NHL’s top free-agent forwards in 2022: Johnny Gaudreau, Evgeni Malkin and more

Forwards drive the bus. On the best teams, it’s the guys leading the charge up front that drive the most value for a team and it’s usually the deepest, strongest forward groups that go farthest in the playoffs.

This offseason offers no shortage of talent up top starting with the lone franchise player available, Johnny Gaudreau, to some high-end players like Filip Forsberg, Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux. Even teams looking to bolster their supporting cast have a ton of options this year with the likes of Andre Burakovsky, Nino Niederreiter or Andrew Copp to name a few. For forwards, this free-agent class is stacked with options.

As is the case every year, we’ve already broken down the league’s top 50 free agents, separating each notable player into tiers. Sometimes it’s easier to look at the free agent landscape from a positional perspective though. Different teams have different needs and fits – it makes a bit more sense to go through an exclusive list of forwards if that’s at the top of a team’s wish list.

It also helps to break down the marketplace by showing what exactly is available to potential suitors. That adds another wrinkle to things as market prices can often be dictated by supply and demand. A low supply and a high demand could mean exorbitant prices that go way above what a player arguably deserves. A positional list can add that type of context by showing how strong (or weak) the field is.

 

Tier 1: The franchise player

1. Johnny Gaudreau, Flames 

There is one franchise player available this offseason and that’s Johnny Gaudreau, fresh off a Hart-worthy season. He scored 115 points and was an absolute force at five-on-five on the league’s most dominant line. Gaudreau should easily command an eight-figure salary this offseason and instantly become one of the league’s highest-paid players. According to Evolving Hockey, Gaudreau is in line for a cap hit around $11 million on a max deal.

Prior to the 2021-22 season the thought of paying Gaudreau $11 million per season would’ve been ludicrous. There was too much inconsistency with him from season to season and he was a long way off his peak in 2019. Was Gaudreau still an elite player? There were also questions about his ability to elevate his game in the playoffs due to his small stature.

Both those questions were answered this season: yes, Gaudreau is still elite and yes, he can bring the heat in the postseason. Even if a six-win outburst isn’t repeatable, the model still believes Gaudreau to be a true-talent 90-point player who can drive play at both ends of the ice at five-on-five. At 4.3 projected wins, he’s expected to be one of the most valuable players in the league next season. Those kinds of talents aren’t easy to find, especially on the open market.

The easiest contract comparable is Artemi Panarin, a slick and dynamic left winger who helped accelerate the Rangers’ rebuild. He signed a seven-year deal worth $11.6 million at Gaudreau’s age. According to GSVA, Gaudreau is projected to be even more valuable than Panarin was at the time (3.5 projected wins). That’s the biggest reason his fair market value is so high at an average of $13.8 million over the next seven seasons. Some might scoff at such a high number, but there’s also the Patrick Kane contract as a comparable. Coming off a point-per-game season where he was projected to be worth 3.5 wins like Panarin, he signed a deal that would be worth the equivalent of $12.6 million today. Gaudreau, at this stage, arguably provides more value than Kane did at the time.

That means an $11 million deal is one he should be able to live up to, especially as the salary cap starts creeping up again. At that price, the expectation is around three wins of value per season. After what we saw last season, getting to that level shouldn’t be a problem for Gaudreau anytime soon. There are very few players who create as much offence as Gaudreau and can move the puck up ice with control. That’s a very rare trait and Gaudreau instantly adds a lot to a team’s attack. His added commitment to defence in recent seasons is a bonus.

The one question is whether he can deliver that outside of Calgary. Gaudreau is an elite talent, but he did benefit from playing with two other elite linemates. The right fit will be key here at such a high price tag and while Gaudreau should still be worth it, there is some caution to be exercised here — especially considering the massive spike in value in a contract year.

One other issue with the forecast above is that it isn’t based on any comparables — because Gaudreau doesn’t have any. His size, play-making and total value make him a bit of a unicorn and that might overrate how he ages.

Author: Lucy Green