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 more intriguing young talent than previous years.
Here is Part 1 of looking at some of the top under-30 forwards who are set to become UFA’s next summer:
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames – $6.75 million AAV
It’s not so much about Johnny Hockey’s production with the Flames – 494 career points in 520 games – but his fit. By hiring Darryl Sutter for a second stint, the Flames are looking to return to the physically grinding, defensive style that made them so successful in the mid-2000s. He’s a perimeter playmaker who drifts in and out of games with a history of poor playoff performances, but talented playmakers like Gaudreau are difficult to find. If the Flames don’t pay Gaudreau, someone else will, and if doesn’t figure into the team’s long-term plans, he’s arguably their best trade chip. It’s no secret Gaudreau grew up idolizing the Flyers, another team that’s also going through a roster overhaul. Is there a possible match there?
Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators – $6 million AAV
GM David Poile made it clear that extending Forsberg is one of his biggest priorities and hoped to get him signed before the start of the season. But if the Preds stumble out of the gates and once again face an uphill climb to make the playoffs, there’s always a possibility Forsberg is traded for the right price. Consistent top-six wingers such as Forsberg are in high demand, and he’s just 27 years old. He’s not nearly as dynamic as Gaudreau, but he’s a stronger two-way player and far more consistent as well; the big risk is Forsberg’s health, having missed significant time over the past four seasons due to various injuries.
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers – $5.9 million AAV
It would be a colossal, franchise-altering decision if Barkov were to hit free agency, who would become the ultimate prize, just like how John Tavares ruled the summer of 2018. The Panthers are coming off a surprisingly good season and GM Bill Zito has made an impeccable impression so far, signing Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair and Alex Wennberg last season, claiming Gustav Forsling off waivers, trading for Sam Bennett and Patric Hornqvist, and then adding Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton this offseason. A winning team, no state tax and winters with sandals – what’s not to like?
Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks – $5.625 million AAV
“Just keep swimming” is not an option. The Sharks’ Cup window has snapped shut and it’s time to sink this team into the depths and build for the future. What they decide to do with Hertl, who is still in his prime at 27 years old and an ideal 1B or No. 2 center with his blend of size and skill, will be very telling. There’s a valid argument to re-sign Hertl and build around him, but he’s also got a lot of trade value and he could bring in a massive haul of futures for a team that lacks multiple first-round picks and elite prospects beyond William Eklund, whom they just drafted seventh overall. Hertl would be a great addition to any team and will be one of the most highly-sought centers should he become a free agent.
Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers – $4.33 million AAV
There is zero chance the Flyers even let Couturier get close to free agency. He’s their top center, a perennial Selke candidate and perhaps their future captain with Claude Giroux’s contract also expiring in 2022. So, yeah, he's not going anywhere.
Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers – $5.35 million AAV and Ryan Strome, New York Rangers – $4.5 million AAV
Zibanejad and Strome’s futures are both tied to one player: Jack Eichel. There’s no room for all three of them if the Rangers manage to pull off that trade, especially with Adam Fox and Kaapo Kakko needing extensions and then Alexis Lafreniere the season after. Cap space isn’t a big concern for the Rangers right now but they have to maintain flexibility going forward with such a young roster, and their long-term commitments to Barclay Goodrow and Jacob Trouba could become impediments. Right now, the Rangers seem committed going into the season with Zibanejad and Strome as their top two centers, but given the franchise’s sea change this offseason, their futures with the Rangers seem very unsure. Zibanejad will be a good fit for teams looking for an all-around No. 1 center while Strome is more of a complimentary, second-line center who can help on the power play.
Max Domi, Columbus Blue Jackets – $5.3 million AAV
The Jackets left Domi exposed during the expansion draft for good reason and it’s a foregone conclusion he’s not a part of the team’s future. He’s not the center the Jackets were looking for and his 24 points last season doesn’t assure him of a spot in the top two lines, either. Domi’s trade value is probably lower than it’s ever been – the Jackets may even have to retain salary to trade him – and this is a key season for him to try and return to form as an impending free agent. However, Domi is just 26 years old and there are teams that are willing to gamble on his upside for the right price.
Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes – $5.25 million AAV and Vincent Trocheck, Carolina Hurricanes – $4.875 million AAV
Niederreiter is a useful player but for a winger who tops out at 25 goals, the cap hit is a little steep. The Canes are contending so the only reason Niederreiter or Trocheck get moved is if they get a player of similar caliber who can help right away in return. Niederreiter’s a middle-six winger who has some grit, speed and skill, and he’s the type of player whom teams like to overpay – just look at former Wild teammate Jason Zucker.
Trocheck’s made the Panthers look stupid for trading him after two subpar but injury-riddled seasons and with 43 points in 47 games last season has played himself back into the conversation as a high-end No. 2 center. He skates well and shoots a lot, and gives the Canes quality depth down the middle with Sebastian Aho and Jordan Staal. Trocheck will draw plenty of interest in free agency if he’s not re-signed.
Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks – $3.79 million AAV
Perhaps it’s just time for everybody to move on. The Ducks are kind of a forgotten team, having failed to make the playoffs for three straight seasons and lacking the ability to make any of their games exciting because they can’t score. Injuries have hampered Rakell’s production lately, but perhaps a change of scenery will help him return to form as a dependable, top-six winger who can play either wing. The Ducks need to keep adding to their prospect pool and trading Rakell and Hampus Lindholm, who is also a free agent in 2022, makes the most sense long term.
Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche – $4.9 million AAV and Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche – $2.5 million AAV
The good news is the Avs have significant amounts of money coming off their books in 2022, more than enough to give Burakovsky and Nichushkin raises. Burakovsky has been a great fit and realized his potential as a top-six winger with 89 points in 111 games with the Avs after his development stagnated with the Capitals while Nichushkin has developed into a very strong defensive player with excellent underlying metrics. It’s more likely that Burakovsky gets re-signed, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Avs decide to keep both players.
Calle Jarnkrok, Seattle Kraken – $2 million AAV
We’re operating under the assumption that the Kraken, like the Golden Knights in their inaugural season, win a lot of games right away and become a hot destination. But what if they don’t? At 29 years old with a career-high of 35 points, Jarnkrok doesn’t seem like an important core player even though he’s very consistent and coming off a very good season with the Predators. Do the Kraken keep him as they compete for a playoff spot or trade him for futures? Should Jarnkrok become a free agent, he’s a versatile middle-six forward who would be an ideal fit for teams looking for quality depth.