With the 2021 NHL trade deadline in the rearview mirror, it’s time to update this list of the top unrestricted free agents in 2021. This year’s UFA class must prepare for a topsy-turvy off-season for a second straight year. The league salary cap is expected to remain flat at $81.5 million. We also may see fewer UFAs than normal sign their contracts before going to market, as even the players planning to re-sign with their teams may hold off as part of handshake agreements so their teams don’t have to protect them in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft the week before the free-agency period begins.
A shortened 2020-21 season means a small sample size, but we have seen some noteworthy perceived increases or decreases in certain UFAs’ values since I last updated this list.
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. 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. We know he’ll be back with the Caps next year. It’s just a matter of whether he signs a short- or long-term deal.
2. DOUGIE HAMILTON, D, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $5,750,000
In the past four seasons, 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, but it sounds like contract talks are more or less shelved until the season ends, per The Athletic’s Sara Civian. The smart money is on him staying but, then again, that’s what most of us said about Pietrangelo in St. Louis a year ago.
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. RYAN NUGENT-HOPKINS, LW, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $6,000,000
Will Nugent-Hopkins test the market? He and the Oilers have been kicking the tires on an extension but haven’t settled on anything yet. ‘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 14th in the NHL in power-play points since 2018-19, with 42.1 percent of his points coming on the power play. He’s an important cog in Edmonton, however, as he plays a lot of minutes on the penalty kill, too.
5. TUUKKA RASK, G, 34
2020-21 cap hit: $7,000,000
The Bruins’ decision to reduce Rask’s regular-season workload in recent years has paid off in his play. Has it also lowered his price tag? The rise of third-string prospect Jeremy Swayman might push one of Rask and Jaroslav Halak out. Odds are it’s Halak, as Rask only wants to play in Boston and thus might consider taking a hometown discount to do so. The Bruins have good leverage.
6. TAYLOR HALL, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $8,000,000
Hall’s one-and-done Sabres season played out as a true worst-case scenario. In a way, even a season-ending injury would’ve preserved his UFA value in amber like a Jurassic Park mosquito, but gutting out two thirds of the season in Buffalo destroyed his numbers and his confidence. The home stretch and playoffs in a Bruins uniform will be vital to restoring his value. He’s already looked more effective in Boston. Given Hall's upside and that he remains on the right side of 30, he’ll have suitors and a multi-year contract if he wants one this time around.
7. PHILIPP GRUBAUER, G, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $3,333,333
Talent was never in question for Grubauer. He’s delivered a tremendous “put it all together” season for the Avalanche and has the sixth-highest save percentage in NHL history among goalies with at least 100 games played. The key was to prove he can stay healthy and, knock on wood, he’s mostly done that, as landing on the COVID-19 list isn’t the same as sustaining another soft-tissue injury. Is Grubauer playing so well that he’s at risk of pricing himself out of Colorado, though? Captain Landeskog’s contract is a priority, as is an extension for star RFA blueliner Cale Makar.
8. TYSON BARRIE, D, 30
2020-21 cap hit: $3,750,000
Seventh 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, and that’s exactly what’s happened. But do the Oilers need to bring him back? They were already a powerhouse power-play team before he signed, and he’s a bit of a drag on their defensive play. Might their money be better spent on a more impactful two-way player?
9. ZACH HYMAN, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $2,250,000
Hyman is enjoying a major breakout just in time for his next contract, with comparables like Brendan Gallagher’s six-year, deal at a $6.5-million AAV expected to factor prominently in negotiations, per The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun. Hyman is an even-strength scoring dynamo who contributes in so many different situations. His numbers get puffed up playing with great scorers, sure, but he fills an important role on those lines with his puck-retrieval skills.
10. PHILLIP DANAULT, C, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $3,083,333
Danault is 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 reportedly turned a six-year, $30-million offer from the Habs before the season but, with his offense disappearing this season, he may want to ask if that deal is still on the table.
11. 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 24 goals and 64 points per 82 games since becoming a Hab. Might GM Marc Bergevin have to choose between Tatar and Danault this summer?
12. 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 had a bad year, but it’s likely the product of playing with less help in New Jersey before his trade to the New York Islanders and an unlucky shooting percentage of 6.3, which is almost exactly half his career mark. Perhaps that’ll make him a bargain signing this off-season.
13. JADEN SCHWARTZ, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $5,350,000
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. It’s just never a given that Schwartz plays a full schedule, however. He’s missed double-digit games in four of his past six seasons.
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 in the middle six and contribute decent goal totals. He already has 15 this season in 43 games while playing just 14 minutes or so per night, but that’s a trap: his shooting percentage is unsustainable at a ridiculous 23.1.
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 typically gets the leftovers with the Bruins, though Hall is a fun short-term upgrade.
16. NICK FOLIGNO, LW, 33
2020-21 cap hit: $5,500,000
He was entrenched in the Columbus community thanks to his charity work and role as Blue Jackets captain. Does that mean he’ll return there after his stint as a trade-deadline rental with the Leafs? It’s tough to say, as the Jackets must focus on re-signing RFA Patrik Laine and working out an extension for Seth Jones.
17. BLAKE COLEMAN, LW, 29
2020-21 cap hit: $1,800,000
He really was the missing piece for Tampa’s 2020 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.
18. 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. His most useful trait is his versatility. He can play any forward position if needed.
19. ADAM LARSSON, D, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $4,166,666
Gradually, Larsson has realized his promise as a defensive defenseman, and he’s having the best season of his career, playing an ornery game, sacrificing his body. The Oilers might be best off keeping him. He’s become an important player for them.
20. DAVID SAVARD, D, 30
2020-21 cap hit: $4,250,000
He’s big, rugged, shoots right-handed and is generally underrated as a shutdown defenseman, having spent his career in a relatively small market before Columbus dealt him to Tampa Bay at the deadline. Pretty much every team needs a guy like Savard.
21. ALEC MARTINEZ, D, 34
2020-21 cap hit: $4,000,000
Wow. What a year. Martinez, who has profiled as more of a two-way defenseman for most of his career, is producing by far the best offensive numbers of his career just in time for a new contract. A personal-best season at 34 makes him a risky signing if any suitor is banking on repeat numbers.
22. ALEX GOLIGOSKI, D, 35
2020-21 cap hit: $5,475,000
He’s durable, he plays 22 minutes a night, he moves the puck pretty well…he’s just a safe veteran pickup at this stage of his career, even if it’s on a short-term deal.
23. MIKE REILLY, D, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $1,500,000
Reilly was a bright spot on a rebuilding Ottawa Senators team this season, forming a net-positive pair with rookie Artem Zub, and Reilly has already proven extremely useful moving the puck on Boston’s left side. He felt more like a fringe NHLer a few years ago but has established himself as a legitimate UFA target.
24. MIKE HOFFMAN, LW, 31
2020-21 cap hit: $4,000,000
During the first edition of these rankings, I claimed Hoffman “was not a $4-million player.” The implication was that he was worth more, but now it’s fair to ask if he’ll earn less on the open market. His defensive shortcomings are beginning to overshadow his goal-scoring skills, and he’s been healthy-scratched at times in St. Louis. At the same time: he’s still scoring at a 27-goal pace if pro-rated to 82 games this season. He can bulge the twine, but he’s a risky team-chemistry fit.
25. 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 and, as he’s shown this year, can transition successfully to the left wing as well.
26. 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. The Ducks and Getzlaf explored the idea of renting him out to a contender at this year’s deadline, too. The guess here: he stays, but he begins his Joe Thornton Years, re-upping on short-term deals at a discounted price.
27. JAMIE OLEKSIAK, D, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $2,137,500
Sometimes big defensemen take longer to find themselves in the NHL, and Oleksiak, who carries first-round draft pedigree, fits the bill. He’s much improved in his second stint with Dallas, using his strength effectively while also showcasing good mobility for a man his size.
28. BRANDON MONTOUR, D, 27
2020-21 cap hit: $3,850,000
The Buffalo factor hurt his numbers in recent seasons, but he was hyped as a good puck-moving prospect in his Anaheim days, and his season-ending stint in Florida gives him a chance to boost his value before going to market. Plenty of teams could use a slick puck-mover on the right side, and he’ll come far cheaper than someone like Barrie.
29. RYAN MURRAY, D, 27
2020-21 cap hit: $4,700,000
Tough year for all Devils players, but Murray is still relatively young for a UFA, has a recent history as a respectable defensive defenseman and can skate. On a better team, he could be a handy middle-pair option.
30. MATTIAS JANMARK, LW, 28
2020-21 cap hit: $2,250,000
Like Granlund, Janmark brings a Swiss Army Knife skill set. The Vegas Golden Knights have already used him at all three forward positions and on both special teams. So he’s a nice complementary option if a contender needs depth. Or he could play higher in the lineup on a weaker team.
Other prominent 2021 UFAs to watch: Derek Forbort, Joel Armia, Mike Smith, Jani Hakanpaa, Petr Mrazek, Alexander Edler, Frederik Andersen, Jaroslav Halak, Pekka Rinne, Erik Haula, Zdeno Chara, Nikita Gusev, Casey Cizikas, Tyler Bozak, Bobby Ryan, Travis Hamonic, Nick Bjugstad, Joe Thornton, Erik Gustafsson, Sami Vatanen, Carl Soderberg. James Reimer, Barclay Goodrow, Eric Staal, Devan Dubnyk, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Alex Galchenyuk, Ian Cole, Marcus Johansson, Jordan Martinook, Travis Zajac, Alexander Wennberg, Alex Chiasson, Jonathan Bernier, Luke Glendening, Linus Ullmark, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Jordan Oesterle, Antti Raanta,, Mathieu Perreault, Jimmy Vesey, Ryan Dzingel, Brandon Sutter, Mikhail Grigorenko, Derek Stepan, Josh Leivo, Derek Ryan , Corey Perry, Artem Anisimov, Michael Frolik, David Rittich, Laurent Brossoit, Zach Bogosian, Dmitry Kulikov, Jon Merrill, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Riley Nash, Travis Boyd, Tucker Poolman, Jordie Benn, Ryan Miller, Derick Brassard, Michael Bunting, Patrik Nemeth, Kurtis Gabriel, Marcus Sorensen, Matt Nieto, Carl Gunnarsson, Tomas Nosek, Brock McGinn, Cedric Paquette, Vinnie Hinostroza, Michael Del Zotto, Andrew Cogliano, Blake Comeau, Erik Gudbranson, Sean Kuraly, Cody Ceci