dmitry Orlov

Age on July 1: 31Position: Defence2022-23 salary cap hit: $5.1 million

The latest: In a swift plot twist, Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan waved the white flag at the trade deadline, shipping UFAs Orlov and Garner 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).

The Bruins’ future cap picture is clearer with Pastrnak signed, and with 10 pending free agents on GM Don Sweeney’s roster, there is some flexibility here.

Turning “Bobby Orrlov” into more than a rental won’t be cheap.

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. Clubs such as L.A., Buffalo and Columbus should be interested in his services.

“I still don’t know what my plan is, if I fly back to Washington or stay here, so it’s just a lot of things,” Orlov said of his future, following Boston’s loss. “Obviously gonna have to make a decision where I’m gonna be. I need to talk to my family and go from there.”

2. Ryan O’Reilly

Age on July 1: 32Position: Centre2022-23 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.

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.

As one of the game’s premier two-way centres, the Selke-winning O’Reilly could point to Nazem Kadri’s $7-million AAV in Calgary as a high-end comparable. Can he land in the 6s?

3. Patrick Kane

Age on July 1: 34Position: Right wing2022-23 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.

The health of Kane’s hip remains in question and could have some 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.

4. Matt Dumba

Age on July 1: 28Position: Defence2022-23 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.

5. Vladimir Tarasenko

Age on July 1: 31Position: Right wing2022-23 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.”

6. Patrice Bergeron

Age on July 1: 37Position: Centre2022-23 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 finalist 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 Be Traded.

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.

GM Don Sweeney said he will not press his top two centremen for quick answer on next season.

“We went through this exercise last off season in putting together two kind of simultaneous rosters. I probably had an indication early enough last summer to go in the direction that we were able to execute,” Sweeney said.

“You look at the core group of guys that we currently have that had very, very successful regular seasons, and we’ll build around that. Maybe it’ll be integrating younger players. You can already see where our minds are going in terms of running simultaneous things, and we’ll respect the timelines on David and Patrice as necessary.”

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.”

7. Tyler Bertuzzi

Age on July 1: 28Position: Left wing / Right wing2022-23 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 suffered an upper-body injury blocking a shot on Oct. 16 that kept him sidelined until January.

Despite Bertuzzi’s wish to commit to Motown — “I want to be a Red Wing,” he said — Detroit GM Steve Yzerman got realistic about his club’s position in the standings and shipped him out to Boston.

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.

Boston GM Don Sweeney won’t be able to retain all his deadline rentals, however. He must choose.

“I couldn’t just categorically sign those players today,” Sweeney said. “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.

“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.”

Bertuzzi said he loved his brief time in Boston. There is mutual interest, but money will decide.

8. Alex Killorn

Age on July 1: 33Position: Right wing / Left wing2022-23 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. 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 futures of RFAs Ross Colton and Tanner Jeannot — both with arbitration rights and 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.”

9. Michael Bunting

Age on July 1: 27Position: Left wing2022-23 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 feels like a long shot.

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

10. Shayne Gostisbehere

Age on July 1: 30Position: Defence2022-23 salary cap hit: $4.5 million

The latest: Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong’s Arizona fire sale included shipping minute-munching defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere to powerhouse Carolina.

As a result, the Ghost Bear is in the midst of the deepest postseason run of his career and boosting his profile heading into a contract year.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said he’d been in discussions about acquiring the left shot for six weeks leading up to the deadline, and the offensive-minded blueliner (13 goals and 41 points) was hoped to give Carolina’s sagging offence a boost from the back end.

While Gostisbehere’s stock dropped toward the end of his Philadelphia days, the power-play maestro thrived in the desert and out of the spotlight.

He has dipped to third-pair status on a stacked Carolina D corps and has struggled to create offence as the hockey has tightened in playoff time.

That said, teams are always desperate for puck-moving D-men, and Ghostisbehere will have suitors.

11. Max Domi

Age on July 1: 28Position: Centre / Left wing2022-23 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, took 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.”

With the Blackhawks winning the draft lottery and opening up plenty of cap space for free agents, head coach Luke Richardson has already swung open the door for a potential Domi return.

“I told him I’d love him to come back. But we have to see… what kind of prospect pool is coming in and who’s available in the summer. But he’s shown he fits in here really well, and that’s always a good option,” Richardson told Ben Pope.

“He really liked it here. He loved it, the city and the team — and it showed. I thought he played with passion. But he’s excited, and he knows that he’s really going to a team that’s good and strong and has a chance to win.”

12. Tristan Jarry

Age on July 1: 28Position: Goaltender2022-23 salary cap hit: $3.5 million

The latest: Due to his youth and pedigree, Jarry tops our list as the most desirable pending free agent between the pipes (apologies, Frederik Andersen).

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 1 bounced back lovely from a shaky 2020-21 outing and delivered a .919 performance in 2021-22, boosting optimism for the final campaign of his three-year bridge and first taste of UFA life.

Even in these cap-tight times, the best goalie available come July 1 typically gets paid handsomely (see: Jacob Markstrom, Philipp Grubauer, Jack Campbell).

Jarry had preferred not let negotiations linger through the season. But here we are.

The softspoken B.C. native told reporters at training camp that he is hopeful a fresh contract is signed before season’s end.

Fired GM Ron Hextall was in no rush to take care of Jarry’s business, waiting instead to see how the oft-injured Jarry — who could ask for an AAV in the $6 million range — performed down the stretch.

Jarry has never won a playoff series and admitted in April that he was battling injury all season long.

The Penguins’ next manager — whoever that is — will face an intriguing call here.

Evolving Hockey threw out a projected contract of $6.8 million times six years, yet considering Jarry’s injury history and lack of big-game success, such a deep commitment feels risky.

More notable UFAs in 2023: John Klingberg, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Toews, Frederik Andersen, Connor Brown, Damon Severson, Ivan Barbashev, David Krejci, Vladislav Gavrikov, Tomas Tatar, Jason Zucker, Erik Haula, Brian Dumoulin, Ryan Graves, Cam Talbot, Jonathan Quick, James van Riemsdyk, Paul Stastny, Phil Kessel, Evgeni Dadonov, Corey Perry, Gustav Nyquist, Alexander Kerfoot, Craig Smith, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer, Justin Holl, Sean Monahan, Jonathan Drouin, Jason Zucker, Evan Rodrigues, Erik Gustafsson, J.T. Compher, Jordan Staal, Scott Mayfield, Martin Jones, Antti Raanta, Semyon Varlamov, Luke Schenn, Carson Soucy, Jesper Fast, Pierre Engvall, Radko Gudas, Adin Hill, Joonas Korpisalo, Zach Parise, Miles Wood

All salary info via the indispensable CapFriendly.com.

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