For well over a month now, I’ve been taking deep dives on some of the 2021 UFA class’ most interesting names so fans will have an idea of what to expect when their teams ink these players starting July 28.
Each time, I’ve grouped the players by some defining characteristic to provide a sense of structure. Or, as Troy McClure would say, “You may remember me from such lists as ‘former Sens who may be worth something’ and ‘goalies who might be OK if they get off dreadful teams.’ ”
The topic-du-jour today? Centers who signed one-year show-me deals as UFAs during the uncertain 2020 off-season. Also included is an assessment of how that gamble paid off for them.
Mikael Granlund – Nashville Predators
The Minnesota Wild plucked Mikael Granlund from HIFK in Finland with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft. At his peak with the Wild, Granlund was a top-level point producer who was defensively reliable and could kill penalties passably. Between 2016-17 and Feb. 25, 2019, Granlund had 185 points in 221 games for Minnesota. That ranked him 34th among all NHLers during that period.
On Feb. 25, 2019, Minnesota traded Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Kevin Fiala. Granlund struggled with the change of scenery, producing just 35 points in his first 79 games with the Preds between the end of 2018-19 and the '19-20 season. He also had one goal and three points in 10 playoff games during that period, as Nashville bowed out in the first round in 2019 and the 2020 play-ins.
It was a bit odd, then, when Granlund chose to return to Nashville upon hitting free agency during the 2020 off-season. Because of the financial uncertainty COVID created and Granlund’s tumultuous Nashville tenure, he received just a one-year, $3.75-million pact from the Preds – a hefty downgrade from the $5.75-million AAV he’d earned the previous three seasons.
Granlund finished fourth on the Preds in scoring in 2020-21, with 13 goals and 27 points in 51 games. Hardly the 69-point pace he played to at his best in Minnesota, but not bad either, especially on a popgun offense. He played in all situations and was strong on the dot, winning 51.8 percent of the 469 faceoffs he took. He added five points in six playoff games.
Assessment: The offense probably isn’t going to return to the level it reached at its peak, but Granlund had a nice season and should earn a pact with more security this time around.
Alexander Wennberg – Florida Panthers
Of all the players on this list, none needed a redemptive campaign more than Alexander Wennberg, whose time in Columbus came to a disastrous end in October 2020 when the Blue Jackets bought out the final three years of a six-year contract Wennberg signed in September 2017. The Blue Jackets drafted the Swedish center 14th overall in the 2013 draft, and Wennberg made his debut as a full-time NHLer just one season later, playing 68 games for the Blue Jackets as a 20-year-old in 2014-15.
The early returns were promising for Wennberg, who would score 25 goals and 119 points in 217 games on his entry-level contract. After a 20-point rookie campaign, Wennberg started to show signs of being a breakout playmaking star, counting seasons of 32 and 46 assists in 69 and 80 games, respectively, the two seasons after. Between 2015-16 and ’16-17, Wennberg was one of the NHL’s foremost setup men, ranking ninth among 283 forwards with 1.17 primary assists per hour at all strengths (minimum 1500 minutes).
So it made sense when Columbus locked up its budding star – and potential future No. 1 center – ahead of the 2017-18 season. On September 1, 2017, Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen inked Wennberg to a six-year extension worth $4.9 million per season. Unfortunately for Wennberg and Columbus, however, rather than continuing his ascent to NHL's playmaking zenith, Wennberg would immediately regress upon agreeing to the deal. Wennberg had 59 points in 80 games in his final ELC year but never came close to replicating that during the rest of his stay in Columbus. Wennberg would too often find himself in coach John Tortorella’s (admittedly easy to find) doghouse, which was never more apparent than when he appeared in only four of Columbus’ 10 playoff games in 2018-19, despite being healthy at the time.
After being bought out, Wennberg signed a one-year, $2.25-million pact with the Florida Panthers. And it's fair to say what was a marriage of convenience worked out amiably for both parties. Wennberg was the Panthers’ second-line center until Sam Bennett’s acquisition and provided the Cats with reliable play at a bargain price in his role. The 6-foot-2, 197-pound center was Florida’s second-busiest penalty-killing forward, playing 2:32 per game down a man. Wennberg also had some offensive spark come back into his game, scoring a career-high 17 goals and adding 29 points in 56 games.
Assessment: Sam Bennett’s emergence made Wennberg’s second-line center role redundant, but 2020-21 was a value-builder for the Swede. It stopped his downward spiral and will keep him in The Show, even if he has to find a new haunt. Wennberg was strong defensively, a reliable PK guy and had his best offensive season since 2017-18. That was a bit of a mirage, though, considering Wennberg shot at over 20 percent this season. He turns 27 in September; the No. 1-center potential he showed as an entry-level player isn’t there anymore, but he’s entirely capable of reprising the middle-six role he had in Florida and shouldn’t have to take a pay cut to do so.
Erik Haula – Nashville Predators
Erik Haula was among the players who prospered most from the 2017 Vegas expansion draft. He had by far the best offensive season of his career in Vegas' inaugural campaign, putting up career-highs of 29 goals and 55 points in 76 games.
But Haula was never able to take advantage of his fruitful 2017-18. Upon his expansion-draft selection, the then-RFA immediately inked a three-year, $8.25-million deal with the club. But injuries derailed Haula’s potential follow-up, with the Finnish pivot missing 74 combined games in the regular season and playoffs in 2018-19 after underdoing knee surgery. Vegas then traded Haula to Carolina during the 2019 off-season.
Haula missed another 19 games with knee issues in 2019-20 and found himself on the move for the second time in eight months when Carolina shipped him to Florida in February 2020. Florida chose not to re-sign him when his deal expired, so Haula became a free agent.
All told, Haula had 31 points in 63 games in the two seasons immediately following his breakout 2017-18 campaign. He agreed to a one-year, $1.75-million deal with Nashville on Dec. 23, 2020.
Like Wennberg, Haula had a solid year taking on a middle-six, penalty-killing role. The Predators possessed the NHL’s third-worst regular-season PK, but that wasn't on Haula; he was one of the best chance-suppressing forwards in the NHL on the PK. Haula had nine goals and 21 points in 51 games for the Preds. He also chipped in one goal and four points in six playoff games.
Assessment: The biggest goal for Haula in 2020-21 was to stay healthy – and he did. He missed one game on COVID protocol, was given a rest in the season finale and was a healthy scratch for three other games, but didn't miss any games with injury. It’s never a great sign to find yourself in the press box in a walk year, but for Haula, it was better than the alternative. He also played better after sitting out, notching 14 points in 28 games after his last healthy-scratch stint, compared to seven points in 23 games before.
Tomas Nosek – Vegas Golden Knights
Another original Golden Knight, Nosek scored the first-ever regular-season goal at T-Mobile Arena and assisted on the first playoff goal in Knights history. His one-year deal with Vegas – signed as a UFA last off-season – paid him $1.25 million..
Assessment: Nosek had a career-high 18 points in just 38 games in 2020-21. That tied him for 55th in per-60 scoring among 341 forwards to play at least 400 5-on-5 minutes. He’s a reliable bottom-sixer whose output modestly increased his value. He turns 29 in September.