When John Tavares inked that big deal with Toronto on July 1, it was “game on.”
Yes, there were a slew of other free agent signings, big and small, including the Kings re-upping Drew Doughty and the Sharks making Logan Couture a content man for eight years, but the Johnny T deal was all the news.
After Tavares, more dominoes continued to fall as teams scrambled to bolster their line-ups.
Vegas signed UFA center Paul Stastny, while former Golden Knight James Neal signed a tidy five-year deal with the Calgary Flames. Of course, with the Leafs getting the big prize, former Leafs and UFAs Tyler Bozak (signed with St. Louis) and James van Riemsdyk (signed with Philadelphia) saw the writing on the wall.
Things have quieted down some since that initial flurry, with nothing really being done the last two weeks. So, what of the remaining unrestricted free agents who may be able to help new teams? Here is a full squad (two goalies, six defencemen, 12 forwards) of UFAs we think deserve new deals, in one form or another, from the goal out.
20. G Kari Lehtonen
We have been hard on Lehtonen before and will preface his inclusion here by saying the goalie free agent pool isn’t all that deep. However, the 34-year-old Finn did have a bounce back year, lowering his goals against average from 2.85 in 2016-17 to 2.56 this past campaign, as well as increasing his save percentage from .902 to .912. He was way better in a back-up role to Ben Bishop, than he was in a starter’s role with Bishop went down. He may have to take a discount on the $5 million he made last year ($5.9 million cap hit), especially since he’s past his prime and really only a back-up option — but a good one, all things considered.
19. G Steve Mason
By anyone’s count, the 2017-18 season was as miserable as it could have been for Steve Mason. After signing a fairly significant free agent pact with Winnipeg last off-season, the 30-year-old Oakville, ON native struggled right from the get-go. He gave up 16 goals in his first three games, all losses in regulation and lost his starting job to Connor Hellebuyck. By the end of the season, he was trade bait and Montreal absorbed his $4.1 million cap hit to obtain Joel Armia in a trade on June 30. The Canadiens promptly put Mason on buyout waivers and will have a $1.4 million cap hit for two years going forward. Is Mason worth a look for teams looking at a capable back-up? Yes. In his last seven starts as a no. 2, Mason compiled a 5-2 record, surrendering just 17 goals and posting a shutout against the Rangers.
18. D Toby Enstrom
He’s not the biggest guy nor the most talented offensively, but Enstrom is worth a look for teams needing a stay-at-home type who doesn’t make too many egregious mistakes. The main thing that will keep teams from signing him long term is his health, which allowed him to play just 43 games in 2017-18 (as well as 11 playoff contests). When he was on the ice, though, the 33-year-old Swede played 17 minutes per game, logged six points and was a +8. He’s got 719 game of NHL experience, all with the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise and has options either in the NHL or possibly Sweden and the KHL. His cap hit with the Jets last year was $5.75 million, thus, we think a discounted contract is the way forward — if he wants to play in North America.
17. D Luca Sbisa
Vegas’ loss could be any number of other NHL clubs’ gain. The Golden Knights didn’t offer Sbisa contract he liked and at 28, with a decent part year behind him, he is looking to get a fair pact out of someone else. He played in just 30 regular season games, but still scored twice, added 12 assists and finished +8 will logging 19:31 average ice time with the expansion team. He got in 12 playoff games, too and registered four assists and a +5 in just over 16 minutes ice time. It is rumored that the Chicago Blackhawks, who got Marian Hossa’s contract off the books, are interested in the 10-year veteran.
16. D Alexei Emelin
On a good team like Nashville, with a deep blue line, it wasn’t hard for hard rock defender Alexei Emelin to get lost. Now 32, his $4.4 million cap hit in 2017-18 was too rich for the Predators’ blood, so Emelin, should he choose to stay instead of bolting for the KHL in his home country, will likely be playing for his third team. In 76 games last year, Emelin had nine points, a +9, as well as 181 hits in just under 17 minutes of ice time per game. His role was limited in the playoffs this year, as he saw the ice for about 11 minutes a night, with no points and 17 hits in 10 games. Looked at a couple of ways, Emelin had a good year because P.K. Subban was his defence partner. Viewed through different lenses, he is still a serviceable d-man who plays with an edge and could be a viable third pair option — at a reduced cost.
15. D Brooks Orpik
If the champion Washington Capitals — we are still having a hard time saying that — elect not to re-sign Orpik, he’s still an asset. At 37, he’s older and slower than most of the free agent candidates here, but former coach Barry Trotz loved his demeanor and said Orpik was highly regarded in the dressing room. Now the owner of two Stanley Cup rings, Orpik saw action in 81 games for the Caps this past season, registering 10 assists, a -9 and 218 hits in just over 19 minutes playing time. In the post-season, the battle-hardened vet played all 24 games, had five points and was a league-high +17. Orpik toiled for just under 17 minutes per playoff tilt and also had 88 hits and 50 blocked shots. He will, however, have to come down from the $5.5 million cap hit he had in 2017-18.
14. D Dan Hamhuis
Once a big stud in Vancouver who earned a gold medal in the Olympics and and quite a few votes for the Norris Trophy a few years running, Hamhuis has become a bit of a forgotten man in Dallas. Yet, the 35-year-old Smithers, B.C. born rearguard still managed to play a big part in Dallas’ game last season. He played 80 games and scored over 20 points (24) for the first time in three years. Hamhuis also played over 20 minutes per game, blocking 113 shots and dishing out 82 hits. We think it’s pretty interesting that not one team has offered the veteran at least a one-year deal (with incentives), since he’s still a valuable commodity with a good amount of post-season experience to offer a contender.
13. D Jakub Jerabek
Looked at through the lens of NHL rookie, Jakub Jerabek didn’t get in a ton of games with Montreal/Washington, but he was a freshman in name only. The 27-year-old was already a veteran of eight seasons in the Czech league and KHL when he was signed to a free agent contract by Montreal last summer. After 17 games and 11 points with the Laval Rocket of the AHL, Jerabek was promoted and got in 25 games with the Habs, with a goal and three assists to show for it. He was dealt to Washington at the deadline and scored four points in 11 games for the Capitals, while seeing the ice about 14 minutes per game. Jerabek started in just two playoff games, but did have an assist. He made $925,000 last season and probably wouldn’t command much more on the open market. A bargain depth player going forward.
12. F Jussi Jokinen
Anyone needing evidence that free agent forward Jussi Jokinen might be an offensive asset need only look at the stats he compiled in 14 games with Vancouver late in the season. The well-travelled Finn was playing with his fourth team in 2017-18 (he also played with Edmonton, Los Angeles and Columbus) and scored four goals and six assists. The part-time center was over 50 percent on the face-off dot all season and finished with 17 points in 60 total games. Now, he may be far removed from the last time he scored 30 goals in a season (2009-10 with Carolina), yet he’s still a quality offensive forward who is only two years removed from a 60-point season with Florida. He made a friendly $1.1 million in 2017-18.
11. F Benoit Pouliot
Playing in Buffalo last season had to be painful, especially for veteran guys like Pouliot. The former fourth overall pick put up some decent goal totals on a bad team, despite playing well under 14 minutes per game. Pouliot fired 13 goals in 74 games, 10 even strength, one powerplay and two on the penalty kill. Also, he was only a -8 on a defensively suspect squad. What Pouliot has brought to the table over 12 years and seven different clubs is the ability to contribute (263 points n 625 games) as well as defensive responsibility (+25 overall). He made an attractive $1.15 million last season and would look good in a fourth line role with a contender.
10. F Alex Chiasson
Chiasson may not be anyone’s choice for top six material, however, in a limited role the 27-year-old free agent has had a knack for producing. In 61 games with the Washington Capitals last year, the Montreal native had nine goals and nine assists, while seeing the ice for well under 12 minutes per game. Of his nine goals, one was on the powerplay and another was shorthanded, his third career PK marker (Chiasson also had two penalty kill assists). His role with the Caps in the playoffs was shrunk further, but he did add a goal, an assist, an even rating and 10 blocked shots. At a paltry $660,000 last year, Chiasson was a true bargain and with his age and upside, some teams would be foolish not to offer him a short-term contract.
9. F Daniel Winnik
Winnik, a veteran of 11 NHL seasons with eight different teams may not be as long in tooth as some might say. Sure, he’s 33 and hasn’t been able to secure lasting employment, but we tend to think positively, in that eight different teams have seen value in adding him to their bottom six. Most recently, the center/winger played 81 games on Minnesota’s fourth line, logging 13 and a half minutes of ice time and chipping in 23 points and a +5. Winnik’s value is seen contractually and professionally, where he made just $660,000 last season. Compare his offensive totals to that of much older Jason Chimera, who had 13 points in 74 games and made $2.5 million and Winnik seems like he could be a cheap gem going forward.
8. F Derek Grant
Coming off the best season of his brief NHL career, Derek Grant should be a sought after fourth-line addition to many clubs. The former fourth round pick of the Ottawa Senators scored 12 goals and added 12 assists in 66 games with Anaheim, while playing just a shade over 11 minutes per contest. He also won an admirable 53.1 percent of his face-offs, going 317-for-597. It was quite a coming out party for a guy who played 86 games for Ottawa, Calgary, Buffalo and Nashville and who had all of seven assists during that time. Grant made just $650,000 and we think that a raise to double his salary isn’t out of the question.
7. F Tomas Jurco
Given a chance — and at age 25 — there might be more to Tomas Jurco’s game. A former second round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, Jurco played in 29 games with Chicago last year, scoring six goals and four assists while playing just over 12 and a half minutes on average. The lanky Slovak didn’t pine in the minor leagues when he was sent down, scoring 25 points in 36 games with Rockford last season. In fact, since breaking in with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, Jurco has 96 points in 149 AHL contests and 50 points in 201 NHL games. The native of Kosice, Slovakia was on a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Blackhawks and given another crack, may find his worth with another club.
6. F Scottie Upshall
It’s been a long, long time since Scottie Upshall was a first round selection, sixth overall, by the Nashville Predators in 2002. His career started slowly, with the majority of his pro games coming with Milwaukee of the AHL before sticking in the NHL for good in 2007-08. By then, the now 34-year-old veteran was with Philadelphia and would see action with five other teams over the intervening years. The Fort McMurray, AB born right winger spent the 2017-18 campaign with St. Louis, playing on the fourth line. Given under 11 minutes of ice time, Upshall still found ways to contribute, scoring 19 points (seven goals) and keeping his plus-minus down at -1. He was on a cap friendly $800,000 contract last season, too.
5. F Nick Shore
Like Tomas Jurco above, Nick Shore is another young guy (25), who if given just a bit more ice time might be a low-cost gem. Originally drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the third round of the 2011 draft, Shore played 221 games with the Kings. He scored 49 points and won 50.6 percent of his face-offs during that span. The Kings packaged him up with Marian Gaborik in a deal with the Ottawa Senators that brought Dion Phaneuf to La-la Land. Shore lasted six games with dysfunctional Ottawa before being dealt again, this time to Calgary, where he had a goal and two assists in nine games. Shore made $925,000 last season and with the number of teams needing depth at center, a call into Shore’s agent wouldn’t be a bad start.
4. F Scott Hartnell
His game may be in decline, offensively, yet Scott Hartnell remains a player to be reckoned with, even at age 36. He has steadily gone downhill in numbers since posting 60 points in 2014-15, but in his second go around with Nashville (the team that drafted him), Hartnell buried 13 goals and added 11 assists in 62 games. That kind of production is underscored by the fact the longtime vet received only 12 minutes of playing time per game. In 17 seasons, Hartnell has 327 goals and 380 assists in 1,249 NHL contests. Some of the latest rumors surrounding the seasoned veteran see him signing with another team for close to the $1 million he made last year, or calling it a career with no regrets. We think he’s got a little left in the tank for a prospective club.
3. F Mike Cammalleri
Now 36 and well into the downside of his career, is Mike Cammalleri worth a look as a depth third/fourth line center? We think so, based on the 29 points he put up in 66 games between L.A. and Edmonton last season. His point totals came while he averaged just 13:46 in ice time and he also won 53.5 percent of his draws. Over his 906-game career with the Kings, Oilers, Calgary, Montreal and New Jersey, Cammalleri has 642 points and an overall 51.1 success rate on the face-off dot. He was paid $1 million last season and rumor has it that his former coach in Calgary, Bob Hartley, may want to bring Cammalleri over to Russia to play with the KHL’s Avangard Omsk.
2. F Mark Letestu
His name is not a household one and his stats aren’t all that memorable. However, Mark Letestu’s everyday ability and drive have made it possible for him to succeed at the NHL level. Never drafted, the former Western Michigan University star caught on with Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in 2006-07 and by 2010-11 he was a NHL regular with the big club. Since then, the journeyman forward has scored 210 points in 558 NHL games, including 23 in 80 games split between Edmonton and Columbus (his second stint with the Blue Jackets). He’s a proven face-off man with a career 52.1 percent success rate and also an adept penalty killer who has tallied 10 career shorthanded markers. The native of Elk Point, AB was paid $1.8 million in 2017-18, so he won’t break the bank for a new club.
1. F Rick Nash
The biggest name left in unrestricted free agency, from a production standpoint, is Rick Nash. Whether any team wants to be on the hook for a cap hit anywhere near the $7.8 million Nash commanded last year is anyone’s guess. Rather, likely not. At 34, Nash isn’t over the hill quite yet, however, he isn’t putting the biscuit in the basket like he did in 2014-15, when he netted a career high 42 for the Rangers. He’s not chopped liver, by any means, having scored 21 times and adding 13 assists over 71 games with New York and Boston. Nash also tallied three times and contributed two assists in 12 playoff games with the Bruins. The fly in the ointment was Nash’s own desire to sit out the free agent period — so far — to contemplate whether he’ll ever play hockey again, much less sign a new and deeply discounted contract.