The dust may still be settling on the 2020-21 season, but NHL GMs don’t have much of a reprieve; free agency officially opens in just over two weeks, on July 28.
This season’s (repeat) champions from Tampa Bay did most of their heavy lifting at or before the 2019-20 deadline and were incredibly quiet in free agency last off-season. But their Stanley Cup final opponents from Montreal were decidedly busier, inking the likes of Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry from the UFA market.
Another year of a flat salary cap adds another element of peril to the proposition. But that doesn’t mean good deals aren’t out there.
The following is a list of wingers who hit UFA status for the first time in 2021 and could draw significant interest on the open market.
Zach Hyman – Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto would love to retain Zach Hyman’s services, but with only $9.35 million of cap room and several holes to fill, it's unlikely to find the requisite space.
So Hyman, 29, should draw interest from many suitors.
Playing on offensively stacked Leafs teams, Hyman has drawn only secondary looks on the power play, somewhat limiting his overall offensive potential. But he's a top scorer at even strength. Since 2018-19, Hyman ties Max Domi for 56th among 388 forwards in points per hour at evens (minimum 1000 minutes). Right above him? Gabriel Landeskog. Below? Brock Boeser.
Overall, Hyman has played at a 28-goal, 55-point pace the past three seasons. Among that 388-forward sample, his xGF% of 55.03 ranks 30th, right behind Brayden Point. Like many Leafs, the defense has slowly begun to come around; he had his best season in most chance-suppression figures this year. Hyman is hard-nosed, kills penalties and is a great puck-retriever.
He’s due a substantial raise from the $2.25 million AAV he earned the past four seasons. Though Hyman, a Toronto native who’s spent his entire six-year NHL career in Hogtown after being drafted by Florida in 2010, could always stay home at a discount.
Brandon Saad – Colorado Avalanche
Outside of one bad season with Chicago (2017-18), Brandon Saad has scored at a remarkably consistently per-hour pace across his NHL career. In his other eight full NHL seasons, his points/60 are: 2.1, 2.2, 2.2, 2.3, 2.3, 2.0, 2.0, and 2.3.
In his career, Saad plays at a 24-goal, 48-point pace. He’ll turn 29 shortly after the start of 2021-22. With the Avs in a cap crunch, he'll likely have to find a new haunt this summer.
Saad could be a candidate to take a short-term deal to ride shotgun with Connor McDavid in Edmonton. Saad averaged just 14 minutes a night on a stacked Avs team this season, but the Oilers have a giant void on their top left-wing spot and could provide Saad with opportunity. He has the speed to keep up with McDavid and could complement McDavid and likely right winger Jesse Puljujarvi well.
Saad's last contract paid him $6 million annually over six seasons.
Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow – Tampa Bay Lightning
Twin long-term rentals at the 2019-20 trade deadline, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow hit UFA for the first time as two-time Stanley Cup champions.
Coleman – a 29-year-old from Plano, Texas – cost Tampa a 2020 first-round pick and former first-rounder Nolan Foote when they acquired him from New Jersey in February 2020. Considering the role Coleman filled in the past two playoffs, it was worth it. In 48 games across the two post-seasons, Coleman had eight goals and 24 points while capably killing penalties and providing middle-six aggression. His past three regular seasons, Coleman averages around half a point per game. He’ll garner a raise on the $1.8 million he earned each of those three seasons.
Goodrow doesn’t bring as much offense – he’s played at a 26-point pace the past three seasons – but he’s big, versatile and can kill penalties. Having two Cups on his resume (“he's a winner!”) won’t hurt. Goodrow is coming off a two-year, $1.85-million deal.
Kyle Palmieri – New York Islanders
Kyle Palmieri filled a similar role to the players above (specifically former teammate Coleman) one trade deadline later. Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello acquired Palmieri (with Travis Zajac) for a package headlined by a 2021 first-round pick this April.
Palmieri is coming off a down year offensively but shot at just 8.7 percent this season (his career average is 12.5). Between his breakout 2015-16 season and the end of 2019-20, Palmieri had 132 goals and 249 points in 363 games for an 82-game average of 30 goals and 56 points. His 79 even-strength goals tied him with the likes of Phil Kessel and Jonathan Huberdeau for 64th in the NHL.
After a tough start with the Isles, Palmieri was solid in the playoffs, scoring seven goals and nine points in 19 games as New York came within a win of the Cup final.
He hits UFA status coming off a five-year deal that paid him $4.65 million per season. He could return to the Island or depart for a more follically-hospitable environment.
Gabriel Landeskog – Colorado Avalanche
His career suggests Landeskog should be a top UFA prize. But it’s tough to envision Colorado – even amid its cap crunch – letting its captain hit the open market. Hence the low billing.
Landeskog was a bargain for the Avs during the seven-year, $39-million pact he signed coming off his ELC in August 2013. Since then, Landeskog is 35th in NHL scoring, with 187 goals and 443 points in 569 games.
Should he reach UFA, teams will fall over themselves to earn his signature. Beyond the offense, he provides leadership – Landeskog was the youngest captain in NHL history until Connor McDavid in 2016 – and is willing to take punishment (and can dole it out) to make plays. He’s a heart-and-soul, 200-foot player who can play in all situations – though he rarely kills penalties anymore.
A word of caution, though, scoring wingers who play as physically as Landeskog and have earned monster UFA contracts have tended to see their deals age poorly. Landeskog turns 29 in November, and a bidding war may push his price tag beyond palatability.
Still, he’ll likely stay (affordably) in Denver; he has unfinished business there.
Alex Ovechkin – Washington Capitals
Shocking though it may be Alex Ovechkin, who turns 36 in September, is eligible for this list, he fits the criteria; the Moscow-born sniper was in the third season of his ELC with Washington when he re-upped for 13 years at the tidy sum of $9.538 million per season. That contract – signed in January 2008 – expires July 28, at which point Ovechkin would be a UFA for the first time in his 16-year NHL career.
So why does the greatest pure goal-scorer in hockey’s history receive only a passing mention on this list? Ovechkin will be a UFA in name only – if he even makes it that far. He’ll be back in D.C. next year.
Ovechkin’s next goal will tie him with Marcel Dionne for fifth all-time, with 731. From there, he’ll have to pass Brett Hull (741), Jaromir Jagr (766) and Gordie Howe (801) before officially setting his sights on The Great One’s mark of 894.
HM: Tomas Tatar, Jaden Schwartz
Both coming off mid-term deals within $50,000 of each other (Tatar, $5.3 million; Schwartz, $5.35 million.) Tatar was a healthy scratch to end his tenure in Montreal; Schwartz has too often been a non-healthy scratch in his NHL tenure. But both are capable offensive contributors.