The opening few days of NHL free agency were very busy, as teams appeared unfazed by the flat cap that will remain in place for the 2021-22 season. Plenty of money was spent and with it, plenty of the big names were quickly taken off the market. There are however a few that still remain.
These players certainly aren’t game breakers at this stage of their careers, but could be a decent inexpensive option for a team looking to add some depth to their roster.
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The 2020-21 season was not a kind one for Eric Staal. The 36-year-old, who was traded to the Buffalo Sabres last offseason, struggled as did many of his teammates, recording just three goals and 10 points in 32 games before being dealt to the Montreal Canadiens. The hope was that getting out of Buffalo would turn his year around, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.
Despite being on a much improved roster, Staal’s struggles continued as he managed just two goals and three points in 21 regular season games and wasn’t much better in the playoffs with two goals and eight points in 21 contests. He clearly looked like a player who was aging, but is there a chance it was just an off year?
Just one season prior, Staal was still a very effective player for the Minnesota Wild, registering 19 goals and 47 points in 66 games. If he is able to get back to that level of play or anywhere near it, he would be extremely valuable to many teams, especially given the fact he also has a Stanley Cup ring and over 1000 career points.
After a career worst seven goals and 19 points in his first and only season with the Calgary Flames, James Neal rejuvenated his career with the Edmonton Oilers in 2019-20, scoring 19 goals and 31 points in just 55 games. Unfortunately, he was not able to carry that over to the 2020-21 campaign, as he missed time early on due to contracting COVID-19 and was unable to find his footing after that.
The problem regarding the 33-year-old winger, and the main reason why he hasn’t found a new home yet, is due to his foot speed. In a game that seemingly gets faster and faster every year, Neal struggles to keep up at 5V5. That played a big part in him scoring just five goals in 29 games this past season.
The one area of Neal’s game that is still very impressive is his ability to score goals from in close. He is a great net front presence and has a phenomenal shot, making him a very good option on the powerplay. For a cheap, short-term deal, he makes sense for a team looking to add some depth scoring and has the potential to score north of 20 goals if put in the right situation.
To say Alex Galchenyuk has had an interesting career to this point would be an understatement. The third overall pick from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft has a ton of skill, but has really struggled with consistency over the years. It appeared he had finally figured things out during the 2015-16 season with the Montreal Canadiens when he scored 30 goals and 56 points in 82 games. Since then however, he hasn’t been able to have anywhere near that same level of success.
Over the past three seasons, Galchenyuk has played for five different teams in the Arizona Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild, Ottawa Senators, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. With all these teams, inconsistency remained an issue but he was able at times, particularly with the Leafs, to remind everyone of just how talented he is.
It remains to be seen whether or not the 27-year-old will get another shot on an NHL roster moving forward, but it seems likely given that he did impress while in Toronto. If he is somehow able to find the right situation and bring his ‘A’ game night in and night out, he could be a huge bargain signing for a team in 2021-22.
Given that he is a right handed shot, Jason Demers appears to be the most intriguing option of defencemen who are still available. The 33-year-old certainly won’t help teams offensively (he hasn’t scored a goal the past two seasons), but he is a shutdown defenceman who is capable of giving teams solid third pairing minutes.
This past season, Demers recorded four assists in 41 games while averaging just north of 17 minutes in ice time per game. It marked the first time in three seasons where he played averaged less than 20 minutes as it was clear that his game is not where it once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold value.
Demers will have to take a pay cut from his last deal where he earned $4.5 million a year, which certainly isn’t great news for him but is for teams interested in acquiring him as he will be a cheap option. He isn’t the most exciting name, but you could do worse in terms of a right handed shot on your third pairing.
Just three seasons ago, Erik Gustafsson came out of seemingly no where and recorded career highs with 17 goals and 60 points. Since that great breakout year however, his value has decreased dramatically. The 29-year-old Swedish rearguard has bounced around the past two seasons, playing for four different teams in the Chicago Blackhawks, Calgary Flames, Philadelphia Flyers, and the Montreal Canadiens.
This past season, Gustafsson suited up for 24 games with the Flyers, scoring a goal and nine assists before being dealt to Montreal. He played in five regular season games with the Habs and an additional 16 in the postseason, but put together just five points combined. His average at best offensive numbers the past few seasons, paired with his poor defensive play, has put his NHL career in jeopardy.
While it is no guarantee he gets signed this summer, a team may be willing to take a flyer on him given the offensive success he had with the Blackhawks in 2018-19. He clearly has the skill to put up points and could be very beneficial to a team lacking a powerplay defenceman. Of course, they will have to put up with his play in his own end, but he would come cheap.
Another defenceman who has been on the move a lot in recent years and is still without a contract for 2021-22 is Erik Gudbranson. No teams fan base will be jumping for joy if they were to sign the 29-year-old, but that doesn’t mean he has no value. He is an extremely physical, in your face player who blocks plenty of shots and can play on the penalty kill.
This past season saw Gudbranson start the year off with the Ottawa Senators before being moved to the Nashville Predators. In total, he suited up for 45 games, recording four points and 59 penalty minutes. Like Demers, he shoots right handed and averaged over 17 minutes of ice time per game this season.
Gudbranson’s next contract, should he get one, will be significantly cheaper than the three-year, $12 million deal he is coming off of. He is a bottom pairing defenceman who could be used as a stop gap player on a short term deal for a team not wanting to rush some of its younger prospects and instead let them develop at the AHL level. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a situation similar to last season where he latches on with a struggling team like the Senators and once again gets flipped at the deadline to a contender.
Many were surprised this offseason when the Boston Bruins announced they had signed goaltender Linus Ullmark to a four-year, $20 million deal. To many, this meant the end for Tuukka Rask as a Bruin, however that may not be the case. The 34-year-old recently underwent hip surgery and is expected to miss a big chunk of the 2021-22 season, which is apparently the reason why general manager Don Sweeney felt the need to bring in Ullmark.
The Bruins have continuously said they will welcome Rask back to the team when he is healthy if he wishes to return, and Rask himself has said on many occasions he has zero desire to play in any other city than Boston. However, if Ullmark tears it up and Jeremy Swayman is fantastic as his backup, there simply may be no room for the 2013-14 Vezina Trophy winner.
If that situation were to unfold, it would mean Rask would have a decision to make; sign with a new team, or retire. The latter option would be very disappointing given that he is still very much an elite NHL netminder, and many teams would be lining up to try and lure him in. This will be an interesting situation to keep an eye on as the 2021-22 season goes on.
After being bought out by the New York Rangers after the 2019-20 season, Henrik Lundqvist was preparing for his first ever NHL season with a new team in the Washington Capitals. Unfortunately, those plans were derailed after he required open heart surgery, which caused him to miss the entire 2020-21 campaign.
The 39-year-old has yet to be medically cleared to play in NHL games, but is skating in hopes of soon getting the go ahead from doctors. If that is to happen, it will be interesting to see how much interest he receives, as he struggled in 2019-20 with a 3.16 goals against average (GAA) along with a .905 save percentage (SV%) in 30 games played.
According to Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, the team has checked in with him regularly to see where he is at in his recovery, making it appear that they have serious interest in bringing him back if he is good to go. Given his age along with the fact he missed an entire season, it is hard to have overly high expectations, but it is impossible to count out ‘The King’, who was regarded as one of the best goalies in the league for over a decade.
Back in 2014-15, Devan Dubnyk was awarded the Masterton Trophy after really turning his career around and establishing himself as a true number one goaltender. He went on to be the Minnesota Wild’s starting netminder for a number of years and was very solid during his time there. However, he struggled during his final season with them in 2019-20 and was traded to the San Jose Sharks as a result. Unfortunately, things haven’t gotten better for him since.
Both Dubnyk and his goaltending partner in Martin Jones really struggled during the 2020-21 campaign, albeit playing behind a weak roster. In 17 games with the Sharks, the now 35-year-old had an ugly 3.18 GAA and a .898 SV%. He was traded once again, this time to a much better team in the Colorado Avalanche. Still, the move didn’t help his numbers as he had an even worse 3.26 GAA along with a .886 SV% in five starts.
Given his age as well as his poor play the past two seasons, Dubnyk’s NHL future is very much up in the air. The good thing going for him is that there are not a ton of other goaltending options on the market, so a team in need of one may be willing to give him a cheap deal to see if he can turn things around like he was able to with the Wild in 2014-15. He will likely have to be patient and see where teams are at in terms of goaltending over the next couple months.
Many reading this will notice that a few pretty well known players are missing from this list in Kyle Palmieri, Zach Parise, Casey Cizikas, and Travis Zajac. While the four are all still technically UFAs, there have been reports from many highly credible insiders that the Islanders have signed and/or re-signed all four, but are keeping it under wraps in order to not let agents know how much cap space they have left for negotiating purposes.
There are still others as well who haven’t been mentioned in this article that are still waiting for teams to give them a call, and plenty of them will likely end up being able to get deals as we get closer to training camps starting up.
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