NHL Free Agency 2013: The Most Underrated Signings
The first stage of the NHL's free-agency period has produced several smart signings that may not grab the attention of hockey fans right now, but they will soon learn why these moves will add valuable skill and depth to their favorite team.
One of the challenges for general managers during the salary cap era is to find underrated players and sign them to team-friendly deals. Star and second-tier players normally make up most of a club's salary cap payroll, which is why filling out the roster with sufficient talent is often difficult.
As the two Stanley Cup finalists (Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins) proved last season, winning a championship requires the proper amount of depth and experience.
Let's take a look at the most underrated signings of the free-agency period thus far.
Nashville Predators: Eric Nystrom
The Nashville Predators got tougher and more skilled on Day 1 of free agency by signing a number of depth forwards, headlined by the addition of former Dallas Stars winger Eric Nystrom.
According to TSN, he signed a four-year contract worth an average of $2.5 million per season.
The 30-year-old is a perfect fit in head coach Barry Trotz's defensive style of hockey with his impressive two-way game, ability to kill penalties and willingness to block shots.
Nystrom led all Stars forwards with 122 hits last year while ranking fourth among the team's forwards with 26 blocked shots. He also had 19 takeaways.
In addition to his defensive skills, the veteran winger is capable of providing a Predators offense that ranked 30th in goals scored last season with some much-needed bottom-six production. He scored seven goals in 48 games last year following a career-high 16 goals during the 2011-12 season. He fights for loose pucks along the boards and will go hard to the net to score the dirty goals.
Nashville's signing of Nystrom is a positive step forward as the team attempts to get back to the playoffs after a disappointing 2013 season.
Minnesota Wild: Matt Cooke
Matt Cooke is not a popular player in many NHL cities because of the suspensions he's earned with some brutal hits, but to his credit, the veteran winger has not been suspended over the last two seasons.
He's made an effort to become a better player, and it resulted in him playing a key role on the Pittsburgh Penguins as a great penalty killer and someone who provides valuable bottom-six scoring.
These are the roles he will be expected to play on the Minnesota Wild for the next three years after signing a contract worth a total of $7.5 million, per TSN's Pierre LeBrun.
The Wild finished 18th in penalty killing last season and needed to improve in this area to take the next step as a playoff contender. Not only will Cooke impact special teams, he also makes the Wild a grittier and tougher team to play against, which was a criticism of the club last year. Cooke finished fourth among Penguins forwards with 97 hits and first with 41 blocked shots in the 2013 season.
If he scores anywhere from 10-20 goals and continues to impact games physically in an agitator role, Cooke will be a valuable part of the Wild's success in 2013-14.
New York Rangers: Benoit Pouliot
The New York Rangers have just $11,255,833 in salary cap space with star defenseman Ryan McDonagh and No. 1 center Derek Stepan to re-sign as restricted free agents. The team also has several important players to extend before next summer, including captain Ryan Callahan and starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
This made general manager Glen Sather's challenge of improving his roster with UFAs a difficult one. But he made a fantastic signing on Friday with the addition of 26-year-old winger Benoit Pouliot on a one-year deal worth just $1.3 million, per Renaud Lavoie of RDS.
Pouliot, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft, will bring more skill, size, speed and depth to a Rangers team that struggled to get consistent bottom-six scoring last season. He tallied 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 34 games last season, setting a career high with a 0.58 points-per-game average. He's also averaged 18 goals per 82 games over the last four years.
In a non-lockout season with talent around him in New York, Pouliot should be able to put up 30-45 points as a third-line winger capable of logging 12-16 minutes per game. He will definitely benefit from head coach Alain Vigneault's style of play.
Edmonton Oilers: Boyd Gordon
The Edmonton Oilers added some grit and important bottom-six skill on Friday by signing former Phoenix Coyotes forward Boyd Gordon to a three-year deal worth $3 million per season, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie.
The biggest impact that Gordon will have on the Oilers is his ability to win faceoffs. He was among the league leaders with a 57.3 percent success rate in the faceoff dot last year, including 452 faceoff wins.
Of the five forwards who took 200 or more draws for Edmonton in 2013, only one won more than 50 percent of their faceoffs—Eric Belanger—and he is a UFA.
The Oilers finished 30th in the faceoff circle last season, which makes the signing of Gordon a very important one.
In addition to the faceoff skill he brings to the Oilers, Gordon will also provide leadership and some bottom-six scoring (15-25 points) to the lineup.
Carolina Hurricanes: Anton Khudobin
The Carolina Hurricanes fell apart last season when they had to turn to backup goaltenders Dan Ellis and Justin Peters after starter Cam Ward was lost for the year with an injury in early March.
After the Hurricanes lost Ward, they won just seven of their last 27 games. Peters and Ellis finished the season with a combined 10-19-3 record, a 3.30 GAA and a .898 save percentage.
General manager Jim Rutherford made sure this wouldn't happen next year by signing former Boston Bruins backup goaltender Anton Khudobin to a one-year contract worth $800,000 on Friday, per Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News and Observer.
When asked about Khudobin, Rutherford said, "We didn't see him have a bad game this year."
That's a pretty fair assessment of the 27-year-old netminder, who finished 2013 with an impressive 9-4-1 record, a .920 save percentage and a 2.32 GAA in 14 games played for the Bruins. He also allowed two goals or fewer in eight of his 14 starts.
Khudobin has the talent of a No. 1 goalie and he's ready for this type of role. He has good athleticism, doesn't allow bad goals to bother him and rarely makes mistakes handling the puck or being out of position.
Ward is the starter in Carolina, but if he struggles or suffers another injury, head coach Kirk Muller will be able to turn to Khudobin and be confident that his team will win games consistently.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.