The 2021 free agent frenzy is over. After more than a billion dollars was signed away in just a few days, the NHL unrestricted free agent market has dried up almost entirely. When Ryan Murray settled for a one-year, $2MM contract with the Colorado Avalanche yesterday, he became the only real UFA deal of significance since the calendar turned to August.
Even though things are almost picked clean, there still may be some value out there for a savvy NHL front office. Twelve players from our Top 50 UFA list are still unsigned for next season, though several of those are expected to be in agreement with the New York Islanders and others like Tuukka Rask are unlikely to make a decision anytime soon. We profiled Tomas Tatar recently–arguably the best player still available–and will continue to do the same for the other names from that list in the coming days.
But even beyond those players, there is still NHL talent out there, waiting for the right opportunity (or big enough paycheck). A few of the notable free agents that didn’t make our Top 50 list, but remain unsigned:
Ryan Donato – A second-round pick, a Hobey Baker finalist, an Olympian. All things to describe the 25-year-old Donato, who was cut loose by the San Jose Sharks this summer after just one season with the team. The Sharks decided not to issue Donato a qualifying offer that would have allowed him to elect salary arbitration, putting him on the market after a frustratingly inconsistent season. In 50 games, he scored just six goals and 20 points, but then went to the IIHF World Championship and won a bronze medal. Of note, Donato’s most common linemates this season were John Leonard and Dylan Gambrell, who have a combined 36 points in the NHL. Perhaps in the right situation, he can rediscover the scoring magic that helped him explode onto the scene in Boston just a few years ago.
Jason Demers – Is Demers finished at age-33? The veteran right-handed defenseman certainly seems like a player that could be one of the bargains of free agency, even if his play has declined over the last few years. With the Arizona Coyotes this season he averaged the fewest minutes since his rookie season, but still likely could provide some value to a contender as a depth option. There’s almost no offense left, as Demers registered just four points in 41 games this season, but he can still contribute as a bottom-pairing option, even killing penalties at times.
Alex Galchenyuk – Just a few months ago there was plenty of excitement around Galchenyuk, who had seemingly turned his career around in Toronto. The 27-year-old forward was pulled off the scrap heap by the Maple Leafs and spent time with the team’s development staff rebuilding his game. In 26 contests down the stretch he scored 12 points, and offensively was actually one of the team’s bright spots in the playoffs with four points in six games (and, one brutal turnover). There are certainly plenty of red flags in Galchenyuk’s career, but one-time 30-goal scorers who recently showed flashes of their former self are usually snapped up quickly by rebuilding teams that want to complete a pump-and-dump–give them huge minutes during the first half just to flip for future assets at the deadline.
Erik Gudbranson – You won’t find many statistical defenses of Gudbranson, who has been carved up by the analytics community since basically the moment he arrived in the NHL. The thing is, that arrival was a decade ago now and you can’t find a ton of 29-year-old free agents with as much experience as the 6’5″ defenseman. There’s no reason to think he can play in a top-four, or perhaps even be a regular contributor, but there’s something to be said for the strong play he experienced down the stretch in 2019 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the right situation, surrounded by the right amount of talent and deployed properly, there is still a place for Gudbranson in the NHL.
There are plenty of other names that could end up on an NHL roster next season. At this time of the year none of the signings are going to dramatically change the makeup of a team, but as contending teams have shown year after year in the playoffs, adding depth at the right spots–even players that have struggled elsewhere–can make a difference at the right moment.
Can someone call the league office – I don’t think that the Ducks were aware that the free agency period was occurring. Fire Bob Murray!!
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Even at this early stage of the off-season, you already know which teams are definately not making the playoffs next season. Some are rebuilding nicely like the Sens, some are just content with being awful like the Sabres, but then there’s the Preds. They just need a good piece or two in their top 6 to be a respectable team, but they’re instead headed towards a 7th place finish next season in the Central. It’s like putting on a donut tire on your car instead of a full spare so you can save a few bucks. Never works out too well. :/
@Gbear – “Some are rebuilding nicely like the Sens…” – Yoikes! It’s been a long time since that was a legit statement, eh? I agree with the sentiment, but it’s definitely in stark contrast with BUF, NSH, ANA, SJS, and the Desert Dogs. I think we can imagine all the GMs waiting for the day the cap gets back to more “normal”, and with it, the horse-trading that gives us something to discuss. Better tune in to The Instigators podcast to see how the temperature is in BUF…
IMO, a team with cap space now that is either a bubble team or sitting somewhere just outside of that bubble is positioned as well as they ever will be to grab some talent that wouldn’t be available to them in a rising cap world. Unless a team is just tearing it down to do a complete rebuild, they’re blowing a chance to climb up a few rungs on the ladder in this flat cap era. Thus my frustration with Poile.
Mac not to step on your toes, On some more dirt on Sabres , you can check out Graviteh , and Top Shelf Hockey for temperature checks , along with good stories on all teams and players , few channels on you tube that I like, Stay Safe everybody
@G – Thanks for the extra info, there! More stuff to check out is always better here. Hope you’re doing well and staying safe, too!
@Gbear – I wonder if some teams completely trust Bettman when it comes to forecasting the cap future over the next few years and are more hesitant at making those move when, as you say, they are ripe for the picking. Or, maybe a couple of these RFAs are thumbing their noses at the “offers” coming their way, and think they can hold out for a better deal when somebody gets injured in training camp or the pre-season. Those guys should realize the Cap Cannibals are starving this year.
@Mac – I like what the Kings and Hawks did this past two weeks or so. They sped up their rebuild plans by taking advantage of the current market and used their cap space to their advantage. To not do likewise if you have the cap space is foolish, IMO.
As for Bettman, I wouldn’t buy a used car from him, but the owners seem to like him. :D
Gal should get back with Toronto! Top 6 minutes
Leafs already have 15 forwards signed and are over the cap.
Doubt any of these guys are signed. best they can hope for a tryout somewhere. or off to europe
Gudbranson back to the Pens. Need a right handed defenseman after losing Ceci.
And supposedly are looking to add some toughness. Make a move, Hextall