NHL’s Top 12 UFAs of 2024: Latest rumours, reports

Captains, Cup champs, top-pair defencemen, and elite scorers.

Yes, even with several franchise studs (Anze Kopitar, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Sebastian Aho, Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck) and key support players (Noah Hanifin, Devon Toews, Gustav Forsling, Tom Wilson, Marcus Foligno, Mats Zuccarello, Sam Montembeault, Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Eberle) signing pocket-padding extensions well before deadline and avoiding the stress of free agency, the NHL’s 2024 UFA class is an intriguing one.

And with the salary cap expected to rise by $4.2 million — the first significant jump since the pandemic — those spendy general managers should have even more reason to splash the pot on this summer’s Johnny Gaudreau.

Here’s a rundown and ranking of hockey’s best impending unrestricted free agents, plus the latest buzz circulating about their future.

1. Sam Reinhart

Age on July 1: 28
Position: Right wing
2023-24 salary cap hit: $6.5 million

The latest: Like Nylander, Reinhart selected a fine season for the best one of his NHL life.

Already a 20-goal man seven times over, Reinhart has been a beast in 2023-24, finishing with 57 goals and 37 assists for 94 points.

No wonder the Florida Panthers will take a serious run at extending the forward’s Sunrise days long-term.

“Sam has had a wonderful year, and I’m proud and happy for him,” Panthers GM Bill Zito told The Athletic in April. “Wonderful achievement. I think around 100 players all-time have (scored 50 goals in a season). But I know his focus is on winning. Sometimes the contracts take time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I believe we will find the right contract for Sam and the Panthers. If he wants to be one of the top 100 all-time scorers in the playoffs … that’s OK too.”

Reinhart is but one of 13 pending free agents on Zito’s roster, however, and RFA centre Anton Lundell also needs a raise.

The Cats have the flexibility to keep the band together, provided the core pieces are willing to take a hair less and fall under an internal cap.

The means Reinhart accepting less than leaders Aleksander Barkov ($10 million) and Matthew Tkachuk ($9.5 million). A winning culture, tax-free state, and balmy winter weather all help matters.

The man would stir a bidding war if he hit the open market, but Reinhart says he “absolutely” wants to stay put.

“That’s obviously the goal — that’s from both sides. We both made that clear. So, time will tell, but that’s option A for sure,” said Reinhart, whose extension talks remain ongoing.

The hard negotiating waits until after what the forward hopes is another long playoff run.

“We’re both comfortable with where we’re at. We’re both trying to ultimately win a Stanley Cup this year, and that’s where our focus is mainly,” said Reinhart, who wants term.

“We both know where each other stands. We both know we want to get something done. And we’re both comfortable with how it’s going, so it’s not distracting me by any means. And I think when you’re trying to build something we’re trying to in Florida, some things take time.”

2. Jake Guentzel

Age on July 1: 29
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2023-24 salary cap hit: $6 million

The latest: Despite Guentzel’s off-season ankle surgery, the dangerous winger is one of just three pending UFAs who averaged more than a point per game.

No wonder the contending Carolina Hurricanes were willing to trade Michael Bunting plus a package of prospects and high conditional picks for Guentzel’s services, recent injuries be damned.

“There are times that you have to make a move to reward what you’ve been doing, and we felt this year was good timing for us to do that,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told The Athletic.

“We’re not typically a rental-type team, but this just fits us so well. When you can make something fit and you can get it without giving up the pieces, where you feel good about where your depth is, I think you put that all together and it makes sense for us to move forward.”

Waddell has 14 players on expiring contracts. Though he says he’s “optimistic” to re-sign his hired gun, Carolina’s 2024-25 roster will look significantly different.

Whom he tries to keep in the fold will depend on how his players perform in the post-season.

As for Guentzel, let’s see how much the 40-goal man enjoys the fit and who else makes offers. He’ll be in great demand in free agency, just as he was at the deadline.

Sniper Patrik Laine’s contract ($8.7 million times four years) may be a suitable comparable for Guentzel, who is speeding toward a payday — be it from Carolina or elsewhere.

3. Brandon Montour

Age on July 1: 30
Position: Defence
2023-24 salary cap hit: $3.5 million

The latest: Much like teammate Reinhart, Montour had spent years elsewhere before finally finding his best fit with Florida, the reigning Eastern Conference champs.

And like Reinhart, Montour came into the season with zero protection or contract security, but all signs point to a willingness to extend a working relationship.

The offence-fuelling blueliner enjoyed a career year in 2022-23 (16 goals, 73 points) that sprung almost out of nowhere.

Prudently, GM Zito was not at a rush to buy Montour stock on July 1, when it was at its highest. Instead, Florida’s front office chose patience, waiting to see how Montour’s shoulder responded from summertime surgery.

Late to get running, the right-shooting Montour didn’t light up the league again, but he’s been solid (eight goals and 25 assists in 66 games).

Montour was a warrior in the ’23 post-season. And puck-moving, right-shot defencemen in their prime aren’t exactly in abundance.

Zito took care of another pending UFA D-man, Forsling, first, signing him to an eight-year extension at a $5.75-million cap hit. Montour will ask for more.

“One day at a time. My goal is to try to keep the core together,” Zito said of Montour’s future on March 8. “At the same time, be respectful that you know people have to make individual decisions.”

4. Elias Lindholm

Age on July 1: 29
Position: Centre
2023-24 salary cap hit: $4.85 million

The latest: Lindholm indisputably became the most dependable centre headed toward the open market once Matthews, Aho, and Scheifele re-signed in the summer, a fact that simultaneously increased the player’s bargaining leverage and trade value.

Lindholm and the Flames took an earnest run at a contract extension, but when the player’s ask exceeded Craig Conroy’s budget, it quickly became clear that he’d be traded away.

Conroy secured a decent package by renting Lindholm to the Canucks — a first-round pick, a conditional fourth-rounder, winger Andrei Kuzmenko, plus a couple defence prospects — but the two-way centre’s fit in Vancouver was initially underwhelming.

Lindholm had only 12 points and was a minus-6 player through his 26 regular-season games in his new sweater, and Vancouver was able to lock up Elias Pettersson long-term, so it looks like Lindholm is a pure rental.

At the trade deadline, there were even murmurs that Lindholm was being considered in a three-way flip trade to Boston that would have sent Guentzel to the Canucks instead.

The centre’s stock had been on decline, but a stellar post-season is doing wonders for his value on the open market.

As much as the Canucks are enjoying his critical contributions this May, accommodating Lindholm’s raise will be difficult.

5. Steven Stamkos

Age on July 1: 34
Position: Left wing / Centre
2023-24 salary cap hit: $8.5 million

The latest: Stamkos was “disappointed” that Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois didn’t so much as entertain an extension for the all-time franchise leader in goals, points, and power-play goals over the summer. 

The Bolts have already committed more than $75 million toward 2024-25’s salary cap.

If the sides wish to continue the relationship, Stamkos will be asked to take a pay cut — despite an incredible 40-goal, 81-point season and being his team’s best player in Round 1.

With the Lightning scrapping for a wild-card spot, BriseBois came out well before the trade deadline and promised fans that his captain will not be traded. After another first-round exit, the GM stated his desire to re-sign the captain.

“Obviously, Steven Stamkos needs a contract, and we want him to be part of that group,” BriseBois said. “You all saw how from the trade deadline on, Stammer elevated his play, which was incredible to see.

“Steven Stamkos has always represented excellence with humility and never more so than these past few months. The aim is for him to continue to play on a contending Tampa Bay Lightning team going forward.”

The understanding is that Stamkos does prefer to stay. Yet he will be pressed to accept a team-friendly discount. Again.

6. Jonathan Marchessault

Age on July 1: 33
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2023-24 salary cap hit: $5 million

The latest: The Conn Smythe–winning Marchessault is an original Misfit integral to the defending champions’ off-ice culture and on-ice success. No doubt, in a cap-free world, the sides would be content to extend their relationship beyond this season.

Yet one only need to look as far as Reilly Smith, GM Kelly McCrimmon’s 2023 cap casualty, to see the line between sentiment and business.

“There are no negotiations that have been done. I know that sometimes the Golden Knights like to take their time with that. We will see what it will give,” Marchessault told TVA Sports over the summer.

A handful of conversations have taken place between agent Pat Brisson and Knights management regarding Marchessault’s future.

“He’s a really important leader, important guy in our dressing room, so there is certainly a strong willingness from both sides to have real good discussions,” McCrimmon said upon elimination.

McCrimmon will be hard-pressed to re-up Marchessault, centre Chandler Stephenson, and rental Anthony Mantha now that he’s locked up Noah Hanifin.

No one would blame the late-blooming Marchessault ($29 million in career earnings) for pulling an Alex Killorn and taking the best offer available.

“I’m happy to be a Golden Knight,” Marchessault told reporters on locker cleanout day. “I would like to be one for the rest of my life, but that’s not necessarily only in my control. I love it here. I want to stay here for sure. But we’ll see.”

Interviewing Marchessault in March, he made it clear that the value of his next contract motivated his performance. (He crushed a career high in goals, with 42.) So, too, was the chance to win again.

“I want to give a good future for my kids, right? That’s what drives me, familywise,” said the father of four.

“But once you taste winning, it’s more than a drug. We were on such a high of emotion last year, it’s the best feeling. You just want to keep going towards it. That’s what drives me. Also, my Cup day, I had so much things going on. I want to win again, put it in my living room and do (expletive) all all day.”

7. Matt Duchene

Age on July 1: 33
Position: Centre / Right wing
2023-24 salary cap hit: $3 million

The latest: A surprise free agent in 2023 after getting bought out by new Nashville GM Barry Trotz, Duchene signed with the Dallas Stars because they “checked off every box.”

Seeing better matchups as a second-line centre and being surrounded by a more complete collection of talent, Duchene has thrived in Big D.

The 1,000-game veteran bested last season’s total production with six months to go, and the Stars are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Surely, there will be interest in extending the relationship since Duchene has been a smart fit. But fellow forwards Ty Dellandrea (RFA), Sam Steel (RFA), and the ageless Joe Pavelski (UFA) are also building a case for a raise.

We’ll see how this plays out, but there is no question Jim Nill scooped up Duchene at a bargain. And no question that a proven centre of Duchene’s calibre will have more suitors this time around.

8. Brett Pesce

Age on July 1: 29
Position: Defence
2023-24 salary cap hit: $4.025 million

The latest: Trade rumours and Pesce had always gone together like fish and grits.

And now it appears the D-man will simply walk out the door for nothing.

Rumblings that teams were calling on the player and/or the Hurricanes were considering moving him have become an annual tradition in Carolina — largely because a right-shot, penalty-killing, shutdown defenceman with a stable track record is such a rare commodity.

Considering the deals given in 2023 to UFAs Vladislav Gavrikov and Damon Severson, Pesce should be looking at a long-term contract with a $6-million (plus?) AAV.

The player is on record saying he’d welcome an extension with the club that drafted him back in 2013. But with Guentzel, Martin Necas, Brady Skjei, Tony DeAngelo, and Teuvo Teravainen all on expiring deals, Waddell has plenty of difficult decisions to make for his cash-conscious organization.

Pesce may well be pricing himself out. And if he does hit the open market, the Maple Leafs will be one of many teams lining up.

9. Teuvo Teravainen

Age on July 1: 29
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2023-24 salary cap hit: $5.4 million

The latest: The four-time 20-goal scorer routinely produces strong offensive numbers while playing dependable defence and staying out of the penalty box.

In late summer, GM Waddell told Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer that all extension talks with Teravainen, Pesce and Skjei had silenced, but that the executive wasn’t concerned.

There is certainly a wait-and-see vibe coming out of Carolina, an organization known for its financial prudence. (Heck, the Hurricanes are letting an excellent coach in Rod Brind’Amour run out his contract year, too.)

Teravainen framed this season as “a big year” for himself and the team. His skill-set would complement many a top six. If Waddell doesn’t pay up, another GM will.

10. Tyler Toffoli

Age on July 1: 32
Position: Right wing / Left wing
2023-24 salary cap hit: $4.25 million

The latest: When New Jersey Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald acquired Toffoli from the Flames in the off-season, the GM hoped the scoring winger would grow into more than a one-year rental.

(In fact, Fitzgerald nearly signed Toffoli in the 2020 off-season, before the Montreal Canadiens locked him up for four years and $17 million.)

So, yes, the prolific scorer and the team supposedly on the rise had mutual interest on an extension.

And then New Jersey’s losses began to outweigh its wins, prompting a deadline deal to all-in Winnipeg.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Toffoli said of he and his wife, Cat Belanger. “We’re going to another Canadian city. There’s nothing better than playing in a Canadian market. It’s a weird feeling, but at the same time we’re excited. Winnipeg, the fans are very passionate. I’m excited to go there and keep pushing for the playoffs and try and make a run there.”

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff also went deep with rentals Sean Monahan and Colin Miller, plus held tight on three “own rentals,” yet his Jets were swift first-round fodder for Colorado.

The Toffoli file is one of many Winnipeg must sort through this summer as the front office adjusts from another playoff flop.

11. Dylan DeMelo

Age on July 1: 31
Position: Defence
2023-24 salary cap hit: $3 million

The latest: Cheveldayoff’s early December extension for Niederreiter helped turn attention to another impending UFA on the Winnipeg Jets.

The contributions of right-shot DeMelo are relatively unsung, but he is a major reason why partner Josh Morrissey is free to create at the other end.

For a top-pairing defenceman, DeMelo is on a sweetheart of an expiring contract and is in line for a significant raise.

He acknowledges his bargaining power has never been stronger.

He kills penalties, is an important cog one of the NHL’s stingiest defensive teams, and notched career highs in points (31) and plus/minus (+46).

What team couldn’t use a guy like DeMelo?

During my late January interview with him, DeMelo said “there hasn’t been many talks” between him and the Jets on an extension. Only a general discussion to see what the sides are thinking.

DeMelo sounds genuinely eager to stick in Winnipeg, though.

“I would love to stay, absolutely. There’s no doubt,” he said. “If it works out, I’d be more than willing to sign and be here for whatever it is, how many years. I really do think this group has something special, and it’s something I’d love to be a part of.”

Morrissey wastes no time making his pitch for Cheveldayoff to re-sign his partner: 

“That’s where my vote stands. I understand it’s a business. I’ve been around the game long enough to know there’s so many variables at play for teams and players, but certainly I love playing with him. I think he’s really allowed me to take the next step in my game, just with our partnership. And I just think he’s a great player, a great teammate, a great guy in the locker room, so I sure hope he’ll stick around for a long time going forward.”

12. Chandler Stephenson

Age on July 1: 30
Position: Centre
2023-24 salary cap hit: $2.75 million

The latest: Superb in the spring of 2023, Stephenson piled up 20 points in middle-six minutes during the Golden Knights’ 22-game Cup run and played an integral role en route to his second championship ring.

The centreman’s production scuffled a tad in 2023-24, however. Stephenson was a minus player (dash-9) for the first time in five seasons, and his 51 points marked a three-year low.

That said, the demand for both centres and proven post-season performers remains sky high in the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings splashed $25.5 million at centre J.T. Compher in 2023’s free agency, and his previous best was 52 points.

Bottom line: There will be a robust market for the two-way Stephenson if he remains unsigned by July 1.

More notable UFAs in 2024: Patrick Kane, Tyler Bertuzzi, Cam Talbot, Ilya Samsonov, Joe Pavelski, T.J. Brodie, Adam Henrique, Sean Walker, Nikita Zadorov, Max Domi, Jake DeBrusk, Viktor Arvidsson, Blake Wheeler, Vladimir Tarasenko, Daniel Sprong, Alexander Barabanov, David Perron, Tyson Barrie, Jakub Vrana, Sean Monahan, Max Pacioretty, Tony DeAngelo, Tomas Tatar, Tyler Johnson, Jack Roslovic, Shayne Gostisbehere, Victor Olofsson, Jason Zucker, Brady Skjei, Matt Dumba, John Klingberg, Chris Tanev, Pheonix Copley, Anthony Duclair, Pat Maroon, Anthony Mantha, James Reimer, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jonathan Drouin, Corey Perry, Alexander Wennberg, Jordan Martinook, Matt Roy, Tyler Myers, Jani Hakanpaa, Laurent Brossoit, Anthony Stolarz

All salary info via the indispensable CapFriendly.com.