Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau avoided the distractions surrounding his pending unrestricted free agency as well as he evaded defenders this season.
With contract talks on hold once the season began, Gaudreau helped lift the Flames to the Pacific Division title. He scored a career-high 115 points, which tied him for second best in the league behind the Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid, and had the Game 7 overtime winner against the Dallas Stars in the first round.
Though he's from New Jersey, he talked highly of Calgary in his final media session of the season.
"Obviously Calgary has a special place in my heart," said Gaudreau, 28, who's due a big raise over last season's $6.75 million. "I’ve been part of this organization for 11 years now. … Everything about the city I love.”
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General manager Brad Treliving, who earlier said he'd "move heaven and earth" to re-sign the winger, wants to make Gaudreau a Flame for life.
"I think he has a chance to be one of the greatest ever to play in the history of the franchise, and there’s been some great ones," he said.
Treliving, however, also must get restricted free agents Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington under contract.
Gaudreau was fourth in Hart Trophy voting and a first All-Star team left wing. Tkachuk was second All-Star team right wing.
Gaudreau said he appreciates the efforts to get him to stay.
“My next door neighbors, I’m pretty sure they were shoveling my snow all year just to get me back," he said. "You go to Starbucks, you go out to eat and everyone is so welcoming and really wants me back here. It’s great.”
An early look at other potential unrestricted free agents (age as of July 13 free agency date):
Nazem Kadri, Avalanche, 31: Suspended six times in his career, including three times in the playoffs, he had an incident-free regular season in which he scored a career-best 87 points. Though the Blues criticized him for a collision with goalie Jordan Binnington, it was inadvertent. Kadri, who's of Lebanese descent, had to deal with social-media threats and racial comments afterward but scored a hat trick in the next game. He had six goals and 14 points in 13 games before needing thumb surgery after being boarded by Evander Kane. He returned to score in overtime of Game 4 of the Final. Kadri is rugged with a scoring touch, a combination that teams covet.
Claude Giroux, Panthers, 34: The longtime Flyers captain waived his no-trade clause to join the Panthers, where he scored 23 points in 18 regular-season games and helped Florida reach the second round for the first time since 1996. The seven-time All-Star, including this past season, is a leader. He's still seeking his first championship, so he'll be looking to go to a contender.
Filip Forsberg, Predators, 27: He is coming off a 42-goal, 84-point season, both career highs. But he hasn't played a full season since 2016-17. He has been offered an eight-year contract, but general manager David Poile said, "Something has got to give in the next couple of weeks for Filip to sign."
Evgeni Malkin, Penguins: Management got defenseman Kris Letang under contract Thursday at six years and a $6.1 million cap hit, and there's money available for Malkin if he's willing to give a hometown discount. Malkin is productive when he plays but is coming off two injury-filled seasons. The Penguins earlier signed Bryan Rust and backup goalie Casey DeSmith to team-friendly deals.
Andrew Copp, Rangers, 28: The versatile forward can move up and down the lineup and play center or wing. He had a career-best 21 goals and 53 points this season.
Darcy Kuemper, Avalanche, 32: Colorado lost No. 1 goalie Philipp Grubauer to free agency last season and now they're moving on from Kuemper after acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers on draft day. Kuemper had a career-best 37 wins this season and won the Stanley Cup, though Pavel Francouz picked up six of the wins while Kuemper was hurt. Francouz is signed for the next two seasons at a $2 million cap hit. Georgiev has one year left at a $2.425 million cap hit.
John Klingberg, Stars, 29: The defenseman is coming off a team-friendly deal and will be looking to make more money. After a slow start, he stepped up during Miro Heiskanen's illness to finish with 47 points.
Vincent Trocheck, Hurricanes, 29: A strong two-way center on one of the NHL's top teams.
Ondrej Palat, Lightning, 31: He and the Lightning have reached at least the third round in six of the last eight seasons. He had 11 playoff goals this season and has 12 playoff game-winning goals. With the trade of defenseman Ryan McDonagh, the Lightning might have the cap space to re-sign him.
The Lightning stay alive ⚡️
Ondrej Palat's late goal against the Avs forces a Game 6 back in Tampa Bay. pic.twitter.com/WAeHQyBPYi
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) June 25, 2022
Ryan Strome, Rangers, 29: He has played his best since he joined the Rangers in 2018-19. He was slowed by a pelvic injury in the playoffs.
David Perron, Blues, 34: He has been a perfect fit in St. Louis. As his agent notes, this is Perron's third stint with the Blues.
David Perron has played for 5 NHL teams but every NHL contract he’s signed in his career has been with the St. Louis. 3rd your of duty with @StLouisBlues.
— Allan Walsh (@walsha) May 24, 2022
Nino Niederreiter, Hurricanes, 29: A six-time 20-goal scorer. He scored 24 this season while playing a third-line role.
Jack Campbell, Maple Leafs, 30: The late bloomer was a first-time All-Star this season and had a 31-win season despite an injury. He's due a big raise from his $1.8 million last season.
Evander Kane, Oilers, 30: He was investigated several times by the NHL and suspended for violating COVID-19 protocol. Cut loose by the Sharks, he signed a one-year deal with Edmonton. He averaged nearly a point a game in the regular season and had 13 playoffs goals, but was suspended one game for a hit on Kadri. "I thought it went really well, probably even better than I expected, to be honest," he said of his time with the Oilers. GM Ken Holland said Kane had a big impact on the team and expressed interest in bringing him back but noted that he'd take up more cap space. Kane has a grievance pending against the Sharks. "There’s lots to sort through and figure out," he said.
Josh Manson, Avalanche, 30: The defenseman plays a physical shutdown style. He scored in overtime in Game 1 of the second round and had three goals and eight points during the Avalanche's Stanley Cup run.
Valeri Nichushkin, Avalanche, 27: The winger is coming off his best season with 52 points in 62 games. He had a strong playoffs and was dominant in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final.
Ben Chiarot, Panthers, 31: He made a name for himself as a shutdown defenseman during Montreal's run to the Final in 2021. He wasn't as strong this season.
Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche, 27: His 22 goals, 39 assists and 61 points are career highs. He scored the overtime winner in Game 1 of the Final.
Mason Marchment, Panthers, 27: He ranked third on Florida in points per 60 minutes, picking up 47 points in 54 games. But he has only 91 games of NHL experience.
Phil Kessel, Coyotes, 34: He's a playmaker rather than a goal scorer at this point of his career. He needs eight games to break the iron man streak that Keith Yandle set last season.
Ville Husso, Blues, 27: The Blues traded his rights to the Detroit Red Wings. Husso outplayed Binnington in the regular season and had a shutout in the playoff opener. But he lost the starting job until Binnington got hurt. Husso had a strong Game 6 as the Blues were ousted by the Avalanche.
Patrice Bergeron, Bruins, 36: He'd be near the top of this list based on his talent and leadership. But he has said if he doesn't retire, he'd return only to the Bruins.
Nick Leddy, Blues, 31: He seemed to be a good fit with the Blues after arriving in a trade.
Rickard Rakell, Penguins, 29: He had 13 points in 19 games after arriving in a trade.
Others to watch: Evan Rodrigues, Penguins, 28; Reilly Smith, Golden Knights, 31; Frank Vatrano, Rangers, 28; Max Domi, Hurricanes, 27; P.K. Subban, Devils, 33.
Players previously on list who signed: Marc-Andre Fleury, Wild, two years, $7 million. Nick Paul, Lightning, seven years, $22.05 million.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL news, rumors: An early look at top 25 NHL free agents (UFAs)