NHL Free Agents 2015: Players Whose Situations Have Improved the Most

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJuly 12, 2015

NHL Free Agents 2015: Players Whose Situations Have Improved the Most

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    The NHL's 2015 signing period for unrestricted free agency has not brought as much excitement as we've seen in past years.

    A lower-than-expected salary cap for next season has caused many of the league's general managers to squeeze their wallets a little tighter than usual. Also, with more and more players opting to re-sign with their current teams before they reach free agency, there weren't a lot of game-changers on the open market this summer.

    Nevertheless, unrestricted free agency gives players the opportunity to write their own tickets. They determine where they want to play and what they value most, whether it's a big salary, a long contract term, a no-trade clause or a specific fit with a particular team or location. Then, all they need to do is identify which club aligns most closely with those desires.

    Bearing all of those elements in mind, here's a look at the six players who have done the most to improve their overall situations for the 2015-16 season.

    What do you think? Which other players do you expect to shine next year?

6. Antti Niemi: Dallas Stars

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    Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Situation: Antti Niemi wrapped up a four-year deal with a cap hit of $3.8 million with the San Jose Sharks. Niemi's most successful year in San Jose was his first in 2010-11, when the Sharks made their second-straight trip to the Western Conference Final.

    New Situation: Niemi earned a tidy raise when he signed a new three-year contract with the Dallas Stars with a cap hit of $4.5 million per season, per ESPN.com. He's expected to share netminding duties in Dallas with fellow Finn Kari Lehtonen.

    Why He's Now in a Better Place: Though Niemi came to San Jose after winning a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, his play brought diminishing returns through his four years in the Bay Area. When he arrived, the Sharks were perennial Pacific Division champions. Year by year, they slid down the standings until they missed the playoffs entirely last season.

    In Dallas, he'll be part of an explosive team that ranked second in the NHL in scoring in 2014-15, but he needs to shore up its back end. A young defense is expected to take a step forward, while Niemi and Lehtonen will share the workload in a low-pressure situation.

    Despite a shaky record over the last couple of seasons, Niemi signed a lucrative deal in a new environment that should give him a chance to thrive.

5. Michael Frolik: Calgary Flames

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    Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Situation: Michael Frolik completed a one-year contract with Winnipeg Jets worth $3.3 million. Frolik was acquired by the Jets from the Chicago Blackhawks for two draft picks during the summer after the 'Hawks won the 2013 Stanley Cup.

    New Situation: After two straight 42-point seasons with the Jets, 27-year-old Frolik signed a five-year contract with a cap hit of $4.3 million with the Calgary Flames, according to ESPN.com.

    Why He's Now in a Better Place: Calgary's interest in Frolik might stem in part from the success the team enjoyed with its last major Czech free-agent signing. On a $4 million-a-year deal, Jiri Hudler has gotten better and better in each of his three seasons with the Flames and reached a career-high 76 points last season—ranking him eighth in NHL scoring.

    Frolik has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but he has good wheels and a slick touch with the puck. He's also versatile enough to play any forward position.

    The Flames are expected to use Frolik at right wing on their second line. On an explosive young team that features Frolik's countryman Hudler as its elder statesman up front, expect to see him flourish.

4. Andrej Sekera: Edmonton Oilers

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    Previous Situation: Andrej Sekera was acquired by the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline as he finished up a four-year contract with a cap hit of $2.75 million per season. The contract was signed with the Buffalo Sabres, who dealt Sekera to the Carolina Hurricanes during the summer of 2013.

    New Situation: After playing just 16 games with the Kings, which failed to make the playoffs, Sekera signed a six-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers with a cap hit of $5.5 million per season, according to ESPN.com. His deal includes a no-movement clause for the first four seasons, which changes to a modified no-trade clause in the last two years.

    Why He's Now in a Better Place: A relatively low-profile defenseman during his years in Buffalo and Carolina, Sekera became a hot commodity at the 2015 trade deadline as a reliable blueliner with some offensive talent.

    Sekera fit in well with the Los Angeles Kings but missed the last six games of the regular season with a lower-body injury.

    The cap-strapped Kings couldn't meet the market price to hang on to Sekera over the long term, so he doubled his previous salary by agreeing to sign with Edmonton. Sekera addresses a need on defense for the Oilers, which should be on the upswing thanks to new coach Todd McLellan and superstar prospect Connor McDavid.

3. Shawn Matthias: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Situation: Shawn Matthias completed a two-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks with a cap hit of $1.75 million per season. Matthias was acquired from the Florida Panthers at the 2014 trade deadline as part of a package in exchange for goaltender Roberto Luongo.

    New Situation: After scoring a career-high 18 goals and 27 points, Matthias signed a one-year deal worth $2.3 million with the Toronto Maple Leafs, per NHL.com.

    Why He's Now in a Better Place: Though Matthias wasn't able to parlay his best-ever season and unrestricted free agent status into a multiyear deal, he earned himself a tidy raise of more than 30 percent and a chance to play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs under new coach Mike Babcock.

    The two men briefly crossed paths nearly a decade ago: Babcock was head coach when Matthias was drafted 47th overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 2006. He was then traded to Florida in 2007 as part of the package for Todd Bertuzzi, while he was still in junior.

    Matthias' arrival is being heralded with enthusiasm by Toronto hockey writers like James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail, who sees a big forward with good hands who can play any position up front and on special teams.

    With a short term and an economical price tag, expectations shouldn't be overwhelming for Matthias. With a solid performance under the bright spotlight in Toronto, he should be able to convert his season into a fat, long-term deal next year.

2. Mike Ribeiro: Nashville Predators

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    John Russell/Getty Images

    Previous Situation: Mike Ribeiro completed a one-year contract with the Nashville Predators worth $1.05 million after being bought out of a five-year deal with a $5.5 million cap hit by the Arizona Coyotes.

    New Situation: After taking over Nashville's first-line center position and finishing second in team scoring with 62 points, Ribeiro signed a new three-year deal with the Predators with a cap hit of $3.5 million, according to USA Today.

    Why He's Now in a Better Place: He's in the same place, but Nashville has been an excellent landing spot for Ribeiro after an ugly departure from the desert last summer.

    Still facing a civil lawsuit from a former nanny whose sexual assault accusations are outlined by On the Forecheck, the Predators have stood by a player who vowed to turn his life around when he signed in Nashville.

    Ribeiro lived up to his word with an excellent first season. The positive situation that surrounds him should help him stay successful going forward.

1. Devan Dubnyk: Minnesota Wild

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    Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

    Previous Situation: Devan Dubnyk was traded to the Minnesota Wild at midseason after signing a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Arizona Coyotes in 2014-15.

    New Situation: Posting a 27-9-2 regular-season record and taking the Wild to the second round of the playoffs, Dubnyk has been rewarded with a new six-year contract in Minnesota, reported to be worth a total of $26 million, per ESPN.com.

    Why He's Now in a Better Place: Less than two years ago, Dubnyk lost his starting gig with the Oilers midway through the 2013-14 season. After shuffling through Nashville and Montreal, Dubnyk looked like he could be on his way out of the league before catching on with Arizona as a backup to Mike Smith, then parlaying that position into his role as savior in Minnesota.

    It'll be tough for Dubnyk to match his torrid play from the last half season for another six full years, but after a long stretch of goaltending turmoil in the Twin Cities, the Wild have found a netminder they want to commit to over the long term.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com. Contract information from GeneralFanager.com.

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