Everybody wants to jump in the pool during the summer. But not all pools are the same. Some are gross — tinted green by algae, with dead bugs and debris from nearby trees floating on the surface. And you generally don't want to jump in those, unless you absolutely must.
That pool was basically the 2023 NHL unrestricted free agent pool this summer.
"I don't think it's a great class. Not a lot of good names. No depth for sure," one NHL general manager told ESPN. "And right now everybody's getting squeezed by the salary cap, too."
But the class of 2024? That's a pool into which you cannonball without a second thought. Perfect temperature and pristine waters. Star players hitting free agency for the first time. Other players who took shorter-term deals during the NHL's COVID-19-impacted salary cap years going to market as the cap finally unflattens, with a ceiling potentially rising to $88 million for the 2024-25 season.
"This is a completely different universe because now we're in a different economic landscape," one NHL player agent said. "A lot of bad contracts will have been shed by teams next summer. They'll have cleaner cap space, not to mention another $4 million to spend."
It's never too early to examine the players eligible for that free agent windfall. Here are the current 2024 NHL free agent tiers, ranging from franchise players to established stars to strong supporting cast members. Many of the players listed here won't make it to next summer as teams ink them to contract extensions. But those who do could finally put the frenzy back into NHL free agency.
Note: Players are arranged alphabetically within each tier.
Franchise player tier
Auston Matthews, C, Toronto Maple Leafs
Age: 25 | 2023-24 cap hit: $11,640,250
Matthews reaching the unrestricted free agent market would be the greatest thing for the hockey media since the league's expansion to Las Vegas. The sheer tonnage of coverage about where a generational goal scorer could take his talents would create a dozen news cycles and several special events on Canadian sports television alone. The rumors, the speculation, the tracking of private planes … it would truly be like Christmas in July.
But the chances of that happening are like a snowman's chances in the midsummer sun. Matthews, 25, wants to remain with the Maple Leafs. The feeling is mutual. The questions of "for how much?" and "for how long?" are formidable, no doubt — especially when he's coming off a deal worth $11,640,250 against the salary cap, a contract worth 14.64% of the salary cap when he signed it in February 2019.
Matthews is coming off a five-year deal. I've heard "short to midrange" on his next contract, which tells me it won't be seven or eight years. As for the average annual value, I get the sense that Matthews isn't focused on Nathan MacKinnon's benchmark of $12.6 million AAV for the Colorado Avalanche. He's focused on where the cap is headed in this next three seasons — potentially up to $96 million in 2026-27.
Everyone's taking their time on this, especially since this summer the Leafs swapped out the general manager who signed Matthews (Kyle Dubas) for someone outside of the organization (Brad Treliving). But one imagines they'll get it done before the season.