Leafs’ Michael Bunting is the No. 1 Free Agent available ahead of 2023 offseason

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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:

      1Michael BuntingLW2773212546TOR$950K
      2Damon SeversonRD287362329NJD$4.17M
      3Patrick KaneRW3466203353NYR$10.5M
      4Ryan O’ReillyC324815924TOR$7.5M
      5Dmitry OrlovLD315962632BOS$5.1M
      6Alex KillornRW3375233356TBL$4.45M
      7J.T. CompherC2873163248COL$3.5M
      8Jordan StaalC3472171431CAR$6M
      9Vladimir TarasenkoRW3161162844NYR$7.5M
      10Tristan JarryG28402.98.908PIT$3.5M
      11Max PaciorettyLW345303CAR$7M
      12Tyler BertuzziLW284251520BOS$4.75M
      13Semyon VarlamovG35222.71.913NYI$5M
      14Vladislav GavrikovLD276441115LAK$2.8M
      15Ryan GravesLD287161622NJD$3.17M
      16Carson SoucyLD287021113SEA$2.75M
      17Scott MayfieldRD307551621NYI$1.45M
      18Ivan BarbashevLW2774142640VGK$2.25M
      19Joonas KorpisaloG29342.92.914LAK$1.3M
      20Matt DumbaRD28724913MIN$6M
      21Frederik AndersenG33292.45.904CAR$4.5M
      22Max DomiC2872193554DAL$3M
      23John KlingbergRD305991928MIN$7M
      24James van RiemsdykLW3452101626PHI$7M
      25Connor CliftonRD277151621BOS$1M
      26Alex KerfootLW287392130TOR$3.5M
      27Shayne GostisbehereLD3066122638CAR$4.5M
      28Evan RodriguesC2960142034COL$2M
      29David KampfC287371825TOR$1.5M
      30Frederick GaudreauC3074141933MIN$1.2M
      31Jason ZuckerLW3170252045PIT$5.5M
      32Gustav NyquistLW3348101222MIN$5.5M
      33Pierre EngvallRW2769161127NYI$2.25M
      34Tomas TatarLW3274172441NJD$4.5M
      35Justin HollRD317121517TOR$2M
      36Luke SchennRD336231821TOR$850K
      37Ian ColeLD347131316TBL$3M
      38Garnet HathawayRW317612921BOS$1.5M
      39Nick FolignoLW3560101626BOS$3.8M
      40Evgenii DadonovRW346572229DAL$5M
      41Jesper FastRW317181725CAR$2M
      42Nick BjugstadC3070161228EDM$900K
      43Radko GudasRD336421113FLA$2.5M
      44Erik GustafssonLD316973239TOR$800K
      45Erik HaulaC327492534NJD$2.38M
      46Sean MonahanC282561117MTL$6.38M
      47Lars EllerC347591019COL$3.5M
      48Jonathan DrouinC285022628MTL$5.5M
      49Teddy BluegerC285441115VGK$2.2M
      50Connor BrownRW294000WSH$3.6M

      Next up: Corey Perry, Tampa Bay Lightning.

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