GMs, agents predict the NHL summer: Trades, free agency, more

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

When the final pick of the 2024 NHL draft is selected, there could be less than 48 hours before the first unrestricted free agent formally switches teams in the offseason.

July 1 is when the "frenzy" begins, but the chaos should precede that for weeks. There are prominent players seeking new contracts, teams jockeying to solve significant lineup problems via trade and a salary cap that jumped a little higher than expected as a catalyst for even more player movement.

How much more will be entirely contingent on the teams.

"It depends on what some of these teams are going to do in the next two, three weeks contractually with their own players," New Jersey Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald said. "Do some guys hit the market or not?"

After conversing with NHL team executives and player agents over the past few weeks, here's a glimpse of how they see the offseason landscape.

Salary cap surprise

The NHL and the NHLPA announced over the weekend that the salary cap for next season will be set at $88 million, slightly higher than earlier projected. The salary cap floor is $65 million.

"I know the general managers and the teams are excited to have more flexibility, and it means that the revenues are as robust as we've been telling you all along," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "I predict that it will continue to go up. I believe we'll continue to have robust growth in the cap."

That was welcome news to some.

"We moved through a rebuild and now the cap is growing. Just like we drew it up," one NHL executive said, with a laugh.

NHL teams and agents weren't shocked by the news. They've always been operating under a range of $87-88 million for this season. But the extra flexibility does go a long way.

"It could mean the difference between locking up a player or having him leave as a free agent," one NHL player agent explained.

But it also means that those players who reach free agency could see the value of their contracts rise as the salary cap does.

"The free agent market is what it is, but now there's more money in the system," one team executive said. "I think you'll see contracts where you're going to go, 'Oh my god' based on the last five years under the cap."

Of course, it doesn't always come down to money.

Players want commitment and security. Contract term has always been the goal of the top-tier free agents, along with an increase in salary. But that's become increasingly true for what can be considered role players. Teams are happy to lock in a player they like at a "fixed rate," as it were. And the players get as much professional certainty as they can muster.

The top three unrestricted free agents in terms of term last season? The New York Islanders' Scott Mayfield and Pierre Engvall, both seven years; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ryan Graves, six years; and Colorado Avalanche depth forward Miles Wood getting six years.

"Everybody is looking for term," one NHL general manager said.

Betting on yourself?

A few agents expressed surprise that some pending unrestricted free agents haven't already re-upped with their teams, given some of the contract numbers they've heard rumored.

There's nothing wrong with betting on oneself. They've earned the right. It's just that in many cases, the grass wasn't just not greener, it was dead.

"I think there are some players who have gotten pretty solid offers to remain with their teams but might go and bet on themselves," one agent said. "And there are number of players that did that and it didn't work out."

Taylor Hall is a cautionary tale. He sought a long-term deal in 2020, only to get a one-year deal at $8 million from the Buffalo Sabres. That led to a cap-friendly, four-year deal with the Boston Bruins, who eventually traded him to the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks.

John Klingberg is a cautionary tale, too. He bet on himself in 2022 and ended up with a one-year deal in Anaheim, followed by a one-year deal in Toronto, followed by free agency this summer with his stock low.

Sometimes hitting the market means hitting a wall when it comes to term.

The market outlook

What does the free agent field look like for Summer 2024?

"There are some wingers that can do some damage out there," one NHL GM said.

Chief among them is Jake Guentzel, who the Carolina Hurricanes acquired at the trade deadline. He'll make much more than his $6 million cap hit on his last contract as a play-driving goal-scorer who has shown he can hang with elite talents.

That last attribute is probably the reason why Guentzel's name has been linked with the Blackhawks as an unrestricted free agent. Who better to be Connor Bedard's wingman than a guy who learned the tricks of the trade playing with Sidney Crosby?

At the NHL draft combine in Buffalo last weekend, Chicago GM Kyle Davidson wouldn't address specific rumors, but indicated he would be open to adding a significant player in free agency even if it doesn't sync with his team's timeline.

"It would be a disservice not to consider every trade option or every free-agency option," Davidson. "We did it last year and we kept it short, but you're always open to longer. You have to be. In the NHL, it's hard to acquire talent, so you have to be open to whatever comes up. But it can't be something that limits what you're doing."

Rare is the 57-goal scoring winger who might be available as a free agent, but that's Sam Reinhart of the Florida Panthers.

The team wants to keep him, from GM Bill Zito to Reinhart's linemate Aleksander Barkov. They've pushed contract talks until after the Panthers' playoff run ends.

"Honestly, really haven't thought about it too much, certainly not now," Reinhart said before the Stanley Cup Final. "I think right from the start we've had one goal in mind. We've kind of been on that mission. I think maybe personally you get off to a good start, it's easy to keep everything else on the back burner in the back of your mind. I've had no issues with it. The team's had no issues with it."

Making things tricky for the Cats: Defenseman Brandon Montour needs a contract this summer, while Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Bennett are up next summer.

Another fascinating name on the wing is Jonathan Marchessault, an original "Golden Misfit" who has reached unrestricted free agency with Vegas. The 33-year-old is one of a handful of UFAs for the Golden Knights -- William Carrier, Alec Martinez and Chandler Stephenson among them. The difference is that none of them have a Conn Smythe to their names.

"It depends if this is important to them or not," Marchessault said recently, when asked if he'll get a new deal done with Vegas. "I want to be in an organization that wants me. I have a couple of years left. I don't play it for fun. I play it because I want to win. I want to be in a place that's going to help me win."

There's also Boston winger Jake DeBrusk, Carolina winger Teuvo Teravainen and Detroit's Patrick Kane, who is seeking a deal with term.

The blue line also has some options.

"There's some good D on the market," one NHL GM said.

That includes Montour, Carolina defensemen Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei, Vancouver Canucks blueliner Nikita Zadorov and Matt Roy of the Los Angeles Kings.

The goalie market can be best described like this: It's possible the best UFA goalie available is the same one the Maple Leafs are trying to upgrade, in Ilya Samsonov.

The center spot has Elias Lindholm (Vancouver), Sean Monahan (Winnipeg) and Matt Duchene (Dallas).

Oh, and there's a guy named Steven Stamkos that could be available, too.

Seen Stamkos?

Everyone has an opinion on Stamkos' future with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It's hard to fathom a captain, franchise icon and player who potted 40 goals and tallied 81 points in 79 games this past season could be allowed to skate away from the only team he's known -- especially when that team is still in a competitive window.

Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said that he's "very hopeful" the team can re-sign Stamkos, and feels he's part of their group.

This was the final year of his eight-year, $68 million contract. Stamkos, 34, said he had been "disappointed in the lack of talk" about an extension, having expressed a desire to get something done before the regular season started.

The executives and agents we spoke with uniformly expect him to remain with the Lightning.

"I think Stamkos is going to maybe flirt with it, but I suspect he'll stay with Tampa," one NHL agent said. "Instead of giving him a high average annual value, maybe they give him an extra year."

"I think he stays, ultimately," an NHL GM concluded.

One NHL agent felt that Stamkos might have a chance to dip his toe in free agent waters, by design.

"Knowing the people involved, they might be letting him test the market, see what's there, with the understanding that they have a number and they're sticking to it," they said. "I think he heads back to Tampa. There's loyalty. There's good tax dollars there. But you never know for sure."

The goalie carousel

Besides Stamkos, the biggest mystery of the offseason for those inside the game is the goaltending carousel via the trade market.

This should come as no shock, but the New Jersey Devils are in the market for a goaltender.

"For us, I want to really zone in on the priorities. Trying to find the right goalie for this team," Fitzgerald said. "What is that going to cost us? Does this make sense? Does that make sense? What does a package look like?"

The teams seeking solutions in goal include the Devils, Los Angeles Kings, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and potentially the Carolina Hurricanes.

The two goaltenders most prominently named on the trade market: Calgary netminder Jacob Markstrom and Boston goalie Linus Ullmark. Markstrom has a full no-movement clause while Ullmark has a limited one that covers half the league, according to Cap Friendly.

Anaheim's John Gibson could join that group. He's signed through the 2026-27 season at a cap hit of $6.4 million per season. While it seems increasingly less likely, there's also Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros, who is one year away from unrestricted free agency. But GM Barry Trotz seems more interested in retaining him.

"[Saros] wants to be here, and he's been a big part of it. I'd like him to be here, so we're going to work hard at getting something done with him," Trotz said recently.

A lot of demand. Perhaps not a lot of supply.

"It's going to be interesting to see how all that unfolds," one executive concluded.

Welcome to Utah

Bill Armstrong is used to having the most open cap space in the NHL. He's just not used to being able to potentially utilize so much of it.

Armstrong was hired in 2020 as the general manager of the Arizona Coyotes. He relocated with them to Utah and the world changed. His owner Ryan Smith has spent, spent and spent again to secure the franchise and try to make everything around it first-class. His team, for the first time, has a sense of stability -- no one Armstrong signs is going to have worry about playing in a college hockey arena until a permanent barn is built.

"There are different conversations than we had in the past," said Armstrong, regarding his chats with colleagues and player agents.

Do they suddenly see Utah as an NHL ATM?

"They do, they do," Armstrong said, laughing. "They get excited when they talk to us, that's for sure."

Many inside the NHL expect Utah to be an X factor of the offseason. There are areas where they expect the team will be active in free agency or in the trade market; it could use some talent upgrades in its defense corps and could use a veteran center. But as a franchise looking to be competitive quickly in a new market, many are wondering how aggressive it will get with the cap space and all that draft pick capital.

It's possible Utah won't take a giant swing in Year 1. It doesn't want to be handcuffed with a big contract right off the bat. It seems comfortable with players like Clayton Keller and Logan Cooley being "the posters on the arena" like Marc-Andre Fleury was for the Vegas Golden Knights, rather than importing a star.

"We're going to open up our doors and I'm pretty sure it's going to be a sellout," Armstrong said.

But the temptation will be there to add familiar names.

So might the opportunity. The fact is that with a strong owner, good facilities and plenty of enthusiasm, Utah could be a place that attracts players beyond the finances.

"Don't underestimate the power of intrigue," one agent said. "You're going to have guys that simply want a change that are going to be attracted to Utah, for the team and the geography. It happened in Seattle and I think it could happen there too."