The NHL free-agent market officially opens on Wednesday — you can catch our simulcast of TSN’s “Free Agent Frenzy” coverage beginning at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN+ — as teams scramble to sign players who can be everything from the last pieces of a championship puzzle to the spackle around the holes in their lineups.
But the free-agent period is so much more than players putting pens to paper. It’s about the trades that allow teams to make those signings or to earn salary cap breathing room. It’s the unexpected trends that come to define the offseason. And this summer, it’s about a superstar center and an expansion team in Seattle throwing the whole process into chaos.
Here is what we’re hearing as the start of free agency arrives:
Where things stand in the Eichel Derby
An Eichel trade involves three basic considerations. There’s his health, which has given teams pause on a player they’d normally trade for in a millisecond. Eichel has a herniated disk. He favors disk replacement surgery. The Sabres medical staff pushed back on that plan, with GM Kevyn Adams saying Eichel was “potentially having a surgery that’s never been done on an NHL player before.”
Then there’s his contract, which is $10 million against the cap annually through 2025-26, with a full no-movement clause that kicks in next summer. Some teams can absorb that hit, shipping out money to welcome in Jack Eichel. Other teams have a different sort of math, especially if they have contracts due for young stars in the coming years.
Finally, there’s the cost in trading for Eichel. Multiple sources say the price starts with a first-round pick, a blue-chip prospect and young NHL-rostered players.
The derby is difficult to handicap. The Minnesota Wild have been a consistent option. The Montreal Canadiens were engaged, but there’s conflicting information on how deep those talks have gotten. Multiple reports have indicated the New York Rangers and the Sabres haven’t been able to find common ground on a trade. The Los Angeles Kings have been out for some time for the factors spelled out above, but mostly because they want to see what the young players their rebuild have produced look like in the NHL, rather than shipping them out to another team.
The expectation, from Eichel’s camp and the hockey world, is that he’ll be traded this summer. But Adams did offer his caveat over the weekend: “He’s a player on our team, so I would have no problem at all if Jack Eichel is on our team when we start training camp.”
Futures of Landeskog, Grubauer linked
It’s clear that things have gone farther down the road with the Colorado Avalanche and captain Gabriel Landeskog than many anticipated. But the Avalanche have stuck to their financial plan, and undoubtedly felt that Landeskog’s loyalty — to raising the Cup as a member of the franchise and to the community in which he’s lived for 10 years — would compel him to take less than market value to stay.
That could still happen, but the marketplace is ready for Landeskog to leave Denver. Multiple sources have indicated that the Seattle Kraken may use some of their considerable cap space to land Landeskog. “They’re definitely in on him,” said one prominent agent.
For Colorado, it’s a fast-moving situation, and one that’s certainly tied to their decision in goal. Philipp Grubauer, their 29-year-old Vezina Trophy finalist, is an unrestricted free agent. At a minimum, he could expect the $6 million average annual value that Jordan Binnington received from the St. Louis Blues over a six-year term. Do the Avalanche go down that road or perhaps look elsewhere, like Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper, who makes $5.4 million against the cap annually, and has one more year on his deal? What about someone with the playoff pedigree of Braden Holtby, provided the Vancouver Canucks pick up some of his $4.3 million cap hit in the final year of his deal?
How the Kraken will approach their first free agency period
The Seattle Kraken have left many in the NHL puzzled. The Vegas Golden Knights blazed a path to free agent success in 2017, but Seattle chose a different road.
“I thought they had the opportunity to do what Vegas did, getting young assets and then eventually trading them for their versions of Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. I also wondered if they would measure up the rest of the division and think they could be a playoff team right away,” said one NHL general manager.
But what Kraken GM Ron Francis found out quickly was that teams were much better prepared for the expansion draft this time around.
“We talked about that going into this. This was going to be so much different than what Vegas went through. There hadn’t been an expansion draft in 17 years. Vegas did a good job taking advantage of the rules and everyone’s lack of experience in that environment. But the minute that one was done, they knew we were coming in. It was supposed to be three years and then it was four years. So they had a lot more time to prepare for us,” he said.
He said NHL teams weren’t “willing to make the mistakes that they made last time” with Vegas.
“I told him this is the direction we’re headed. And that was it. There was no talk of the side deals. And it seems to me a lot of teams said, ‘Here’s what you’ve got available to you, and you’re going to take it, and we’re not getting caught in that situation again,'” said another NHL GM. “But at the same time, they’ve had a year and a half to understand that [landscape] and set their own roster.”
So the Kraken made the choice to opt for open cap space rather than a treasure trove of picks and prospects like Vegas had, with a focus on free agency. They compelled free-agent defensemen Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson, as well as goalie Chris Driedger, to sign contracts ahead of the expansion draft.
During their free agency negotiating window, winger Jaden Schwartz was one of the players the Kraken targeted. Seattle and Schwartz are basically settled on the framework for a deal — it sounds like he just wanted a little time to think about it before fully committing.
“They fully took the opportunity of that UFA window, talking to these players when no one else could. They pressured agents and they pressured players. It’s going to be interesting to see who they land on Wednesday,” said one NHL GM.
Teams that were interested in signing Suter, who was bought out by the Wild along with Parise earlier this month, have been told the defenseman wants multiple years on his next deal. That has eliminated some suitors. There seems to be mutual interest between the Dallas Stars and the veteran defenseman, with Dallas potentially offering him the longest contract.
If he doesn’t end up in Dallas, the New York Islanders might be a match — the destination where most people in the league expect Parise to land.
Trend Watch: RFA snubs
One of the trends that has emerged during the last two pandemic seasons: Teams getting aggressive with their restricted free agents who have arbitration rights. That seems to have escalated this offseason.
The Carolina Hurricanes traded Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic before arbitration, feeling that they didn’t want to commit that salary to — in their minds — a still-unproven goaltender. He signed a two-year, $3 million AAV deal after being traded to the Detroit Red Wings.
“They didn’t like the arbitration case and felt they could find better value elsewhere,” said a source.
The Rangers shipped out forward Pavel Buchnevich, who was arbitration-eligible and one year away from unrestricted free agency. One source said the Rangers were going to walk away from him if they didn’t find a suitable trade.
Coyotes forward Conor Garland, included in the Oliver Ekman-Larsson deal to the Vancouver Canucks, was arbitration-eligible. So was Buffalo Sabres center Sam Reinhart, although his RFA status wasn’t exactly the driving force for him wanting out. The Sharks didn’t qualify Ryan Donato. The Penguins didn’t qualify Mark Jankowski. The Oilers didn’t qualify Dominik Kahun.
The problem with arbitration in the 2021 offseason? As one player agent told ESPN, the comparable contracts for arbitration were signed before the league’s flat cap and pandemic economy.
“It’s a year or two behind the current financial [system],” said the agent. “The comparables are pre-pandemic contracts.”
(Obviously general managers are salivating about the comps for arbitration two years from now.)
Some restricted free agents no doubt will welcome the freedom if their teams don’t qualify them or walk away from an arbitration award. But some are better off going through the arbitration process because there’s no guarantee they won’t settle for a pay cut in the flat-cap marketplace.
The bottom line is that by walking away from an RFA, that RFA usually takes a pay cut as a UFA. The more that happens, the more separation of the rich and the poor — well, relatively poor — occurs among players.
“Teams are trying to reset the market, and this is one way to do it,” said an agent.
The tank is on
If it feels like some teams are angling to be, ahem, “less than competitive” next season, there’s a reason for it.
“You have Shane Wright and Connor Bedard in back-to-back drafts. Some pretty good players coming there,” noted one NHL general manager. “It sure does seem like in the next two years, those kids are going to be, um, ‘sought after’ in quite a different way by teams.”
Wright, 17, plays for the Kingston Frontenacs, and was the sixth player to be granted “exceptional” status in the the Ontario Hockey League, joining the likes of John Tavares and Connor McDavid and getting to play in that league a year early.
Bedard, 16, had 28 points in 15 games last season with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League.
“Honestly, for certain teams, it’s the right thing to do,” said another GM. “It’s hard to say that you’re not good. To realize who you are, and then not chasing it by overspending or something. You realize where you are, you commit to doing it, and you follow through with it.”
Cup champs on the market
The Tampa Bay Lightning need to shed salary, everyone knows that. GM Julien BriseBois doesn’t want to use a buyout, so he’s going to need to make some trades.
The cap squeeze means the team likely isn’t bringing back Blake Coleman (on whom BriseBois offered his peers negotiating rights in trade, as he did for Barclay Goodrow and the Rangers) or David Savard. The 30-year-old Savard is going to be one of the best defensemen available, but it sounds like the Montreal Canadiens have the inside track to sign the Quebec native.
Lots of action in the desert
The Arizona Coyotes were one of the busiest teams over the last two weeks, and they’re not done yet.
The team is still looking to move some of its veterans, including Darcy Kuemper and Christian Dvorak. It seemed like a trade for Dvorak was percolating over the weekend — the Boston Bruins are one of the teams in play — so keep an eye on that.
The goaltender carousel of 2021
It’s a great year if you need a goalie, as there are plenty of solid options available: Frederik Andersen, Linus Ullmark, Petr Mrazek, Jaroslav Halak, Antti Raanta, David Rittich, and potentially even Philipp Grubauer if the Avalanche don’t get something done. Brian Elliott is a low-cost veteran option. Arizona may still trade Kuemper, as noted above. That could be a bad thing for the players looking for a big deal.
“The goalie market is going to dry up quickly,” one prominent agent said. “Like it always does.”
The Golden Knights seem open to trading either Marc-Andre Fleury or Robin Lehner, but only on a deal that makes sense. The Blue Jackets were going to trade a goalie this offseason, but it now looks like Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins will both stay.
Among the teams looking for goaltending help: Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Nashville, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Toronto.
Devils ready to spend big?
Another team to watch: The New Jersey Devils.
Beyond their need for a veteran goalie to complement Mackenzie Blackwood, there’s a lot of chatter that they’re in on free-agent defenseman Dougie Hamilton. They have to add veteran goal-scoring to their wings, in support of Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.
The Devils have over $31.5 million in available cap space.