Ranking the 10 Best Potential Value Signings in the 2014 NHL Free-Agent Class
This year's NHL unrestricted free-agent market could be a busy one. Commencing July 1, several notable stars will become available to the highest bidder. Ryan Miller, Marian Gaborik, Thomas Vanek, Jarome Iginla, Paul Stastny and Andrei Markov highlight this summer's list of potential unrestricted free agents.
Adding to the anticipation of a frenzied bidding period is the projected rise in the salary cap. Currently at $64.3 million, The Sporting News' Sean Gentille (citing The New York Times' Jeff Z. Klein) reports NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently speculated the cap could reach $70 million for 2014-15. The increase will ensure the top free agents receive expensive new contracts.
Not every NHL team will succumb to auction fever for the best available stars. Some small-market, cost-conscious clubs simply can't afford to, while others prefer pursuing less-expensive options. This summer's free-agent bargain hunters will take into account factors such as age, skill level and current salary.
The following is a ranking of this summer's 10 pending unrestricted free agents with the best potential value.
10. Al Montoya
Current contract: One year, $601,000
Strengths: Montoya posted quality numbers this season with the Winnipeg Jets. In 28 games he had a record of 13-8-3, a 2.30 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage with two shutouts. He has good size (6'2”, 203 pounds) and handles the puck well.
Weaknesses: He's been a career backup, and at 29 years old, that's probably the most he'll ever be at the NHL level. Inconsistency plagued him throughout his career. His last two seasons with the Jets and New York Islanders saw him average a GAA near 3.00 and save percentages under .900.
Why he's a potential value signing: Montoya is a worthwhile option for team that is seeking an experienced, low-cost backup. The Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes and Calgary Flames could give him a look.
9. Steve Downie
Current contract: Two years, $5.3 million ($2.65 million annual cap hit)
Strengths: Known primarily for his aggressive physical play, Downie also has a decent scoring touch. While primarily a checking-line winger, he can fill in if required on the second line.
Weaknesses: His abrasive and undisciplined style results in bad penalties, including a 20-game suspension early in his career. Only 27, he's also paid a physical price, as injuries have frequently sidelined him.
Why he's a potential value signing: Despite his injury history and undisciplined play, Downie should interest clubs that are seeking a rugged forward who can play a regular shift. A two-year deal worth a reasonable $2 million per season is a possibility. If he can learn to control his emotions, he could become a more productive player.
8. Thomas Greiss
Current contract: One year, $750,000
Strengths: In 25 games this season, Greiss was 10-8-5 with a 2.29 GAA and .920 save percentage with two shutouts. He's proved to be a reliable backup with the Coyotes and earlier in his career with the San Jose Sharks.
Weaknesses: The 28-year-old German has yet to prove he's ready to become a full-time starting goalie. Though he played well while filling in for injured starter Mike Smith late in the season, he couldn't carry Phoenix into a playoff berth.
Why he's a potential value signing: The Arizona Republic's Sarah McLellan recently reported Greiss still hopes to become an NHL starter. He won't get that opportunity with the Coyotes, but perhaps the Calgary Flames or New York Islanders might give him a chance. He'll likely double his annual salary ($1.5 million) on a two-year deal. That could be a steal if he elevates his game.
7. Benoit Pouliot
Current contract: One year, $1.3 million
Strengths: Once touted as a potential scoring star, Pouliot resurrected his career with the Rangers this season as a checking forward. The 27-year-old winger tallied 15 goals while setting career highs in assists (21) and points (36). He was also fourth on the Rangers in blocked shots (141).
Weaknesses: Tall and wiry (6'3”, 197 pounds), Pouliot isn't a physical player. Consistency and undisciplined play plagued his career prior to joining the Rangers. That could remain a concern if he enters this summer's free-agent market.
Why he's a potential value signing: Having garnered a good reputation this season as a third-line winger, Pouliot should be an economical addition for clubs that lack skilled checking-line depth. He could land a two- or three-year deal worth around $2 million annually. If the Rangers fail to re-sign him, he could land in Edmonton, Toronto or Washington.
6. Chad Johnson
Current contract: One year, $600,000
Strengths: In 27 games as Tuukka Rask's backup, Johnson had a 17-4-3 record, a 2.10 GAA and a .925 save percentage with two shutouts. The 27-year-old possesses good size (6'3", 205 pounds) between the pipes.
Weaknesses: Johnson has only seen backup duty in his brief NHL career (37 games over four seasons with Boston, Phoenix and the New York Rangers). He recently told the Boston Herald's Stephen Harris his goal is to become a starting goaltender. It remains to be seen if he's truly up to that challenge.
Why he's a potential value signing: Teams that are seeking affordable goaltending depth will pursue Johnson this summer. They'll remember Anton Khudobin, who was Rask's backup last season, signed with the Carolina Hurricanes and unseated Cam Ward as their starting goalie. The New York Islanders and Winnipeg Jets might gamble on Johnson becoming the steal of this summer's free-agent market. He could receive a one- or two-year deal worth up to $2 million per season.
5. Anton Stralman
Current contract: Two years, $3.4 million ($1.7 million annual cap hit)
Strengths: Stralman possesses a strong, accurate shot along with decent puck-moving skills. He also improved his defensive play during his tenure with the Rangers. He's become a good second-pairing blueliner.
Weaknesses: The 27-year-old blueliner lacks the size (5'11, 190 pounds) to effectively contain larger forwards. He can't log big minutes, averaging 19 minutes, 24 seconds per game.
Why he's a potential value signing: Stralman could be a good addition for clubs that lack skilled, affordable blue-line depth. The Florida Panthers and New York Islanders could be among his suitors. The New York Daily News' Pat Leonard reported Stralman's agent denied a rumor his client spurned a three-year, $3 million per season offer from the Rangers.
4. Ron Hainsey
Current contract: One year, $2 million
Strengths: While no longer a top-two blueliner, Hainsey is effective on the second defensive pairing. He can play either defense position and still logs good minutes, averaging 21:26 this season with Carolina. He continues to be responsible in his own zone. He was second on the Hurricanes in blocked shots (124) and even-strength ice time (18:45) and third in short-handed ice time (2.03).
Weaknesses: Despite a sizable frame (6'3”, 210 pounds), Hainsey is not very physical. Now 33 years old, he's no longer as effective as a puck-moving blueliner as he was earlier in his career.
Why he's a potential value signing: Hainsey brings considerable experience to clubs in need of defensive depth. As long as the expectations are realistic, he should be a reliable acquisition. A two- to three-year deal worth around $3 million per season wouldn't be unreasonable for a veteran defenseman of his skills.
3. Matt Moulson
Current contract: Three years, $9.4 million ($3.133 million annual cap hit)
Strengths: Moulson is a consistently effective sniper. He exceeded the 30-goal mark three times between 2009-10 and 2011-12. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he had 44 points in 47 games. Despite bouncing among the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and Minnesota Wild, he still scored 23 goals and 51 points this season.
Weaknesses: Though Moulson has decent size (6'1", 200 pounds), he is not a physical player. Considered primarily an offensive winger, he's not a fast skater and has limited playoff experience.
Why he's a potential value signing: Given his regular-season consistency, Moulson should be a reasonably affordable addition for clubs that lack scoring punch. He could land a deal up to five years in duration and worth around $4.5 million per season. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch speculates the Florida Panthers could target the 30-year-old winger. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jeff Gordon suggested the Columbus Blue Jackets as a possible destination.
2. Jussi Jokinen
Current contract: Three years, $9 million ($3 million annual cap hit)
Strengths: Jokinen is a skilled forward who excels in shootouts and can play all three forward positions. He exceeded the 40-point mark seven times since 2005-06, including 57 points this season. He's effective in the faceoff circle, winning more than 53 percent of his draws. He plays a solid defensive game.
Weaknesses: The 5'11", 198-pound Jokinen lacks a physical presence. He can also be a streaky scorer. Despite his wizardry in shootouts, he's more of a playmaker. He's had trouble sticking with one team. The Penguins are his fourth club in nine seasons.
Why he's a potential value signing: Jokinen could attract offers worth up to $4.5 million on the open market. That's a fair price for a versatile, 31-year-old two-way forward. Last month the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Josh Yohe reported Jokinen hoped to remain in Pittsburgh. "You know, I really do like it here," he told Yohe. "I like everything about this place." Perhaps he'll consider a hometown discount to remain with the Penguins.
1. Radim Vrbata
Current contract: Three years, $9 million ($3 million annual cap hit)
Strengths: Vrbata is a skilled, swift top-six winger. He's been consistent offensively, exceeding the 40-point plateau six times over the past seven seasons. He also possesses decent penalty-killing skills. He finished second in scoring this season with the Coyotes (51 points) and led them in shots (263).
Weaknesses: The 6'1”, 194-pound Vrbata doesn't play a physical style. Though he can contribute on the penalty kill, he's more of an offensive player.
Why he's a potential value signing: Despite his age (32), Vrbata turned in another solid performance this season. After earning $3 million per season over the past six seasons, he could attract offers up to $4.5 million per season on a three- or four-year contract. He would be a worthwhile option for clubs that are seeking a reliable top-six winger. Possible destinations include Nashville, New Jersey, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.
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