NHL free agency: The players who could win big after betting on themselves

Long-term deals have proven elusive in this year's free-agent market, but that may not be a bad thing for the players positioned to thrive this season.

The NHL free-agent market has not closed for the summer, but after a frenzy of activity over the first few days of July there are a few clear trends.

Foremost among them is a lack of long-term deals.

While we always see plenty of one- and two-year contracts in free agency, they have been more prominent this offseason. In most cases, teams push for shorter deals to avoid a lack of future flexibility and the possibility of overpaying an older asset. However, players and their agents push back in an effort to maximize security and stability.

This year the incentives have changed slightly. Because the salary cap has moved up just $2 million since 2019-20, a number of teams have limited budgets. At the same time, it projects to increase by $4 million in 2024-25 and $8.5 million in 2025-26.

If players are willing to take shorter deals, they can take another swing at free agency in an environment where cashing in will be easier. As a result, we're seeing plenty of contracts where players are betting on themselves to stay productive over the short term and earn some big money down the road.

Below are some who have done a masterful job at finding spots that should showcase their value and give them a good chance to cash in next summer.

Matt Duchene

Matt Duchene has a chance to bounce back from a middling 2022-23 (Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Matt Duchene has a chance to bounce back from a middling 2022-23 (Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Contract details: One year, $3 million

How it could pay off: Duchene is coming off a 56-point season, but considering he produced 43 goals and 86 points in 2021-22, a better year isn't out of the question.

Joining the Dallas Stars could be beneficial for Duchene as he'll have the opportunity to play with some top-end forward talent — and log some time on a power-play unit that ranked fifth in the NHL last season (25%).

Duchene is unlikely to break up the Joe Pavelski-Roope Hintz-Jason Robertson top line, but playing with guys like Jamie Benn, Wyatt Johnson, or even Tyler Seguin should give him plenty of opportunities to produce.

This is also Duchene's best chance to experience significant team success that could bolster his reputation. The 32-year-old has had some bad timing in his career, leaving the Colorado Avalanche before they took off and joining the Nashville Predators after their heyday.

He's only participated in one playoff series win in his 14-year career and some convincing work for Dallas in the postseason could bolster his stock significantly.

Where it could go wrong: Duchene's role in Dallas is not totally locked in, and there is a worst-case scenario where he ends up on the third line and second power-play unit.

That would make it tough for him to put up big numbers, and at his age any downward trajectory in his offensive productive might be perceived as the veteran losing his touch.

Daniel Sprong

Contract details: One year, $2 million

How it could pay off: Sprong has been one of the NHL's most effective scorers on a per-minute basis and he's joining a team that should be able to give him a bigger role than he's accustomed to.

Since 2018-19, the winger ranks 10th among all qualified (100-plus games played) skaters in 5-on-5 goals/60 at 1.20. A Detroit Red Wings team hardly bursting with forward talent will be able to test whether that efficiency holds up with a larger workload.

He's also likely to get some power-play time, which could help juice his numbers. Last season he logged a career-high 127:18 with the man advantage. His six power-play goals were tied for second on the Seattle Kraken.

If given enough runway, Sprong might just put up some eye-popping numbers and hit free agency prior to his age-27 season.

Where it could go wrong: While Detroit should provide some solid opportunities from an ice-time perspective, Sprong won't have elite teammates to lean on.

He's joining a Red Wings club that ranked just 24th in the NHL in scoring (2.89 goals/game) with the 17th-ranked power play (21.1%).

Unless he works his way to the top line alongside Dylan Larkin and Lukas Raymond, he's unlikely to play with guys capable of elevating his game.

Connor Brown

Contract details: One year, $775K (with up to $3.25 million in bonuses)

How it could pay off: Brown is likely to log plenty of minutes on one of the most dangerous lines in the NHL alongside Connor McDavid and Zach Hyman. He has plenty of experience playing with each of them, and it's not difficult to imagine Brown putting up huge numbers.

That's it. That's the pitch. There's no better 'bet-on-yourself' scenario then getting a year alongside McDavid. He's just 29, so following the upcoming season he'll still be young enough to land a long-term deal.

Where it could go wrong: It's genuinely difficult to see Brown's time in Edmonton going poorly for him. The Oilers are devoid of offensive talent below their top six, so Brown is likely to skate alongside McDavid or Leon Draisaitl all year long.

Staying healthy has to be the biggest concern for Brown as he's coming off an ACL injury that cost him 78 games in 2022-23. If he misses significant time in 2023-24, he'll be hitting the market with serious durability concerns.

Tyler Bertuzzi

Contract details: One year, $5.5 million

How it could pay off: Bertuzzi won't have the pleasure of skating alongside McDavid like Brown will, but he's likely to see plenty of time with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. That's a solid consolation prize.

The chippy winger will fill a role that Michael Bunting produced 112 points in over the course of two seasons. It's safe to say Bertuzzi — who has a 30-goal season on his resume — is a more talented offensive player than Bunting. As long as he holds down a top-six role with the Maple Leafs, a strong platform year seems to be in the cards.

He also has more power-play utility than Bunting did. If he can sneak into Toronto's top unit from time to time, his point-production ceiling will be significant.

Where it could go wrong: Like Brown, Bertuzzi has such a good situation that health is the only real concern. The 28-year-old has played just 127 games over the last three seasons, undergoing a back surgery in the process. Lacing up the skates for all 82 would do his market value a world of good in 2023-24.

Because he's in a such a strong position to produce he will also be held to a high standard come free agent time.