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Top 10 UFA signings: The best free agents in the first month of the NHL season

There are high hopes for every free agent signing, but not every deal works out. After one month, though, these 10 players are firing on all cylinders in their new homes.

With the opening month of the 2017-18 NHL season coming to a close, let's take the opportunity to reflect on what has worked – and has not worked – for teams who dipped into unrestricted free agency over the summer.

Of course, when it comes to UFA signings that haven’t worked out as expected, there’s an obvious answer in Las Vegas’ Vadim Shipachyov. After bouncing between an AHL demotion and the NHL club across October, the word is that Shipachyov will, at some point in the near future, be granted a request for contract termination, placed on unconditional waivers and wave goodbye to his two-year, $9-million pact with the Golden Knights to head back to his native Russia. When he closes this chapter, he will have played only three games and scored one goal as an NHLer. Safe to say that’s a flop.

But for every UFA signing that hasn’t worked out thus far — and there are several, to be sure — there’s another that has gone exactly according to plan. Here are 10 unrestricted free agent signings that happened this past summer that have looked masterful through the early part of the campaign:

10. Anders Nilsson, Vancouver Canucks

A 27-year-old second-string netminder may not be the first name some expected on a list of great UFA signings, but Nilsson has done a tremendous job when called upon for the Canucks. In four starts, Nilsson has compiled a 3-1-0 record with two shutouts and an awesome .943 save percentage. His only bad game came early on against the Bruins when Boston turned a Canucks major penalty into three power play goals.

Given that Jacob Markstrom has never started more than 30 games in a season, Nilsson is going to be called upon quite a bit this year. And if he keeps this up, he'll help give Vancouver a solid 1-2 punch in goal for the duration of his two-year, $5-million pact.

9. Kevin Shattenkirk, New York Rangers

Shattenkirk’s UFA deal with the Rangers seemed a foregone conclusion, so much so that hardly anyone was able to feign surprise when he signed with the Blueshirts. Good thing for Shattenkirk, though, that he hasn’t disappointed. He’s skating top-four minutes and has brought exactly the type of offensive ability to the lineup that was expected, scoring two goals and nine points in 12 games while averaging 21:09 per outing. Most of his influence has come on the power play, too. Five of his points, one goal and four assists, have come with the extra man.

There hasn’t been much for the Rangers to be pleased with this season, but that Shattenkirk, 28, is delivering after inking his four-year, $26.6-million pact is one bright spot.

8. Thomas Vanek, Vancouver Canucks

Vanek’s one-year, $2-million deal made sense for both sides from the outset. It gave Vanek, 33, a chance to show he can still produce and offered the Canucks a potentially valuable trade chip come the deadline. Vanek has done everything to increase his stock since the puck was dropped on this campaign, too. He hasn’t been a fixture of the top-six, but in limited minutes Vanek has potted four goals, including one strike on the power play, and six points for the Canucks.

As noted, there’s no reason to believe this is anything other than a limited partnership. If Vanek keeps putting up points, though, he could be worth a pretty penny for teams seeking depth scoring come the post-season. That’s the kind of value Vancouver wanted.

7. Radim Vrbata, Florida Panthers

Vrbata, 36, is producing so well right now that he’s going to make the Panthers pay. Signed to a one-year deal with a $2.5-million base salary, Vrbata’s contract has a bonus structure that pays him $250,000 for 10 goals, 15 goals and 20 goals, with another $250,000 available if he can register 45 points this season. And, through 11 outings, Vrbata already has three goals and nine points. Some quick math suggests he’s on pace to net 22 goals and 67 points. Cha-ching.

It’s not as though the Panthers are going to regret paying him out, though. If Vrbata keeps up this rate, he’d be one of the best value signings of the off-season.

6. Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche

The first of two college free agents on the list — and we’re sure you can guess the other — Kerfoot, 23, has made the most of every single second of ice time he’s been given by Avalanche coach Jared Bednar. Kerfoot kind of has to, though, given he’s averaging 12:48 per game. Even with the fourth-line ice time, Kerfoot has managed to pot three goals and six points in 11 outings and looks to have the potential to move up the lineup as the season progresses. 

For now, he’s been nothing more than a bottom-six pivot, but that he’s been getting significant power play time with the second unit is an indication the Avs have faith in his offensive ability.

5. Brad Hunt, Vegas Golden Knights

The excitement surrounding the expansion Golden Knights made most of their free agent action an afterthought. That includes Hunt, 29, who signed a two-year, $1.3-million deal when signing season opened. Of course, that was somewhat warranted. After all, Hunt had only 33 NHL games, with two goals and nine points, to his name. He really turned heads with a dynamite pre-season, though, and has carried that over into regular season play.

It took a while for Hunt to get a look once the campaign opened — his first regular season game came in mid-October — but he has been excellent in the games he has played. In six outings, he has seven points, all assists, and is averaging upwards of 19 minutes per game. If he keeps this up, he’ll rocket to the top of this list by season’s end.

4. Justin Williams, Carolina Hurricanes

Williams’ decision to return to Carolina was a win for the Hurricanes, who could use the veteran leadership, but it’s almost as if the 36-year-old has turned back the clock to his first stay with the organization.

Thought to be coming in as a secondary scorer at best, Williams has instead mustered one goal and eight points in 10 games, good for a 60-plus point pace. The only forward producing at a better rate, and it’s by a slim margin, is Jeff Skinner. None of this is to mention that Williams, who was a third-liner in Washington last season, is skating top-six minutes on a Hurricanes team that is right in the thick of things in the early season wild-card race. Signing the veteran winger is looking like another feather in Ron Francis’ cap as Carolina’s GM.

3. Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars

While the Canadiens — eight-goal victory aside — seek to buck some offensive woes, they’ve watched Radulov, one of the team’s top scorers last season and one whom Montreal let walk, is tearing things up with the high-powered Stars offense. Though he started off slow with zero goals and two points in his first five games, he’s picked apart opponents with four goals and eight points in his last seven games. That includes a current three-game goal streak which has included two game-winners.

Radulov, 31, continues to be one of the more creative playmakers in the league and his offensive talents make Dallas that much more dangerous. And if his recent performance is a sign he’s settling in with the Stars, the Central Division and Western Conference might be on notice.

2. Will Butcher, New Jersey Devils

Did you guess it? Was it that obvious? 

Butcher is the second college free agent on the list and there’s really no denying how brilliant he has been in the early going. The Devils wanted to play a more up-tempo game and bolster their defense, so they threw a lucrative entry-level contract and the promise of opportunity at Butcher to entice him to sign on the dotted line. He’s been worth every cent of his deal, too.

In his first six games, Butcher, 22, put up nine points and has now taken his point total up to 11 just 10 games into his big-league career. Butcher has been every bit the power play quarterback that was promised, as well. He’s averaging more ice time with the extra man than any other Devils player and has produced seven points with the man advantage, the most of anyone in New Jersey. 

1. Evgenii Dadonov, Florida Panthers

One has to imagine Vegas is looking over at the Florida Panthers and wondering how their KHL convert worked out so well when Shipachyov’s stay was such a disaster with the Golden Knights. While one is most likely on his way out of the league and back to Russia, Dadonov, 28, has rocketed himself to the top of the Panthers’ scoring register with a team-leading six goals and 14 points. We shouldn’t be so surprised, though.

According to the same NHL conversion rates that projected Shipachyov could be a top-scoring NHL talent, Dadonov’s point total in the KHL suggested he could put up about 75 points with the Panthers. Turns out that might actually be low. If he continues this pace, Dadonov would put up 45 goals and 104 points on the year. 

All right, so the chances of that happening are slim, but would anyone put it past Dadonov to hit the initial projected target at this point if he stays healthy? He’s found a seemingly perfect fit playing alongside Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and that line is quickly becoming one of the most threatening in the Atlantic Division. There were some concerns about Dale Tallon’s moves this summer, but bringing in Dadonov is one that can’t be questioned.


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