Ranking the Biggest 'Buyer-Beware' Free Agents in the NHL

Lyle RichardsonFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2016

Ranking the Biggest 'Buyer-Beware' Free Agents in the NHL

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    This year's NHL unrestricted free-agent pool is a deep one, with a number of quality players potentially available on July 1. Some, such as New York Rangers center Eric Staal (pictured above), are in the category of "buyer beware." 

    Like Staal, several of this summer's free agents are notable stars whose best seasons are behind them. Some, such as Los Angeles Kings left winger Milan Lucic, could be approaching their declining years. Others, such as Anaheim Ducks left winger David Perron, could seek new deals worth more than their actual on-ice value.

    The following slideshow ranks this year's biggest "buyer-beware" NHL free agents. Current contracts, career accomplishments and performance factored in this compilation. As always, you can voice your views in the comments section below.

10. Kris Russell, Dallas Stars

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    The Dallas Stars acquired defenseman Kris Russell from the Calgary Flames at the Feb. 29 trade deadline. Since 2013-14, the 28-year-old has established himself among the league's best shot-blocking defensemen. He's also a good skater with strong puck-moving skills. 

    Russell's completing an affordable two-year deal worth $2.6 million per season. Given his shot-blocking skills, he could seek a significant raise on a lengthy new contract. 

    Russell's strength, however, could also be a weakness. Throwing his body in front of shots could eventually take a physical toll, limiting his effectiveness. Teams should be careful not to spend too much on him for too long.

9. Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Cam Ward established himself as the Carolina Hurricanes' starting goalie by carrying them to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006. Three straight 30-plus win performances from 2006-07 to 2008-09 earned him a six-year, $37.8 million contract

    Since his last 30-win season in 2011-12, Ward has been hampered by injuries and inconsistent play. Despite nearly a decade of NHL experience, the 32-year-old is no longer a reliable starting goaltender.

    Teams seeking a starter via free agency could assume Ward's performance might improve on a different team His recent record, however, suggests he's not worth the risk. Unless Ward is willing to accept a back-up role on an inexpensive short-term deal, clubs should look elsewhere for a skilled starting netminder. 

8. David Perron, Anaheim Ducks

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Anaheim Ducks left wing David Perron is versatile and creative. In his eight NHL seasons, the 27-year-old has five seasons with at least 40 points. Dealt to the Ducks earlier this season by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Perron has 20 points in 28 games. 

    Injuries, however, have dogged Perron throughout his NHL career. Being frequently sidelined has limited his effectiveness as a top-six forward. Though he's only 27 and completing an affordable four-year, $15.25 million contract, his injury history makes him too risky to consider for a long-term deal. 

    Should Perron be open to a one- or two-year contract for less than his current annual salary-cap hit ($3.812 million), he could be worth the gamble. But if he's seeking a significant raise on a lengthy new deal, general managers should consider more affordable and healthier options. 

7. Dan Hamhuis, Vancouver Canucks

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Since making his NHL debut in 2003-04, Dan Hamhuis has garnered a reputation as a reliable, big-minute defenseman. Joining the Vancouver Canucks in 2010, he's been an invaluable part of their blue-line corps. 

    Over the last three years, however, age and injuries have taken a toll. Hamhuis played only 59 games in 2014-15 and missed 21 games this season with a facial injury. The 33-year-old is no longer an effective top-two blueliner but could be beneficial playing fewer minutes in a second-pairing role.

    If Hamhuis hits the open market in July, he could be of interest to clubs seeking a tutor for a promising young defenseman. He's coming off a six-year contract with an average cap hit of $4.5 million. Given his age and declining skills, teams should be leery if he seeks more than two years for over $4 million annually.

6. Mikkel Boedker, Colorado Avalanche

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Before left wing Mikkel Boedker was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche at this year's trade deadline, he spent nearly eight seasons with the Arizona Coyotes. During that tenure, he developed into a swift and versatile two-way winger.

    Despite his speed and skills, the 26-year-old Boedker has yet to reach his full potential. He showed signs of doing so with a 51-point effort in 2013-14. Boedker got off to a good start this season but his production tailed off in his final weeks with the Coyotes. His numbers picked up following the trade to the Avalanche, netting eight points in 11 games. 

    Boedker's finishing up a one-year, $3.75 million contract. Given his age and offensive potential, he'll likely seek a lucrative long-term deal. That could be a risky investment for clubs looking for a reliable top-six winger. 

5. James Reimer, San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Throughout his NHL career (almost all of it spent with the Toronto Maple Leafs), San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer showed promise as a starter. Despite being sidelined for several weeks by injury, the 28-year-old is enjoying his best season since 2012-13.

    Two days before the Feb. 29 trade deadline, the Sharks acquired Reimer as a backup for starting netminder Martin Jones. The former Leaf man's tenure with the Sharks could be short. Coming off a two-year, $4.6 million contract, he could pursue a lucrative, long-term contract with a club willing to give him a shot as a starting goalie. 

    But does Reimer have what it takes to fulfill that role? He showed he has the capability in spurts with the Leafs, but he's yet to establish himself as a reliable starter. He still needs to prove he can comfortably handle a heavier workload. Reimer could be worth the gamble on an affordable short-term deal. 

4. Jiri Hudler, Florida Panthers

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Prior to being shipped to the Florida Panthers days before this year's trade deadline, right wing Jiri Hudler spent nearly four seasons with the Calgary Flames. He enjoyed a career-best 76-point campaign in 2014-15, earning the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.

    The 32-year-old Hudler is on pace this season for under 50 points, well below last season's stellar numbers. Though he has four 50-plus point seasons on his resume, his current numbers suggest he's a forward in decline.

    Should Hudler test the free-agent market, he could be enticing for teams in need of depth on the wings. General managers should avoid anything that's longer and more expensive than his existing four-year, $16 million contract.  At this stage in his career, it could be unrealistic to expect more 50-point seasons from him.

3. David Backes, St. Louis Blues

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    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    In his 10 NHL seasons, St. Louis Blues center and captain David Backes has proved himself as a reliable two-way forward and team leader. As he finishes his five-year, $22.5 million contract, Backes faces the challenge of leading his underachieving club on a Stanley Cup run this season. 

    There are some concerns about Backes in his contract year. He turns 32 on May 1 and at the point of his career when player performance usually declines. Indeed, his offensive stats this term (19 goals and 40 points) are below last season's 58-point performance. If the Blues once again fall short in the playoffs, his leadership could be called into question. 

    On Jan. 24, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jeremy Rutherford reported Backes rejected a three-year offer from the Blues worth $5.5 million per season. If he's seeking a longer term for more money elsewhere via free agency, rival clubs would be wise to pass.

2. Milan Lucic, Los Angeles Kings

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Kings left wing Milan Lucic is among the NHL's top power forwards. Dealt to the Kings last summer from the Boston Bruins, the 6'3", 233-pounder made a smooth transition into their lineup. During a March 8 appearance on TSN's Insider Trading, ESPN's Pierre LeBrun (h/t the Score's Craig Hagerman) reported Lucic and the Kings were in the early stages of contract negotiations. 

    The 27-year-old Lucic is completing a three-year, $18 million contract. He could seek a long-term deal worth over $7 million per season. If he and the cap-strapped Kings can't reach a deal, he won't lack for suitors via free agency. 

    Lucic's physical style of play, however, could take a toll on his performance in the coming years. Though he could reach 20 goals and 50 points this season, those stats are below his career-best 30-goal, 62-point campaign of 2011-12. Any club paying big bucks for Lucic on a lengthy contract could have a steadily declining asset on their hands. 

1. Eric Staal, New York Rangers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Before center Eric Staal was shipped to the New York Rangers before this year's trade deadline, he spent nearly 12 seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. In eight seasons between 2005-06 to 2014-15, he was their leading scorer. He reached or exceeded 70 points seven times.

    Staal's stellar play earned him a seven-year, $57.75 million contract. Since 2013-14, however, his stats haven't measured up to his $8.25 million annual cap hit. Indeed, they've steadily declined. His numbers have shown no improvement following his trade to the Rangers.

    Only 31, Staal's best seasons are well behind him. Given his star power and previous accomplishments, there could be some general managers willing to gamble on him. That could be a big mistake, especially if they're willing to offer up an expensive long-term deal. 

     

    Player stats via NHL.com. Salary info via Cap Friendly.