10 NHL Free Agents to Watch for This SummerGregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images
We’re into mid-July, which means sunshine and cookouts and cold beer on the patio. It also means that, if you’re an NHL unrestricted free agent who hasn’t signed a contract yet, you’re probably screwed.
The market for UFAs dries up around the second week of July every year, with limited cap space leaguewide meaning fewer dollars available to the unfortunate leftovers still looking for work. That’s been especially true this year; the market was uncharacteristically reasonable at the start, indicating that the league’s GMs had finally realized that good teams aren’t built by throwing around millions in July.
That all paints a grim picture for the many players still available. If there’s any good news, it’s that at least a few of the remaining names present some interesting possibilities for the right team. There’s not much point trying to rank the available players in terms of best or worst; at this point, success or failure is as much about fit as anything, and one team’s best will be another team’s bust. So instead, let’s pick out a few guys who are still on the market and rank them from least to most intriguing. That’s a broad term that leaves us with plenty of room to get subjective, granted, but here are 10 names that would be worth keeping an eye on in between cold ones.
10. Christian Ehrhoff
2014-15 numbers: 49 GP, 3 G, 11 A, 14 pts; $4M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: Ehrhoff spent the first few years of his career in San Jose and Vancouver as a “so underrated he might be overrated” defenseman, topping out with an impressive 50 points as part of the Canucks’ near-Cup-winning team in 2011. That earned him a ridiculous 10-year, $40 million contract with the Sabres, one that was heavily front-loaded to keep the cap hit down. That front-loading made it a mild surprise when he was bought out last summer — the Sabres had already paid him $23.6 million for three years’ work — and his one-year deal with Pittsburgh seemed like one of the best bargains of the summer.
Why they haven’t: A disappointing season in Pittsburgh seems to have dampened any enthusiasm for Ehrhoff’s services. He missed a big chunk of the season because of injuries and wasn’t especially productive when he did play. With a surprisingly cool market and better blue-line options available, there’s been almost no buzz around Ehrhoff’s status.
What comes next: Like many players on this list, Ehrhoff will likely have to settle for a short-term deal and a pay cut. That’s fair — he just turned 33, so teams are right to be nervous about whether last season was a fluke or the start of a decline. But keep an eye on him; in the right situation, he could be one of those late-summer bargains that ends up making GMs wonder why they didn’t make a phone call.
9. Brad Boyes
2014-15 numbers: 78 GP, 14 G, 24 A, 38 pts; $2.625M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: Boyes has had a weird career path, bouncing around the league early on, briefly looking like a star in St. Louis, and then resuming his NHL-wide tour in recent years. But wherever he’s been, he’s almost always chipped in offensively. Not a ton — his days as a 40-goal scorer are long gone — but he’s scored 35 goals over the past two seasons, and plenty of teams could use that kind of scoring from their third line.
Why they haven’t: The Panthers clearly didn’t like what they saw, buying Boyes out despite those goals. He’s not a guy who really impresses you when he isn’t scoring, and it’s possible he doesn’t do that often enough these days to be worth a roster spot over a younger, cheaper option.
What comes next: There’s been speculation that Boyes may have to wait for a training camp tryout invite, which wouldn’t be unprecedented; that’s how he wound up in Florida two years ago. Still, it would be surprising if not one team could find space for a potential 20-goal scorer on the roster between now and then.
8. Ray Emery (or any other goalie)
2014-15 numbers: 31 GP, 10-11-7, 3.06 GAA, .894 save%; $1M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: There aren’t many goalies left on the market; if you want somebody with some NHL experience, you’re basically down to Emery or Jonas Gustavsson. And while Emery has been solidly in the “veteran backup” phase of his career for years now, he isn’t that far removed from posting some strong numbers — in 2013, he even earned a first-place vote for the Vezina.1
Why they haven’t: He wasn’t very good last season, he’s old for a goalie at 32, and he hasn’t been fully healthy in a while. That’s three strikes right there.
But there’s an even bigger problem for Emery, Gustavsson, and any other goalies still looking for work: There’s virtually no market for them. Once the leaguewide game of rotating goaltenders had settled down a few days after the draft, there were virtually no NHL jobs left. The Bruins might want a veteran backup, but that’s pretty much it, and they could probably land somebody fairly cheaply via trade.
That’s why Emery and friends make our list; the intrigue comes from seeing whether any of them can find work. It’s not looking good.
What comes next: The best plan for an unemployed goaltender right now is probably to stay in shape and wait for an injury somewhere; if Ilya Bryzgalov can keep finding midseason work, there’s hope for all of them. Beyond that, there’s not much in the way of good news for guys like Emery. (Good luck to whoever has to break that to him.)
7. Scottie Upshall
2014-15 numbers: 63 GP, 8 G, 7 A, 15 pts; $3.5M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: The former sixth overall pick has always had more name value than actual production, but he could represent a worthwhile gamble at the right price. Last season’s numbers weren’t pretty, but he’s just one year removed from the best offensive season of his career.
Why they haven’t: Even those career-best numbers in 2013-14 weren’t all that good, as Upshall had only 37 points. That’s basically his ceiling; he’ll turn 32 on opening night, so he’s not going to suddenly get better.
What comes next: Most teams could still use 30 points from a middle-six winger. The problem for Upshall, as we’ll see below, is that there are plenty of guys still on the market who could provide that. He’s another veteran who could be looking at a one-year discount deal as a best-case scenario, or maybe even a training camp tryout.
6. Stephen Weiss
2014-15 numbers: 52 GP, 9 G, 16 A, 25 pts; $4.9M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: Weiss was one of the biggest busts of free agency in 2013, signing a $24.5 million deal and lasting just two seasons in Detroit before being bought out. He was hurt, he was ineffective, he was the owner of one of the league’s worst contracts, and it’s probably not a stretch to say his deal helped contribute to this summer’s wave of fiscally conservative thinking. Cautionary example and all that.
So why would anyone want the guy? Well, if you believe in a good old-fashioned redemption narrative, Weiss has some potential. And with his Red Wings buyout paying him millions through 2021, he’d probably come cheap if a team presented the right fit for the sort of rebound reason that could salvage his career.
Why they haven’t: The Red Wings are a pretty smart organization, and they aren’t in the habit of paying millions of dollars to make good players go away. Weiss wasn’t good in Detroit, and at 32 there’s a chance he’s no longer capable of being good anywhere else, either.
What comes next: Redemption stories are nice, but they can be written in September. That’s especially true where health is a concern — at this point, Weiss might be looking at a “show me” invite to training camp as a best case.
5. Tomas Fleischmann
2014-15 numbers: 66 GP, 8 G, 19 A, 27 pts; $4.5M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: For the same reason that the Ducks traded for him at last season’s deadline: He’s a smart player who can bring skill to a team’s top nine.
Why they haven’t: That skill hasn’t translated to especially strong numbers in recent years; he has eight goals in each of the past two seasons and was held to just one assist in six playoff games in Anaheim. Much like the case with Boyes (and Lee Stempniak, and Curtis Glencross, and Sean Bergenheim), teams just don’t seem to feel any pressure to go out and add a veteran who’s probably going to score 10 or 15 goals. Every team thinks it has a young guy or two who could already produce like that on a league-minimum or entry-level deal; most are probably wrong, but they won’t know that until the games start.
What comes next: A short-term deal somewhere, most likely. The question is whether it arrives before training camp.
4. Lubomir Visnovsky
2014-15 numbers: 53 GP, 5 G, 15 A, 20 pts; $4.75M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: It wasn’t all that long ago that Visnovsky was one of the league’s best offensive defensemen; he had 68 points and made the second All-Star team in 2011.
Why they haven’t: Well, OK, that was four years ago — maybe that wasn’t all that long ago in the grand scale of time, but in the NHL it’s plenty. Visnovsky is about to turn 39 and hasn’t topped 30 points since that big 2010-11 season, so it’s quite possible he’s done. But he did play almost 20 minutes a game for a very good Islanders team last season. And despite having his season ended by a concussion, he says he’s good to go for one more year.
What comes next: Retirement, probably, although there’s no rush to make it official. The same could be said of other veteran defensemen, like Marek Zidlicky and Sergei Gonchar, the latter of whom is 41 and coming off a season that was so quiet you don’t even remember who he played for.2 None of those guys is likely to generate much interest, although you never know — NHL GMs love them some grizzled veteran blueliners.
3. Eric Fehr
2014-15 numbers: 75 GP, 19 G, 14 A, 33 pts; $1.5M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: Fehr’s numbers aren’t great, but they’re comparable to the numbers of guys like Joel Ward and Matt Beleskey, and they both generated plenty of interest. If you’re looking to add some size and 15 goals or so at (presumably) a relatively cheap price point, Fehr seems like your guy.
Why they haven’t: It’s a mild surprise to see Fehr still available; most years, some GM would overpay for a guy who could step in and immediately improve his third line.
What comes next: Fehr isn’t anybody’s idea of a superstar, but he knows his role and can help teams win in a few different ways. He’s probably still holding out hope for a multiyear deal, and with a little cap space still floating around out there, he might still find it. If not, he feels like a classic late-summer bargain that’s going to make some GM seem very smart.
2. Cody Franson
2014-15 numbers: 78 GP, 7 G, 29 A, 36 pts; $3.3M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: He’s a big defenseman who can score; in the past three years, he ranks 25th in points from the blue line, ahead of bigger names like Ryan McDonagh, Brent Seabrook, and Zdeno Chara. He’s not the two-way player that those guys are, but he’s not a liability. And while he doesn’t use his 6-foot-5 frame to crush guys, he throws plenty of hits (he was second in the league last season, with 282).3 He’s also just 27, which isn’t exactly young but is about as close to young as you’ll get on the UFA market.
Why they haven’t: Nobody seems to know. One theory: Franson is a right-handed shot, and as such falls victim to The Law of Defenseman Handedness (“Whichever hand you shoot with, every team interested in acquiring you will already have way too many guys on that side”). He’s also coming off a disappointing stint with the Predators, which didn’t help his reputation as a guy who can rack up numbers on a bad team but doesn’t help as much on a good one.
And, of course, it’s possible that his salary demands were just too high. In Toronto, Franson was constantly trying to get a long-term deal out of the usually spendthrift Leafs front office, and he always ended up settling for a one-year deal instead. This was his chance to finally cash in on some long-term security, and it’s fair to assume he was looking for something in the same ballpark as Andrej Sekera and Mike Green. When those two players signed quickly, maybe the market dried up and Franson’s camp didn’t adjust quickly enough.
What comes next: This is where it gets interesting. Normally, a guy in Franson’s shoes would have an obvious option: Sign a one-year deal, go out and have a great season, make everyone regret passing you over, and then take another shot at cashing in next summer. But you have to wonder how much interest Franson would have in taking that path, given his history of being shortchanged in Toronto. So do you take a long-term deal at a fraction of the price you were hoping to get, or accept the short-term deal and roll the dice one more time in 2015-16? That’s got to be a fascinating — and frustrating — conversation to have with your agent.
1. Alexander Semin
2014-15 numbers: 57 GP, 6 G, 13 A, 19 pts; $7M cap hit
Why teams should sign him: You can’t teach skill, and when he’s at his best, Semin certainly has skill. He’s a former 40-goal scorer who put up a couple of seasons at well over a point per game, and there’s just not many players who can shoot a puck like this. Granted, all of that was five years ago, so you’re not getting that same player today. But in the right situation, and under the right frame of mind, Semin could still be a player who does things that others just can’t. In a league where a lack of timely scoring tends to doom half the playoff teams every year, it’s awfully tempting to try to catch lightning in a bottle with a guy who’s done it before.
Why they haven’t: For one, he was awful last season — I had to go back and double-check that stat line as I was typing it, because it seemed impossibly low for a guy with Semin’s talent.
More importantly, there may not be a player in the NHL with a worse reputation right now when it comes to work ethic. Reputations are funny things, and we should be careful about reading too much into them, but small-market teams like the Hurricanes don’t often burn $14 million in buyout money just because a guy slumped for a season.
What comes next: The rumor mill has been remarkably quiet around Semin; we’ve seen plenty of stories about why he’d be a decent gamble for some team or another, but not much that would indicate that any of those teams are actually interested. The KHL is always a possibility, although at this point he seems to want to stay in North America. We can probably assume that nobody would go near him with a long-term offer, but would he be worth a gamble to somebody on a one-year deal?
If you’re Semin and you’re trying to rehabilitate your image, the best bet might be to sign a cheap deal with a contender; a solid season of quietly going about his business on a third line in a winning environment could cast him in a new light this time next year. The other option would be to sign with a bad team, preferably in a smaller market where he wouldn’t be under a microscope, and try to rediscover his offensive production in a role with top-six minutes and power-play time. In an ideal world, maybe he gets both — start the season with an also-ran, then get flipped to a contender at the deadline for a playoff run.
Either way, Semin could be down to his last shot in the NHL. It would take a GM with guts to go near him at this point, but there’s no player left on the market who represents more of a high-risk, high-reward gamble.
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