It has been a great year for a lot of the NHL’s pending unrestricted free agents as some perfectly time career years (and some players displaying continued excellence) should result in some major paydays over the coming weeks and months.
Even though some of these players might end up re-signing with their current teams they are still positioned to cash in.
Let’s take a look at 10 players who have done the most for themselves on their next contracts.
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
The Flames’ great season is going to come at a significant cost this summer as they not only have to deal with the restricted free agency of Matthew Tkachuk, they also have to figure out if there is a way to keep Gaudreau. They have been the NHL’s most productive forward duo this season, absolutely dominating their opponents. Both players have topped the 100-point mark and are among the NHL’s top scorers. They are going to cost a fortune.
Gaudreau is the fascinating one because players like him, coming off of a season like this do not typically enter the open market. Not only because most teams tend to keep elite scorers, but also because players do not typically have seasons this good going into free agency. You have to go all the way back to Brad Richards in 2010-11 to find the last time a top-10 scorer entered the unrestricted free agent market. Gaudreau has been a top-scorer before but this season represents a massive jump from what he did the past two seasons, while he turns 29 this offseason. Elite talents tend to maintain a lot of their production into their 30s, so he should still have a few great years ahead of him (especially if he stays in Calgary with Tkachuk). He could get $9-10 million on the open market.
Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators
There was some discussion as to whether or not Nashville would trade Forsberg before the trade deadline, but that clearly did not happen as the Predators push toward a playoff spot. Forsberg has had a career year by topping the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career and showed what he is capable of over a full season where he is (mostly) healthy. The Predators have a ton of salary cap space to play with and no other major expiring contracts so paying Forsberg his market rate should not be an issue. If they want to. And if he wants to stay. His current salary cap hit is $6 million per season and there is no reason to think he can not get at least $8 million.
Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche
Kadri has been a good fit in Colorado from the moment he arrived, but this season his game went to another level entirely. He has scored at a 100-point pace over 82 games and been a complete two-way force in the middle of the Colorado lineup. The big question here: Would he do that on a team that is not as obscenely loaded offensively as Colorado is, and in a situation where he has to be the top guy over a full season? He will also be 32 at the start of next season. There is some risk here.
Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche
Colorado is actually a pretty great place to be a goalie. You get to play behind the best defensive lineup in the league while getting incredible goal support. You also rarely need to steal games. Philip Grubauer turned his success in Colorado (where he was a Vezina Trophy finalist in his contract year) into a six-year, $35.4 million contract with a no-trade clause. Kuemper stepped in to replace him and is currently one of the best performing goalies in the league. A goalie-needy team will no doubt throw money at him.
Ville Husso, St. Louis Blues
Here is a complete wild card of a player. Husso was awful as St. Louis’ backup goalie a year ago, entered this season as the backup to Jordan Binnington after he signed a massive contract extension, and ended up playing his way into the starting job. And he has been legitimately good, arguably helping to save the Blues’ season and take them from “good playoff team” to “possible Stanley Cup contender.” But his track record as a starting goalie is so limited it seems almost impossible to project him long-term. The last time aa team signed a goalie like that away from St. Louis the Buffalo Sabres ended up with Carter Hutton, which did not work out well for anybody (Hutton or the Sabres). He makes just $700,000 this year and will be getting a significant raise from somebody, whether it is the Blues or somebody else.
Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins
Rust has become such a valuable player for the Penguins, and it really came out of nowhere. He was an unheralded prospect, got a chance late in the 2015-16 season, scored some big goals on the way to a Stanley Cup, and over the years has turned himself into a legitimate top-six winger that can impact the game in all three zones and every phase of the game. He can play up and down the lineup, play with elite players, kill penalties, and do a little bit of everything. He is one of three key free agents for the Penguins this summer (along with Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin) but the one that is probably least likely to sign. This is his one opportunity at a significant pay day and he would be crazy not to take advantage of it.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins
If the Penguins are going to re-sign just one of their pending free agents, Letang should be the priority because he is still sensational even in his age 34 season. He is one of the top offensive defenseman in the league and can still control the pace of the game and play major minutes. He is in fantastic physical shape, can still skate at an elite level, and is having one of the best seasons of his career. He has been the most underappreciated of Pittsburgh’s core over the past decade-and-a-half, but also one of the most valuable.
John Klingberg, Dallas Stars
I imagine his minus-27 rating is going to be a red flag for some people, but Klingberg’s underlying numbers from a scoring chance and expected goal perspective are still strong, he can still produce in the offensive zone, and after Letang it is a pretty thin market for defenders.
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
This is a wild card because there are a couple of questions here. Does he want to retire? Is it Boston or bust? Would he entertain the idea of playing elsewhere? If he plays and stays in Boston the Bruins have a way of getting their top players to sign laughably below market contracts. But if he wanted to entertain the idea of playing elsewhere and cashing in he could absolutely do that because even though he is in his mid-30s he is still an elite two-way center that can score a top-line rate and play masterful defense.
Andrew Copp, New York Rangers
Copp was a huge addition for the Rangers at the NHL trade deadline and is the type of player that could really boost his value in free agency if he has a big playoff run. He has been great since joining the Rangers, is very good defensively, and is having a nice breakout year offensively that has seen him to 20-goals and 50 points. If he plays well in the playoffs teams are going to lineup to throw money at him in the offseason. His salary cap hit is $3.64 million this season. On the open market he probably easily tops $5 million on a long-term deal with the season he has had.