Columnist Adam Proteau ranks the NHL’s 10 best off-season player signings – and two new Pittsburgh Penguins are on the list.
As the beginning of NHL training camps draws closer, it’s natural for fans to debate and discuss which teams had the most productive off-season. And although the answer to that question won’t be confirmed for months, if not years, that won’t stop us from ranking the 10 best off-season unrestricted free agent signings:
10. Thomas Vanek, Wild (3 years, $19.5 million). Granted, Vanek didn’t help his contract negotiating stance with a poor playoff showing for the Canadiens, but his regular-season production has been dependably above-average – and given that Minnesota struggled to put pucks in nets last season (their 207 goals-for was third-worst in the Western Conference), he’ll help a great deal and isn’t locked up to a contract with an onerous term.
9. Ales Hemsky, Stars (3 years, $12 million). The 31-year-old Hemsky hasn’t reached the 20-goal mark since he had 23 for Edmonton in 2008-09, but he’ll play on Dallas’ second line – alongside former Senators teammate Jason Spezza, with whom he enjoyed some solid chemistry in his 20-game stint in Ottawa last year – and should perform well playing in a non-fishbowl market with increased minutes.
8. Radim Vrbata, Canucks (2 years, $10 million). Vrbata has been under most people’s radar playing in Phoenix, but the 33-year-old has proven himself to be a reliable 20-30-goal-scorer. On the rejigged Canucks, he’ll see time on the same line as the Sedin twins and will get first-unit power play minutes. The term of this deal also makes this a win for new Vancouver GM Jim Benning.
7. Anton Stralman, Lightning (5 years, $22.5 million). Stralman won’t win the Norris Trophy this or any other season, but he made himself into a solid positional defender with the Rangers and makes an underrated Bolts blueline even more dangerous. He signed for the same average annual salary as Nikita Nikitin got from Edmonton this summer – and that’s both a credit to Tampa GM Steve Yzerman and a condemnation of Oilers counterpart Craig MacTavish.
6. Daniel Winnik, Maple Leafs (1 year, $1.3 million). The Leafs took some heat for allowing center David Bolland to leave for Florida, but the money they saved allowed them to sign a handful of capable veterans at bargain rates, and Winnik is arguably the best of that group. The former Ducks center had a career-best 24 assists and 30 points last year, but the Leafs value and will benefit from his penalty-killing skills.
5. Manny Malhotra, Canadiens, (1 year, $850,000). The Canadiens finished 17th in the NHL in faceoff percentage last season (49.6 percent) and addressed it this summer with the high-value signing of Malhotra. The 34-year-old won’t ever be a major contributor on the scoresheet, but if he can match or improve on his 59.4 faceoff percentage with Carolina last year, the Habs will be ecstatic.
4. Thomas Greiss, Penguins (1 year, $1 million). After languishing in San Jose’s system for years, Greiss played behind Mike Smith in Arizona last season and quietly posted career-best numbers (including a .920 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average). The 28-year-old may not be anyone’s idea of a superstar, but if Pens starter Marc-Andre Fleury falters, some may be surprised to see Greiss step up and push him for the No. 1 role.
3. Brad Richards, Hawks (1 year, $2 million). Sure, Richards isn’t the superstar he was for so many years in Tampa Bay. However, the 34-year-old, who posted 20 goals and 51 points for the Rangers last season, is a huge improvement over Michal Handzus as Chicago’s second-line center and his playoff experience will be an asset come springtime. Two million dollars for that – with no commitment beyond this season – is money very well-spent.
2. Paul Stastny, Blues (4 years, $28 million). Stastny isn’t considered among the cream of the crop of young NHL star forwards. But last year in Colorado, the 28-year-old pivot had his best offensive season 25 goals, 60 points) since his rookie year and he’ll be helped by St. Louis’ crew of talented defensemen. A four-year deal (rather than the maximum seven years) also is a win for management’s long-term salary cap flexibility.
1. Christian Ehrhoff, Penguins (one year, $4 million). There’s no doubt Ehrhoff’s 10-year, $40-million contract with Buffalo was a disaster, but that’s as much about the total collapse of the Sabres as it is about the defenseman’s sub-par play. After the Sabres bought him out this summer, he could’ve signed a huge deal with any team, which makes the Pens’ coup of bringing him in on a one-year contract at the same salary cap hit he had in Buffalo all the more impressive.