Johnston: What I’m hearing about Phil Kessel, other unsigned NHL free agents

When last we saw Phil Kessel in uniform, he was carrying the Stanley Cup around the ice at T-Mobile Arena as a member of the Vegas Golden Knights.

A third championship ring and a summer without a firm contract offer from another NHL team have not diminished his desire to continue playing, though.

The man who has included the tagline “nice guy, tries hard, loves the game,” in his Twitter bio for years is still very much in love with the game. He’s continued training and skating on his own while awaiting an opportunity to return for his 18th NHL season.

There have been a couple of close calls with contracts in recent weeks, and a few interested teams have indicated a desire to make another move to clear up roster and/or cap space before signing Kessel.

And so … he waits.

The 36-year-old winger still possesses some offensive capabilities — he’s coming off a 14-goal, 36-point season — and it was apparent from the way his former Golden Knights teammates spoke about him that he was an extremely popular teammate, keeping the mood light behind the scenes even while finishing out their postseason run as a frequent healthy scratch.

Kessel is also the NHL’s Ironman with a streak of 1,064 consecutive regular-season games played, although extending that mark is not what’s driving his desire to continue playing.

Depending on where he signs, he understands that he may not be in the lineup every night.

Kessel wasn’t interested in attending an NHL training camp on a professional tryout agreement last month, but he is keeping an open mind about what contract offers may yet come his way. To that end, he’s not focused only on the top-tier contenders, knowing that he may be able to help a team farther down the standings that might ultimately try to flip him before the March 8 trade deadline.

Simply put: He wants to play.

And he’s not the only one.

Here’s what I’m hearing about other veteran NHL free agents still looking for work after working the phones with league sources this week.

Patrick Kane

Age: 34

Last season: 21 goals, 57 points in 73 games for the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers

No list like this would be complete without mention of Kane.

He’s the biggest name and potentially the most impactful remaining free agent available, depending on how quickly the veteran winger can get back up to speed following an invasive hip resurfacing procedure in June.

Word is that rehab has gone incredibly well and Kane is progressing toward a point where he’ll be cleared to play. He certainly looked to have regained his mobility in a video released by his agents at CAA Hockey late last month.

As for where he’ll end up signing, that remains an open question.

There has been interest from his hometown Buffalo Sabres and the Florida Panthers, among others, but since Kane has the benefit of time, he’s going to use it.

The current plan is to wait until early November before engaging more seriously with the interested suitors. There should be a little more clarity about the pecking order of the league by that point, and Kane won’t be in a position to return to game action before then anyway.

In the meantime, he’ll continue his rehab work in the Greater Toronto Area.

Zach Parise

Age: 39

Last season: 21 goals and 34 points in 82 games for the New York Islanders

Parise had a sneaky effective season in 2022-23, and the door was open for him to return to the Islanders for 2023-24, but he wasn’t ready to make that commitment in September.

By all indications, though, the itch may be returning.

Parise has resumed skating in an effort to build up his fitness should he decide to jump back into the fray. After topping 20 goals over a full campaign, how many could he score in a 60-game season?

Of course, the main driver for a player who has accomplished virtually everything an NHLer could hope to is getting the chance to win a Stanley Cup. That’s a notable omission on his resume.

Perhaps by U.S. Thanksgiving, we’ll have a better sense if it’s a tantalizing enough prospect to compel him to sign a contract.

Could Zach Parise be back with Ilya Sorokin and the Islanders this season? (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Eric Staal

Age: 38

Last season: 14 goals and 29 points in 72 games for the Florida Panthers

After competing in his second Stanley Cup Final over the past three years with the Panthers in the spring, Staal and his family returned to their home base in Minnesota.

That’s where he remains today.

A Canadian-based team expressed interest in signing Staal before training camp, but the timing wasn’t quite right for him to take a leap at that opportunity. That doesn’t mean the long-ago second-overall pick is necessarily ready to hang up his skates, though.

Of course, family considerations will have to be taken into account before any kind of decision is reached, but this sort of scenario is nothing new to Staal.

He sat out the entire 2021-22 NHL campaign — representing Team Canada at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, with a handful of AHL games as a tuneup — before becoming a regular with the Panthers last season.

Don’t be surprised if he surfaces again after this current hiatus.

Jesse Puljujarvi

Age: 25

Last season: 5 goals and 16 points in 75 games for the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes

It’s been a trying year for Puljujarvi, who struggled after an in-season trade to the Hurricanes and wasn’t extended a qualifying offer by the club when it was revealed that he required double hip surgery.

However, there is now some sun creeping over the horizon.

Puljujarvi has been back skating in his native Finland for a couple of months and is targeting a return to game action in late November or early December. While he may no longer carry the pedigree typically assigned to a No. 4 draft pick, he’s optimistic that he’ll return to the NHL a stronger and faster player than the one who left it.

This is an intriguing low-cost, low-risk option for NHL teams.

The interest is believed to be quite high.

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There’s plenty of reason to take a chance on Jesse Puljujarvi. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Age: 28

Last season: 8 goals and 22 points in 65 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins

Heinen is effectively enduring a prolonged training camp after joining the Boston Bruins on a tryout in September.

The club asked him to remain patient while it worked through salary cap-related challenges at the beginning of the regular season, and patient the former Bruin remains.

Heinen is currently skating and traveling with the team, just as he’s been doing for the past month. He won’t be eligible for game action until the Bruins either create space or find themselves with an injury that would allow him to be signed to the roster.

One of those scenarios is likely to fall into place since the team and player seem to be on the same page with the situation.

It may just require a little more patience.

Sam Gagner

Age: 34

Last season: 8 goals and 14 points in 48 games for the Winnipeg Jets

Gagner is hoping to prove you can go home again. And again.

The next step in a journey that he hopes will result in his third career stint with the Edmonton Oilers will be signing an AHL deal with their farm team in Bakersfield.

Expect that to be announced any day now.

Gagner, a 1,000-plus game NHL veteran, was a limited participant in Oilers training camp following offseason hip surgery and is jumping at the opportunity to reestablish himself on the farm.

He’s done that multiple times already during a professional career that began with him playing for the Oilers as an 18-year-old.

(Top photo of Phil Kessel: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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