The Stanley Cup playoffs loom, and the NHL’s draft and free agency will follow in June and July. It’s a time of year where we do a lot of looking forward. But as the 2017-18 regular season enters its final days, let’s look back at the 2017 unrestricted free agent class. It was considered one of the weakest in recent memory, and it, uh, delivered on that promise. Many of the most lucrative deals – Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Martin Hanzal – wound up disastrous, though Shattenkirk and Hanzal can at least blame injuries.
What were the best UFA signings of last summer, though? Here are my top five. I didn’t include any UFAs who re-signed with their previous teams. The goal here was to name the teams who best plundered new depths.
5. Patrick Marleau, Toronto Maple Leafs (3 years, $6.25-million cap hit)
Did Marleau outperform his lofty price tag at age 38? No, but merely justifying it by essentially duplicating his final season in San Jose made him one of 2017’s most successful big-name signings. He’s barely lost a step, and if you’re fast and durable, age really is just a number. Marleau may as well be five years younger. He’s formed an excellent second line with Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner. Marleau’s 26 goals are the seventh-most all time by a player in his age-38 season, and he’ll climb as high as fourth if he pots two goals in his final two games. Only two 2017 UFAs have bested his goal total – by one. Two other members of this list have 27.
4. Thomas Vanek, Vancouver Canucks (1 year, $2-million cap hit)
Forget that Vanek fetched pretty much nothing as a trade-deadline selloff. That’s not his fault and doesn’t mean he was a poor signing. In a vacuum, he was actually a great signing. He potted 17 goals and amassed 41 points in 61 games with Vancouver, attracting interest and an eventual trade with the Blue Jackets, but his impact on the Canucks went beyond the scoresheet. Vanek was rookie Brock Boeser’s most common linemate and did a lot of mentoring for the budding sniper. Per capfriendly.com, Vanek is 17th in the NHL in cost per goal at $83,333.
3. Brad Hunt, Vegas Golden Knights (2 years, $650,000 cap hit)
Lost in the 3,458 amazing stories Vegas has given us this year: a 29-year-old journeyman with 33 career NHL games emerging as a legit NHLer and power play threat. Hunt had 287 AHL games to his name when Golden Knights GM George McPhee signed him to a no-risk deal for what was probably supposed to be organizational depth. Hunt forced his way into the lineup and has quietly picked up 12 power play points. He’s been fairly insulated, facing some of the easiest quality of competition and highest offensive zone start percentage among the team’s D-men, but he has the second-best overall Corsi of that group – and every tiny thing he’s done right is gravy. He costs $650,000. Making any meaningful NHL impact at that price is a win. He has the lowest cost per point of any defenseman in the NHL this season at $36,111.
2. Evgenii Dadonov, Florida Panthers (3 years, $4-million cap hit)
For every KHL-import success story like Artemi Panarin, there are several cautionary tales, from Roman Cervenka to Vadim Shipachyov. Following a nightmare off-season in which the Panthers mind-bogglingly gifted Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas, Dadonov faced major pressure to establish himself as a legit replacement in Florida’s top six. He’s been outstanding, sharing the lead in goals among all 2017 UFA signees with 27 and forming such a good bond with top-line center Aleksander Barkov that it allowed coach Bob Boughner to move Jonathan Huberdeau to the second line and create greater roster balance. Dadonov has posted elite possession numbers alongside Barkov, and while Barkov is a Selke Trophy contender, his possession numbers actually suffer more without Dadonov’s than Dadonov’s do without him. He’s established himself as a crucial part of Florida’s future. His signing doesn’t undo the Vegas debacle, but it softens the blow a bit.
1. Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars (5 years, $6.25-million cap hit)
While Radulov’s deal obviously can’t match the efficiency or Dadonov’s or Hunts, it’s arguably even more important for a player to deliver when a team has invested a lot in him, lest he cripple that team. Radulov earned a big-money contract and has been a big-money player alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in Dallas, establishing career highs in goals, assists and points while logging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. He’s played at least 20 minutes 46 times this year. The top-heavy Stars have really leaned on him, and he’s produced. Radulov, Benn and Seguin have scored 99 goals this year. Every other Dallas forward combined: 96.