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Bringing the frenzy back to NHL free agency: Our way-too-early look at the 2024 class

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

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.

Superstar tier

Age: 25 | 2023-24 cap hit: $8,460,250

Age: 30 | 2023-24 cap hit: $6,166,666

Age: 29 | 2023-24 cap hit: $3,500,000

Age: 27 | 2023-24 cap hit: $6,962,366

Age: 33 | 2023-24 cap hit: $8,500,000

Hellebuyck is the kind of goaltender who rarely becomes available in the unrestricted free agent market at his age, which will be 31 by next summer. He’s a Vezina Trophy winner, a three-time nominee, has led the NHL in shots faced in four of the past five seasons and led the NHL in games played in four of the past six seasons. In a league in which teams are answering their goalie question with “all of the above,” Hellebuyck is the increasingly rare goalie who provides a singular solution. Perhaps he plays out his final season in Winnipeg. Perhaps they still move him to a team with an extension waiting in hand. But if he goes UFA, he’ll make bank, especially considering how thin this market is (again).

Stamkos is 33 years old and posted “only” a 1.04 points-per-game average last season, with 34 goals and his lowest shooting percentage (14.2%) in five seasons. Stamkos has made it clear that a Lightning sweater is “the only jersey I ever want to wear in my career” and that playing for only one franchise is paramount to him. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews once felt the same way. In other words, one never knows.

Aho, who turns 26 later this month, is in the final campaign of the five-year deal given to him on a Montreal offer sheet in July 2019, thus beginning the great Habitants/Hurricanes wars. His next contract with the Hurricanes won’t be that short: There was talk at the draft that the two sides were closing in on an eight-year extension that would come in under $10 million annually.

I’m not interested in a semantic debate about whether these other two players are “superstars.” Nylander is a 40-goal scorer who is 13th in the league in goals scored over the past three seasons. Chris Johnston of TSN reported that Nylander believes he’s a $10 million AAV player. If he hits the open market, he might become one.

As for Montour, there are 15 defensemen who have crested over 70 points in a season during the past five seasons, and he’s one of them. He was also a standout in the Panthers’ upset series win over the Bruins, and finished with 13 points in 21 playoff games. Is there a chance last season’s 73-point rampage was an anomaly? Sure, given the fact that Montour hadn’t topped 40 points in any season before that.

But if it wasn’t, and Montour offers an encore performance this season when he returns from surgery? An offensive defenseman like that is a valued player on the open market — even if his defense isn’t exactly up to those standards. If Dmitry Orlov earned $7.75 million AAV this summer, what might Montour get?

Centers tier

Age: 32 | 2023-24 cap hit: $3,000,000

Age: 33 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,825,000

Age: 28 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,850,000

Age: 32 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,000,000

Age: 30 | 2023-24 cap hit: $6,125,000

Age: 29 | 2023-24 cap hit: $2,750,000

Marchessault, who won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, and Stephenson both played integral roles in the Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup victory. An original Golden Misfit, Marchessault has been an incredibly consistent goal scorer over the past seven seasons. He also turns 33 this December for a franchise that’s been defined by its ability to put loyalties aside in favor of cap flexibility. Obviously, Marchessault would be coveted by contenders if he hit unrestricted free agency.

Lindholm is one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, something underscored by his 64-point season on a post-Gaudreau-and-Tkachuk Flames team in 2022-23. Like those two stars, his plans for the future aren’t publicly known one year before unrestricted free agency. He’s an ideal second-line center for the right team.

While Duchene could use a solid season in Dallas to reinforce his value as an offensive free agent, we know who Scheifele is: a borderline superstar who offers considerable offensive highlights (42 goals last season) but not much in the way of all-around play. If he chooses to escape Winnipeg, someone will pay him top-line center money.

Wingers tier

Age: 30 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,250,000

Age: 28 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,500,000

Age: 26 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,150,000

Age: 26 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,000,000

Age: 33 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,500,000

Age: 28 | 2023-24 cap hit: $6,000,000

Age: 28 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,700,000

Age: 30 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,000,000

Age: 28 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,750,000

Age: 27 | 2023-24 cap hit: $6,500,000

Age: 32 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,250,000

Age: 31 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,250,000

Age: 29 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,166,667

Age: 31 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,300,000

There are a couple of “old faces in new places” here that could head into next summer with some wind in their statistical sails: Bertuzzi, who should ride on Auston Matthews’ wing this season in Toronto, and Toffoli, who joins the NHL’s fifth-highest-scoring team in the Devils (3.52).

Reinhart is one of the best all-around players in this group, having broken the 30-goal mark in consecutive seasons and hitting 82 points in 2021-22. He can drive possession and has better defensive metrics than many of his Panthers teammates up front. He already carries a solid cap number — how high could it go and how high is Florida willing to go with him?

Guentzel is the most fascinating name here. We know what he is: undersized and not the fleetest of skaters. We know what he does: Guentzel is a two-time 40-goal scorer who had 36 tallies in 78 games last season. Most of all, we know with whom he plays: Sidney Crosby, who has generated 142 goals in 197 games at 5-on-5 with Guentzel on the ice over the past three seasons. Can the Penguins move on from Guentzel as long as Crosby is on the roster? Does a 29-year-old Guentzel fit into GM Kyle Dubas’ long-term plans? And if he doesn’t, will teams see Guentzel as a player who excels with high-end talent or a product of one of the NHL’s all-time greats as his center?

OK, he’s the second-most fascinating name, because there’s also Tom Wilson. The Capitals swear they’re not engaging in trade talks for Wilson, although logic dictates they should: He turns 30 next March, he’s entering the final year of his contract and someone who plays his role has a shorter hockey shelf life of effective all-around play than others. (See: Lucic, Milan). That said, it’s the NHL. Of course there would be someone willing to hand over a significant contract to Wilson given his offensive work history, intangible toughness and ability to turn a series with one borderline hit. GMs love that stuff, even if it means trading a draft pick to be rid of that contract in three seasons or so.

Defensemen tier

Age: 31 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,500,000

Age: 33 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,000,000

Age: 32 | 2023-24 cap hit: $2,250,000

Age: 27 | 2023-24 cap hit: $2,666,667

Age: 26 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,950,000

Age: 30 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,150,000

Age: 33 | 2023-24 cap hit: $6,000,000

Age: 28 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,025,000

Age: 29 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,250,000

Age: 29 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,100,000

Getting love as an elite defenseman is difficult when Cale Makar is such a magnet for it, but that’s what Toews has been over the past two seasons. His established defensive acumen has been balanced by consecutive 40-point seasons. He plays big minutes and is awesome on the penalty kill. The Avalanche have a rather wide window to win another Cup given the ages of Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. It’s hard to imagine they won’t find a way to keep Toews as part of that core.

Hanifin will be one of the youngest defensemen available next summer, turning 27 in January. He’s part of that “Matthew Tkachuk Empowerment Movement” of Calgarian players who might ask out a year before their contracts are up, if they intend to leave the Flames in 2024. If Hanifin is traded this summer, odds are it will be to a team with an extension ready. If he makes it to UFA status next summer, he could earn himself a solid contract as a defenseman in his prime.

The probability that Pesce might hit the market in 2024 increased when he hired Judd Moldaver as his new agent. Moldaver got a $57.5 million deal out of the Columbus Blue Jackets for client Zach Werenski. He’s going to be 29 next summer and will be looking to make bank as a consistent top-four defenseman for the Hurricanes, who also have defensive defenseman Skjei up for a new deal next summer.

Barrie, who was traded to the Predators ahead of the trade deadline last season, is in the same boat with Klingberg and Ekman-Larsson: three accomplished offensive defenseman who will try to hit the UFA market running after a full 82 games with new teams. Ekman-Larsson, who just turned 32, certainly bears watching with the high-octane Panthers (3.51 goals per game last season) given that Montour will miss some time at the start of the season.

Patrick Kane tier

Age: 34 | 2023-24 cap hit: TBD

By the time Kane signs a contract with his next NHL team for 2023-24 — on what’s almost certain to be a one-year term — he’ll have turned 35 years old and will have rehabbed from undergoing major hip surgery in June. By free agency in 2024, teams will have an understanding of whether Patrick Kane can still be Patrick Kane, or if the offensive decline he’s recently shown speaks to something more intrinsic than just a lingering hip injury.

He’s fourth among active players in points (1,237) and sixth in goals (451). If he wants to play in 2024-25, he’ll have the opportunity. But the money, the term and the overall interest greatly depend on Kane’s performance in his comeback season.

35-and-over tier

Note: Some members of this tier will not turn 35 until next summer.

Age: 34 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,350,000

Age: 38 | 2023-24 cap hit: $3,125,000

Age: 38 | 2023-24 cap hit: $3,500,000

Age: 39 | 2023-24 cap hit: $800,000

Age: 35 | 2023-24 cap hit: $5,250,000

Age: 39 | 2023-24 cap hit: $3,500,000

Age: 35 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,750,000

Age: 38 | 2023-24 cap hit: $4,000,000

Age: 37 | 2023-24 cap hit: $825,000

Age: 34 | 2023-24 cap hit: $1,000,000

Age: 36 | 2023-24 cap hit: $800,000

Age: 35 | 2023-24 cap hit: $6,000,000

In other words, the “assuming there is a next contract …” tier.

Giordano (40 by next summer), Pavelski (39), Fleury (39), Carter (39) and Perry (39) are all among the eldest players scheduled to hit the UFA market. Quick (38) and Wheeler (37) aren’t far behind.

Pavelski, accomplished celebrity golfer and playoff warrior, shut down any talk of retirement after last season and teased the idea that he could play into his 40s. Since he’s been chasing the Stanley Cup like Smeagol chased the One Ring — and posting 77-point campaigns like last season — who’s going to doubt him?

Along with Pavelski, four of these players figure to have something substantial left in the tank for 2024-25. Zuccarello averaged 0.86 points per game last season. Perron had 24 goals, his fourth 20-goal season in his past five campaigns. Backlund — who has been in the NHL since 2008-09 and turns 35 next March — had a career-best 56 points in 82 games while finishing sixth for the Selke Trophy. Martinez played a key role on the Golden Knights’ defense, and was third in the team in average ice time in the playoffs (20:08).

Who knows … maybe one of these veterans staring at the sunset ends up being the the final piece of a championship puzzle. That’s the beauty of free agency — the potential, the promise, the hope. And the summer of 2024 won’t be short on options.

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