Best of the Rest: Top Remaining Unrestricted Free Agents of 2021

Most big fish have left the free-agent pond, but some impactful UFAs remain. Who are the best 10? And when will the Islanders make their moves?
Author:
Publish date:
USATSI_16014522

AUG. 4 UPDATE: What is the holdup, Mr. Lamoriello? On paper, the list of the best remaining UFAs offers some intriguing names but, in reality, the skeleton is almost picked clean. The New York Islanders are up to somethin’, as usual, expected to sign three of the top 10 names remaining on my UFA board yet refraining from doing so for reasons unknown. Is GM Lou Lamoriello holding back on announcements because the Isles are pursing a major salary-cap shaker of a trade? After dealing Nick Leddy, they have a glaring hole on the left side of their D-corps.

Still, as reported by Arthur Staple of The Athletic, it’s all but locked in that right winger Kyle Palmieri and center Casey Cizikas have agreed to contracts keeping them with the team. For this final edition of the Best of the Rest, then, I’ll strike their names from the official top 10.

1. TUUKKA RASK, G, 34

2020-21 cap hit: $7,000,000

The rise of prospect Jeremy Swayman pushed Jaroslav Halak out. Rask only wants to play in Boston and won’t return to game action until winter 2022 after undergoing hip surgery. Boston signing Linus Ullmark for four years at a $5-million AAV, however, was a bomb. The term commitment makes Rask's future in Boston legitimately cloudy.

2. TOMAS TATAR, LW, 30
2020-21 cap hit: $5,300,000

Tatar endured the worst season of his career and only dressed for five playoff games. With Montreal extending coach Dominique Ducharme’s contract, that’s it for Tatar as a Hab. Each game he sat in the playoffs felt like it eroded a few more bucks off his value. It was terrible timing from his perspective, but it could make him a nice bargain. He was an elite play driver for multiple seasons alongside Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. Tatar is hardly finished.

3. ZACH PARISE, LW, 37
2020-21 cap hit: $7,538,462

Parise’s value changes drastically now that we don’t have to view him through the lens of his massive contract. If he’s willing to sign an “old guy” deal around the league-minimum with performance bonuses, he’ll generate plenty of interest. He can still score a bit if he’s playing down in the lineup as a luxury bottom-sixer a-la Jason Spezza and Corey Perry. Reports last week linked Parise with the Isles, but all is quiet at the moment on the news front.

4. NIKITA GUSEV, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $1,000,000

It’s a matter of fit. With the right company, Gusev produces in spurts like a top-six forward. With the wrong company, he’s struggled to find consistency. He flashed potential in a late-season stint with the Florida Panthers during which he saw some time with Aleksander Barkov. Gusev’s 1.71 points per 60 at 5-on-5 placed him in the 55th percentile among forwards with at least 100 minutes played after he debuted with the Panthers April 15. That graded him out as above average and worthy of a top-nine gig.

5. TYLER BOZAK, C, 35
2020-21 cap hit: $5,000,000

Spent his Blues contract as their third-line center. If he wants to remain a third-line center, he can sign with a weaker team. On a contender, he’s more of a fourth-line option now at his age, albeit one with good hands and faceoff ability.

6. ZDENO CHARA, D, 44
2020-21 cap hit: $795,000

Will he sign another cheap one-year pact buoyed by performance bonuses? As of last week, his agent claimed he was staying in shape and hadn’t decided yet whether to retire. There will still be a market for Chara's services if he keeps playing. The Isles, for instance, need help on that left side…

7. ALEX GALCHENYUK, LW, 27
2020-21 cap hit: $1,050,000

Leaf fans’ memories of his season might be tainted by that overtime giveaway, but it was an ugly moment in an otherwise useful campaign for Galchenyuk. He didn’t look out of place when given opportunities in the top six on a contending team and, as a 27-year-old top-three draft pick with a 30-goal season to his name, he's by no means devoid of upside.

8. SAMI VATANEN, D, 30
2020-21 cap hit: $2,000,000

Vatanen’s weaknesses might actually make him appealing at this stage of his career. Because his numbers have dipped and because he struggles to stay healthy, he should now carry quite a reasonable asking price for a legit puck-moving right-shot NHL defenseman who should be available to play on a third pairing.

9. RYAN DONATO, LW, 25
2020-21 cap hit: $1,900,000

Donato is an interesting reclamation project. When the Sharks decided not to qualify him, he became one of the youngest UFAs on the market. He averages a respectable 16 goals per 82 games in his career. His most common 5-on-5 linemates over the past three seasons spread across Boston, Minnesota and San Jose: Ryan Hartman, John Leonard and Victor Rask. It would be interesting to see how Donato’s scoring touch would translate with higher-end linemates.

10. DAMIR ZHAFYAROV, RW, 27
2020-21 cap hit: played in KHL

It’s clear that Artemi Panarin represents the KHL import exception. We all get it now. For every Bread Man we get several Vadim Schipachyovs and Roman Cervenkas. This late in the UFA game, however, a KHLer like Zhafyarov feels like a reasonable gamble. He averaged better than a point per game last season and arguably offers a higher ceiling than any other forward left on the market now – with, of course, an extremely low floor.

OTHER NOTEWORTHY REMAINING UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: Dominik Kahun, Zdeno Chara, Erik Gudbranson, Travis Zajac, Eric Staal, James Neal, Devan Dubnyk, Henrik Lundqvist, Bobby Ryan, Marcus Johansson

TOP HEADLINES

Cody Glenn/USA TODAY Sports
Play

Fantasy Hockey Preview: Florida Panthers

There were no real expectations to begin with last season, but the Florida Panthers proved they could be real contenders. This season, expect a further step forward from the team's top talents.

USATSI_16147292
Play

Stanley Cup Windows 2021-22: Atlantic Division

Which teams are squarely in win-now mode? Which teams are rebuilding? Who sits in the murky middle? Our division-by-division series concludes with the Atlantic teams.

NHL 22
Play

NHL 22: Full X-Factor Player List Revealed

EA Sports has announced the 50-player list that will have X-Factors in NHL 22.