In the salary cap era, most quality signings are as much about talent as they are about value. With the frenzy of July 1 over and the depth signings in full swing, here are five players who could make a difference in 2015-16 who are still looking for a contract and won’t break the bank.
If there’s anything the salary cap has made teams focus on, it’s the value of a dollar. So, when it comes to free agency, after the big fish are gone the league’s 30 GMs will do whatever it takes to find the most cost-effective players on the market.
After July 1, the biggest names were already gone, as defenseman Mike Green signed with Detroit, Matt Beleskey found himself a deal in Boston and Justin Williams inked a contract with Washington. Even the second-tier players, names such as Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette and Daniel Winnik, made their way to new destinations on the opening day of free agency.
This is where things get tricky, though, as the many of the sure-things are gone and GMs are looking to fill out their rosters with the best role players available at contracts that fit. For teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning, there’s not much (or any) wiggle room, whereas budget teams like the Nashville Predators and Arizona Coyotes aren’t going to be overpaying anybody. So, if they want to stay competitive, where can they look for help?
Here are five free agents that are low-risk, high-reward players that can be cost-effective this upcoming season:
5. David Schlemko, D
Schlemko isn’t going to get by on name recognition, that’s for sure, but the 28-year-old blueliner brings more to the table than most would think. In a game that’s ever-increasingly about speed and skill rather than size and toughness, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Schlemko is just the kind of depth blueliner a team should seek if they need to take a shot on a third-pairing guy.
This past season, Schlemko went from the Arizona Coyotes to the Dallas Stars and finally landed with the Calgary Flames, where he got into 19 games logging bottom-pairing minutes. Even still, he’s a sound, prime-aged defenseman who is probably ready for a bigger role. Here’s the thing, too: last season he made little more than $1 million and would probably sign for less just to get a shot at making a big league roster.
If and when Schlemko signs, it could be one of those contracts that looks brilliant by November.
4. Alexander Semin, RW
You will likely find no shortage of GMs who are wary about signing the 31-year-old Semin, but now that he’s coming out of a buyout that will pay him nearly $2.5 million annually, he might be willing to take a significant paycut on a deal that gives him the chance to show he can still contribute in the NHL.
Sure, his detractors will say that Semin is prone to seeming complacent and he’s coming off of the worst season, bar none, of his career, but he dealt with a lingering injury all season. If a GM could sign Semin for cheap and put him in the right situation with linemates who can set him up, the Russian sniper could easily become a 30-goal scorer again. There might not be a better pure shooter, when healthy, in the league.
3. Jiri Tlusty, LW
Tlusty is an interesting player, because while he’s not exactly the most offensively gifted player on the list, he brings the speed and finesse teams often look for in depth players. Add to it that he’s shown a scoring touch – 23 goals in 48 games in 2012-13 with Carolina and 15-plus goals in three separate seasons – and Tlusty becomes quite an attractive option on the market.
The problem with Tlusty, and the reason why he’s not No. 1 on this list, is that he might be the least cost-effective player on the list. He’ll be more of a sure thing being that he’s 27 and a consistent contributor to the puck possession game, but his salary this past season was $2.95 million and he has probably earned himself a slight raise.
2. Eric Fehr, C
On a good team, Fehr is a third-line center. On a bad team, he’s probably suiting up on the second unit. But regardless of where you put him, Fehr is probably going to find the back of the net at least 15 times, if not more. As a 28-year-old coming off of a one-year deal that paid him $1.5 million in Washington, there’s not much more you could ask for. He’s also coming off of a 19-goal, 33-point campaign.
That Fehr doesn’t have a deal yet is likely a matter of him simply working out either term or dollars, but there’s little doubt he’ll find himself a job in the NHL for 2015-16. His one season outside of Washington – a one-year stint with the Winnipeg Jets – was not fruitful, but he’s the perfect second power play unit guy on a lot of teams in the league. He’s got size, strength and a good shot, and he won’t break the bank to bring in.
1. Lee Stempniak, RW
Stempniak skated fourth-line minutes in 2014-15, logging an average of 12:38 per game last season. He scored 15 goals and 28 points. Of his points, 24 came at 5-on-5, 14 of which were goals. Stempniak took heavy defensive zone starts compared to his teammates and posted a positive shot attempts for percentage. His salary in 2014-15 was a measly $900,000.
With that kind of cost-effective play, it’s a wonder that Nashville GM David Poile hasn’t already kicked down Stempniak’s door and forced him to sign a deal with the Predators, but there’s a good chance that Stempniak will be finding himself a new home in the NHL relatively soon. Will Stempniak get a raise? Almost certainly. Will it be a big one? Depends on what can be offered. But the fact of the matter is he isn’t going to cost a ton for what he’ll bring and when it comes to great, third- or fourth-line signings, Stempniak is the leader.