Captains, trophy winners, Cup champs, No. 1 defencemen, and starting goalies.

Yes, even with a few major talents signing big deals way early (Seth Jones, Sean Couturier, Colton Parayko) and avoiding the stress of free agency, the NHL’s 2022 UFA class could be a deep one.

And with the salary cap expected to rise by $1 million, those spendy general managers should have all the more reason to splash the pot on next summer’s Dougie Hamilton or John Tavares.

Here’s a rundown and ranking of hockey’s best impending unrestricted free agents, plus the latest buzz circulating about their future.

Happy contract year, fellas.

 

1. Aleksander Barkov
Age on July 15:
26
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.9 million

The latest: Not since John Tavares hit the market in 2018 — to the tune of $77 million — could a franchise centreman command such a summertime bidding war.

Thing is, the Florida Panthers should do everything in their power to prevent that from happening with the franchise’s only Selke winner. And early reports on a long-term (eight years?) extension are positive.

“The team is thought to be close to, or Barkov has agreed to, a new contract,” Florida beat reporter George Richards wrote on Aug. 29. “Best guess? Between $9.5-11 million per season.”

Even with the Panthers operating in a tax-free state, we’d lean to the top end of that range.

Barkov is only 26. He’s one of the best two-way pivots in the sport. And this is a club that gave $10 million a year to Sergei Bobrovsky. Barkov should rightly become the highest-paid player in Panthers history.

GM Bill Zito must also extend star winger Jonathan Huberdeau in the not-so-distant future (2023) and may wish to use the eight-year, $62-million extension ($7.75 million AAV) Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier signed this summer as a low-end comparable to keep Barkov in check.

“I haven't really thought about it yet,” Barkov said after the Cats lost their first-round playoff series to Tampa.

“Obviously, we'll talk about it with my people and the organization too. We'll come up with something. All I can say is that I love it here right now. I enjoyed this year the most.”

 

2. Mika Zibanejad
Age on July 15:
29
Position: Centre
2021-22 salary cap hit: $5.35 million

The latest: The Rangers’ top-line centre exploded for 65 goals and 125 points over his past 113 games. As one of the premier UFA forwards under 30, Zibanejad is poised for a monster payday.

The sides began talking extension in early August, and it sounds as if there’s a chance to lock up Zibanejad sooner rather than later.

“Individuals familiar with the situation have indicated that the parties share the mutual objective of getting something done and are earnest in trying to reach that end,” Larry Brooks reported on Sept. 7.

If Zibanejad were to hit the open market, it’s not crazy to think he could push for nearly an eight-figure deal.

Zibanejad has fine chemistry with the club’s top winger, Artemi Panarin, and holds a full no-move clause heading into his platform season.

The Rangers are ramping toward contender status, so walking Zibanejad out the door would be a major blow.

“Mika is a huge part of our team. I’m not going to discuss his contract or anyone else’s publicly,” GM Chris Drury said. “I have a ton of respect for him as a person and a player.”