Monday's NHL: Gaudreau, Kadri among players to watch in NHL free agency

Stephen Whyno
Associated Press

The top players expected to be available in NHL free agency include an MVP candidate who might have the chance to go home and a veteran who flipped his old playoff script to become a Stanley Cup champion.

Each had a career year at the perfect time.

Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau and Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri could be the richest beneficiaries in free agency when it opens Wednesday. Seven-year contracts worth up to, if not more than, $10 million a year are possible.

Detroit Red Wings left wing Taro Hirose (67) battles with Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau (13) during second-period NHL hockey action.

That is, unless Gaudreau sticks with the Flames. “Johnny Hockey” can sign for eight years up until midnight EDT Tuesday night.

“They’re big decisions,” Calgary general manager Brad Treliving said. “They’re life decisions. If he doesn’t sign with us, he’s earned the opportunity to look at the market. That’s something he’s got to consider.”

One thing Gaudreau could consider is the lure of playing for the Philadelphia Flyers team he rooted for while growing up in Carney’s Point, New Jersey. They’d need to clear significant cap space to make room for Gaudreau, who had a career-best 40 goals, 75 assists and 115 points last season in leading Calgary to the Pacific Division title and into the second round of the playoffs.

Gaudreau, who turns 29 in August, finished fourth in voting for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

Kadri was one of Colorado’s most valuable performers on the way to lifting the Cup for the first time with this core led by Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen and the third time in franchise history.

Acquired three years ago after back-to-back playoff suspensions, he rebounded from another lengthy ban in the 2021 postseason to put up 87 points in the regular season and 15 more in 16 games of the Avalanche’s Cup run.

But the soon-to-be 32-year-old might be one of the odd men out, seeing as Colorado also has winger Andre Burakovsky and defensemen Josh Manson and Jack Johnson set to be unrestricted free agents.

“We know we’re not going to be able to sign everybody,” said Joe Sakic, who on Monday was promoted from general manager to president of hockey operations. “We know that. But we’ve got our priority, and then we’ll see. I think some players will test the market and see what’s out there for them and see if they want to come back, but time will tell.”

Here are some other interesting players who could test the market at noon EDT Wednesday:

Darcy Kuemper

Colorado’s Cup-winning goaltender won’t be back after a trade with the New York Rangers to make Alexandar Georgiev the starter moving forward. Kuemper was solid, not spectacular, in backstopping the Avalanche to the title with a 2.57 goals-against average and .902 save percentage, though that stability could be what another high-scoring contender needs.

The 32-year-old could be a perfect fit for the Toronto Maple Leafs, another team looking to get over the hump in the playoffs with solid play in net. They already cleared cap space by trading Petr Mrazek to Chicago and are in place to spend at hockey’s most important position.

Jack Campbell

Toronto’s most recent starting goalie could return or see what else is out there for a 30-year-old who has shown he can carry the load in the regular season and succeed in the playoffs.

Campbell as recently as the first round in 2021 put up a 1.81 GAA and .934 save percentage, which wasn’t enough to help Toronto advance but would be with the right amount of scoring. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers would be able to provide that, and Campbell is an upgrade over boom-or-bust 40-year-old Mike Smith.

Evgeni Malkin

The Robin to Sidney Crosby’s Batman for 16 years is a superstar in his own right like Scottie Pippen was for Michael Jordan with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. The big question now is whether Malkin will, at 36 years old, stay with the Pittsburgh Penguins or bolt for a new opportunity.

A person with knowledge of the decision said Malkin has opted to hit the free agent market and see what his options are. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Monday because neither Malkin nor the Penguins announced the intent for him to test the waters in free agency.

Penguins GM Ron Hextall last week forecasted getting a deal done soon with defenseman Kris Letang and a day later finalized a $36.6 million, six-year contract. In the same breath, Hextall said talks with Malkin were on a different level – further away from a sure thing.

Malkin was a point-a-game performer last season after returning from right knee surgery.

John Klingberg

In a free agent class deep up front and shallow on the blue line, Klingberg is by far the best defenseman available.

The Dallas Stars knew before the trade deadline it would be difficult, if not impossible, to re-sign Klingberg before free agency starts. As recently as last week, GM Jim Nill acknowledged the soon-to-be 30-year-old Swede will talk to other teams as each side assesses what’s best moving forward.

Klingberg is a highly coveted right-shot defender who can run a power play and skate big minutes. Dougie Hamilton’s $63 million, seven-year deal signed a year ago with the New Jersey Devils is a good comparison.

Claude Giroux

The longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain who joined the Florida Panthers at the deadline helped them reach the second round of the playoffs, but the Presidents’ Trophy winners were then swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Giroux hand-picked Florida as his destination because of the no-movement clause in his contract, and he could return even if nothing is signed before Wednesday.

Another option is going close to home and joining the Ottawa Senators, who are moving from rebuilding into the early stages of contending and showed that by acquiring high-scoring winger Alex DeBrincat from the Chicago Blackhawks. Giroux is from nearby Hearst, Ontario, and would be just the kind of veteran the Senators young core needs to show the way to winning.

Avalanche promote Sakic

Joe Sakic’s title has changed. His task has not: Keep the Colorado Avalanche at the summit of hockey.

The Stanley Cup champion Avalanche promoted Sakic on Monday to president of hockey operations, which means he no longer deals with the day-to-day general manager responsibilities. Make no mistake, though, he will still be deeply involved.

Sakic was the architect behind a team that captured its first title since 2001. The Hall of Fame forward-turned-front-office executive was recently honored as the general manager of the year.

To fill his GM shoes, the team promoted assistant general manager Chris MacFarland. Hired by Colorado in 2015, MacFarland has been working closely with Sakic since his arrival and helped turn the squad from a last-place finisher in 2016-17 into champions this season.

Next project: Repeat.

“We expect it to be hard and we’re up for the challenge,” Sakic said. “We’re going to try and build this team back up.”

Colorado capped its most successful regular season by dethroning the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the final. The Avalanche closed out the series in six games and finished the postseason with a 16-4 mark.

It was another title for Sakic, who was the captain of the Avalanche when they hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001. He became the first in NHL history to win as a captain and later as a GM with the same organization.

In Sakic fashion, though, he deflected praise.

“It’s a team award. We’ve got a great staff: Chris MacFarland is huge on this,” Sakic said at the NHL draft in Montreal last week. “We do everything together. It’s our scouts, every one of them – pro, amateur. But it’s the team, the players. They were so committed this year and the coaching staff. To me, it’s not an individual award. It’s an organizational award.”

Colorado finished with a combined 72 wins through the playoffs and regular season. That ties the league record set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens and matched by the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers and 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings.

Sakic retired from the Avalanche as a player in July 2009. He was hired as an executive advisor/alternate governor by the team in March 2011. This was his ninth season as the team’s executive vice president/GM.

The team began what figures to be a busy offseason by re-signing veteran forward Andrew Cogliano to a one-year deal. Colorado also acquired goaltender Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers in a move that likely spells the end for Darcy Kuemper’s time in Denver. The Avs re-signed forward Valeri Nichushkin to an eight-year deal.

The Avalanche have quite a few free agents on their roster, including forwards Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky. There’s also defensemen such as Josh Manson and Jack Johnson.

“We’re going to leave no stones unturned to try and make the team better,” MacFarland said with the free agency market opening Wednesday. “Sometimes it’s a move that makes you a little bit better and sometimes it’s more of a dramatic shift.

“Sometimes you’re going to lose players that maybe you don’t want to lose. That’s just part of it. But I think that’s part of it for just about every team in the league at some point in time.”

This helps: The Avalanche have a strong nucleus with Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog.

Same with this – the presence of Sakic.

“I’m still part of it,” Sakic said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Nichushkin staying put

Forward Valeri Nichushkin is staying put with the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, while Evgeni Malkin’s tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins may be over after 16 seasons.

Malkin has decided to go to free agency rather than re-sign with the Penguins before the start of free agency, a person with knowledge of the move told The Associated Press on Monday. The person spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity because neither Malkin nor the Penguins have disclosed this information publicly, which comes two days before the NHL’s free agency period opens.

Malkin’s decision potentially harkens the end of an era in Pittsburgh, where the soon-to-be 36-year-old teamed with Sidney Crosby to win the Stanley Cup three times. Malkin has topped 20 goals 13 times, and immediately becomes one of the more high-profile players set to hit the market on Wednesday.

Malkin’s decision comes with the Penguins attempting to balance their payroll and after re-signing defenseman Kris Letang to a six-year $36.6 million contract last week. Malkin had just completed an eight-year, $76 million contract.

Penguins GM Ron Hextall said last week he was not as close to a deal with Malkin as Letang.

Nichushkin, meantime, isn’t going anywhere after signing an eight-year, $49 million contract with Colorado. He spent the past three years with Colorado and is coming off a season in which he had a career-best 25 goals and 52 points in 62 games in the regular season before adding nine and six in the playoffs.

Nichushkin’s signing and Malkin’s pending departure overshadowed several other roster-related developments on Monday, with teams having until the afternoon to determine whether to issue qualifying offers and retain the rights to their restricted free agents.

One of those decisions involved the Avalanche, with forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel going from celebrating with the Stanley Cup on Saturday to not receiving a qualifying offer from Colorado.

Aube-Kubel, 26, has four seasons of NHL experience and was claimed by Colorado after being waived by the Philadelphia Flyers in November. He had 11 goals and 22 points in 67 regular-season games for the Avalanche, and had no points in 14 playoff games.

The Chicago Blackhawks’ purge of talent continued with the rebuilding team set to part ways with four more regulars.

The Blackhawks first placed veteran forward Brett Connolly and center Henrik Borgstrom on waivers with the intention to buy out the remainder of their contracts. The team also elected not to extend qualifying offers to center Dylan Strome and forward Dominik Kubalik in moves that followed Chicago trading forward Alex DeBrincat to Ottawa and center Kirby Dach to Montreal last week.

The Washington Capitals’ bid to restock their goaltending ranks resumed with Ilya Samsonov set to become a free agent after not being tendered a qualifying offer days after trading Vitek Vanecek to New Jersey.

General manager Brian MacLellan said the team went into the offseason determined to remake its goaltending and also fielded offers on Samsonov.

Payroll played a role in the decision with Samsonov eligible for arbitration. In projecting Samsonov to play a backup role, the Capitals were concerned he would be awarded a contract more suitable for a starter.

Washington was already in the market for a veteran goaltender and may now need two.

“We’re open to all avenues,” MacLellan said Friday at the draft. “The goaltending market’s changing as we go here day by day. You try and stay in things you feel you’re attracted to and might be a good fit. We’ve got free agency coming up on Wednesday, so we’ll be involved in all of the discussions about goalies.”

Elsewhere:

The Edmonton Oilers granted Evander Kane permission to speak with other teams before he’s eligible to become a free agent. In a text to The Associated Press, Kane’s agent, Daniel Milstein, wrote he’s opening talks with other teams while also continuing discussions with the Oilers.

Kane signed with Edmonton in January after the San Jose Sharks terminated the remainder of his seven-year, $49 million contract for violating COVID-19 protocols while in the American Hockey League. Kane has challenged the Sharks’ decision by filing a grievance through the NHL Players’ Association.

The Columbus Blue Jackets declined to make offers to defenseman Gabriel Carlsson and center Kevin Stenlund. Carlsson has just two goals and 16 points in 75 games over six seasons. Stenlund has 11 goals and 20 points in 71 games over four seasons. The Blue Jackets did extend qualifying offers to four players, including star forward Patrik Laine (26 goals, 36 assists last season).