As someone who grew up a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, I’m very well aware that the months leading up to a new season can often be the best and most optimistic in the sports calendar.
That’s why I’ve taken such pleasure in breaking down the NHL’s 2021 UFA cohort in such extreme detail, in a series of blogs over the past month-plus. Some fan out there somewhere needs to be given a reason to talk themselves into whichever free agent being the key to their team’s off-season, whether that’s an under-the-radar name who will help out at a budget price or a big add who’ll be the last piece to the puzzle. And I just think that’s lovely, and I am certainly not going to deny them that pleasure.
The 2021 UFA cohort has a ton of names, and I’ve hit most of them at some point in this series. But for whatever reason, a few have slipped through the cracks. So, in what will be the last entry in this series, here are eight last-minute UFA buys who could help your team next fall.
The Buyout Boys
These guys are late additions to the 2021 UFA cohort and so missed appearing on previous lists. Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Keith Yandle were the first three players to see their contracts bought out this summer. Each should be sought-after as a UFA.
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter – Minnesota Wild
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed twin 13-year, $98-million deals with Minnesota on July 4, 2012. Their time in the State of Hockey would wind up lasting ‘only’ nine years, with the pair bought out together July 13.
While neither is worth his former contract any longer, both are still useful NHL players and should draw fairly significant interest.
Parise turns 37 the day free agency opens, on July 28. In the two seasons before 2020-21, he was still scoring at a 30-goal, 61-point pace. The Minneapolis-born left winger had seven goals and 18 points in 45 games for the Wild this past season. His average TOI of 13:57 was by far the lowest in his career outside of his rookie season with New Jersey in 2005-06. He’s made more than $100 million in his career and has already experienced playing in his hometown, but his career started three years too late to be a champion in New Jersey. So it's safe to assume he lands somewhere he'll have a shot at that elusive prize.
Suter will celebrate his own 37th birthday in January 2022. He had three goals and 19 points in 56 games for the Wild this season. Suter started his tenure in the Twin Cities with a bang, joining P.K. Subban as a first-team all-star blueliner and finishing second to Subban in Norris Trophy voting in 2012-13.
He also experienced a sharp decline in offensive production in 2020-21, after consecutive
seasons of 47 and 48 points the two preceding years. And while his minutes were also cut slightly, he still logged over 22 minutes a night. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder is seven goals shy of 100 for his career; he’s scored seven or more goals in nine of 16 NHL seasons.
Keith Yandle – Florida Panthers
Like his buyout brethren, Yandle very much still has tread left on the tires, and he’ll have his suitors this summer. Unlike Parise and Suter, Yandle never technically hit the UFA market. But that didn’t mean his status as one of the best UFAs-to-be in 2016 didn’t push his value just a smidge too high for him to see out his most recent contract.
Florida acquired Yandle’s rights from the New York Rangers a couple of weeks before free agency began in 2016. They inked him to a seven-year, $44.45-million deal three days later.
Yandle has been one of the NHL's most productive blueliners since his breakout 2008-09 campaign with the Phoenix Coyotes. In that time, only Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson have eclipsed Yandle's 586 points. You know what else happened in 2008-09? An extra leap second was added to the end of the year. You know something relevant that happened then? The last occurrence of Yandle being out of a regular-season lineup. Since missing a game against Anaheim on March 22, 2009, Yandle has skated in 922 straight contests. That’s the second-longest streak in NHL history. If he plays in his new team’s first 42 games in 2021-22, Yandle will tie Doug Jarvis for the NHL’s foremost ironman streak. And in case you’re wondering, the three playoff games Yandle was a healthy scratch for this post-season do not affect that.
Yandle’s 0.48 points per game in 2020-21 was his lowest since 2008-09, but he still finished tied for sixth among NHL blueliners with 18 power-play points. He could be a fit to take a '2019-20 Kevin Shattenkirk' deal with a team that can give him easier matchups.
Centers (Escaping) Attention
While three of these five centers at least drew “honorable mention” credits in this series’ previous entries, none merited his own write-up. Until now. Breathe easy, Tyler Bozak.
Derek Stepan – Ottawa Senators
Ottawa acquired Stepan from the Arizona Coyotes on Boxing Day of 2020. As it turns out, it wasn’t such a great markdown. The Coyotes will get the 37th pick in the 2021 draft for their troubles, while Ottawa received just one goal and six points in 20 games from Stepan, who now hits unrestricted free agency at 31 years old.
Stepan has struggled to muster much offensively since he had his five-year streak of 50-plus-point seasons snapped in 2018-19.
The 2008 New York Rangers second-rounder missed the final 35 games of the year with a shoulder injury but has otherwise been mostly healthy in his 11-year NHL career; the only other season in which Stepan missed 11 or more games was 2014-15. His $6.5-million price tag from the past six seasons is going to have to come down.
Travis Zajac – New York Islanders
When Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello made his trade deadline splash – acquiring right winger Kyle Palmieri from New Jersey – he made sure veteran pivot Travis Zajac also came in the haul.
Zajac had previously played the entirety of his 15-year NHL career as a Devil. He made sure to get some milestones out of the way before he hit the road, though. His final point in New Jersey – an assist in a 5-3 loss to Buffalo on April 6 – was his 550th point in the league. That came in his final game with the team that drafted him 20th overall in 2004. Against Boston a week earlier, he'd scored the 200th goal of his career.
Zajac turned 36 in May and is coming off a contract that paid him $5.75 million per season for eight years. He’s played to a 32-point pace the past two seasons. He’s also a reliable faceoff man, winning nearly 54 percent of career draws. He’ll be a good bottom-sixer.
Tyler Bozak – St. Louis Blues
Making it 12 years in The Show – earning somewhere in the range of $40 million – isn’t too shabby for a guy who wasn’t even drafted. And that’s exactly what Tyler Bozak has done, after originally signing with Toronto as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
Bozak spent nine seasons with the Leafs before signing a three-year, $15-million pact with St. Louis on July 1, 2018. In his first season in the Show-Me State, Bozak summited the NHL’s mountain, scoring five goals and 13 points during the Blues’ 2019 Stanley Cup championship run.
Bozak is 35 years old and is coming off his best per-game point pace since 2016-17. He had five goals and 17 points in 31 games in 2020-21.
Nick Bonino – Minnesota Wild
Reaching the 700-game plateau as a sixth-round pick ain’t so bad either. Nick Bonino should accomplish that feat in the early stages of 2021-22; he's 19 games short right now. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound center scored 26 points in 55 games for Minnesota this season. He struggled on the draw early in his career but has won nearly 53 percent of his faceoffs the past four seasons.
Derick Brassard – Arizona Coyotes
Brassard has bounced around a ton in the past few seasons, skating games for five franchises since the start of 2018-19. But the 33-year-old still has juice; he had 20 points in 53 games for Arizona this past season. Played at a tidy $1-million price tag in 2020-21.