Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland has surveyed the NHL free-agent landscape every summer since 1997. What does he see as the 2022 market prepares to officially open Wednesday at noon?
“Lots of teams are tight on the cap, so it’s going to be interesting,” Holland told ESPN. “And then other teams … you wonder if they want to spend.”
The NHL salary cap is $82.5 million for next season, a rise of just $1 million over last season’s ceiling. That doesn’t bode well for the NHL’s middle class of players who are seeking new unrestricted and restricted free-agent deals.
“What we’re seeing play out right now is going to be [rough] for them,” one NHL agent told ESPN.
But the top-end free agents? They’ll still get their blockbuster deals, comparatively.
We’ve already seen Filip Forsberg get $68 million over eight years to stay with the Nashville Predators, Kevin Fiala get $55.125 million over seven years after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, and 35-year-old Kris Letang get $36.6 million over six years to remain with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Who’s next? Here’s a look at where things stand with some of the biggest names on the unrestricted free-agent market.
Note: Deal projections are courtesy of Evolving Hockey’s contract prediction model, which has proved to be accurate in past years.
Previous contract: $6.75 million AAV on a six-year term
Projected contract: $10.87 million AAV on a seven-year term
One of the more interesting developments at the draft was the abject optimism from Flames GM Brad Treliving that there was still a path to retaining Gaudreau, the franchise-level winger who could hit unrestricted free agency this week.
“My hope is that we’re going to get something done before it gets to that,” Treliving said. “If I didn’t think that it was possible, then we’d probably have turned our attention somewhere else. That’s not to say that it’s a slam dunk. But when you think that there’s a deal there to get done, you keep working at it.”
Immediately, there were those around the NHL who thought the comments could be face-saving — one of those “we made our best effort” type of situations before Gaudreau leaves. But a few sources also felt that Gaudreau might not be finding the megadeals with the teams with which he’d hope to find them in free agency.
(If he was looking for something in the Garden State a bit north of that, the Devils currently have over $25 million in cap room … if they’re interested.)
There was some speculation at the draft that the Seattle Kraken could be interested in Gaudreau to pair with Matty Beniers or Shane Wright at center. But how far away is Seattle from contention, and how long would Gaudreau be willing to wait? Furthermore, is that kind of splash in sync with the Kraken’s plan for a slower build?
Theoretically, Calgary is getting stronger consideration as the hours tick down and the market under a flat cap takes shape. But as Treliving said, it’s not a “slam dunk” he stays.
“I think both sides are focused on trying to get a deal. I think it’s real genuine on both sides to try and get a deal done,” the GM said.
Previous contract: $1.65 million AAV on a two-year term
Projected contract: $5.726 million AAV on a six-year term
After Matt Murray blocked a trade to the Buffalo Sabres, the Murray-to-Toronto rumors were inescapable at the draft, with the Ottawa Senators picking up a large portion of his $6.25 million cap hit in this scenario. As a former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound, Murray has history with Toronto GM Kyle Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe and goalie scout Jon Elkin, who were all there when Murray was tending goal in the OHL.
We mention Murray here because whatever the Leafs do with their goaltending — keep in mind they also traded Petr Mrazek to the Chicago Blackhawks — is tied to what could happen with Campbell this week. “Obviously we know Jack well. He’s been a part of our program. We’ll stay in touch with him,” Dubas said.
If Campbell leaves, it’s either because the Leafs went in another direction or because they were priced out of Campbell’s services in a market that’s goalie-starved. There’s little reason to believe Campbell won’t still get at least the $5 million AAV Linus Ullmark received from the Boston Bruins last summer. That could be with a team like the Edmonton Oilers or Washington Capitals.
Previous contract: $4.5 million AAV on a six-year term
Projected contract: $8.469 million AAV on a seven-year term
Kadri is coming off the best season of his NHL career — and right before free agency! — with 87 points in 71 games, another 15 points in 16 playoff games and strong play on both ends of the ice.
All of that adds up to a player whom the Avalanche would no doubt like to keep around … and a player who will get contract offers above and beyond what Colorado would like to give him.
The Avalanche have 16 players under contract. As of Sunday, they were working hard to re-sign winger Valeri Nichushkin. They have defenseman Josh Manson nearing free agency and will try to retain him. Winger Artturi Lehkonen, a restricted free agent, will get paid. Matching what Kadri could get from another team will be difficult.
Given Kadri’s value in the regular season and playoffs, someone will ante up for his services. One interesting team mentioned at the draft in connection to Kadri: the Bruins, who could certainly use a pivot of his talents but would need to move some cap space to make it happen. Nazem Kadri, playing in Boston. We’d need some time to process that.
There’s talk the Kraken could be in play for Kadri, as they ease Matty Berniers and Shane Wright into the NHL behind a No. 1 center. But we also like Sportsnet analyst Jeff Marek’s scenario: Kadri to the Detroit Red Wings, as they try to level up back to contender status. One never knows what Steve Yzerman could be up to.
Previous contract: $4.5 million AAV on a two-year term
Projected contract: $6.315 million AAV on six-year term
When was the last time a goalie won the Stanley Cup and then left for unrestricted free agency? (The trivia answer: Antti Niemi in 2010, who won the Cup with the Blackhawks before departing.)
That alone makes Kuemper a bit of a unicorn among unrestricted free agents. Specific to this summer, he’s also a rarity: an actual starter. Kuemper started more games (113) over the past three seasons than any other free-agent netminder available.
One of the buzziest connections between team and player being discussed at the draft was Kuemper to the Capitals, who have been searching for a veteran solution in goal for a while. (Remember the Henrik Lundqvist gambit from a couple of years ago?) Their trade of Vitek Vanecek to the New Jersey Devils did nothing to discourage that chatter.
But Kuemper will have his other suitors, as there is much more demand than supply in the free-agent market this summer. The Oilers seem like an obvious potential destination. Expectations are that his cap hit will exceed the $5.9 million Philipp Grubauer received from the Kraken last season. With Mike Smith likely headed to long-term injured reserve next season, the Oilers will have exactly $750,000 dedicated to their goaltending in Stuart Skinner.
Kuemper did what he needed to do in the playoffs for the Avalanche: He didn’t lose them the games they needed to win. He was also outstanding for them in the second half of the regular season after getting his bearings in a new market, with 30.4 goals saved above average and 5.3 wins added to the Avalanche. There’s no question that he’s in the upper echelon of NHL goaltenders — in the 96th percentile in WAR over the past three seasons — but some of his underlying numbers reveal below-average rebound control and likewise lackluster low-danger save percentage. Still, he’s going to be an upgrade for someone, though at a cost that discouraged the Avalanche from bringing back a goalie who hoisted the Cup this past season.
Previous contract: $4.25 million AAV on a seven-year term
Projected contract: $6.883 million AAV on a six-year term
Klingberg is headed to the free-agent market. The Stars have to give forward Jason Robertson and goalie Jake Oettinger new contracts, while they reportedly look to add an impact player at forward for new coach Pete DeBoer. The door on Klingberg isn’t closed in Dallas, but the numbers might not add up for them to keep him and get everything else done.
The puck-moving defenseman had 47 points in 74 games last season for the Stars, the only team for which he has played in his eight-season NHL career. With Letang off the board, he’s the best offensive defenseman on the free-agent market, although the defensive deficiencies in his game become more glaring with each passing season.
Two teams speculated to be in the John Klingberg business: The Kraken and the Carolina Hurricanes. The Kraken need a veteran puck-mover on the back end, have the cap space and could reunite Klingberg with former Dallas defensive partner Jamie Oleksiak. The Hurricanes reportedly checked on Klingberg at the trade deadline last season. They just traded their top puck-moving right-side defenseman, Tony DeAngelo, to the Flyers. They have the want and the cap space.
Previous contract: $8.275 million AAV on an eight-year term
Projected contract: $7.57 million AAV on a seven-year term
Giroux had 65 points in 75 games last season between the Flyers and the Panthers, and then eight points in 10 games for Florida in the playoffs. Giroux was an all-in trade-deadline move for GM Bill Zito and the Panthers; but even with forward Anthony Duclair starting the season on long-term injured reserve, Florida doesn’t have the current cap flexibility for Giroux.
He turns 35 years old this season but still offers a total package of offense and defense in a top-six role, as well as making a difference on the power play.
The Senators have been linked to Giroux for months, as he lived in the city as a teenager and played minor hockey in the area. Does the acquisition of winger Alex DeBrincat make the Sens more enticing? The Athletic reported that the Hurricanes could be in the mix for Giroux, with Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck both pending free agents. That tracks, as Carolina is also a team that would give Giroux a legitimate shot at that elusive Stanley Cup win.
Previous contract: $4 million AAV on a four-year term
Projected contract: $6.138 million AAV on a three-year term
Perron’s third tour of duty with the Blues was his best: 221 points in 251 games over four seasons, collecting a Stanley Cup ring in the process. He’s a terrific top-six winger who scored 25 or more goals in two of the past three seasons.
There hasn’t been much in the way of talks between Perron and the Blues yet. They have over $9 million in cap space but have some other holes to fill, like adding a defenseman and replacing Ville Husso as Jordan Binnington‘s goaltending partner. But it’s not just about the cap this season: Young stars Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas are restricted free agents next summer, while star Ryan O’Reilly goes unrestricted in 2023. Do the Blues need to trade Vladimir Tarasenko in order to make the room they’d need to re-sign Perron?
If Perron goes to market, there’ll be no shortage of teams looking to add his veteran skills to their top-end talent — especially those with playoff aspirations, as Perron had 38 points in 47 playoff games during this latest stint in St. Louis. The man has been known to return to previous teams. He spent 116 games in Edmonton from 2013 to 2015 but was traded before McDavid showed up. Perhaps he gets a chance to skate with him next season.
Previous contract: $5.3 million AAV on a five-year term
Projected contract: $5.365 million AAV on a three-year term
“It gives us the flexibility to potentially re-sign Palat or [defenseman Jan] Rutta or address holes that need to be filled on the free-agent market or the trade market,” GM Julien BriseBois said.
Word at the draft was that Palat would test the market. An NHL source indicated that the Lightning’s offers to Palat had come in under the $5.3 million AAV he made on his last contract.
Remember: Signing Palat likely doesn’t mean signing him for just one season. His cap hit would impact the following season, which will be another one where the cap rises minimally, if at all. The priority for the Lightning this summer is extending three key players who are restricted free agents in 2023: center Anthony Cirelli and defensemen Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev, the latter of whom could move into McDonagh’s role this season.
Palat is a versatile two-way forward who is an above-average passer. Anyone who has watched the Lightning in the playoffs has seen his postseason heroics — he goes to the net and has a predilection for big moments. To that end, one could see a contender willing to ante up for him … but could a reunion in Detroit with Steve Yzerman, the GM who drafted him in Tampa, also be a possibility?
One thing is clear: The Lightning love the guy, but they’re also willing to make the painful sacrifices that the salary cap demands. Just ask McDonagh.
Previous contract: $9.5 million AAV on an eight-year term
Projected contract: $2.944 million on a one-year term
When Kris Letang signed his six-year extension with the Penguins, the attention immediately turned to Malkin. Would Pittsburgh keep their holy trinity together, or would one of Sidney Crosby‘s closest friends have to walk away after 16 years as a Penguin?
GM Ron Hextall has stated his intent to bring Malkin back, and he believes the feeling is mutual. They’re “chipping away” at a contract, according to Hextall. Pittsburgh could move everyone from John Marino to Jason Zucker to create extra cap room to sign Malkin. But they haven’t yet.
The biggest news on the Malkin front was a bombshell story by Rob Rossi of The Athletic on Friday that detailed the hurt feelings behind the scenes during this process. “He doesn’t understand how it’s at this point with him not being signed,” a friend of Malkin told Rossi. “He’s said, ‘They don’t think I’m a good player — why?'” Ouch.
Pittsburgh has reportedly gone from a $6 million AAV on a two-year deal to that same cap number on a three-year deal. Rossi wrote that if the Penguins offered four years, “that $6 million salary could work for Malkin.” The term is the key.
If he’s not a Penguin, things will get interesting. Let’s face it: $18 million over three years for Malkin is, in many ways, for services previously rendered in Pittsburgh. He turns 36 on July 31. He’s lost a step, especially on the defensive end, and only shows flashes of his past dominance. That said, he’s still an offensive force, especially on the power play. If it’s not Pittsburgh, he’ll help someone else, and he won’t lack for options.
Previous contract: $2,108,696 on a one-year term
Projected contract: $7.451 million AAV on a five-year term
After Day 2 of the draft, Edmonton GM Ken Holland said that “right now, nothing is really happening” in negotiations with Kane. “We had tons and tons of talks. We don’t have much cap space,” he said.
The sense I get from Holland is that he hopes Kane explores the free-agent market, doesn’t find the grass all that much greener than it could be in Edmonton, and then circles back to the Oilers.
“My negotiation style through the years is to educate the player and his agent as to what I’m trying to accomplish,” Holland said. “In many cases it works. In other cases it doesn’t. It has to work for both sides.”
Multiple reports have indicated Kane is seeking a long-term contract that could rival the $7 million average annual value of his deal with San Jose.
Then there’s the San Jose question. Kane and the NHLPA filed a grievance against the Sharks after the termination of Kane’s deal for “a breach of his NHL Standard Player Contract and for violation of the AHL COVID-19 protocols.” There is still no date set for a second hearing between Kane and the Sharks, and it’s not expected before free agency starts.
Holland said that complicates things in free agency. “It is what it is. It’s unique. I don’t really know,” Holland said. “We’re really sort of winging it.”
Kane’s off-ice problems are well documented. But he averaged 1.6 goals per 60 minutes last season in 43 games with the Oilers, which means he’s going to be handed another contract this offseason — in Edmonton or elsewhere.