The 2020 NHL off-season was fascinating and unprecedented. Bet on 2021 to top it. Not only do we have the 2021 expansion draft, during which the Seattle Kraken will populate their roster with players snatched from 30 of 31 other teams, but the 2021 class of unrestricted free agents looks particularly bountiful at virtually every position.
The top names on the list are strong bets to end up staying with their current teams, especially Washington Capitals legend Alex Ovechkin. Then again, musing on this same list in 2018 and 2020, I was supremely confident John Tavares and Alex Pietrangelo, respectively, would return to their teams at the time, so you just never know. Even if the top names re-sign before going to market, we’re looking at a shockingly deep class thanks to the strange NHL economy created by the pandemic. Since so many players signed one-year deals during the 2020 off-season, hoping to cash in on a friendlier landscape a year later, many signees from 2020 will rejoin the 2021 UFA pool along with all the other players finishing multi-year contracts. I thus have players who would’ve been easy top-30 UFAs in most seasons – from Casey Cizikas to Zdeno Chara – barely even sniffing the top 30 this time.
We’ll surely see a cluster of top-end UFAs re-signed before the off-season arrives, but we can expect a deep and talented list of players to choose from regardless. Giddyup.
And now, the rankings. Ages listed as of July 28, 2021, the current slated started date for unrestricted free agency.
1. ALEX OVECHKIN, LW, 35
2020-21 cap hit: $9,538,462
Hard to believe he’s concluding his 13-year, $124-million pact. It’s finally time. His next contract is expected to two to five years long – with the Capitals. The odds of Ovechkin pulling a Tavares – Would a Tom Brady be the better comparison? – and leaving are extremely slim. Ovechkin has already expressed his desire to finish his NHL career as a Capital and then play his final pro-hockey season with his hometown club: Dynamo Moscow of the KHL.
2. DOUGIE HAMILTON, D, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $5,750,000
In the past three seasons and change, no defenseman has scored more goals than Hamilton – despite him missing significant time with a broken leg last season. The old guard may not like his body language or off-ice interests – LOL, says the new guard – but he’s a top-tier puck mover and play driver who has great size and a right-handed shot. Expect him to command Pietrangelo money and term. Hamilton has openly expressed his desire to remain a Carolina Hurricane.
3. GABRIEL LANDESKOG, LW, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $5,571,429
Landeskog is the anti-Hamilton in that old-school hockey thinkers love Landeskog. Some league executives still talk about how impressed they were with his scouting interviews leading up to the 2011 draft. He’s a revered, heart-and-soul captain who blends top-line scoring touch with bruising physical play. Landeskog’s camp recently said he wants to be an Av for life, and GM Joe Sakic has the cap space to make that happen.
4. TUUKKA RASK, G, 34
2020-21 cap hit: $7,000,000
Even as Rask nears his mid-30s, he’s stopping pucks at an elite level, albeit with a consistently elite defensive team playing in front of him. The Bruins’ decision to reduce his regular-season workload in recent years has paid off. Rask had the second-best season of his career in 2019-20. He said earlier this month he doesn’t want to play anywhere but Boston. With expensive center David Krejci coming off the books as a UFA, the cap space will be there.
5. TAYLOR HALL, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $8,000,000
The first four names on this list are long shots to leave their current teams. Now we arrive at someone whose future looks legitimately cloudy: Hall. By signing a one-year deal last off-season, he placed two bets: one on himself to have a monster year playing with Jack Eichel and one on the market to rebound. With the Kraken eating a bunch of contracts league-wide, there should be more money freed up to spend on UFAs even in a flat-cap scenario. That's the thinking among some prominent agents I've spoken to about 2021 free agency.
6. RYAN NUGENT-HOPKINS, LW, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $6,000,000
Will Nugent-Hopkins test the market? It was recently reported the Oilers won’t go higher than a $7-million AAV on his next deal. Will a new suitor top that? ‘The Nuge’ is a tough player to appraise, as he racks up so many of his points on the power play alongside two superstars. He ranks 17th in the NHL in power-play points since 2018-19, with 38.7 percent of his points coming on the power play.
7. PHILLIP DANAULT, C, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $3,083,333
Could Danault be the best UFA investment of all for a contending team? He’s one of the top two-way forwards in the business, capable of shutting down elite forwards while still driving the play on a scoring line. He has reportedly turned down a six-year, $30-million offer from the Habs, so it’s not a given that he stays in Montreal.
8. TOMAS TATAR, LW, 30
2020-21 cap hit: $5,300,000
Danault’s linemate Tatar also drives the play extremely well but brings a superior scoring touch. Averages 26 goals and 66 points per 82 games since becoming a Hab. Might GM Marc Bergevin have to choose between Tatar and Danault this summer?
9. KYLE PALMIERI, RW, 30
2020-21 cap hit: $4,650,000
Averaged 30 goals per 82 games in his first five seasons as a Devil. That appears to be Palmieri’s ceiling, but it’s a highly useful ceiling. He's such a safe source of goals.
10. JORDAN BINNINGTON, G, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $4,400,000
Had a rookie season for the ages followed by a merely decent sophomore year that ended with a poor playoff performance. Binnington has a lot on the line. A big season would secure him a lucrative long-term pact. But the Blues have a boatload of major free agents, restricted and unrestricted, to sort through. Difficult decisions loom for GM Doug Armstrong.
11. MIKE HOFFMAN, LW, 31
2020-21 cap hit: $4,000,000
Hoffman isn’t a $4-million player. He’s worth much more than that and, like Hall, aims to score a richer, longer-term pact next summer. Hoffman is old enough that he could begin declining soon, however, so he'll want to avoid a down year with St. Louis at an inopportune time. Playing just 13:47 a night thus far as a Blue is not a good start.
12. JADEN SCHWARTZ, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $5,350,000
As his injury-prone past gets further away in the rearview mirror, Schwartz is ready to cash in as a rock-solid top-six forward who doesn’t excel in any one area but does a lot of things well and is tenacious for his size.
13. PHILIPP GRUBAUER, G, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $3,333,333
Is he Colorado’s long-term guy in net? Grubauer’s .920 career save percentage places him sixth all-time among goalies with 150 or more games played, but he’s really struggled to stay healthy. Of all years to prove his durability, this is the one.
14. BRANDON SAAD, LW, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $6,000,000
Will be attractive for teams wanting him to fill the same role he does in Colorado now: a win-now piece, responsible at both ends of the ice, fast, able to play anywhere from Line 1 to Line 3 and contribute 20-plus goals.
15. DAVID KREJCI, C, 35
2020-21 cap hit: $7,250,000
So much experience in the regular season and playoffs as Boston’s longtime No. 2 center. Would be neat to see him go to a team that lets him play with its top wingers. He always gets the leftovers with the Bruins.
16. TYSON BARRIE, D, 30
2020-21 cap hit: $3,750,000
Tied for eighth in points among NHL defensemen since his breakout 2013-14 campaign. Barrie, a power-play specialist, was set up nicely to post massive contract-year numbers in Edmonton, but the early returns have been surprisingly lackluster.
17. RYAN GETZLAF, C, 36
2020-21 cap hit: $8,250,000
Would the Ducks walk away from their captain and franchise leader in games and assists? When they bought out former cornerstone Corey Perry in 2019, it sent a message that GM Bob Murray was ready for a new era. Might they move on from Getzlaf and let him pursue a championship with a contender? Then again, even a young team needs some veteran leadership around, and he’d be a dream mentor for playmaker Trevor Zegras.
18. NICK FOLIGNO, LW, 33
2020-21 cap hit: $5,500,000
Entrenched in the Columbus community thanks to his charity work and role as Blue Jackets captain. It thus feels more likely than not that Foligno stays, but the Blue Jackets now have RFA Patrik Laine needing a new deal, with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski eligible to sign extensions this off-season, so it’s possible Foligno will have to take a discount to stay.
19. BLAKE COLEMAN, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $1,800,000
He really was the missing piece for Tampa’s Stanley Cup run. Coleman can play center or the wing, he kills penalties, he forechecks aggressively and, don’t forget, on a team that needs him to play bigger minutes, he can score 20 goals.
20. MIKAEL GRANLUND, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $3,750,000
Granlund may never reach the ceiling he was projected to have when he ripped up the Finnish Liiga a decade ago, but that’s OK. He’s still a skilled top-six forward who makes an underrated defensive impact.
21. PAUL STASTNY, C, 35
2020-21 cap hit: $6,500,000
Getting long in the tooth, but he still has a skill set plenty of teams would need: intelligent, good on faceoffs, can center a scoring line. The Pierre-Luc Dubois trade all but guarantees the Jets don’t bring back Stastny.
22. FREDERIK ANDERSEN, G, 31
2020-21 cap hit: $5,000,000
Andersen has been the league’s busiest goaltender since becoming the Leafs’ starter in 2016-17, but he’s struggled with inconsistency and hasn’t shown he can take the team on his back in the playoffs. His range of UFA outcomes is wide, depending on how this season plays out. He could remain a Leaf, become a starter elsewhere or, if he doesn’t have a rebound season, become more of a 1B goalie for a new team next season.
23. ZACH HYMAN, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $2,250,000
Without trying to sound to calloused: the Joe Thornton injury was good news for Hyman’s wallet, as Toronto's first-line left winger job reverted to him as a result. When he plays with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the 5-on-5 numbers are strong. Hyman scored 17 even-strength goals in 51 games last season.
24. DAVID SAVARD, D, 30
2020-21 cap hit: $4,250,000
With so many forwards to re-sign this coming off-season, and with half a dozen D-men under contract for next season already, the Blue Jackets likely can’t afford to prioritize re-signing Savard, as much as they might want to. His rugged, minute-munching game will attract plenty of suitors.
25. RYAN MURRAY, D, 27
2020-21 cap hit: $4,600,000
One of the youngest UFA D-men hitting the market this summer. Murray might never live up to his status at the 2012 draft’s No. 2 overall pick, but he’s settled in as a rather underrated defensive defenseman who limits shot quality and kills penalties effectively. Perhaps his injury history makes him a relative bargain, too.
26. ALEX IAFALLO, LW, 27
2020-21 cap hit: $2,425,000
Iafallo is a late bloomer who can hold his own in a scoring role on a rebuilding Kings team but could eventually get pushed down the depth chart by higher-ceiling prospects. He could be worth re-signing to be a veteran leader down the road, or he could seek a bigger opportunity on another rebuilding team.
27. JOEL ARMIA, RW, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $2,600,000
The light really switched on for Armia, a former top-end prospect, over the past couple seasons in Montreal. He’s using his big frame much more effectively, though it’s led to more injuries. He’s an ideal third-liner who occasionally plays more like a second-liner.
28. TANNER PEARSON, LW, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $3,750,000
Can be counted on for 15 to 20 goals and 40 or so points per season. Not the most exciting UFA target but can provide nice depth for a team’s middle six.
29. JAROSLAV HALAK, G, 36
2020-21 cap hit: $2,250,000
Halak has been so great in a 1B role that he deserves another look as a starter. Then again, plenty of teams would love him in that 1B role again because he excels in it.
30. SCOTT LAUGHTON, C, 27
2020-21 cap hit: $2,300,000
Laughton gradually reinvented himself as a checker in Philadelphia, and the offense he showed in his junior days has started to return. He’s a reliable bottom-sixer but still seems to possess a bit of upside.
Other prominent 2021 UFAs to watch: Brandon Montour, Alex Goligoski, Pekka Rinne, Erik Haula, Alec Martinez, Zdeno Chara, Alexander Edler, Nick Bonino, Nikita Gusev, Casey Cizikas, Tyler Bozak, Bobby Ryan, Adam Larsson, Travis Hamonic, Nick Bjugstad, Joe Thornton, Erik Gustafsson, Sami Vatanen, Carl Soderberg. James Reimer, Barclay Goodrow, Eric Staal, Petr Mrazek, Devan Dubnyk, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Alex Galchenyuk, Ian Cole, Marcus Johansson, Adam Lowry, Jordan Martinook, Jamie Oleksiak, Travis Zajac, Alexander Wennberg, Alex Chiasson, Jonathan Bernier, Brad Richardson, Luke Glendening, Linus Ullmark, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Jordan Oesterle, Antti Raanta, Derek Forbort, Mathieu Perreault, Jimmy Vesey, Mattias Janmark, Ryan Dzingel, Brandon Sutter, Mikhail Grigorenko, Derek Stepan, Josh Leivo, Derek Ryan , Corey Perry, Artem Anisimov, Michael Frolik, David Rittich, Laurent Brossoit, Zach Bogosian