NHL free agency is the most exciting time of year. When star players hit the open market and you hope your favorite team gets in on the action. Unless, of course, you’re a Flyers fan, in which case you know the team will never make waves in the free agent pool. But the future provides hope! We’ve looked at the 2023 class before, but the 2024 class is potentially shaping up to be a doozy as well with some of the brightest young stars in the game looking to cash in.
All eyes will be on the fate of superstar forward Auston Matthews and whether or not he re-signs with the Maple Leafs when his contract is up. Matthews is already making $11.6 million per season, so it’s not like the Leafs will have to scrape together the funds to re-sign him, it’s unlikely he makes a substantially higher amount than he is now, possibly wanting to be the league’s top paid player, surpassing Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million. The recent trend of American-born players heading to American-based clubs is hard to ignore, so it may all boil down to whether or not he wants to stay north of the boards for most of the remainder of his career.
Stamkos will be 34 years old when July 2024 rolls around, but based on his production, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. He quietly put up 42 goals and 106 points during the 2021-22 season on a stacked Tampa Bay roster, but he’s always been a big-time offensive producer. The injuries have started to rack up over the years, but until the decline in his production actually starts, there should be nothing to be concerned about when it comes to the talent of Steven Stamkos. He could be the perfect veteran leadership piece for a team looking for a boost to their offense, that is, if he leaves Tampa in the first place.
Aho has been one of the more consistent offensive producers in the league since he made his debut in 2016-17 with 401 points in 445 games including three 30-goal seasons. He has been a key member of the Canes recent success, but will be 27 years old by the time 2024 rolls around. Current Hurricanes GM Don Waddell has proven he’s not afraid to walk away from players if the money isn’t right, so if contract extensions come to an impasse, it’s entirely possible Aho may make it all the way to the free agent market in a few years from now, possibly asking for more than his current $8.4 million cap hit.
Matthews and Nylander expiring in the same summer is going to pose a serious challenge to the Leafs’ already tight cap issues. Nylander has kept getting better as his career has gone on, posting a career-high 34 goals and 80 points in 81 games during the 2021-22 campaign. He’ll be 28 years old in 2024, still plenty young enough to cash in on a major extension if his play remains at its current level.
The Flyers passed on Sam Reinhart once during the 2021 offseason, so now they have a chance to right that wrong in 2024. The talent has always been there for Reinhart, but being stuck on a miserable Sabres team limited his ceiling. When the Panthers acquired him, his play exploded, scoring 33 goals and 82 points in 78 games, a key contributor on a stacked Florida squad. He’s broke the 20-goal plateau in six of his seven NHL seasons and provided his numbers stay inflated for the next few years he remains a Panther, he could be one of the best centers of the 2024 class.
By the time 2024 rolls around, Marchessault will be a ripe 33.5 years old, but he doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. He’s 44th in the league in points over the last five seasons, regularly leading the Golden Knights’ offense. Given his age, there might not be a massive, long-term deal waiting for him in 2024, but he doesn’t appear quite ready to start taking veteran minimums either. Provided his offense stays strong, he’ll get many offers from teams looking for an older leader with playoff experience that can still produce.
In the never-ending conversation of who is the most underrated player in the league, Calgary’s Elias Lindholm may take the cake. He put up 82 points in 82 games during the 2021-22 season, centering one of the league’s most dominate lines with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. He’s one of the best two-way centers in the game today, but now he will have to prove he can hang without the support of Gaudreau and Tkachuk, who both left the Flames organization during the 2022 offseason. Plus there will be added pressure on Calgary to retain Lindholm after going 0/2 this summer. All that boils down to a very expensive contract extension, a big pay day from his current $4.8 million.
Guentzel has been attached to the hip with Sidney Crosby for most of his career at this point, and he’s done rather well for himself because of it. He’s posted 341 points in 375 games, including two 40-goal seasons and racking up more than a point-per-game in three consecutive years. He’ll turn 29 years old early in the 2024-25 season, which just so happens to be the last season of Crosby’s current contract. Time will tell what the Penguins look like in a few years as their core continues to age, but if Crosby appears to be at the end of his career at that point, does Guentzel go looking for greener pastures for the back-nine of his own career?
Speaking of underrated Calgary players, Noah Hanifin served as the team’s top left-handed defenseman last season. Given the Flames are in a transition era trying to figure out where they go from here, Hanifin’s job security will depend heavily on how the rest of the team looks. If they can’t recover from losing Gaudreau and Tkachuk, they may let him walk in free agency. He can play both sides of the puck, as evidenced by his 10 goals and 48 points during the 2021-22 campaign, and turning just 27 years old in 2024, he could cash in big thanks to his impressive two-way ability.
Toews is one of the best two-way defensemen in the the league today, forming a lethal duo with Cale Makar. He’s on a team-friendly $4.1 AAV deal these days, but that won’t be the case in 2024. Most of the Avalanche core is locked up (except Nathan Mackinnon as of this writing) and the cap is getting tighter, so some tough decisions will have to be made, but if Toews hit free agency, expect him to rise up the charts of the league’s highest paid defensemen.
Muzzin is already an 11-year NHL veteran at 33 years old, so if he’s still playing in 2024, any contract he signs will probably be short-term, potentially on the hunt for a Stanley Cup if he’s unsuccessful during his days in Toronto. He’s taken more of a defensive defenseman role with the Leafs, so provided his play doesn’t slip too far, he’d be a perfect third pair depth shutdown D for any team interested in 2024.
Hellebuyck has been one of the workhorse goaltenders of the NHL, eclipsing 60 starts three times in his career. Considering the Jets are a middling team these days and there will be plenty of teams looking for that kind of stabilization in net, Hellebuyck could easily become of the league’s top paid goaltenders. He’s got a career .910 save percentage and 2.97 goals against average with 201 wins in 381 NHL games.
Even though Sorokin is still relatively new in the league, he’ll turn 29 years old when his current contract expires in 2024, just four seasons into his NHL career. He’s been a rock behind the stingy Islanders’ defense, posting a career .923 save percentage and 2.33 goals against average in 73 games. The real test will be the team’s ability to continue on at a high defensive level without head coach Barry Trotz, so more pressure may be applies to Sorokin in the near future. If he can handle it, it will bode even better for future contract negotiations with the Islanders, or possibly someone else.
By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)
photo credit: nhl.com