Predictions for the top NHL free agents, including Nazem Kadri, Johnny Gaudreau, Evgeni Malkin

Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland has surveyed the NHL free-agent landscape every summer since 1997. What does he see as the 2022 market prepares to officially open Wednesday at noon?

“Lots of teams are tight on the cap, so it’s going to be interesting,” Holland told ESPN. “And then other teams … you wonder if they want to spend.”

The NHL salary cap is $82.5 million for next season, a rise of just $1 million over last season’s ceiling. That doesn’t bode well for the NHL’s middle class of players who are seeking new unrestricted and restricted free-agent deals.

“What we’re seeing play out right now is going to be [rough] for them,” one NHL agent told ESPN.

But the top-end free agents? They’ll still get their blockbuster deals, comparatively.

We’ve already seen Filip Forsberg get $68 million over eight years to stay with the Nashville Predators, Kevin Fiala get $55.125 million over seven years after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, and 35-year-old Kris Letang get $36.6 million over six years to remain with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Who’s next? Here’s a look at where things stand with some of the biggest names on the unrestricted free-agent market.

Note: Deal projections are courtesy of Evolving Hockey’s contract prediction model, which has proved to be accurate in past years.

Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames

Age: 28
Previous contract: $6.75 million AAV on a six-year term
Projected contract: $10.87 million AAV on a seven-year term

One of the more interesting developments at the draft was the abject optimism from Flames GM Brad Treliving that there was still a path to retaining Gaudreau, the franchise-level winger who could hit unrestricted free agency this week.

“My hope is that we’re going to get something done before it gets to that,” Treliving said. “If I didn’t think that it was possible, then we’d probably have turned our attention somewhere else. That’s not to say that it’s a slam dunk. But when you think that there’s a deal there to get done, you keep working at it.”

Immediately, there were those around the NHL who thought the comments could be face-saving — one of those “we made our best effort” type of situations before Gaudreau leaves. But a few sources also felt that Gaudreau might not be finding the megadeals with the teams with which he’d hope to find them in free agency.

If Gaudreau was looking for a South Jersey homecoming with the Philadelphia Flyers, for example, the $5 million they just spent on Tony DeAngelo doesn’t exactly get them close to that.

(If he was looking for something in the Garden State a bit north of that, the Devils currently have over $25 million in cap room … if they’re interested.)

There was some speculation at the draft that the Seattle Kraken could be interested in Gaudreau to pair with Matty Beniers or Shane Wright at center. But how far away is Seattle from contention, and how long would Gaudreau be willing to wait? Furthermore, is that kind of splash in sync with the Kraken’s plan for a slower build?

Theoretically, Calgary is getting stronger consideration as the hours tick down and the market under a flat cap takes shape. But as Treliving said, it’s not a “slam dunk” he stays.

“I think both sides are focused on trying to get a deal. I think it’s real genuine on both sides to try and get a deal done,” the GM said.

Jack Campbell, G, Toronto Maple Leafs

Age: 30
Previous contract: 
$1.65 million AAV on a two-year term
Projected contract: $5.726 million AAV on a six-year term

After Matt Murray blocked a trade to the Buffalo Sabres, the Murray-to-Toronto rumors were inescapable at the draft, with the Ottawa Senators picking up a large portion of his $6.25 million cap hit in this scenario. As a former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound, Murray has history with Toronto GM Kyle Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe and goalie scout Jon Elkin, who were all there when Murray was tending goal in the OHL.

We mention Murray here because whatever the Leafs do with their goaltending — keep in mind they also traded Petr Mrazek to the Chicago Blackhawks — is tied to what could happen with Campbell this week. “Obviously we know Jack well. He’s been a part of our program. We’ll stay in touch with him,” Dubas said.

If Campbell leaves, it’s either because the Leafs went in another direction or because they were priced out of Campbell’s services in a market that’s goalie-starved. There’s little reason to believe Campbell won’t still get at least the $5 million AAV Linus Ullmark received from the Boston Bruins last summer. That could be with a team like the Edmonton Oilers or Washington Capitals.

Nazem Kadri, C, Colorado Avalanche

Age: 31
Previous contract: $4.5 million AAV on a six-year term
Projected contract: $8.469 million AAV on a seven-year term

Kadri is coming off the best season of his NHL career — and right before free agency! — with 87 points in 71 games, another 15 points in 16 playoff games and strong play on both ends of the ice.

All of that adds up to a player whom the Avalanche would no doubt like to keep around … and a player who will get contract offers above and beyond what Colorado would like to give him.

The Avalanche have 16 players under contract. As of Sunday, they were working hard to re-sign winger Valeri Nichushkin. They have defenseman Josh Manson nearing free agency and will try to retain him. Winger Artturi Lehkonen, a restricted free agent, will get paid. Matching what Kadri could get from another team will be difficult.

Given Kadri’s value in the regular season and playoffs, someone will ante up for his services. One interesting team mentioned at the draft in connection to Kadri: the Bruins, who could certainly use a pivot of his talents but would need to move some cap space to make it happen. Nazem Kadri, playing in Boston. We’d need some time to process that.

There’s talk the Kraken could be in play for Kadri, as they ease Matty Berniers and Shane Wright into the NHL behind a No. 1 center. But we also like Sportsnet analyst Jeff Marek’s scenario: Kadri to the Detroit Red Wings, as they try to level up back to contender status. One never knows what Steve Yzerman could be up to.

Author: Lucy Green