The countdown continues to the opening day of signing season, and while six teams bang on John Tavares’ door in hopes the superstar center will sign on the dotted line come July 1 — or, in the case of the New York Islanders, before — a much-less publicized interview period has begun for the rest of the unrestricted free agent crop.
Aside from Tavares, several obvious names headline the UFA class. James van Riemsdyk will likely be one of the big signings of the day, while Paul Stastny could ink a big-money deal given the reported interest surrounding the veteran center. Two current and quite possibly soon-to-be former Vegas Golden Knights will also headline the day, as David Perron and James Neal could bring some additional scoring punch to whichever team brings them aboard. There are also rumblings about defensemen and goaltenders, including Jack Johnson, Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hutton and Cam Ward.
But beyond the second-tier free agents, there’s a third class that will fly somewhat under the radar, a group that won’t pop ratings or steal headlines. But these five free agents could end up being cost-effective players and significant signings when we reflect on free agency one year from now:
After playing his first two NHL campaigns on one-year, two-way deals with Carolina, Ryan earned himself his first payday on a one-year, $1.425-million pact with the Hurricanes last season. Chances are he’s about to see another increase in salary this off-season, too, after putting up a career-best 15 goals and 38 points in 80 games last season. Ryan isn’t necessarily a top-tier free agent. Some would argue he’s not even in the second-tier given he’s played no more than middle-six minutes at any point in his career. But he seems like the perfect player to take a chance on as a low-risk signing with potential for high reward.
Is he a late bloomer? Absolutely, as he’s a 31-year-old with 153 games NHL experience. Ryan has excelled everywhere he’s gone in recent years, though. He played his way from the Canadian college ranks into the Austrian League, onto the Swedish League, into the AHL and now has a shot at inking a deal with some term after his career-best season.
Grabner was a flop, plain and simple, for the New Jersey Devils at last season’s trade deadline. Over the course of 21 games, he scored two goals and five points while earning similar ice time as he had with the New York Rangers, with whom he registered 25 goals and 31 points in 59 games. Heck, Grabner was even scratched in the post-season on a Devils team that was largely bereft of scoring outside of Taylor Hall. It wasn’t a good look.
The good news for those seeking some additional depth scoring, however, is that Grabner’s poor performance in New Jersey might mean his suitors can get him for slightly cheaper than they could have if, say, he scored another 10 goals with the Devils and eclipsed the 30-goal plateau for the second time in his career. In today’s speed game, Grabner, 30, has the wheels to keep up with anyone, and when he’s hot, few are hotter. He might end up being the most pricy player found in this group, but he could very well be worth every penny if he hits the 20-goal plateau for the third-straight season.
Surely there are going to be Arizona Coyotes fans — and almost certainly there will be Los Angeles Kings faithful — who disagree with Rieder’s usefulness. Last season was arguably the toughest of his young career as he scored a career-low 12 goals with his 25 points standing as his second-worst total in four seasons. But the thing about Rieder is that he has proven he can put points on the board. As a member of the Coyotes’ top six in 2015-16 and 2016-17, Rieder fired home 30 goals and 71 points in 162 games. He also saw time on the power play and the penalty kill, which speaks to his responsibility at both ends of the ice.
The big thing with Rieder, though, is he’s only 25 years old. While it’s entirely likely he is what he is by now, there’s a chance he could still be figuring some things out. He’s not going to cost a lot to acquire — a raise on his $2.25 million cap hit seems unlikely — so he could be worth a flyer.
Injuries have really hindered Versteeg’s career at times. Back in 2012-13, coming off of a career year in Florida, Versteeg missed all but 10 games and was subsequently traded by the Panthers 18 games into the following campaign. And since then he’s bounced from Chicago to Carolina to Los Angeles before finally stopping in Calgary for the past two campaigns. Another injury last season, though, has Versteeg flying somewhat under the radar heading into free agency.
Is he still a top- or even middle-six quality winger? He’ll have to prove that if any team is willing to take a shot on him. But what we do know is this: despite missing 97 games over the past four seasons, Versteeg, 32, has scored at a 17-goal, 42-point rate over that span. Among the current crop of free agent forward, his scoring rate over 82 games would make Versteeg the seventh-highest scorer available. Teams could, and likely will, do much worse than bringing in Versteeg, who can be a good depth and power play option.
The market for defensemen is thin. Thin, thin, thin. Mike Green is the clear-cut No. 1 option, followed not all that closely by a group that includes rearguards such as Dan Hamhuis, Jack Johnson, John Moore, Toby Enstrom, Thomas Hickey and Calvin de Haan. But a defenseman worth keying in on for teams looking to shore up the bottom half of their blueline might be Holden, who had himself an effective, if not quiet, season with the Rangers last season before being moved off to the Bruins at the deadline.
Holden, 31, has bounced around a bit over the past several seasons with stints in Columbus, Colorado, New York and Boston, but he’s averaged upwards of 20 minutes per game throughout his 374-game career, has put up roughly one-third of a point per game wherever he has been and given he was paid $1.65 million last season, he might cost less than $2 million to be brought in as a free agent. He could prove to be a decent bargain.
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