It's been nearly two weeks since the NHL's free-agent market opened July 28. Almost all of the top unrestricted free agents signed.
With the talent pool nearly drained, this is a good opportunity to look toward next summer's crop of potential UFA standouts.
Long-established superstars such as Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron could become available next July. So could younger stars in their prime such as Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov, Nashville Predators winger Filip Forsberg and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly.
Some of these players could sign with the highest bidder on the open market. Others could re-sign well before their UFA eligibility date.
Here are our way-too-early predictions for the top talent in the 2022 free-agent class. Feel free to sound off in the comments section.
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov had the makings of a future franchise player when the Florida Panthers chose him with the second pick in the 2013 NHL draft.
A big center with impressive two-way skills, the 6'3", 215-pound Barkov overcame injuries early in his career to become one of the NHL's top stars. He's tallied 52-plus points in each of the past six seasons, averaging 1.06 points per game since 2017-18. The big Finn is also just two points behind teammate Jonathan Huberdeau in overall points (465) since 2013-14.
Barkov helped establish his elite status by winning the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 2018-19 and the Frank J. Selke Trophy last season. Turning 26 on Sep. 2, he's staring down the final season of a six-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $5.9 million.
The Panthers have a projected $60.5 million tied up in 13 players for 2022-23. A new contract for Barkov will take a big bite out of their remaining cap space. Fortunately, he's the only core player due for free agency next summer. With the Panthers on the verge of Stanley Cup contention and their team captain and franchise player in his prime, it's doubtful they'll risk losing him to the open market.
The Panthers lock up Barkov to an eight-year extension worth $9 million per season.
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
One of the Boston Bruins' greatest players, Patrice Bergeron is also among the best two-way centers in NHL history. A four-time winner of the Selke Trophy, he helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reach the Final in 2013 and 2019.
The 36-year-old has spent his entire 17-season career with the Bruins. He sits third among their franchise leaders with 1,143 games played, fifth in total goals (375) and assists (542) and fourth in points with 917. He was named captain in 2020-21 following the departure of Zdeno Chara.
In the final season of an eight-year contract worth $6.88 million annually, Bergeron remains the Bruins' first-line center. Over the past two pandemic-shortened seasons, he reached 56 and 48 points, respectively.
Bergeron is also reaching the stage in his career when decline is inevitable. He's unlikely to get another lucrative long-term deal from the Bruins. However, he could be willing to accept a bit of a pay cut to stay with the only NHL team he's ever played for.
Bergeron inks a two-year contract with the Bruins worth an annual average value of $6 million.