It’s been two weeks since the official opening of free agency, and after the flurry of big-money signings that signalled the beginning of signing season, would you care to venture a guess as to how many free agents of the unrestricted variety have put pen to paper on pacts with a cap hit greater than $1 million in the past week?
Two. The answer is two, as Micheal Ferland’s four-year, $14-million contract with the Vancouver Canucks and Ryan Dzingel’s two-year, $6.75-million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes are the only signings that pass muster. Yes, plenty of others have signed, but included among that group are restricted free agents such as Jordan Binnington and Andre Burakovsky, entry-level signings such as Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko and even low-level UFAs such as Michael Del Zotto and Chris Wideman.
That said, Ferland and Dzingel signing does mean that two of the more notable names left on the market are no longer available, and one other noteworthy name is also off the list, as 21-season NHL veteran Matt Cullen has called it a career after spending the past four seasons on one-year pacts. The three-time Stanley Cup champion likely could have returned and been a valuable fourth-line pivot somewhere, but he decided it was time to hang ’em up.
So, who does that leave on the open market? Who are the available free agents who could make an impact next season? Here’s a look at the best at every position:
Joe Thornton: Technically, Thornton is a UFA and could thus sign anywhere he chooses. Chances are, though, it’s San Jose or bust. The Sharks have basically ironed out the rest of the money for their roster, though, so you might be able to count on ‘Jumbo’ inking a deal soon. He turned 40 on July 2.
Derick Brassard: Brassard has suffered through quite the decline, from prized deadline acquisition to potential professional tryout candidate in a span of little more than two seasons. As a depth center, however, Brassard can still contribute. Just don’t expect big numbers. The 31-year-old scored just 14 goals and 23 points last season, the worst total of his career.
Brian Boyle: He spent much of last season on the wing, but Boyle will land somewhere as a penalty killing pivot and a fourth-line option who can chip in offensively and throw his weight around on the forecheck. The 34-year-old had one of the best goal-scoring seasons of his career in 2018-19, his 18 goals three shy of his career-best 21 scored back during the 2010-11 season. He’s good for 25 or so points per season.
Patrick Maroon: Bet on himself on a one-year deal with St. Louis and won a Stanley Cup, but also took a slight step back offensively. Put him alongside a speedster center or net front on a power play and he’s at his best. The 31-year-old is a middle-six piece who is probably likely to land with a contending team who wants him for the post-season.
Justin Williams: He’ll be 38 when the season starts, but Williams is also fresh off of his best offensive season since 2011-12 and scored 23 goals last season. Like Thornton, it’s probably one team or bust for Williams. He was the Hurricanes’ captain last season, and if he returns, it’s almost assuredly going to be with Carolina.
Thomas Vanek: He might be 35, but Vanek is still a capable producer in a bottom-six role. Case in point? He scored 2.4 points per 60 minutes of ice time last season, which puts him level with Ferland, Jonathan Marchessault, Nino Niederreiter, Brayden Schenn and Evander Kane, to name a few. He’s a gun for hire, and someone should snap him up.
Patrick Marleau: He made it clear he didn’t want to play in Carolina, which led to a buyout by the Hurricanes following a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s assumed that he’s going to end up with the Sharks next season for one last go-round in San Jose, where he spent nearly 1,500 games and the first 19 seasons of his career. He’ll be 40 in September, but he can still provide bottom-six punch.
Ryan Spooner: He struggled mightily last season, mustering just three goal and nine points in 52 games, but Spooner is versatile and had scored at what amounted to a 49-point clip per season across the three seasons prior to 2018-19. At this point, he’s going to come awfully cheap and it could be a worthwhile gamble – and maybe an incredibly cost-effective one if he fits in well – for teams looking at bottom-six options. He can also play center.
Magnus Paajarvi: The once-highly touted prospect and 10th-overall pick in the 2009 draft has never lived up to his offensive promise, but he’s rounded out into a useful bottom-six winger with some production potential and speed to burn. The 28-year-old is what he’s going to be, which is about a seven-goal, 15-point player, but he can play a role.
Jake Gardiner: The highest-scoring rearguard left on the market and hands down the best puck-moving UFA defender yet to put pen to paper. The 28-year-old can play steady second-pairing minutes and produce on the power play. Gardiner’s 125 points across the past three seasons are tied for 23rd among blueliners and his .55 points per game are tied for 26th.
Ben Hutton: He was afforded plenty of opportunity on a thin Vancouver blueline and showcased some offensive acumen. He might not be the most responsible own-zone defender, but the 26-year-old is a worthwhile depth option, particularly for a team seeking some additional offense down the lineup. It’s a thin class of rearguards, and Hutton is among the best remaining.
Marc Methot: Maybe it’s an off-the-board selection, but what it comes down to with Methot is how limited his mobility is following knee surgery that cost him almost the entire 2018-19 campaign. The 34-year-old has only played 45 games in the past two seasons, but he was highly regarded as a shutdown defender before he was hamstrung by ailments. Worth a shot as a veteran shutdown option.
Michal Neuvirth: The 31-year-old had an abysmal season in Philadelphia, but so did almost every Flyers goaltender. As a backup option, though, Neuvirth can still get the job done. He has a career .910 SP and he’s had some good seasons. There’s still tread left on the tires, and a team that gets into a pinch in the crease could do a lot worse.
Chad Johnson: Johnson, 33, has made eight stops in his big-league career and moved from St. Louis to Anaheim last season. There’s a reason he’s stuck around. He can be a reliable hand, even if he hasn’t shown an ability to steal away or really challenge for a starting gig. As a fringe netminder or third-stringer, Johnson would do just fine.
Cam Ward: We’re entering last-chance territory for Ward. The 35-year-old struggled in Chicago last season and there’s no more room for him with the Blackhawks. He’s a decent backup option. It’s looking more likely, though, that his time is up. He is the only free agent keeper who played more than 20 games, however.
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