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Five low-risk, high-reward free agent signings that are paying off early

The salary cap has made savvy spending one of the most important parts of managing a team, and here are five low-risk signings that are paying off so far.

Every off-season is going to have its Milan Lucics and Kyle Okposos, which is to say that a big off-season signing will come in and make an instant impact with their new team. But that’s to be expected, and that’s why those are the off-season’s bank-breaking signings.

But the salary cap has necessitated that some teams take minor risks, even those with big money to throw around. It’s the budget signings that can help be the deciding factor between a Stanley Cup contender and pretender, too, which is why each off-season sees teams make a few deals that could be considered to have low risk but high reward.

With the salary cap’s rise stalling out, though, those signings are coming in larger numbers each year, and this season saw dozens of players with scoring potential ink deals that could be boom-or-bust contracts. Yes, it’s a small sample size and still early in the season, but here are five players making the most of their chance:

5. Lee Stempniak, Carolina Hurricanes

In the past four seasons, Stempniak, 33, has played for the Calgary Flames, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Winnipeg Jets, New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins before landing a two-year, $5-million deal with the Hurricanes. The contract may not offer Stempniak the chance to win a Stanley Cup this season, but it gives him some much-needed job security.

Stempniak is low risk in that if he didn’t pan out, it’s barely a deal that breaks the bank for a Hurricanes team that could use a veteran presence in the middle of their lineup. But through six games, Stempniak’s four goals and six points are much more than anyone could have expected.

Will Stempniak keep it up? No, of course not. He’s not about to score 55 goals this season, and his shooting percentage won’t remain at 40 percent for much longer. But he is coming off of a near 20-goal season in 2015-16, so maybe he reaches the mark this campaign.

4. Thomas Vanek, Detroit Red Wings

Vanek’s time as a member of the Minnesota Wild was bad. Bad, bad, bad. He came into Minnesota with the expectation that he would be, at the very least, a consistent 30-goal threat. After managing just 21 in his first year and 18 in his second, the Wild bought out the final year of Vanek’s deal and he latched on in Detroit on a one-year, $2.6-million deal.

It’s not bound to continue, to be sure, but through seven games it looks like Vanek, 32, couldn’t have found a more perfect fit. He has four goals and eight points while skating bottom-six minutes, and he’s delivering just the amount of offensive punch Detroit was looking for.

The only concern is Vanek, like Stempniak, is shooting nearly 31 percent. He shot 12.3 percent in each of the two years prior, so that’s a sign of what could be coming. But in the off chance Vanek can keep it up, he’s either a great piece for the post-season or a perfect bit of trade bait come the trade deadline.

3. Radim Vrbata, Arizona Coyotes

For a while there, it looked as though Vrbata, 35, might not find anywhere to play in the NHL this season, but in mid-August the Coyotes reached a one-year, $1-million bonus-laden deal to bring the scoring winger back to town for the third time in his career. The past two stints in the desert have been good to Vrbata, and the third one has gone much the same thus far.

Through seven games, Vrbata has already scored three goals and five points and he’s offering just the right mix of skill, speed and veteran presence to fit right in with the young Coyotes. He wasn’t really expected to be much more than a middle-six winger — and chances were he would lean closer to second-line minutes — but Vrbata has found a fit on the top unit early in the campaign.

The only thing is, the more productive Vrbata is the more it’s going to cost the Coyotes. If he scores 20 goals and 40 points, Arizona will owe Vrbata an additional $500,000, according to CapFriendly, and a playoff appearance could see even more money headed Vrbata’s way.

2. Brandon Pirri, New York Rangers

Pirri, 25, was an interesting case in the off-season. His 22-goal season with the Florida Panthers in 2014-15 gave a glimpse at the kind of offensive prowess Pirri could have, but he still had some struggles defensively that never allowed him to earn top-six minutes in Florida. That resulted in him being shipped off to the Anaheim Ducks, but that wasn’t a fit, and he remained an enticing free agent for much of the off-season.

Eventually, Pirri inked a one-year, $1.1-million show-me deal with the New York Rangers, and show them he has through seven games. He’s shooting the lights out with a 44.4 percent shooting percentage, but his four goals and six points have been a welcome addition to the Rangers’ lineup.

The real test for Pirri will be maintaining his production and improving his game at both ends of the ice. He still doesn’t have the trust to play top-six minutes — he’s averaging 11:23 of ice time per game — but if he can continue his scoring ways, there’s a chance Rangers coach Alain Vigneault could rely more heavily on Pirri.

1. Jonathan Marchessault, Florida Panthers

Not only is Marchessault providing bang for the buck, but he’s been one of the best early season stories. He signed a two-year, $1.5-million contract to start the season, and, unbelievably, he sits second in the NHL’s scoring race through seven games, tied with Brad Marchand and Auston Matthews.

Even more incredible is that this is coming from a player who was never drafted. The 25-year-old winger found his way to the NHL as an undrafted free agent out of the QMJHL and immediately became a contributing player in the AHL. That was back in 2011-12, and it took until 2014-15 for Marchessault to really get a full-time look in the NHL. However, after playing a primarily bottom-six role in Tampa Bay last season, he left the Lightning this past off-season as a free agent and joined the Panthers.

Marchessault is well on his way to eclipsing his previous career-best marks of seven goals and 18 points, and at this rate he should have met or eclipsed those totals by, say, mid-November. Maybe it shouldn’t be as surprising given that he’s getting a real shot in Florida, playing almost 18 minutes per game and lining up alongside Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr.

It really does seem as though some semblance of this point pace is possible for Marchessault, too. He certainly won’t finish with 50 goals and 100 points, but a 20-goal, 60-point season seems reasonable. And given that he’s still under contract for one more season at $750,000, the Panthers won’t have to make any snap decisions about whether or not he’s worth locking up long-term.

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