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A Look at the Top 2020-21 NHL Free Agents Left on the Market

The NHL Trade Deadline is just around the corner. Most people are focused on the players set to be traded (which, of course, is fair). However, the deadline also offers teams their last chance to sign free agents.

In this article, I will be taking a look at the top remaining NHL Free Agents.

If you are interested in clicking through to a specific player, click on your player of choice:

Michael Grabner
Brian Boyle
Thomas Di Pauli

Notes and Observations

First, I wanted to set criteria for which players will be profiled in this article. I wanted to give a focus specifically to players that appeared in NHL games last season and are considering NHL deals this year. For some of these players, I had to speculate, but for most of them, I was able to find answers via research or by contacting their agents.

Players that did appear in NHL games last season, are not under contract, and will not be in this ranking are Gabriel Bourque, Jonathan Ericsson, Dale Weise, Troy Brouwer, Andreas Englund, Dalton Prout, Brandon Manning, Karl Alzner, and Ron Hainsey.

I’d rather get to the point soon, so I’ll be elaborating on these players closer to the end of this article.

NHL free agent signings usually don’t happen this late in the season, but I do feel as if there are some players that could change that.

Alright, let’s get started!

1. Michael Grabner

Position: LW/RW
Age: 33, 34 on October 5th
Height: 6’1
Weight: 187 lbs
2019-20 stats: 8/3/11 in 46 games with the Arizona Coyotes (NHL)

For a type of player to be synonymous with your name in hockey, you need to be a very special player. The problem is that you’re either special in a good way or special in a bad way.

Luckily for Michael Grabner, he’s special in a mostly good way.

After just a glimpse at Michael Grabner on the ice, you know exactly what I’m talking about. He’s fast. Like, really fast. His speed makes him a weapon on the ice, but it helps him specifically in two situations.

On the penalty kill, and when facing an empty net.

This goal from just a couple of years ago is just one of dozens of shorthanded goals that Grabner has scored in his career.

As for empty nets, here’s a big stat. Since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2010-11 with the New York Islanders, Michael Grabner has the 7th most empty-net goals in the entire NHL, with 20. He is behind stars and former stars in Alex Ovechkin, Brad Marchand, Blake Wheeler, Eric Staal, Patrick Kane, and Patrice Bergeron. That’s the company he’s in. He’s done this in 123 games less than anyone higher than him.

Even if you narrow it down to just the last couple of seasons (in which he’s missed a lot of hockey), he still ranks top-15 in the entire league.

Another crazy stat: Since he became a full-time NHLer in 2010-11, Michael Grabner has had 22 short-handed goals. That is second in the entire league during that time frame. He has played over a hundred fewer games than anyone else in the top-5.

Michael Grabner is pretty much a legendary specialist player.

At this point in his career, that’s what he is. A specialist.

A couple of seasons ago, Grabner could be considered a very solid 5v5 threat. He scored 34 goals for 52 points in his rookie season with the New York Islanders. Even as recently as 2017-18, Grabner held a 34-goal pace as a member of the New York Rangers. With his blazing speed, he was an absolute pain to defend or to get defended by, and he still is now. However, there lies the second part of what makes Grabner a special player.

The man cannot finish. He’s poked fun at it, everyone’s noticed it, he just cannot finish the plays he makes. Sure, Grabner has finished a lot of plays, and it shows on the scoresheet. However, when you watch him play, he just isn’t able to capitalize on as many attempts as you want him to. Instead, strength in numbers helps him. After all, if you get 100 breakaways, one is bound to go in… right?

As a result, while Grabner is a serviceable player at 5v5, teams would prefer to acquire him for his abilities on the PK and against the empty net.

There are very few players in the league that can do what Grabner does, and as a result, he’s the best free agent here, in my opinion.

Contending teams would love to add him on their second penalty-kill unit and they’d love to have him make a rush for the empty net during close games.

There’s one big problem, though. Grabner isn’t on the market because no one wants him.

When Michael Grabner was bought out of the final year of his contract by the Arizona Coyotes, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was quick to point out that Grabner preferred to wait until details were more clear about the NHL season before he made a decision on where to sign.

Of course, that was around four months ago. What’s the verdict?

I asked Grabner’s agent, Jerome Buckley, about Grabner’s status, and I found out this. Grabner is still staying in shape to play hockey, but he’s still weighing his options. He hasn’t made a decision yet between retiring or returning to the NHL.

This was echoed by Grabner in an interview with an Austrian news outlet. He cited tight COVID restrictions as his biggest reason for not returning to the NHL but noted that he hasn’t retired yet.

I’m assuming that Grabner and his family still live in Arizona, so that could be the most desirable destination for him… except that, because the Arizona Coyotes bought him out and still carry his cap, they can’t sign him.

One team that I think could make a push for Grabner would be the Ottawa Senators. Head coach DJ Smith loved having Grabner in Toronto and was noted as one of the guys who wanted to re-sign Grabner badly. But would a 33-year-old Michael Grabner move all the way to Ottawa just to play for a rebuilding team?

One thing that really stands out to me is that Michael Grabner has not won a Stanley Cup in his 11-year NHL career. The furthest he got was in 2017 when his New York Rangers went to six games with the Ottawa Senators before being eliminated in the second round.

Could Grabner look for a contract with a contender? I think that there will be contending teams that check in, but it’s hard to pinpoint a specific team that could sign him. After all, the ball is in his park.

2. Brian Boyle

Position: C/LW
Age: 36
Height: 6’6
Weight: 245 lbs
2019-20 stats: 6/9/15 in 39 games with the Florida Panthers (NHL)

Brian Boyle can be a huge part of a contending team.

Not just because of his 14 years of professional hockey experience. And also not just because of his proven usefulness as a bottom-six forward.

He can, physically, be a huge part of a contending team. At 6’6, he would be one of the tallest players in the league.

Jokes aside, I honestly believe that Brian Boyle brings a lot to a Cup contending team.

Boyle was picked 26th overall by the Los Angeles Kings in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2010 when he broke out with the New York Rangers.

Brian Boyle scored 21 goals for 35 points in 82 games, and he’s been a consistent 20-point scorer ever since.

Another thing he’s done ever since? Brian Boyle has made the postseason in each year starting from that 2010-11 season. That is ten straight years. He’s done so on six different teams.

He brings what many GMs strive for on their bottom line. He’s big, he’s physical, and he’s experienced.

However, I don’t think those intangibles are his ticket back to the NHL, though. The stat that jumps out for me with him would be his abilities in the faceoff circle.

Brian Boyle isn’t an elite faceoff taker, but he’s found success at the dot for most of his career.

His FO% of 52.4 put him in the top-50 most effective and consistent faceoff takers in the league last season.

Sure, it’s a far cry from Sean Couturier’s 59.6, but it still makes Boyle one of the more consistent faceoff men in hockey.

The analytics don’t favour Boyle, but I do feel that with a player like Brian Boyle, you aren’t looking at those numbers. At this point in his career, he’s likely not a guy that a contender is playing every game or a guy that will play much more than 10-12 minutes a night. At 36, teams know exactly what he is. He’s a big player who can provide some production on the fourth line, he can take faceoffs, and he can still throw the body.

Boyle’s agent, Richard Curran, confirmed to me that Boyle is looking for a contract for the remainder of the season.

I truly believe that the best fit for Brian Boyle right now would be the New York Rangers. Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported earlier in the season that the Rangers had looked at signing Boyle, and the fit makes sense.

The New York Rangers currently have Brett Howden and Kevin Rooney rotating in that 4C spot. However, the Rangers have a pretty bad faceoff problem.

None of the Rangers’ full-time centremen have over a 40% faceoff rate. In fact, with their current projected lineup, their percentages go 46.3% (Mika Zibanejad), 44.5% (Ryan Strome), 39.7 (Filip Chytil), 48.3 (Brett Howden).

It’s pretty bad. This has been a pattern throughout the season. The Rangers are currently well out of a playoff spot, but this is a team that’s built to contend. The team has room to rotate Brian Boyle in with the aforementioned Kevin Rooney and Brett Howden. Should he join the Rangers, it would be a return to a fanbase where he was a fan-favourite for five seasons with the team.

The return would be great, but the Rangers don’t really give him a strong chance at winning his first Cup. After all, it would be a battle just to get to the playoffs.

I’m sure the Tampa Bay Lightning would be interested in a return, but they don’t have the cap flexibility to rotate around Boyle.

The New York Islanders, whose GM, Lou Lamoriello, has traded for Boyle before, might’ve been an option, but I believe that acquiring Travis Zajac in the Palmieri trade rules them out.

The Boston Bruins have shown interest in Boyle in the past. The Hingham, MA native didn’t grow up far from Boston, and his style of play fits what the Bruins have been known for before. However, the Bruins have been working hard to find an upgrade via trade, and I’d bet that they’d rather save any cap flexibility that they can keep.

I also believe that Boyle’s style of play fits what new additions Brian Burke and Ron Hextall could be looking for in Pittsburgh. Although their need for a centre has been calmed by the emergence of Frederick Gaudreau, it wouldn’t hurt to rotate a guy like Boyle in there to see how it goes. A guy like Mark Jankowski looks like he needs a push, and maybe platooning with Boyle will give him some competition.

Overall, if he does return to the NHL, I’m not sure that Brian Boyle is more than a taxi squad player/4th line centre. I don’t see him asking for more than $700-800k on a one-year deal, and it’s very possible that he could treat it as his farewell year. A team with cap flexibility could use him, and I only say flexibility because it’s very likely that Boyle won’t be an everyday player, meaning that a team would likely need room to keep another forward (unless they’d put Boyle through waivers multiple times). 

It seems like the desire to play is very strong from Brian Boyle, who once said that he would play "until they tell me I can"t anymore."

3. Thomas Di Pauli

Position: C/LW
Age: 26, 27 on April 29th
Height: 5’11
Weight: 187 lbs
2019-20 stats: 0 points in 2 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL), 8/9/17 in 39 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)

When the Pittsburgh Penguins signed Thomas Di Pauli in 2016, it was salt in the wound for Washington Capitals fans. The team that had just eliminated them once again en route to the Stanley Cup had now stolen a prospect that declined to sign with them.

Di Pauli was drafted in 2012, but it was his NCAA career that drew eyes. He began to produce well during his final two years, finishing his senior year with the University of Notre Dame with 32 points in 37 games. His performance was good enough for the team to name him their top offensive player that year, even on a team with NHL forwards Anders Bjork, Jake Evans, and Steven Fogarty.

Unfortunately, things just didn’t go up from there.

At 23 years old, he was struggling to make an offensive impact in the AHL. During his second year, Di Pauli was getting better, but he was failing to become a consistent producer at the AHL level. When things were looking up for him, obstacles were constantly thrown his way. He had back surgery during his rookie year to correct issues that were plaguing him since college. He suffered broken bones, he was taken out by illegal hits.

Ultimately, his development didn’t go as planned, and he didn’t get a full opportunity to prove himself.

A plethora of injuries allowed Di Pauli to make his NHL debut with the Penguins. He played two games in the bottom-six, but it wasn’t enough to allow him to stick. He finished the season sidelined in the AHL with an undisclosed injury.

His injury troubles mean that I’m not sure he’s out because no one wants him. I think it’s very possible that he’s taken the year off to fully recover from injury and then go from there. It would be a smart move, not too different from what Rourke Chartier, now of the Toronto Marlies, did to get back to 100% after a series of concussions.

However, I didn’t receive confirmation on any of that, so as a result, I’ll still include him on this list.

Di Pauli’s greatest asset is speed. Very few players have the same level of speed that Thomas Di Pauli has, it’s going to be his key to the NHL.

Di Pauli is also solid defensively, he was known for his two-way game in college, and it was still a strength in the AHL. He’s able to use his speed and smarts to become a tough player to get past offensively.

He also uses that combination of smarts and speed to be a fierce forechecker, something that I’d love to see him do more when healthy.

He’s just not consistent enough offensively, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a fault of his own. He’s been dealt a terrible hand with injuries, and the fact that he’s even played as soon as he did after that back surgery is amazing in itself.

Ultimately, I hope that Di Pauli is taking the year off to recover, but if he is available, he could be a good bet for an AHL team.

I think that Thomas Di Pauli’s best shot at the NHL is to become a Michael Grabner-like forward. A specialist player that is able to use his speed effectively as a penalty-killer and as a breakaway threat (which he already is).

At 26, soon to be 27, it’s possible that the AHL won’t be his best option. Teams generally give preference to either proven players his age or younger players with clear potential. Due to injury and his time in the NCAA, Di Pauli doesn’t currently count towards the AHL veteran limit, but it’s possible that an internal limit could limit him.

Instead, I wonder if a league like the SHL or even the DEL would be an option for Di Pauli. Both leagues are good places for a player like Di Pauli to impress while also giving him a clear opportunity to come back to the AHL. It’s not too far off from what former teammate Adam Johnson did, heading to the SHL for the year and then signing back in the AHL with a clearer pathway.

Overall, there are a lot of question marks with Di Pauli, I hope a team gives him a shot even at his age, he could be a smart grab for any organization.

NHL Free Agents That Will Not Play 

Gabriel Bourque

Gabriel Bourque is taking the year off from professional hockey to focus on his family. Earlier in the year, Bourque made it clear that he would accept an NHL offer, but an AHL offer would have to be discussed with his family. It makes sense, it’s a very tough decision to move your family during a pandemic, so the offer would have to be substantial. I’m assuming that all interest for Bourque was focused on a two-way deal, which wasn’t worth it for Bourque.

He confirmed in a French article that while offers were on the table for him to play in the AHL and Europe, he’s instead taking the year off.

The future remains to be seen for Bourque, who I had labelled as the most practical free agent available. He’s a decent depth player who’s a defensive specialist. Offensively, he’s a black hole, but his defensive prowess has made him a great option for an NHL team’s fourth line and taxi squad. There have been similar players who have cleared waivers (thinking of Filip Chlapik), so I definitely understand why the uncertainty was high for Bourque.

Dalton Prout

Dalton Prout has retired from professional hockey. In October, San Jose Hockey Now’s Sheng Peng reported that Prout would train and see how things felt when the season came closer. I confirmed with Newport Sports Agency (who represented Prout) that he has now retired.

Prout was part of a dying breed of defensemen known for their rough and tough play style and their willingness to get messy when needed.

He had suffered injuries in the past, but this last season with the San Jose Sharks could be considered an unfortunate disaster.

Prout played a total of five games, two with the San Jose Sharks, and three on a conditioning loan with the San Jose Barracuda of the AHL.

He suffered two concussions during that time frame.

I’m assuming it was a very tough decision to make, but you have to do what’s best for your health, and I have a great amount of respect for Prout for making that tough decision. Congratulations to him on a great NHL career.

Jonathan Ericsson

Jonathan Ericsson has played 680 games in the NHL. All of them were for the Detroit Red Wings, and he will not play in the NHL in a different jersey.

Ericsson’s agent, Craig Oster, confirmed to me that Ericsson was not looking for a contract in the NHL. This confirms what Red Wings play-by-play announcer Ken Daniels confirmed last year, that Jonathan Ericsson had retired from the NHL.

Jonathan Ericsson is known as a high-profile steal, becoming a key piece of the Detroit Red Wings defense for over a decade after being picked in the ninth round (which no longer exists) in 2002.

His play had declined over the years, and the Red Wings decided not to retain the then-36-year-old defenseman after having him spend part of the season in the AHL.

I do wonder if the door is open for a farewell season in the Swedish 2nd tier hockey league, Allsvenskan, where he has played before and where he spent some time during the 2012-13 lockout, though.

Brandon Manning

Brandon Manning is taking a year off from hockey. He confirmed in an article for the Prince George Citizen that he had declined offers to take the year off as he and his fiancée await the birth of their baby.

He did mention that if he does return next year, it will likely be in Europe, and I’ll have to agree. Manning had been known as an inconsistent defenseman in the NHL, and might be best known for injuring Connor McDavid in his rookie season… only for the Oilers to trade McDavid’s good friend, Drake Caggulia, for Manning a couple of years later.

Defensemen like Manning are still wanted in today’s game, but what he did last season likely will (and should) make teams look the other way.

Brandon Manning was suspended for five games in the AHL for the use of a racial slur against an opponent.

When he faced Bokondji Imama, whom he directed the slur to, in his second game back, this happened.

I just don’t think that an NHL or AHL team goes to bat for Manning after all of that. His style of play may find him success in Europe, but I don’t believe that we will see much of him in North America.

Dale Weise

Dale Weise has expressed the desire to sign in Europe since hitting free agency. It’s been reported multiple times, and most recently, The Hockey Writers’ Panagiotis Mavridis reported that if Weise does play professional hockey, it’ll be in Europe next year.

Weise has actually played professional hockey in Europe before…

19 games in the Netherlands. His 48 points during that time frame earned him the nickname of the "Dutch Gretzky."

Weise recently started a show called Habs Tonight, which has been a hit. He’s had some great guests on, and he’s continued his success as a Habs fan-favourite, which is great to see.

If he does play professional hockey again, I’m assuming it will be for the experience of playing in a higher league in Europe rather than to pursue a long-term path.

Karl Alzner

I fought myself really hard to keep Karl Alzner on this ranking, but I just couldn’t. After being bought out by the Montreal Canadiens, Alzner has found his footing as an analyst for NBC’s Washington Capitals Pregame Show.

It looks like he’s fitting right in too, and I think that it could be the perfect transition into a post-playing career.

Alzner disappointed in Montreal after signing a hefty deal as a free agent, but in the few games he got in his last season, he actually looked surprisingly good.

Karl Alzner will be paid by the Habs until 2024. If he does return, it will be due to his love of the game, not because he needs to.

I think the only real option for Alzner would be a return to Washington as a depth defenseman, but I find it hard to believe that he will just leave his job as an analyst to sit in the press box.

Overall, I think Alzner is capable of playing hockey at the NHL level, but it just might not be meant to be. Of course, I haven’t received any real confirmation on his status, so this is just speculation.

Andreas Englund

Andreas Englund signed with Västerviks IK of Allsvenskan after not being tendered a qualifying offer by the Ottawa Senators. The then-24-year-old was a big get for the team. His contract included an NHL out clause, but just getting a strong defensive defenseman out of the NHL was huge, especially considering that Englund had been playing in the SHL before even moving to the NHL.

The NHL out clause signalled that some NHL interest was expected and that it could have been a stopgap to play until there was more certainty around the NHL season.

He played a couple of preseason matches, he looked pretty good.

And then he took a shot to the face. Shortly after the injury, the team’s coach noted that they had no idea if the injury would take three weeks or three months.

It has been roughly seven months. I’m not sure what’s up with this whole situation. After listing him as injured on game reports for a while, they just took him off the roster.

I’m going to assume that he’ll take a year off and then try a similar go in Allsvenskan, especially with many overseas seasons coming to an end. I hope everything’s alright with him, it’s an unfortunate situation overall.

Ron Hainsey

Ron Hainsey has been hired as the NHLPA’s Assistant to the Executive Director for Special Projects and Development Initiatives. That is a mouthful.

The press release noted that throughout his career he had been involved in negotiations involving the NHLPA, including the 2012-13 lockout, the 2020 Return to Play, and the 2020-21 shortened season.

Per the media release:

"In his new role, Hainsey will work on a variety of matters related to the administration of the CBA, media and broadcast partners, and new opportunities for marketing and sponsorship, all with special emphasis on the enhancement of player communication within the NHLPA."

Good for him!

For over a decade, Hainsey had been a minute-munching defenseman, he played 1132 games in the NHL, and he had been a reliable defenseman all the way to his final season at age 39.

After breaking the record for most games played without a playoff appearance, a deadline trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins allowed him to become an integral part of the Cup-winning Pens.

I’m assuming this is the end of his career as a player, so congratulations to him!

Troy Brouwer

Troy Brouwer most recently appeared as an analyst for Sportsnet’s Calgary Flames broadcast. I’m assuming that puts an end to Brouwer’s professional hockey career, at least for now. Brouwer’s time in Calgary was rather tumultuous, which makes his appearances on the broadcast a bit of a surprise. Brouwer was given a $4.5m x 4 years contract but wasn’t able to carry his prior success to Calgary. The team was forced to buy him out halfway through his deal, and they’ll pay him until 2023.

He had a short return to the St. Louis Blues last year, but at 35, I’m not sure what the next step is. It looked like he was a great fit on the Flames panel, a career as an analyst would be a great step if he chooses to retire.

I only don’t have him on the rankings because he cannot return to the Calgary Flames (as they bought him out), and he appeared on a broadcast for their team specifically. Doesn’t officially mean his only option is Calgary, but I’m just going to take it that way for now.

Overall, it’s not exactly the strongest class for free agents. The existence of the taxi squad has wiped out pretty much any goalies on the market, something we saw a lot of in years past. The pandemic has also caused a load of players to contemplate time away from the sport.

I’ve always found these things interesting. I wish these players the best of luck in what they decide to do next.

Follow me on Twitter at @MagicianMarner and follow us @OT_Heroics for more great content!

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