The best free agents have been scooped up at this point, but what remains is more than just scraps. Some significant difference makers and intriguing bargain bin options are still on the market. Under other circumstances, some of these players might have even been scooped up by now, but the stagnant cap and teams internal budgets will likely lead to them agreeing to short-term deals in the hope that they’ll do better in the 2021 free agent market when the pandemic is hopefully behind us and some degree of normalcy has returned to the world, including the NHL.
Let’s take a look at the 10 best unrestricted free agents still on the market and discuss where they might end up.
1) Mike Hoffman
At this point, Mike Hoffman is by far the best forward left on the market. He’s recorded over 55 points in each of his last five campaigns and set a career-high in 2018-19 with 70 points. To give some perspective to how good he’s been, Hoffman is tied with Patrice Bergeron for 16th place in goals scored (169) dating back to 2014-15. That’s the caliber of player who still can be scooped up.
Mike Hoffman’s agent recently told The Athletic that his client is willing to sign a one-year deal and there are five or six teams with serious interest in his services. If he does end up with a one-year deal, then he needs it to be on a team that obviously has cap space – or is at least in a position to clear up room – and would put him in a great opportunity to succeed so that he would be in a strong negotiating position next summer. It’s not unlike how Taylor Hall signing with the Buffalo Sabres might be confusing until you consider that he’s expected to be sharing the ice with Jack Eichel and that could lead to Hall having one of the best seasons of his career. So what team might be similarly good for Hoffman?
One possible answer is actually the Florida Panthers. He knows what to expect there and what his situation would be. Maybe one more campaign with the Panthers before re-evaluating things after next season would work out for both sides. The Boston Bruins are another potential destination. They haven’t had the best of offseasons, so they’d likely love to make a splash by inking Hoffman. On top of that, Boston will potentially start the season with David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand both on the sidelines after undergoing surgery, so Hoffman would likely begin the campaign on the Bruins’ top line before potentially settling into a second-line role once they’re healthy. Columbus and Nashville have also been brought up as potential destinations for Hoffman, but those teams might not be as good for him if the goal is to maximize the number of points he can put forward and showcase his talents ahead of signing a bigger contract.
2) Sami Vatanen
Although Sami Vatanen isn’t an exciting option in fantasy circles, he is nevertheless a top-four or even top pairing defenseman that’s available for the taking. Over the last six seasons, he’s averaged at least 21 minutes in every single campaign. That speaks to the level of trust that the Anaheim Ducks and then new Jersey Devils had in him. He’s not an offensive juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, but he does contribute with the puck, he blocks shots, and he’s sound defensively. His lengthy injury history, some of it rather recent, is probably his biggest drawback.
One interesting destination for him would be Buffalo if the Sabres want to double down on this season after securing Hall. Adding Vatanen to a defensive core that already includes Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour, and Rasmus Dahlin would help solidify their top-four. Buffalo still has the cap flexibility to make it happen, especially if Vatanen, like others on this list, ends up with a one-year deal. Boston is another team that could be in the market for a blueliner after losing Torey Krug as an unrestricted free agent.
Mikael Granlund was limited to 17 goals and 30 points in 63 games last season, but he had 63 goals and 190 points in 237 contests from 2016-17 through 2018-19. It wouldn’t be surprising if teams were interested in offering him a one-year deal in the hopes of reaping the rewards of a bounce back campaign from him.
One interesting destination for him would be the Minnesota Wild. That’s where he found success in the past and while the Wild aren’t exactly swimming in cap space, they could probably make something work as long as he was willing to accept a bargain bin price.
It was a bit of a surprise to see the Ottawa Senators decide against presenting Anthony Duclair with a qualifying offer. He certainly did his part last season, scoring 23 goals and 40 points in 66 contests, but the two sides couldn’t work anything out and because the Senators didn’t want to qualify him, he’s now an unrestricted free agent at the age of 25. His upside makes him unique on the UFA market. While teams might be happy to sign the other players on this list to short-term deals, teams might be more interested in getting Duclair to agree to something longer.
One interesting fit for him would be the Detroit Red Wings. They’re a young team looking to start to turn things around after four painful seasons. They’re not contenders yet which is why they didn’t make any big splashes on the free agent market, but Duclair is young enough to grow with the Red Wings’ core of Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Anthony Mantha.
Carl Soderberg is a solid second or third-line center on most teams. Although he was limited to 17 goals and 35 points in 70 games in 2019-20, he has surpassed the 40-point milestone four times dating back to 2013-14 and he holds his own defensively.
There’s still an opening for him with his old team, the Arizona Coyotes, if both sides can work something out. He obviously tested the market, but given this weird UFA period, it wouldn’t be shocking if after all that he just ended up back where he started.
One team that was cited early on as a potential destination for him was the Edmonton Oilers because of how badly they needed a third-line center. The Oilers ended up signing Kyle Turris to a two-year, $3.3 million contract, so Soderberg makes considerably less sense now, but there still might exist a scenario where the Oilers go after him anyways. In that world, Soderberg and Turris would make up two-thirds of a rather compelling third line for Edmonton and suddenly you’d be looking at the Oilers as a team with significantly less concerns about forward depth than they had in 2019-20. Could they make it work from a cap perspective? It would require a bit of maneuvering given how close they are to the ceiling, but Soderberg isn’t expected to cost much so it should be doable.
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Like Duclair, Dominik Kahun is another 25-year-old forward who became an unrestricted free agent after he didn’t get a qualifying offer. Kahun isn’t quite as compelling though. Over his 138-game NHL career, he’s already played for three different teams in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. His most recent destination was the Sabres where he scored an encouraging two goals and four points in six contests, completing a campaign where he had 12 goals and 31 points in 56 games.
There was some talk about Kahun re-signing with the Sabres despite not getting a qualifying offer, but they’re probably not in the market for another forward after signing Taylor Hall, Cody Eakin, and Tobias Rieder, so unfortunately Kahun is probably going to have to look elsewhere. While Detroit likely won’t sign both Duclair and Kahun, maybe there’s a scenario where they end up with Kahun instead of Duclair.
It’s also possible that he ends up in Chicago, where he found success in 2018-19 with 13 goals and 37 points in 82 games. The Blackhawks have made it clear that they’re rebuilding, but bringing back Kahun wouldn’t run counter to that given his age.
Travis Hamonic is a solid defensive defenseman who can play top-four minutes. There’s any number of teams who could benefit from him, especially if he’s willing to accept a cheap deal at this point, but he reportedly wants to stay in the Western Conference, so that naturally narrows the list of potential suitors.
The Winnipeg Jets could certainly use some help in their own end, even after signing another former Flames defenseman in Derek Forbort to a one-year, $1 million contract. They’re right up against the cap so they’d need to be a little creative here, but if Hamonic ends up with a cheap contract, then the Jets should be able to find a way to make it work.
Alex Galchenyuk recorded at least 40 points in five straight seasons from 2014-15 through 2018-19, but he couldn’t find a role on the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2019-20. He scored just five goals and 17 points in 45 contests while averaging an abysmal 11:29 minutes. He was eventually traded to Minnesota, which gave him a bigger role and allowed him to finish the season on a higher note, scoring three goals and seven points in 14 contests.
Given his more encouraging play with the Wild, he’s a pretty solid bargain bin option for those still on the hunt for cheap secondary scoring. The New Jersey Devils might be a good fit for him. He could sign a one-year contract with them and would have a fairly good chance of securing a middle-six role on that team. That would give him an opportunity to bounce back and be in a much stronger position in the next offseason.
At one time Derick Brassard was regarded as a great top-two center. He had 19 goals and 60 points in 80 games in 2014-15 and 27 goals and 58 points in 80 contests in 2015-16. However, he’s been on the decline since then. The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired him back in 2018 thinking that he would be an ideal third-line center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but he struggled in that role. Since then Brassard has had stints with Florida, Colorado and most recently the New York Islanders without recapturing his earlier success. He can still offer some contributions as he did in 2019-20 when he scored 10 goals and 32 points in 66 contests, but he can’t be counted on to be anything more than an okay bottom-six forward at this stage of his career.
It would still make sense for the Islanders to re-sign him. They’ve had a pretty quiet offseason so far, so there’s still an opening there for Brassard, especially given his price point, which is probably pretty low.
10) Zdeno Chara
The biggest question with Zdeno Chara is if he’ll extend his career. If he does decide that he wants to play next season, it will probably be for the Boston Bruins, but that’s not set in stone. Other teams would almost certainly be interested in his services.
Even though he’s 43-years-old, he’s still a towering defenseman who scored five goals and 26 points in 68 games last season while averaging 21:01 minutes. He’s a Stanley Cup champion and a great veteran presence, who could make contributions on most competing teams. It will be interesting to see if he does sign elsewhere, but for now the bigger question is if he wants to hang up his skates.