Come Saturday, GMs around the league will be scrambling to put pen to paper with some of the league’s top free agent targets, such as Kevin Shattenkirk, Alexander Radulov, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
There are only so many teams who will be able to land the top talents available when the signing season officially opens on July 1, though, leaving more than a few GMs looking at the remainder of the free agent pool for an addition here or there to fill out their club. In the cap-driven NHL, where every team is looking to get a leg up on the competition with cost-effective signings, that could mean taking a look at some cheap yet intriguing free agents, and following Monday’s deadline for qualifying offers for restricted free agents, a new batch of players has been added to the open market.
Be it the result of a disappointing season or untapped potential, that means some young talent that still possesses some upside could be up for grabs to the highest bidder or the team willing to provide such a player with the best opportunity to make their mark on the NHL.
Here are five unqualified RFAs-turned-UFAs who could draw interest this summer:
No player in recent years has needed a change of scenery and a chance to make things work out quite like Yakupov. The 2012 first-overall pick burst out of the gates in his rookie campaign with a 17-goal, 31-point campaign, but his game has failed to translate to the NHL in any season since. In the 244 games he’s played since his lockout-shortened freshman season, Yakupov has 36 goals and 89 points while averaging fourth-line minutes. Some believed his move to St. Louis would help spark his game, but Yakupov managed just three goals and nine points in 40 games with the Blues. Now, he’s set to hit free agency as a 23-year-old.
It feels like someone, somewhere, is going to be willing to take a shot on Yakupov. He’s reportedly interested in playing in Vancouver, and a team that is willing to give him some minutes on the power play and give him a real, honest-to-goodness chance to play in the top six might be his best bet at rediscovering his game. Yakupov showed some growth in terms of defensive play this past season and that was a necessary step forward. Now, he has to go one step further and become an everyday, every-game NHLer.
Like Yakupov, Grigorenko was a highly touted prospect heading into the 2012 draft. The Sabres took a shot on Grigorenko with the 12th-overall pick, but he found himself in Colorado for the past pair of campaigns as part of the blockbuster deal that sent Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo. Grigorenko has had the two best campaigns of his career in the past two seasons, posting a combined 16 goals and 50 points in 149 games, but he’s still yet to become a consistent contributor in the big league. But maybe a second move and a new opportunity can help him find a spark.
No one is going to confuse Grigorenko for an all-around talent. He’s not about to buckle down and become a bottom-six grinder who plays penalty kill minutes and blocks shots with any regularity. But as a project winger under a coach who can help young talent find their way, Grigorenko could be a great reclamation project. He has the size, shot and offensive ability to turn into an impactful player. He might need to find the right fit to unlock his potential, though.
Holland is unlikely to get inked to anything beyond a one-year, two-way contract, no matter who comes calling, but he could be a nice addition for a team looking for bottom-six production on a budget. He’s not going to put up a dozen goals or 30 points, but he has put up some more than respectable campaigns in recent years as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Across 127 games in Toronto in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Holland potted 20 goals and 52 points, averaged nearly 15 minutes of ice time per game and had a solid 101 takeaways. On a team looking to bolster their center depth with a third- or fourth-line capable player, Holland could be a good fit.
It’s somewhat surprising for the Coyotes, who aren’t exactly stacked down the middle or on the wing, to pass on bringing Holland back, especially as he has a decent amount of experience. But the Coyotes passing on Holland gives another team a shot at bringing the pivot aboard.
Injuries have been the biggest concern for Bennett over the course of his career. He missed 12 games this past season with lower-body ailments, and since being selected 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010, Bennett has missed a whopping 178 games due to injury. That includes more than 61 games on the shelf with a wrist injury. So, it goes without saying that any GM interested in Bennett has to be cautious. After all, there’s a good chance he’ll miss a handful of games.
That said, when healthy, Bennett has shown ability to produce. In his 194 games in the NHL, Bennett has 24 goals and 64 points while skating bottom-six minutes, and while his eight-goal, 19-point campaign with the New Jersey Devils this past season isn’t about to make him a top target on the free agent market, it’s the best campaign he has turned in to this point in his career. It’d be interesting to see what Bennett could put together on a third line with some scoring punch.
After suiting up in nearly every single game for the Flames this past season, Calgary has decided to move on from Chiasson. Unlike the other moves, however, Chiasson’s exit from the Flames seems to do with cost, as much as anything. Calgary is looking at re-signing defenseman Michael Stone, who is set to hit the free agent market on July 1, as well as hammering out new deals for Sam Bennett, Micheal Ferland, Curtis Lazar and UFA-to-be Kris Versteeg. That’s going to eat into the $15 million the Flames have to spend, so Calgary has to be wise with where it allocates money.
Chiasson, the 38th-overall selection in 2012, should get some interest around the league, though. His frame alone — he stands 6-foot-4, 208 pounds — should be enough for GMs to take a look into inking him, and he’s actually coming off of quite the productive season, given his average ice time. Chiasson only skated 13:23 per game for the Flames, but managed 12 goals and 24 points in 81 games. That’s not to mention he’s put up at least 10 goals in three of the past four seasons. He can bring value to a bottom-six, with potential to even work as a net-front power play presence.
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