While the National Hockey League would normally be entering the third week of its regular season right about now, the ongoing pandemic has turned the league's schedule upside down. The opening of free agency- normally a staple over the Canada Day long weekend- began on October 9th instead, a Friday.
While the league opted to do away with the week-long negotiation period that previously allowed teams and players to speak prior to the start of free agency, it didn't stop several high-profile names like Jacob Markstrom, Torey Krug, and T.J. Brodie from signing within hours of hitting the market.
However, due to COVID-19 and a league-wide cap crunch, a bevy of talent remains on the market. Who are the best names available in free agency, and where might they sign? Read on to find out!
1. RW/LW Mike Hoffman (Florida Panthers)
2019-20 Stats: 69 GP, 29-30-59, 28 PIM, -5
While in a normal year a sniper of Hoffman's caliber would've signed just hours into free agency, a combination of a flat salary cap and tight internal budgets for many teams has left the star winger hanging.
While it's a sure bet he signs before training camp opens, the length of his next contract is less clear; like Taylor Hall, Hoffman may opt to sign a one-year deal with a team far below the salary cap in order to pad his stats and up his value for the 2021-22 season.
Prediction: Hoffman inks a one-year deal with New Jersey, giving the Devils a chance to line the talented scorer up next to 2019 first overall selection Jack Hughes or 2017 top pick Nico Hischier.
2. LW/RW Anthony Duclair (Ottawa Senators)
2019-20 Stats: 66 GP, 23-17-40, -5, 18 PIM
Just 25 years old, it feels like Duclair has been around the league forever. In that short time, the mercurial winger has suited up for five different NHL teams, never managing to stick anywhere very long despite showing flashes of promise. Duclair appeared to take a step forward in the pandemic-shortened season, potting 20 goals for the first time since 2016. However, he surprisingly chose to represent himself as a free agent, and Ottawa quickly cut him loose.
Still, the promise is undeniable. Duclair will likely need to take a heavy paycut- he was said to be asking for as much as $5 million a year from the Senators prior to not being qualified as a Restricted Free Agent- but he'd have his choice of teams on a cheaper one- or two-year deal. As his own agent, Duclair is in a unique position to negotiate his fate.
Prediction: Duclair will want to put himself in the best situation to score goals, and showing he can last in one market would likely increase the confidence of teams in the future. Look for him to re-sign in Ottawa at a heavy discount.
3. C/RW Mikael Granlund (Nashville Predators)
2019-20 Stats: 63 GP, 17-13-30, -4, 28 PIM
It's never ideal for a player to have a career-worst season just as they're about to hit free agency, never mind when a pandemic has reduced the dollars available league-wide. However, that's exactly what happened to former Minnesota Wild star Mikael Granlund. Landing in Nashville at the NHL Trade Deadline in 2019, the Finnish forward has struggled mightily to produce with just his second-ever NHL team, scoring just 35 points over parts of two seasons.
At just 28, there's still plenty of time for Granlund to rebound. Thanks to his versatility- he can play all three forward positions- it's easy to imagine him fitting in almost anywhere. As with everyone else on this list, though, it all depends on price; having made $6.5M a year heading into free agency, Granlund could looking at making a third or even less in 2021.
Prediction: There has already been plenty of talk that Columbus General Manager Jarmo Kekelainen has already agreed to a deal-in-principle with Granlund, and is just waiting to sign star Restricted Free Agent Pierre-Luc Dubois before making it official. Assuming that happens, a one-year deal at or just above $2 million seems reasonable.
4. LD Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins)
2019-20 Stats: 68 GP, 5-9-14, +26, 60 PIM
It's not often a player in their 40s is a highly-sought free agent, but there simply aren't a lot of players like Chara. "The Big Z" has consistently defied expectations over the years, progressing from a wild experiment as a 3rd round pick in 1996 to becoming one of the best defenders of his generation.
Although the Boston Bruins are still in need of help on the left side- they lost premier puck-mover Torey Krug to St. Louis on the first day of Free Agency- General Manager Don Sweeney curiously let the team's captain and former lynchpin hit the market with little fanfare. Whether that was by design remains unclear, but it could mean Chara has a new home as he enters the 23rd year of his remarkable and unlikely NHL career.
With a Cup on his resume and still capable of playing heavy minutes, the 6'9 blueliner is sure to draw interest from contenders around the league. Having made just $2 million in 2019-20, Chara is also no stranger to taking less money to play in a desirable market.
Prediction: Boston is in a curious place; their core of stars is not only aging but plagued with injuries to start 2020-21, and the next wave of talent is not yet ready to take over. However, they're still as dangerous as anyone come playoff time. With the Bruins still having other contracts to sort out, the door is not totally closed. Watch for the club to circle back and eventually re-sign their captain for a 13th and possibly final season in black and yellow.
5. LW/C Dominik Kahun (Buffalo Sabres/Pittsburgh Penguins)
2019-20 Stats: 56 GP, 12-19-31, +8, 8 PIM
When free agency opened earlier this month, it didn't very long for the new economic reality to set in for players like Dominik Kahun. While a 25-year-old forward who had showed signs of improvement over his first two NHL seasons would normally attract plenty of interest, Kahun and others like him were frozen out as what little money was available promptly went to bigger names.
A native of Germany who once lined up next to Leon Draisaitl in youth hockey, Kahun has struggled to find his own way playing for three different organizations. However, it does not seem to be a case of attitude or skill; rather, he simply has yet to find his niche at the NHL level. That could change if a familiar name is able to convince his team to sign him.
Prediction: Even after adding free agent centre Kyle Turris and former top pick Jesse Puljujarvi to their roster, the Oilers are still on the hunt for forward depth. That Kahun is a good friend of one of their biggest stars is just icing on the cake; with plenty of speed, smarts and upside, Kahun could out-perform a one- or two-year deal around the $1 million mark in a hurry, making General Manager Ken Holland look like a genius in the process.