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NHL free agency: 7 players to watch

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NHL free agency starts tomorrow. The feeding frenzy, though, has already begun. Kris Letang (Pittsburgh), Filip Forsberg (Nashville), Marc-Andre Fleury (Minnesota) and Valeri Nichushkin (Colorado) are among the key players who have inked new contracts to stay with their teams. Toronto and Ottawa made a significant trade yesterday that sent goalie Matt Murray to the Leafs. The wheeling and dealing at last week’s draft included the Senators’ landing two-time 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat from Chicago.

And those are just the appetizers. Here’s a look at some of the big-name unrestricted free agents expected to be on the table when the signing period opens Wednesday at noon ET:

Johnny Gaudreau: The diminutive Calgary winger bet big on himself by playing out the final year of his contract rather than take the security of a long-term deal. Now Gaudreau, 28, is about to cash in — with the Flames or someone else — after setting career highs in points (115) and goals (40) to finish second in the scoring race behind Connor McDavid. Calgary has another star hitting free agency in Matthew Tkachuk, but his restricted status means the Flames have the power to match any offer made to the young 42-goal forward.

Nazem Kadri: The gritty two-way centre is coming off a banner year that saw him notch a career-best 87 points (in only 71 games) and win his first Stanley Cup. Colorado could let Kadri, 31, walk as they just handed Nichushkin a massive eight-year deal and may want to keep free-agent forward Andre Burakovsky and defenceman Josh Manson in the fold.

Evgeni Malkin: Sidney Crosby’s sidekick for three Stanley Cup championships is testing free agency for the first time after 15 seasons in Pittsburgh. Malkin’s 36th birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks, he’s always had trouble staying healthy, and he averaged less than a point per game over the past two seasons. But the former MVP and two-time scoring champ could still make a splash for a contender that understands how to manage his workload and keep him fresh for a playoff run.

Evander Kane: Given his inconsistency on the ice and his myriad troubles off it — including an admitted gambling problem, allegations of abuse by his estranged wife (which an NHL investigation concluded were unsubstantiated) and a 21-game suspension for submitting a fake COVID-19 vaccination card — it’s unlikely Kane will ever land another long-term deal. But teams might be tempted by the 30-year-old’s performance in this year’s playoffs, where he delivered 13 goals in 15 games for an Edmonton team that took a chance on him in late January after San Jose cut him.

Claude Giroux: At 34, the former Philadelphia star is pretty far removed from his best days. But he piled up 23 points in 18 regular-season games after being traded to Florida and was the team’s second-leading scorer in the playoffs. The Panthers may be looking to shake things up, though, after suffering a humbling second-round sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay.

John Klingberg: The top defenceman on the market had 47 points in 74 games for Dallas last season. That may not sound like much, but reliable defencemen who can contribute offensively have proven irresistible for thirsty GMs. Blueliner-needy teams that miss out on or can’t afford Klingberg could turn to St. Louis’ Nick Leddy, Colorado’s Josh Manson or New Jersey’s P.K. Subban.

Darcy Kuemper: With Marc-Andre Fleury opting to stay in Minnesota, Kuemper is probably the best goalie on the market after helping Colorado to the Stanley Cup. Teams that can’t get him might go for Jack Campbell, whose days in Toronto appear numbered after yesterday’s trade for Matt Murray. Read more about some of the top players available in NHL free agency here.

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