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There is no sugarcoating this summer’s NHL free agent crop. There will be no hyperbole to drive ratings, or talk about a three-headed monster stalking the top of the list like we’ve had in years past. There will certainly be no Brinks trucks backing up to the house of one newly wealthy individual with $75 or $80 million inside.
Yes, 2023 will likely go down as one of the weakest overall free agent classes in more than a decade. But this class graduates to free agency at a fascinating juncture as the NHL’s salary cap could be increasing in a meaningful way for the first time since 2019.
Beauty will be in the eye of the beholder. Which is why the top available free agent is very much a debate. We’ve ranked Toronto Maple Leafs winger Michael Bunting in the No. 1 spot because he’s strung together two very productive seasons – totaling 44 goals and 109 points – on his first one-way NHL contract. There will be no shortage of teams interested after witnessing the success Zach Hyman has achieved in Edmonton upon departing Toronto. New Jersey’s Damon Severson will also be a hot commodity as a steady, right-shooting defenseman who can chew up minutes.
This summer had the potential for fireworks. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were slated to hit the market. Kane is likely in need of offseason hip surgery, plus his market of suitable destinations will be limited; the future of Toews’ career is in doubt and retirement seems to be on the table as his body has refused to cooperate under the debilitating affects of long-COVID. For that season, Toews didn’t make the Top 50.
Even 2019 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly will have missed upwards of 30 games this season. He will need a dynamic playoff to significantly saw off his impending pay cut – amid rumblings that O’Reilly has designs on returning to St. Louis next season. These rankings as a whole are all subject to the rising and falling of playoff success; the Stanley Cup playoffs are where paydays are earned.
Alex Killorn and Vladimir Tarasenko, Stanley Cup winners in their own right, have been productive but there will be hesitancy trying to chart their course on the age curve. There are also question marks about the recent injury histories of Tyler Bertuzzi, Jason Zucker, Nick Foligno, Jonathan Drouin and Sean Monahan.
Those risks will be mitigated for Max Pacioretty and Connor Brown. Both of those veterans are eligible for a little-used, bonus-laden contract as stipulated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Pacioretty, 34, missed 77 games after re-tearing his Achilles tendon. Brown, 29, sat out the final 78 games after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL.
Since both Pacioretty and Brown have accrued 400 games played in the NHL and missed more than 100 days of the season due to injury, both are eligible to sign a contract for the league minimum that includes performance-based bonuses that do not have to accrue on next season’s salary cap, but if they are earned, could instead be pushed to 2024-25. That’s why Pacioretty, who scored three times in five games with the Canes, will be in high-demand at No. 11. He’s still been one of the elite snipers in the game.
Boston stalwarts Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci didn’t make the board. It’s Bruins or Bust for those two players, who may skate off into the sunset this summer if all goes according to plan for the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
While it feels like the same for No. 8 and Carolina Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal, that isn’t necessarily a given. There’s no doubt he’d like to stay in Carolina, but the Hurricanes haven’t gotten a deal done with their captain. Talks have remained cordial, but the longer he lingers unsigned, the chance increases he will peruse the market – where he could potentially be united with his two brothers, Eric and Marc, who are also pending free agents.
Just because there isn’t a big-name, big-money player leading the class doesn’t mean this summer won’t be interesting. There will be value buys to improve rosters. And a weaker free agent class will only turn up the temperature on the trade market, especially if teams have an influx of new cap space available.
Buckle up. Here is Daily Faceoff’s first Top 50 UFAs ranking for 2023, which is a blend of hypothetical interest and a projection of total dollars awarded:
|24||James van Riemsdyk||LW||34||52||10||16||26||PHI||$7M|
Next up: Corey Perry, Tampa Bay Lightning.