Chris Johnston’s big board of NHL unrestricted free agents — bargains available as money dries up

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Not even a full week into NHL free agency and already the money’s dried up.

There was more than $900 million in total contracts handed out by teams last Wednesday and that spending slowed to just $7.6 million on Sunday.

With so much cap space already spoken for, it makes being unsigned an uncomfortable place for many players.

A few household names remain on the latest version of C.J.’s UFA Big Board — although at this stage it should probably be more accurately labelled C.J.’s UFA Bargain Board:

1. Nazem Kadri, Colorado Avalanche

Centre

Age: 31

2021-22 cap hit: $4.5 million

2021-22 stats: 28 goals, 59 assists, 87 points in 71 games

The longer Kadri goes without signing the more likely it makes his return to Colorado. The market for impactful centres grew quiet after Detroit (Andrew Copp), Anaheim (Ryan Strome) and the New York Rangers (Vincent Trocheck) made big commitments to other players. And it’s not as if the Avalanche are a fallback option for the veteran Kadri, who has wanted all along to try and find a compromise with his former employer. It will probably require Colorado to trade away another player to create the necessary cap space. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Free agent Nazem Kadri could be heading back to the Colorado Avalanche.

2. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

Right defence

Age: 29

2021-22 cap hit: $4.25 million

2021-22 stats: 6 goals, 41 assists, 47 points in 74 games

There was a time where Klingberg was hoping to snag a maximum-length seven-year contract. It’s hard to imagine him commanding that kind of term now. There simply aren’t many teams left on the dance floor, with a long-speculated connection to Carolina falling by the wayside when the Hurricanes traded instead for Brent Burns. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Klingberg find his way back to Dallas at this point. Seattle could be a dark horse, although the Kraken have already signed right-shot defenceman Justin Schultz in free agency.

3. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

Centre

Age: 36

2021-22 cap hit: $6.875 million

2021-22 stats: 25 goals, 40 assists, 65 points in 73 games

The signs have been pointing in a positive direction about Bergeron’s desire to return to Boston for weeks now. But he still hasn’t signed on the dotted line. This is a player who is simply too effective and too productive to retire, especially coming off a fifth Selke Trophy win. The Bruins remain optimistic about keeping their captain.

4. Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes

Left winger

Age: 29

2021-22 cap hit: $5.25 million

2021-22 stats: 24 goals, 20 assists, 44 points in 75 games

Coming off consecutive 20-goal seasons it’s a touch surprising to see Niederreiter still looking for work. Every team can use scoring help. You may be sensing a theme for those who have swung and missed on the open market because the door may not be closed on Niederreiter’s return to Carolina.

5. Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes

Right winger

Age: 34

2021-22 cap hit: $8 million

2021-22 stats: 8 goals, 44 assists, 52 points in 82 games

Coming off the lowest shooting-percentage season of his NHL career, it’s not outrageous to bet on a bounce back here. Kessel should still be able to help a power play and contribute in a second- or third-line role. He’s also got the second-longest ironman streak in NHL history — 982 games and counting — so durability isn’t a concern despite his age.

6. David Krejci

Centre

Age: 36

2021-22 cap hit: n/a

2021-22 stats: n/a

A family decision took Krejci back home to Czechia last season, but he seems inclined to give the NHL another shot. It’s assumed he’ll follow good buddy Bergeron back to Boston. Any risks attached to his age and the year away can be mitigated with a bonus-laden, over-35 contract that features a low guaranteed salary.

7. Paul Stastny, Winnipeg Jets

Centre

Age: 36

2021-22 cap hit: $3.75 million

2021-22 stats: 21 goals, 24 assists, 45 points in 71 games

Stastny has been comfortable waiting out the market and seeing where things settle. His biggest priority is finding a team where he has a chance to chase a Stanley Cup so this next contract is more about opportunity than dollars. He could be a sneaky good add for a contender in the second wave of free agency.

8. Evan Rodrigues, Pittsburgh Penguins

Centre

Age: 28

2021-22 cap hit: $1 million

2021-22 stats: 19 goals, 24 assists, 43 points in 82 games

Rodrigues popped in a major way last season, blowing away his previous career bests in goals and points. Doing it again may hinge on him finding enough minutes and the proper roster fit.

9. Sonny Milano, Anaheim Ducks

Left winger

Age: 26

2021-22 cap hit: $1.7 million

2021-22 stats: 14 goals, 20 assists, 34 points in 66 games

Milano found good chemistry alongside Trevor Zegras in Anaheim last season and became a free agent after surprisingly not being tendered a qualifying offer. An above-average playmaker, he’s a good bet to provide surplus value on a reasonable contract.

10. Danton Heinen, Pittsburgh Penguins

Left winger

Age: 27

2021-22 cap hit: $1.1 million

2021-22 stats: 18 goals, 15 assists, 33 points in 76 games

The Penguins chose not to qualify Heinen after a reasonably strong campaign because they were worried about his potential arbitration case. That won’t be a concern now that he’s on the open market. His bottom-six credentials are bolstered by strong underlying numbers.

11. Johan Larsson, Washington Capitals

Left winger

Age: 29

2021-22 cap hit: $1.4 million

2021-22 stats: 7 goals, 14 assists, 21 points in 43 games

A lot of good things happen when Larsson is on the ice. He drove strong results following an in-season trade to the Capitals, which was a good sign after he missed 10 weeks following sports hernia surgery in late January.

12. Zach Aston-Reese, Anaheim Ducks

Centre

Age: 27

2021-22 cap hit: $1.725 million

2021-22 stats: 5 goals, 10 assists, 15 points in 69 games

A reliable two-way, bottom-six forward who saw his results dip slightly after an in-season trade to the Ducks. He garnered interest from Toronto and New Jersey, among others, in the early stages of free agency.

13. P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils

Defence

Age: 33

2021-22 cap hit: $9 million

2021 stats: 5 goals, 17 assists, 22 points in 77 games

He no longer skates like he once did, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Subban become a useful third-pairing contributor. The biggest knock against him in recent years was his outsized cap hit. That won’t be a problem on the next contract.

14. Tyler Motte, New York Rangers

Centre

Age: 27

2021-22 cap hit: $1.225 million

2021 stats: 7 goals, 8 assists, 15 points in 58 games

A fourth-line centre option that should come at a reasonable price and be a positive influence in the dressing room. Motte is a mental health advocate who openly shared the story of his struggles while playing for the Vancouver Canucks.

15. Sam Gagner, Detroit Red Wings

Centre

Age: 32

2021-22 cap hit: $850,000

2021 stats: 13 goals, 18 assists, 31 points in 81 games

The veteran forward is just 33 games from reaching 1,000 in his career. He’s a fourth-line option nowadays, but comes with intangibles in the manner Darren Helm and Andrew Cogliano provided during the Avalanche’s championship run this spring.

Chris Johnston writes about sports for NorthStar Bets. NorthStar Bets is owned by NordStar Capital, which also owns Torstar, the Star’s parent company. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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