It is a hockey fan’s favorite time of year. Within days, players worldwide will come home to their NHL teams as they officially open for business ahead of the 2023-24 season when training camp starts.
Of course, most franchises have filled out their rosters; however, there are still 42 unsigned unrestricted free agents out there, with many hoping to continue their careers.
A handful of the free agents will find a place to keep playing professional hockey, whether in North America or not. Ultimately, we could discuss the merits of every skater but pick the top five who should find a home in the NHL if they choose to keep playing.
Although everyone on this list is older, some skaters under 30 find themselves without a team heading into 2023-24, and those include Maxime Comtois (24), Adam Erne (28), Nick Ritchie (27), Mason Shaw (24), Jesse Puljujarvi (25), Ethan Bear (26), and Zach Aston-Reese (28).
Considering many teams have intriguing battles to watch in training camp, some players may sign PTOs to keep things interesting leading up to the opening night.
As the days turn into hours before opening night, we look at the top five UFA players that teams should consider offering professional tryouts (PTO).
5. Eric Staal
Eric Staal is a one-time 100-point scorer who tallied 40 goals twice. Even though those campaigns came early in his career, he’s a former captain and veteran leader who just played in the Stanley Cup Final with the Florida Panthers.
After 18 seasons with six franchises, Staal can still play a valuable role on a team looking for modest production from a bottom-six skater. Although he’s 38 years old, he could retire instead of relocating again, but either way, clubs looking for invaluable leadership should invite him to camp.
4. Zach Parise
As a former first-round pick (17th overall) in 2003, Zach Parise has played with three franchises over his 18-year career and recently remains undecided about his future. The six-time 30-goal scorer has seen his production dip over the years, scoring over 50 points just once since 2016-17.
At 39 years old, Parise can choose to retire or pursue one final chance at winning a Stanley Cup. Even though he won’t report to training camp with the New York Islanders, they could make room for the veteran later since he’s played the last two seasons at a league minimum salary of $750,000.
3. Josh Bailey
Josh Bailey has played his entire career with the Islanders, and outside a PTO offer from the club, it appears that chapter of his career is over. After 15 seasons on Long Island, the team traded him to the Chicago Blackhawks this summer, who bought out the last year of his contract, making him a free agent.
Even though he never scored 20 goals in a season, he’s collected 580 points in 1,057 games, which isn’t bad considering Bailey spent most of his career on some subpar Islanders team. He could return to New York, but he won’t be making anywhere close to $5 million like his previous contract and would have to accept a lesser role with a club looking to get younger.
2. Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel has skated in over 1,000 consecutive games since 2009. During his quest for one of hockey’s most prestigious records, he won three Stanley Cup titles, including one last season with the Vegas Golden Knights.
As a 17-year veteran with 992 points in 1,286 games, Kessel recently told teams he would be willing to lose the Iron Man streak if it meant employment for the upcoming season. Considering he’s just eight points away from 1,000, some team will give him a chance to reach the milestone.
1. Tomas Tatar
Tomas Tatar is a 12-year NHL veteran with 455 points in 783 games. As a seven-time 20-goal scorer, it is surprising to see his name on the UFA list this late into the offseason. Outside of Patrick Kane, who had 57 points last season, Tatar remains the highest-scoring free agent with 48 points in 2022-23.
Considering so many teams are over the cap and a handful are sitting close to the limit, it is easy to see why not many clubs have the space to sign a guy who recently made $4.5 million a year. Eventually, someone will offer Tatar a PTO or even sign him to a modest contract since injuries and lack of production will cost someone their spot. Either that, or he could play a season in Europe to boost his stock for next summer.