With the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline now history, fans and pundits have shifted their focus toward the remainder of the regular season as teams jockey for playoff position. It’s a good opportunity to examine the possible landing spots for this summer’s top unrestricted free agents.
For the first time since 2019, the free-agent period will begin at noon ET on July 1. The bidding for the best available UFA talent, however, will be as frenzied as it always is whenever the market opens.
The number of top-tier stars slated to become UFAs this summer has thinned over the past month. The New York Islanders signed Bo Horvat to a new contract, David Pastrnak re-signed with the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings inked center Dylan Larkin. Nevertheless, there remain several notable players who will draw considerable attention.
Clubs in need of scoring punch will have plenty of interest in New York Rangers winger Patrick Kane. Those seeking a two-way center will pursue the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ryan O’Reilly.
Here’s our early prediction on where those players could land by the end of the day on July 1. We’ll look at the teams we believe are the best fit based on factors such as roster need and salary-cap space.
We’ve excluded Patrice Bergeron from our list. The long-time Boston Bruins center indicated last year that he wants to retire as a Bruin.
David Krejci, Boston Bruins
After spending last season playing in his native Czechia, David Krejci returned to the Boston Bruins on a one-year contract for 2022-23. Under his previous deal with the Bruins, Krejci earned an average annual value of $7.3 million. This time, however, the 36-year-old center accepted a $1 million base salary with $2 million in bonuses.
Any concerns over Krejci’s performance quickly disappeared as he seamlessly transitioned back with his former teammates. With 50 points in 57 games centering the second line, he’s third among Bruins scorers and a key reason behind the club’s dominant performance this season.
Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron and winger David Pastrnak convinced Krejci to return to Boston for another run at the Stanley Cup. Perhaps one or both will attempt to sway him into signing another contract with the Bruins.
Krejci showed no interest in joining another NHL club before his departure to Czechia in 2021. The opportunity to skate for another season alongside countryman Pastrnak could be tempting even if Bergeron were to retire following this season.
The Bruins have $10.6 million in projected salary-cap space for 2023-24 with 13 roster players under contract. Squeezing a new contract for Krejci within their limited cap payroll could be difficult, even if he’s willing to accept another discounted one-year deal.
Regardless of the Bruins’ cap situation, they’ll reach an agreement with Krejci on another low-cost, one-year contract worth a base salary of $1 million.
Patrick Kane, New York Rangers
After struggling through the worst season of his career with Chicago, Patrick Kane was traded on Feb. 28 to the New York Rangers. The 34-year-old winger has gone from one of this season’s worst teams to a potential Stanley Cup contender.
Kane’s tenure with the Rangers will likely be a short one. They have $16 million in projected cap space for 2023-24 with 13 roster players under contract and restricted free agents such as K’Andre Miller, Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil to re-sign. Unless Kane accepts a significant pay cut, he won’t be back on Broadway following this season.
Kane is completing an eight-year contract with a $10.5 million average annual value. He’s not going to get a deal that lucrative again, given his age and concern over a nagging lower-body injury. The former Art Ross Trophy winner has just 45 points in 54 games this season but is also only a year removed from a 92-point campaign in 2021-22.
A team with young talent and playoff aspirations, such as the Buffalo Sabres, could look at Kane to bring experience and leadership to their roster. They’ve got a projected $20.4 million in projected cap space for 2023-24 with their young core players signed through at least next season.
The Sabres could be a good fit for Kane. The Buffalo native could prove to be the missing piece that turns this team from a promising club into a serious playoff team.
Kane comes home by signing a three-year deal worth $6.5 million annually with the Sabres.