It’s the summer doldrums. Free agency has been quiet as teams focus on arbitration hearings, prospect tourneys, training camps and getting fans back into the stadium. Marcus Johansson (Seattle) and Tomas Tatar (New Jersey) are the only free agents with cap hits over $1 million per season who have signed with new teams over the past two weeks.
But, fear not, because we’ll get to do the same song and dance next season with a new crop of free agents. Nothing beats the excitement and tension of witnessing teams drastically altering the course of a franchise in real-time, and it’s one of the few times during the season where we can get a clear indication of how each team’s front office thinks and how far along they think they are in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
Managing the salary cap is a daily exercise, but the best teams think far ahead into the future. Too many big free agent splashes for aging players become detrimental to a team’s cap structure and inevitable buyout candidates, but the 2022 class promises to feature the most intriguing young talent than previous years.
Here’s part two of the most intriguing under-30 UFA’s for 2022 featuring defensemen and goalies. If you missed Part 1 featuring forwards, click here.
Colton Parayko, St. Louis Blues – $5.5 million AAV
Once the Blues trade Vladimir Tarsenko, it’ll open up cap space to re-sign Parayko. He’s their best all-round defender though his role was reduced with Torey Krug eating up all the power play minutes and Justin Faulk getting a bigger role on the penalty kill. It doesn’t seem likely that Parayko will leave the Blues, but that’s what was said about Alex Pietrangelo after he had captained them to a Cup, too. The demand for right-handed defenseman has always been strong, and while Parayko isn’t exactly elite, he doesn’t have many weaknesses in his game, either.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Philadelphia Flyers – $5.4 million AAV
How much hate will Risto get in the City of Brotherly Love? He’s notorious for dividing the traditional hockey men and the analytics community, so how Ristolainen responds in his new environment is going to be fascinating, especially considering the price the Flyers paid to get him. In the best-case scenario, Ristolainen’s hard-nosed play endears him to the fanbase and he becomes a big piece of their blueline moving forward. In the worst-case scenario, Ristolainen struggles and the fanbase runs him out of town.
Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets – $4 million AAV and Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets – $2.8 million AAV
The message is pretty clear in Columbus: win and you’re in. Except we’re not talking about a rotation of games, but the starting job for the foreseeable future. Both goalies are 27 years old, though Merzlikins has the inside track based on his stronger performance last season. Having both goalies’ contracts expire at the same time gives the Jackets a ton of flexibility to either go with one, both or neither. The odd-man out will become a good trade chip for teams looking to shore up their goaltending, and GM Jarmo Kekalainen has drawn rave reviews for his recent trades.
Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks – $5.21 million AAV
Lindholm was on an upward trajectory, finishing 17th in Norris voting in just his third season, but his career has bee pretty nondescript since, mostly because the Ducks have been so mediocre. He might re-sign because playing in California is nice and the Ducks have some elite talent coming up, but perhaps a change of scenery is needed to push the 27-year-old’s game to another level. Lindholm is an attractive option as a top-four defenseman who can kill penalties and handle the puck. Depending on Lindholm and the Ducks’ play, he could be available at a relatively lower cost than his current AAV.
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs – $5 million AAV
Rielly’s the most interesting name to watch on this list. Cap space is tight for the Leafs and figuring out an extension for him will put GM Kyle Dubas’ cap gymnastics to the ultimate test. Comparisons to “The Last Dance” and Michael Jordan’s Bulls dynasty just adds more fuel to a pressure-packed environment, and another early playoff exit and the city might go up in flames. If Rielly plays well, the Leafs will make every attempt to re-sign him and shed money elsewhere because he’s difficult to replace and their blue line already lacks quality depth. If the two sides decide to part ways, there will be no shortage of suitors for Rielly, who could easily command upwards of $8 million thanks to Seth Jones’ ludicrous extension.
Ryan Pulock, New York Islanders – $5 million AAV
I’m not sure how Lou Lamoriello bewitched Adam Pelech to sign such a team-friendly long-term deal, but I imagine it could be the same for Pelech’s defensive partner. The Isles are in a very good spot right now and certainly a contender, so why mess with a good thing? Pulock will surely get a more lucrative contract from another team if he becomes a free agent, but it’s not always about the money.
John Klingberg, Dallas Stars – $4.25 million AAV
The big contract extension for Miro Heiskanen, a $5.8 million AAV with a no-move clause for Esa Lindell and a four-year commitment to a 36-year-old Ryan Suter are reasons why I find it difficult to believe the Stars can keep Klingberg. He will surely demand a raise and he’s rightfully earned it, but the Stars are up against the cap right now and may not have much to work with in the future after extensions for Denis Gurianov and Calder runner-up Jason Robertson. Klingberg ranks seventh with 54 power-play points among defensemen over the past three seasons and will surely command much more than Tyson Barrie, another right-handed power-play quarterback who had plenty of suitors.
Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings – $858,333 AAV
It’s a big season for Petersen and it’s his net to lose. The 26-year-old netminder outplayed Jonathan Quick and will be pencilled in as the Kings’ starter, and it’s an enviable position because their future is so bright with so many high-end prospects coming through. The comparable is Linus Ullmark, who secured a long-term deal worth $5 million per season after toiling on a bad Sabres team, showing that there’s still a strong demand for younger goalies with a proven track record.