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When the NHL’s 2021 free-agent market opens at noon EST on July 28, fans and pundits will be waiting to see where the top potential unrestricted free agents will end up.
This year’s pool of UFA talent features several stars who will draw plenty of interest on the open market, including Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton and Colorado Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer.
Some of these players could end up re-signing with their current teams before free agency begins. Others, however, will end up joining new clubs within hours of their UFA eligibility.
Some of them could even end up on teams that no one expected to bid for their services. Here’s a look at several dark-horse destinations for the best of this year’s NHL free-agent class.
We’ve excluded Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask from this list. He’s expected to undergo hip surgery soon and be sidelined until January or February. Teams could be reluctant to pursue him during the offseason.
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Having allowed Dougie Hamilton to speak with other teams before his UFA eligibility, the Carolina Hurricanes risk losing him to an unmatchable offer from a rival club. That could leave them seeking a more affordable option to replace the 28-year-old on their top blue-line pairing.
That’s where Tyson Barrie could come in. The 29-year-old, puck-moving rearguard was on a one-year, $3.75 million contract with the Edmonton Oilers. On May 13, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Barrie is expected to test this summer’s free-agent market.
Barrie led all NHL defensemen this season with 48 points, marking the fifth time in his 10 NHL seasons he’s exceeded the 40-point plateau. This was a solid bounce-back performance after struggling in 2019-20 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Dreger said Barrie was interested in a five- or six-year contract. With $29.4 million in projected cap space, the Hurricanes could consider something around five years for about $5.5 million per season. He would be more affordable than Hamilton and could fit in well alongside the more defensive-minded Jaccob Slavin.
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This was a career year for Philipp Grubauer. The 29-year-old goaltender finished this season tied for the league lead in shutouts (seven) with the New York Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov. He also had the second-best goals-against average (1.95) and second-most wins (30) among starting goalies, while his .922 save percentage ranked among the top 10. He’s also a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
Finishing a three-year contract worth an annual average value of $3.33 million, Grubauer is set to cash in big. While he could end up re-signing with the Avalanche, he will draw plenty of interest if he decides to test the market on July 28.
The New York Rangers could emerge as a dark horse for Grubauer’s services. They possess a young goalie tandem in 25-year-olds Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev, but they lack experience. The recent shakeups in their front office and behind the bench could lead to a roster reevaluation. That could include between the pipes if there’s any question about Shesterkin’s ability as a starter.
If Georgiev is plucked away by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, the Rangers could seek a replacement. Maybe they will be tempted to add a Vezina finalist. With $23.8 million in cap space and only Shesterkin and Pavel Buchnevich as their notable restricted free agents, they could have room to pitch a five-year deal around $7 million annually for Grubauer.
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The Edmonton Oilers selected Taylor Hall with the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. If the 29-year-old left winger fails to re-sign with the Boston Bruins, perhaps a reunion could be in the works later this summer.
Hall has finished a one-year, $8 million contract. Following the Bruins’ playoff ouster, Hall indicated to reporters his willingness to stay in Boston. General manager Don Sweeney expressed a mutual interest in working out a new contract with him. If those negotiations fall through, however, Hall will have to find a new NHL home.
The Oilers, meanwhile, could lose 2011 first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to free agency. He’s coming off a seven-year deal with an annual cap hit of $6 million. If he feels he can get better offers elsewhere, the Oilers will be in need of a skilled offensive winger to take his place.
Some of Hall’s best seasons were with the Oilers. Putting him on a line with Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl could help him rediscover his high-scoring ways. Hall has indicated he’s interested in a good fit rather than term or money. That would make Hall a more affordable option than Nugent-Hopkins if he’s willing to accept a five-year deal at $5.5 million annually.
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The depletion of the Winnipeg Jets defense corps has contributed to their poor playoff record since reaching the Western Conference Final in 2018. They need a skillful right-side blueliner on their top defense pairing alongside Josh Morrissey.
That need could push Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to make a big move to address that issue. He could attempt to acquire Dougie Hamilton through a sign-and-trade scenario with the Carolina Hurricanes. The 28-year-old blueliner has finished a six-year contract with an annual cap hit of $5.75 million. The Hurricanes have allowed his agent to speak with other clubs.
Hamilton could be a solid fit on the Jets blue line. While the 6’6″, 229-pounder isn’t a physical rearguard, his size and mobility make him one of the league’s best offensive blueliners. He could mesh well on a Jets power-play featuring scorers such as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers.
The Jets have $20.6 million in projected cap room next season. They will get some additional space too because they will lose a player in the expansion draft. If necessary, they could get another $5.3 million in cap relief by placing sidelined center Bryan Little on long-term injury reserve. That would provide Cheveldayoff with sufficient room to add Hamilton and fill out the rest of his roster.
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Limited salary-cap space could spell the end of Zach Hyman’s tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The versatile, energetic two-way forward is coming off a four-year, $9 million contract and could seek more than $5 million annually on his next deal. With $69.7 million invested in 15 players for next season, Toronto won’t be able to afford that without shedding a significant salary.
Hyman, 29, could be targeted by playoff contenders seeking a top-six forward with his blend of grit and scoring. However, the Toronto native could also be drawn to teams closer to his hometown. That could make the Detroit Red Wings a potential destination.
Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman is among the most respected executives in the league. He’s attempting to replicate his success with the Tampa Bay Lightning and could sell Hyman on playing a key role with his rebuilding club. Wings captain Dylan Larkin is also an old friend of Hyman’s from their college playing days and could pitch him on a reunion in the Motor City.
Yzerman has invested in short-term deals for veteran free agents in recent years. Perhaps he will make an exception for Hyman if he feels his club is ready to take the next step. With a projected $48 million in cap space, the Wings GM can afford to outbid most teams for Hyman’s services.
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After spending his entire 15-season NHL career with the Boston Bruins, David Krejci is reaching a career crossroads. The 35-year-old center would prefer to stay in Boston. However, he didn’t rule out playing elsewhere next season during his season-ending media video conference.
Krejci has exceeded the 40-point mark 11 times in his career, including a 44-point effort in 2020-21. Completing a six-year deal with an annual average value of $7.25 million, he won’t get a similar deal at this stage of his career. His offensive consistency and playoff experience could make him enticing to the Minnesota Wild.
A lack of skilled veteran depth at center continues to plague the Wild despite their finishing among this season’s top-10 teams. Centers Nick Bonino, Marcus Johansson and Nick Bjugstad are also UFAs who might not be back. Joel Eriksson Ek has shown potential as a first-line center, but they could use someone like Krejci on a short-term deal on their second line.
The Wild have a projected $22 million in salary-cap space for 2021-22. A big chunk of it will be invested in Eriksson Ek and restricted free-agent forwards Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala. Depending on whom they lose in the expansion draft, they could have enough to perhaps sign Krejci to a one-year, bonus-laden deal worth $5 million.
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The Boston Bruins could be in the market for a left winger if they are unable to re-sign Taylor Hall. Perhaps they will consider Gabriel Landeskog as an alternative.
Landeskog, 28, is completing a seven-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.57 million. The top winger in this year’s free-agent market, he’s exceeded 40 points eight times, including a 52-point effort in 54 games this season.
A reliable offensive winger with leadership ability who plays with a physical edge, Landeskog’s style of play could make him a perfect fit in Boston. With first-line center Patrice Bergeron now 35 and winger Brad Marchand 33, they must look at adding younger top-six forwards in their playing prime who can move into leadership roles.
The Bruins have $31.3 million in projected cap space. They could invest part of that re-signing UFAs David Krejci and Tuukka Rask to affordable short-term contracts. Depending on the cost of re-signing blueliner Brandon Carlo, they could have enough to sign Landeskog for more than $7 million per season.
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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ tenure with the Edmonton Oilers could be coming to an end. Selected first overall in the 2011 NHL draft, the 28-year-old forward has spent his entire 10-season NHL career in Edmonton. Completing a seven-year deal worth an annual average value of $6 million, he could be headed to the open market on July 28.
On May 28, the Edmonton Journal‘s David Staples cited Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman in saying contract talks between the two sides were “mangled” and up in the air. More than two weeks later, Friedman indicated they were trying to find common ground. The longer this drags on, however, the less likely Nugent-Hopkins remains an Oiler.
The Ottawa Senators are a promising team with a bright future. They could use a player with Nugent-Hopkins’ two-way skills, versatility and experience. Capable of playing center or left wing, he’s exceeded the 40-point plateau seven times in his career. He could bolster the Senators’ depth at center or slide over to the wing if they decide to shift promising Tim Stutzle from left wing to center.
With $28.4 million in cap space, the Senators have room to sign Nugent-Hopkins to a long-term deal worth $7 million. It should leave them sufficient space to re-sign restricted free agents Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson. The Senators usually don’t make a big splash in the UFA market, but this could be the right opportunity to do so.
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One of the greatest goalscorers in NHL history, Alex Ovechkin remains the face of the Washington Capitals. On May 26, he expressed his desire to finish his career with the only NHL team he’s ever played for. Both sides remain confident of getting a contract extension done before July 28.
It’s unlikely Ovechkin will go to market, but there’s always a possibility he and the Capitals fail to reach an agreement. He could seek a deal similar to the $9.54 million cap hit of his former contract on a short-term basis. Most teams would find that difficult to swallow under a flattened salary cap. However, the Florida Panthers could emerge as a surprise suitor if they can interest The Great 8 in a one- or two-year deal.
The Panthers have only made seven postseason appearances in their 27-season NHL history and haven’t won a playoff round since 1996. Ovechkin could provide that extra scoring punch and leadership necessary for a deep playoff run. He would be a great fit alongside first-line center Aleksander Barkov, bringing the type of star power the Panthers haven’t had since Pavel Bure left town in 2002.
With $68.4 million invested in 19 players for 2021-22, Panthers general manager Bill Zito would have to shuffle some dollars in a cost-cutting move or two to add Ovechkin. They could also get some additional wiggle room by losing a player in July’s expansion draft. The lack of a state tax in Florida could also prove enticing to Ovechkin.
Stats via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly.