Following a massive first day of free agency late last month, not to mention several more signings since, it may seem that there aren’t many big-name free agents left on the market. Yet, quietly there is still and abundance of quality players left unsigned. This includes ten of PHR’s Top 50 UFA’s i.e. 20% of the players that we believed were the best available. It also includes another 13 players who played in 40+ games out of 56 this past season. There’s also Bobby Ryan, who was on pace for 22 points in 53 games before season-ending injury, which would have made him the highest scoring player still unsigned, and Artem Anisimov, whose nine points in 19 games is the second-best per-game mark among remaining UFA’s. With a nice round number of 25 top players still unsigned, which still ignores plenty of other capable NHLers, how many of these can be expected to play in the NHL next season? Time is running out and so are roster spots. Late-offseason signings are not impossible and a fair number of PTO’s are expected in camp this year, but realistically how many of these players will be able to land an NHL deal?
The top available name may also be the hardest to predict because his market is just one team and he isn’t ready to play. Future Hall of Fame goaltender Tuukka Rask (No. 14) remains a free agent and at 34 and recovering from major surgery it is fair to be skeptical that he will ever play again. The career Bruin reportedly will only play in Boston and recent comments by some of his teammates suggest that they expect him to do so at some point this year. But with Linus Ullmark signing a substantial contract to play alongside rookie sensation Jeremy Swayman, do the Bruins need Rask, especially coming in cold mid-season?
While Rask stands out as the only high-end goalie left available, the same cannot be said for forwards. Kyle Palmieri (No. 16), Tyler Bozak (No. 35), Casey Cizikas (No. 36), Zach Parise (No. 37), Nikita Gusev (No. 41), Alex Chiasson (No. 47), and Eric Staal (No. 48), as well as the aforementioned Ryan and Anisimov are all unsigned. Several of these names – Palmieri, Cizikas, Parise – have been linked to the New York Islanders, but no deals have been announced. All three have seemingly done enough to earn new contracts, but are still waiting. Bozak, meanwhile, was arguably the best of the players still available last season, with the top points per game mark even in a season plagued by injury. Gusev is a unique talent that has the chance to excel in the right system, Chiasson is a hard-working, consistent contributor, and Staal is one of the most respected veterans in the game. Ryan and Anisimov each showed that they still have gas left in the tank. It is hard to envision any of these players not playing this season, unless it is their own decision. Yet, none have signed on yet.
On the blue line, top talent is more scarce. Only Sami Vatanen (No. 43) and Erik Gustafsson (No. 44) remain from the Top 50 list and while each brings considerable strengths, they also have major weaknesses. With that said, each has been a regular in the NHL and are perhaps even more valuable as a depth option. Will Vatanen and Gustafsson find the right spot once more this season?
Among the players who were regulars in 2020-21 even though they may not come to mind as top options is a mix of aging veterans, versatile depth players, and discarded youngsters. Legends Patrick Marleau and Zdeno Chara lead the way as players who should be able to find a home if they want to keep playing just purely based on their Hall of Fame pedigrees, but lack the impact they once had. Other veterans still searching for work include Derick Brassard, Travis Zajac, and Jason Demers. Capable bottom-six forwards like Riley Sheahan, Colton Sceviour, Mark Jankowski, and Tobias Rieder are still available, as it stay-at-home defender Erik Gudbranson. Finally, formerly promising prospects Ryan Donato, Jimmy Vesey, and Dominik Kahun are all still looking for another chance.
Each player brings their own case for why or why not they should be employed in the NHL this season. All have been impact players in the league, but in a game progressively more dominated by younger players, history is no longer enough on its own to win a job. The supply of talent in the NHL currently seems to be greater than the demand, even with the expansion to 32 teams. Is there enough room for these 25 top players to find a new team this summer?