NHL’s Top 12 UFAs of 2022: Latest rumours, reports

NHL’s Top 12 UFAs of 2022: Latest rumours, reports

Captains, trophy winners, Cup champs, No. 1 defencemen, and a Vezina contender.

Yes, even with some major talents inking juicy extension early — Seth Jones, Aleksander Barkov, Mika Zibanejad, Sean Couturier, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Mattias Ekholm, Colton Parayko — and avoiding the stress of free agency, the NHL’s 2022 UFA class is still percolating with compelling names.

And with the salary cap hopeful to rise by $1 million, those spendy general managers will have a little 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.

Key dates for this group: The NHL’s trade deadline is March 21. Free agency opens July 13.

Happy contract year, fellas.

1. Johnny Gaudreau
Age on July 13: 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 most recent 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 over the 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 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 training 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.”

Where Gaudreau’s price has gone so far is through the roof.

The all-star winger is earning praise from coach Darryl Sutter for improved defensive responsibility and is rolling above a point-per-game pace for the first time in three years.

With the Flames shaping into a Pacific Division contender, the idea of trading their best offensive prior to the deadline is foolish.

2. Tomas Hertl
Age on July 13: 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.

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

“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,” Hertl said.

“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.”

With the Sharks terminating Evander Kane’s contract and freeing up $7 million in cap space for the next three seasons, there is suddenly enough dough to take care of Hertl, who already hit the 20-goal plateau in January.

Yes, Hertl could be the best rental forward on the market, but he’d be nearly impossible to replace internally next season.

3. Kris Letang
Age on July 13: 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 Sidney 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, Letang and Rust, Jeff Carter and breakout forward Evan Rodrigues 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 in Septmeber.

“It’s going to be Ron and my agent [Kent Hughes] 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, midseason, 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.”

Letang leads all impending UFAs in time on ice and all impending UFA D-men in points — and neither race is even close.

Mark Madden of Trib Live floated a four-year extension at $8.6 million per season would be fair.

4. Nazem Kadri
Age on July 13: 31
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.5 million

The latest: One of this season’s biggest bargains, Kadri is overdelivering big-time on his $4-million salary.

The list of players with more points as of mid-January than the pride of London, Ont., is Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, and that’s it.

GM Joe Sakic and Kadri (who owns a 10-team no-trade list) are seemingly content to ride this season out before hunkering down and negotiating.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it, but you try not to focus on it too much,” said Kadri, who ramped up his focus and training over the summer in anticipation of his contract showcase.

“I just want to play out the season and focus on one game at a time, because I feel like that’s the best mentality and best preparation for it.”

Unless Kadri takes another discount, the cold math says there won’t be room for him in Denver next fall.

Sakic has already promised $16.25 million annually to younger core forwards Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog, and he must begin carving out serious cap space ($12 million? More?) for Nathan MacKinnon in the summer of 2023.

Further, the Avs don’t have a single NHL goalie under contract beyond this season and will have other holes to patch.

Paying Kadri — what, $6.5 million or more? — into his mid-30s feels like a luxury they won’t be able to afford.

5. Filip Forsberg
Age on July 13: 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 to a crossroads. Having already been run through the rumour mill in 2021, uncertainty around Forsberg’s future lingers as Nashville continues to play winning hockey.

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 was able to extend pending 2022 UFA Mattias Ekholm for a team-friendly four years and $25 million right before the season started. That Forsberg remains unsigned suggests he could be dealt in-season.

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

“It’s a lot of business decisions,” Forsberg said on June 2. “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 told Adam Vigan of The Athletic in late November that he’s not putting a timetable on a Forsberg decision.

“Guys sign when it’s the right time, and teams do the same thing. It takes two to find a common denominator. There’s been some reporting that there hasn’t been much happening, but we’ve stayed in contact with his agents. It’s just a process. I think both sides would like to be together.”

Poile is withholding comment on whether he would keep Forsberg as an “own rental” if the Predators are still in the playoff mix come March.

6. John Klingberg
Age on July 13: 29
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $4.25 million

The latest: Much like Nashville’s 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.

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.

In October, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek reported that Klingberg was looking for a deal worth between $62 to $66 million on an eight-year term.

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.”

The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta reported in early January that Klingberg requested a trade in the fall, once extension talks hit a wall.

“I don’t think it’s entirely true. It’s not like I’ve been going out there and asking, ‘I want to get traded now,’ or something like that,” Klingberg responded. “It’s something that’s been going on with the negotiations and stuff like that. I’m not going to lie — it’s been a few frustrating years individually.

“Other guys have signed right before the season before. I wanted to do that as well. Lately, it has been going more quietly and quietly. For me, as a player, I don’t feel that I’ve been appreciated in that way when we don’t even negotiate. It’s quiet. For me, as a player, my agent, we talked to Jim a couple months back. He agreed that we could start talking with other GMs and see where we were at. Negotiation-wise, the Stars have been very quiet.”

Klingberg should be highly coveted leading up to March’s trade deadline.

7. Patrice Bergeron
Age on July 13: 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 is on track for a 13th 20-goal campaign.

Will Sweeney add to a likely playoff team, albeit one that may have slipped from contender status?

Surely the GM won’t take Mike Milbury’s advice, “move on” and trade his captain, right?

Can 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.”

8. Evgeni Malkin
Age on July 13: 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. Following a lengthy rehab, the onetime Hart winner believes his knee is now “100 per cent stronger” and that he can play another three or four seasons.

Like Bergeron in Boston, there is a sense time is running out to win (again) with the aging core in Pittsburgh, and Malkin is but one of a handful of key impending UFAs on the roster.

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.

A fitting comparable might be the deal veteran centre Joe Pavelski signed as a UFA in Dallas a few years back: three years, $21 million.

The guess is that Hextall & Co. hold off on any major extensions with their veterans until they give this season a run and see how Malkin produces after the lengthy layoff.

“We began discussions with a couple of them, and we generally do that internally,” president Brian Burke told us in November. “But certainly at some point we’ll have talks with all the players involved and see where we go.”

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

Having raked more than $116 million in career earnings, Malkin said in December that his next isn’t weighing on his mind.

“No, no, I’m not thinking about my contract. I’m not thinking about money, I’m, like, a pretty rich guy,” Malkin said with a smile.

“I know it’s a little bit not easy, but I want three, four more years. And I feel like I can.”

9. Jack Campbell
Age on July 13: 30
Position: Goaltender
2021-22 salary cap hit: $1.65 million

The latest: Any attempt GM Kyle Dubas may or may not have made to buy low on Campbell and extend the affable netminder early has been blown out of the water by his play.

Until it’s signed, the topic of Campbell’s next contract won’t go away.

“Whoever said we’re talking is full of crap,” Campbell’s agent Kurt Overhardt told Postmedia in November. “I can tell you that there’s been no material discussions [with the Leafs]. Jack just wants to play hockey. That’s it.

“People need to relax and let him play hockey.”

Among the league leaders in all major goalie, the late bloomer is playing his way into the Vezina conversation.

There is mutual interest between player and club in extending the relationship.

One way or another, Campbell will get paid. The trick for Dubas will be manoeuvring around the $11.4 million he gave Campbell’s backup, Petr Mrazek, as a UFA last summer.

“I truly love it here,” says Campbell, a fan favourite. “The guys have taken me in like I’ve been here my whole career. Special group. Special city. The fans are incredible. And any time they embrace me the way they have, it means a lot to me, and there’s nothing more I’d love than to stay here. I guess, ultimately, all we can do — myself included — is win hockey games.”

Campbell’s career earnings fall under $4.2 million. This summer is his chance to be the most in-demand UFA goalie and hit it big.

With the Maple Leafs only holding roughly $7.2 million to fill out their 2022-23 roster (and RFAs Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren needing raises too), keeping Campbell’s number remanining reasonable is imperative.

10. Bryan Rust
Age on July 13: 30
Position: Left wing / Right wing
2021-22 salary cap hit: $3.5 million

The latest: One of the most underrated, underpaid and dependable forwards in the league, Rust is frequently overshadowed by all the star power in Pittsburgh.

Yet this should be the summer he finally secures the bag.

Despite seeing his platform season halted due to injury, Rust has come out flying, hanging 20 points and a plus-7 rating through his first 15 games while improving any line he’s on. He’s looking at three consecutive 20-goal campaigns with fewer than 60 games played in any of them.

Penguins’ Bryan Rust Has Become Team’s MVP” reads a recent blog headline.

The future of Letang and Malkin hogs the dialogue, but Rust’s next contract might be the most important one for Hextall here.

11. Hampus Lindholm
Age on July 13: 28
Position: Defence
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.2 million

The latest: Question marks abound in Orange County.

Not only do the Anaheim Ducks have a handful of core players on expiring deals — the left-shot Lindholm tops a list that includes Josh Manson, Rickard Rakell and captain Ryan Getzlaf — but they currently have an interim GM, Jeff Solomon, calling the shots.

While the Ducks entered the season poised as a major deadline seller, their surge in the standings complicates matters.

Lindholm is a bona fide top-four defender under the age of 30, and the price for skaters of his calibre has undergone a recent spike.

Solomon has indicated that he’s unlikely to spend picks and prospects and turn into an aggressive buyer this spring, so contenders will be calling.

He needs to know whether Lindholm can be extended or if he should be sold for a significant haul. It’s asset management time.

12. Darcy Kuemper
Age on July 13: 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 Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Ryan Murray — Kuemper may be 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.

Yes, Kuemper has once again battled injury issues, but he has a 16-5 record through his first 23 appearances in Denver and 2022’s UFA goalie market will be quite thin on starters at the game’s most important position. He’ll have interest.

The guess is both sides will take a patient approach and see how Kuemper and the Avalanche fare in the postseason.

More notable UFAs in 2022: Claude Giroux, Joe Pavelski, Ben Chiarot, Reilly Smith, Marc-Andre Fleury, Phil Kessel, Mark Giordano, Alexander Radulov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Ondrej Palat, Jeff Carter, Vincent Trocheck, David Perron, Rickard Rakell, Max Domi, Joe Thornton, P.K. Subban, Evan Rodrigues, Dustin Brown, Nick Leddy, Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson, Andrew Copp, Ryan Getzlaf, Nino Niederreiter, Mikko Koskinen, Ryan Strome, Paul Stastny, Ilya Mikheyev, Martin Jones, Braden Holtby, Anton Forsberg, Pavel Francouz

All contract info via the indispensable CapFriendly.com.

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