Vancouver Canucks fans could successfully argue that Elias Pettersson is the biggest name on the unsigned Euro-free-agent list. Minnesota Wild fans would argue Kirill Kaprizov. Either way, the negotiating pressure point that is the start of training camp is fast approaching.
Whether it’s Restricted Free Agents (RFA) or Unrestricted (UFA), there are plenty of European NHL regulars still looking for contracts in North America. UFA’s first.
Let’s start with the tallest man in league history, Zdeno Chara. At age-44, the work-out machine has lost some of his dexterity and maneuverability over the last couple of years and looks to be trying to catch on for one more season at a minimum salary. The 2011 Stanley Cup Champion captain still brings leadership, physicality, and solid time on the penalty kill to a team looking for D depth. He’s played more than 1,600 NHL games.
By the way, his former Boston Bruins teammate David Krejčí would be the highest priced UFA sitting out there, based on the value of the expiring contract, but Krejci decided in the off-season to wrap things up and head home to the Czech Republic with his family.
While Krejci’s countryman and fellow forward Dominik Kahun signed in Switzerland, and his fellow 35-year-old centreman Carl Soderberg of Malmö, Sweden signed with his home town team, 29-year-old defenceman Erik Gustafsson is sticking it out. A pre-playoff acquisition of the Montreal Canadiens from Philadelphia last season, he played 5 regular season games for the Habs and 16 more in the playoffs. From Stanley Cup Final to looking for work, he and his agent Peter Wallén are coming off a one-year, $3-million contract.
Russian forward Nikita Gusev, who split last season between New Jersey and Florida, isn’t quite ready just yet to head back to the KHL apparently, despite being waived by the Devils in April before signing with the Panthers a couple of days later. His countryman, centre Artem Anisimov, is coming off a $4.5-million salary and a five-year-deal and is likely a victim of the league’s general cap crunch. It’s hard for team to bite the bullet on a semi-expensive deal for the 33-year-old centre, particularly since his offensive output has tapered significantly since 2017 when he was with Chicago. He spent the two Covid seasons in Ottawa.
28-year-old German winger Tobias Rieder hasn’t crossed back over “the pond” just yet, he’s looking for work after coming off a $700,000 salary year in Buffalo. Kind of a tough place and situation in which to gauge your value. The bottom-six forward is closing in on 500 NHL games played; he’s been with five different organizations.
Meanwhile, the all-time leader among Danish-born players in NHL history may finally be hanging up his skates. He definitely won’t be signing anywhere for anything close to what he received the last six years. That would be 37-year-old Frans Nielsen and that would be $31.5-million. The Detroit Red Wings bought out the last year of that contract in mid-August, so Nielsen can kick back and enjoy the first two years of retirement while still getting paid.
Finland’s Sami Vatanen is probably looking for something south of $2-million per season. The 30-year-old right-shot defenceman finished up last year in Dallas for exactly that contract amount. His agent is countryman Mika Rautakallio. If the two of them are looking to still make serious cash, the NHL or KHL would be their best options and it appears Vatanen prefers the previous.
As it relates to unsigned European RFA’s, there are three that clearly leap to the forefront. Start with Kirill Kaprizov, the Calder Trophy winner as NHL rookie-of-the-year in Minnesota, he brings all the talent in the world to the table. The first year of his contract was spent in Russian, as were all the years of his development. Every year at rookie camp for the Wild it was “is Kaprizov coming this year?” “We hope so.” Now we know why they were anxious. Well, they’re anxious again to get a deal done, so KK doesn’t take his act back home. He had 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games last season.
It’s possible that Vancouver Canucks General Manager Jim Benning is waiting to see what Minnesota GM Bill Guerin does with Kaprizov’s deal before making a final decision on the price for star centre Elias Pettersson. Or maybe it’s vice versa for Guerin. Who budges first and sets the standard? Like Kaprizov, Pettersson is uber-talented, plus he’s a centre and not a wing. He should see a higher value although he is coming off a truncated year because of a wrist injury. Benning’s situation is more complicated because he also has to sign RFA star defenseman Quinn Hughes, a North American. The two players share the same agents and agency, JP Barry and Pat Brisson at Creative Artists (CAA). Another young North American star forward, Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators, is another unsigned potential comparable.
The third most prominent unsigned Euro-RFA is defenceman Rasmus Dahlin in Buffalo. His talent is unquestioned, the problem is the situation. The team and organization are a mess. They keep rolling through coaches and general managers and now of course their star captain, Jack Eichel, the young man taken second to Connor McDavid of the Oilers in the 2015 NHL draft, wants out. Dahlin was the first overall pick in 2018. In three years he’s watched the organization unravel … some more. Pay him. Someone can figure out a price, because at some point the Sabres have to start rebuilding the rebuild.
((**This is a modified version of a story that first appeared on September 16th in the Hockey Wanderlüst international newsletter.))