Best of the rest: NHL free agent notables still looking for work
August 23rd, 2022
ELMONT, NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Zdeno Chara #33 of the New York Islanders skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning at UBS Arena on April 29, 2022 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Believe it or not, NHL training camps are mere weeks away from opening.
And for many notable talents, the hunt for work remains.
Part of that has to do with an NHL salary cap that simply didn’t rise the way it would have had it not been for the pandemic that upended things for over a calendar year. Another element is the league’s continued and noticeable trend towards youth, speed, and skill. Like Laura Jane Grace said, “They keep getting younger, don’t they, baby?”
But (and like always), there’s no shortage of known commodities out there for teams that are currently bargain hunting for some added juice.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 07: Brian Boyle #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on April 07, 2022 in New York City. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
After sitting out the 2021 season, Hingham, Mass. native Brian Boyle turned a tryout with the Penguins into a one-year deal and his first 20-point season since 2018, with 11 goals and 21 points in 66 games for the 2021-22 Pens.
The 37-year-old Boyle, who stands at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, hasn’t announced his retirement or even alluded to it, meaning he’ll probably go for another PTO-and-sign attempt this next season.
Boyle’s 124 games of Stanley Cup Playoff experience are the 42nd-most among all skaters since 2006.
ELMONT, NEW YORK – APRIL 29: Zdeno Chara #33 of the New York Islanders salutes the crowd following the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at UBS Arena on April 29, 2022. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
There’s been rumblings that former Bruins captain and 2009 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara knows that this the end of the road in an unbelievable career and that he’ll announce his retirement before the start of the season. But the understanding is that the 45-year-old Chara remains training (this man is going to train when he’s 67, honestly), and as long as that’s the case, you have to think he’d entertain a team if they came calling.
After a 2021 year in Washington, the 6-foot-9 Chara returned to where it all began for his career over 20 years ago, and spent the 2021-22 campaign with the Islanders. On Long Island, Chara appeared in 72 games, and totaled two goals and 14 points along with a plus-8 rating while averaging 18:44 per game.
Chara also passed Chris Chelios for the most NHL games played by a defenseman in league history, and ended the year with a 29-game advantage over Chelios, with 1,680 games played. Signing with a team for 2022-23 would likely see Chara become just the seventh player in league history to hit the 1,700-game mark, but he would not be able to catch Patrick Marleau’s league-record 1,779 games played even if he were to appear in all 82 games next season, so it’s worth wondering what additional legacy goals (if any) are of interest to Big Zee.
If this is indeed the end of the road for Chara, who captained the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in 39 years back in 2011, the next stop will be the Garden rafters, where the Bruins will retire his No. 33.
EDMONTON, AB – APRIL 29: Alex Chiasson #39 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Edmonton Oilers during the first period at Rogers Place on April 29, 2022 in Edmonton, Canada. (Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
The 31-year-old Alex Chiasson is in search of a deal following a 2021-22 season that included 13 goals and 22 points in 67 games for the Canucks. It was a power-play feast for the 6-foot-4 right wing, too, with 10 of his 22 points coming with Vancouver on the man advantage.
This power-play specialist role is certainly familiar to Chiasson, really, with 45 of his 100 points over the last four seasons between Edmonton and Vancouver coming on the power play.
The Montreal-born wing is a veteran of 631 NHL games between the Stars, Senators, Flames, Capitals, Oilers, and Canucks, and has scored 114 goals and 224 points over that 10-season run.
RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 16: Sam Gagner #89 of the Detroit Red Wings looks on during the first period of the game against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena on December 16, 2021 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Another dependable veteran type, the 33-year-old Sam Gagner remains on the job hunt. It’s a little bit surprising given Gagner’s bounce-back year in Detroit with 13 goals and 31 points (fifth-most among Detroit forwards), but is Gagner is part of that middle class of NHLers that get squeezed more and more every offseason. The ex-Oiler alternate captain brings a wealth of experience to any team that takes a gamble on him, though, with 967 games of NHL experience since 2007.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – NOVEMBER 02: Phil Kessel #81 of the Arizona Coyotes skates with the puck during the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on November 02, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Boston’s first-round pick from the 2006 NHL Draft (No. 5 overall), Phil Kessel remains on the market and looking for a home for the 2022-23 season. The 34-year-old Kessel actually entered the market as one of its top talents, with eight goals and 52 points in 82 games for the horrific Coyotes last season, but is still without a job.
Kessel most definitely isn’t what he used to be, but he’s always been a productive playoff performer, with two Stanley Cup rings to go with 34 goals and 81 points in 96 career playoff games.
One interesting wrinkle as it relates to Kessel and his next landing spot: Kessel has played in 982 straight games, which puts him just seven consecutive appearances away from tying Keith Yandle’s NHL-record iron man streak of 989 consecutive games. The streak clearly means something to Kessel — the Coyotes actually let Kessel take one shift in a game before leaving to go be with his girlfriend for the birth of their child — and he likely wouldn’t want to go somewhere where the streak would be in jeopardy out of the gate.
Update: Kessel signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Vegas Golden Knights (Aug. 24, 2022).
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 15: Sonny Milano #12 of the Anaheim Ducks skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 15, 2022 in New York City. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The 16th overall pick from the 2014 NHL Draft, Sonny Milano finally popped in 2021-22, with a career-high 14 goals and 34 points in 66 games for the Ducks. The 26-year-old’s 1.72 five-on-five points per 60 ranked fourth among all Anaheim forwards (minimum 800 minutes), and his 0.79 primary assists per 60 at five-on-five ranked 72nd out of a group of 256 NHL forwards with at least 800 minutes played.
Milano has 36 goals and 81 points in 197 career games with the Blue Jackets and Ducks.
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY – APRIL 05: Tyler Motte #64 of the New York Rangers skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on April 05, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
A fourth-line banger, Tyler Motte remains on the market after a 2021-22 split between the Canucks and Rangers with seven goals and 15 points in 58 games played. He’s honestly just someone you enjoy watching, as he plays a game that combines speed and three-zone havoc, and possesses positional versatility. And over the last four years, Motte has averaged the 22nd-most hits per 60 (12.4) among NHLers with at least 150 games played. Again, he’s just about everything you’d want out of a fourth-line type in 2022.
Injuries are an obvious concern, however, as the 27-year-old Motte has missed 98 games since 2019.
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA – MAY 18: Evan Rodrigues #9 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on during the third period in Game Two of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New York Islanders at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 18, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Sometimes the NHL free agency market makes absolutely no sense. What’s currently happening with unrestricted free agent Evan Rodrigues is an example of that, to me.
On the heels of a career-high 19 goals and 43 points in 82 games — along with three goals and five points in seven playoff games — for the Penguins last year, Rodrigues remains in search of a contract for 2022-23.
Now, when this happens, and especially when it happens in Pittsburgh, I’m always curious if the concern comes with the player going on a shooting percentage bender or simply thriving with the all-world Sidney Crosby. But the only real thing that appeared to change with Rodrigues is that he shot more (his 7.8 shooting percentage was in line with career average, he just shot the puck over 200 times for the first time in his career), and Rodrigues appeared to hang just fine when taken away from Crosby.
The only real ‘negative’ to be found here is that his start was better than his finish, with just 11 points over his final 37 games of the season after beginning with 32 points through his first 45 games. But that’s been enough for the 29-year-old to hang around on the open market into late August? Sheesh. Talk about cut throat.
The right-shooting forward, who played his college hockey at Boston University, has 53 goals 129 points through 316 career games between Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – MARCH 30: Daniel Sprong #91 of the Seattle Kraken controls the puck against the Vegas Golden Knights during the second period at Climate Pledge Arena on March 30, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
A right-shot, right wing, Daniel Sprong finds himself looking for work after a 2021-22 campaign that featured a career-high 14 goals along with 20 points in 63 games between the Capitals and Kraken.
The 25-year-old Dutch winger has actually put up at least 20 points in back-to-back seasons for the first time his career, and did so with almost no power-play time to his name.
Sprong seems like one of these wingers due to pop for some team on a way-too-affordable deal, as he averaged 0.99 goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five last season, which ranked 14th among a group of 62 right wings with at least 700 five-on-five minutes last season, according to NaturalStatTrick.
The 2015 second-round pick has scored 46 goals and totaled 70 points in 202 career games with the Penguins, Ducks, Capitals, and Kraken.
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 03: Sam Steel #23 of the Anaheim Ducks in the first period at Honda Center on April 03, 2022 in Anaheim, California. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
A first-round pick in 2016 (No. 30 overall), center Sam Steel remains on the hunt for a job for next season. He hasn’t exactly popped at the NHL level — Steel finished last year with six goals and 20 points in 68 games, and has just 24 goals and 65 points in 197 NHL games — but for no one to take a chance on a high-ceiling center (these guys get more chances than any other position) is always weird.
That said, the lack of interest beyond the ‘meh’ numbers could come with Steel having some trouble hanging over him with the the sexual assault allegations against the 2018 Team Canada squad that included Steel. Steel, for the record, has denied any involvement in the scandal that’s rocked Hockey Canada.
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY – JANUARY 06: P.K. Subban #76 of the New Jersey Devils stretches during warm ups before the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Prudential Center on January 06, 2022. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Defenseman P.K. Subban is an interesting case.
At 33, and with over $70 million in career earnings, Subban could call it a career and do literally anything he wants. He’s already taken his first steps towards a broadcasting career and helped ESPN out during their coverage of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But I’m not ready to sit here and say that Subban is done done, especially if a new contract (one that doesn’t pay him $8 million per year) properly slots into a situation where he’s serving as a third-pairing, puck-moving presence who can still throw a hit and block some shots.
Deployed for 18:18 of time on ice per night last year, Subban finished with five goals and 22 points, and his minus-8 rating was his best since the Predators traded him to New Jersey in 2019. Subban was also one of 67 NHL defensemen to put up at least 20 five-on-five points last season.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – APRIL 26: Joe Thornton #19 of the Florida Panthers looks on during the second period against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on April 26, 2022. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Joe Thornton’s relentless pursuit of his first Stanley Cup championship may have reached its conclusion. After an unsuccessful run in Toronto in 2021 led him to Florida for 2021-22, where he appeared in a career-low 34 games and posted his lowest point total since his rookie season, the 42-year-old remains unsigned.
It’s clear that if Thornton goes anywhere in the NHL, it’s going to be a top contender that’ll give him his best chance at winning a Stanley Cup (he hasn’t been back to the Stanley Cup Final since his lone trip in 2016).
Thornton is currently going through his normal offseason training with Switzerland’s HC Davos, which indicates that he wants to give it another go, but whether or not there’s a market for him remains to be seen.
Thornton’s 1,714 games are the sixth-most in league history, while he ranks seventh on NHL’s all-time assist leaderboard (1,109) and 12th in points (1,539).
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 23: Jimmy Vesey #16 of the New Jersey Devils warms up before a game against the Buffalo Sabres at Prudential Center on October 23, 2021. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jimmy Vesey, the Massachusetts native who turned the Bruins down as a highly-touted college free agent back in 2016, is once again looking for an NHL gig.
It’s been a league tour of sorts for the 6-foot-3 wing in recent seasons, as he’s had stops in Buffalo, Toronto, Vancouver, and New Jersey over the last three seasons after spending the first three years of his NHL career with the Rangers. Vesey, who won a Hobey Baker during his time at Harvard, put up eight goals and 15 points in 68 games played this past season as a member of the Devils.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has been covering the Bruins since 2010, and has been a member of the Boston chapter of the PHWA since 2013. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.