5 Underrated Players Available in 2022 NHL Free Agency

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2022

5 Underrated Players Available in 2022 NHL Free Agency

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    The 2022 NHL free-agent market opens at noon ET on July 13. Expect the usual bidding frenzy as general managers attempt to sign the top unrestricted free agents.

    A number of notable superstars such as Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron and Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau could become available. Other noteworthy names certain to garner interest include Nashville Predators winger Filip Forsberg, Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg and Florida Panthers center Claude Giroux.

    Overshadowed by those big names will be players whose underestimated talents could prove valuable for cap-strapped clubs or playoff contenders. A prime example is Florida Panthers forward Mason Marchment, whose size, energetic style and versatility would make him a useful spark-plug player on any club.

    Here's a look at five underrated players who should draw plenty of interest in this summer's free-agent market. As always, you can weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.

Ian Cole, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Teams in the market for an affordable and experienced depth defenseman could give consideration to Ian Cole. At 6'1" and 225 pounds, the 33-year-old blueliner remains an effective shutdown defenseman who uses his size well to kill penalties and clear traffic in front of his net.

    Averaging 17 minutes and nine seconds of ice time per game during the regular season, Cole was third among Carolina Hurricanes skaters in shorthanded ice time (2:30), proving his worth on the penalty kill. He was sixth in five-on-five puck possession among their players with 45-plus games played (57.7) and sat second in blocked shots with 104. He also tallied a respectable 19 points.

    A two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017, Cole has brought that experience to bear in the 2022 postseason. He's among Carolina's leaders with 22 blocked shots and sits second in shorthanded ice time (2:57) per game. Cole also tallied the game-winning goal in overtime against the New York Rangers in the opening game of their second-round series.

    Completing a one-year, $2.9 million contract, Cole has proven this season that he can still be an invaluable part of any team's defense corps. If the Hurricanes can't afford to re-sign him, he shouldn't have any difficulty landing with another playoff contender on a one- or two-year contract for roughly the same annual cap hit as his current deal.

Mason Marchment, Florida Panthers

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    After showing potential in his first full NHL campaign last season, Mason Marchment blossomed into a reliable checking forward with a decent scoring touch in 2021-22. With 47 points in 54 games, the 27-year-old left winger finished eighth among the high-scoring Florida Panthers.

    At 6'4" and 209 pounds, the 26-year-old Marchment is a physical, energetic two-way forward. Despite missing 28 games to injury and illness, he finished the regular season fifth among Panthers skaters with 114 hits. He can skate on either wing and is in the top 20 in points-per-game (0.87) among this summer's crop of unrestricted free agents.

    Marchment is one of those players whose aggressive style can provide his club with an emotional lift via a timely goal, big hit or break-up of an opponent's scoring opportunity. The downside is his physical play sometimes takes a toll on his own body, as he missed 17 games this season to an upper-body injury and was sidelined for the Panthers' second-round series by a lower-body injury.

    Completing a one-year, $800,000 contract, Marchment is in line for a substantial raise on a multiyear contract. He could be in line for a three-year deal worth as much as $3.5 million per season. If the Panthers can't squeeze him into their payroll for next season, he should attract interest from clubs seeking a versatile two-way forward.

Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    With $74.7 million invested in 17 players, the Toronto Maple Leafs have limited cap space for next season. Unless management can find a way to shed some salary, they could lose Ilya Mikheyev to this summer's free-agent market.

    Mikheyev, 27, enjoyed a career-best performance this season with 21 goals and 32 points in 53 games. Those numbers would've been higher had he not lost 29 games to a broken thumb. He's a solid two-way player whose ability to play on either wing should draw plenty of interest if he hits the open market.

    Despite playing third-line minutes this season, Mikheyev saw time on the Leafs' power-play and penalty-killing units. On May 8, the Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons praised Mikyehev's performance this season, calling him one of their most dangerous players on the rush and while playing shorthanded.

    Simmons believes Mikheyev could command between $3 million and $4 million on his next contract. That could prove too expensive for the Leafs, but not for clubs with the cap space and the willingness to invest in him. He'd be a solid, affordable addition to a playoff contender or a rebuilding club.

Nicholas Paul, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Acquired from the Ottawa Senators at this year's trade deadline, Nicholas Paul proved to be a solid addition for the Tampa Bay Lightning. After netting 11 goals and 18 points in 59 games with the Senators, the 27-year-old winger had 14 points in 21 regular-season contests with the Lightning and six points in 11 playoff games as of May 26.

    A big, adaptable forward, the 6'3", 225-pound Paul has seen action on the Lightning's top two lines in the postseason. He uses his size and reach well to strip opponents of the puck, and he is among the Lightning's leaders through the first two rounds of the 2022 playoffs with 29 hits,10 blocked shots and six takeaways.

    Paul also provided the Lightning with clutch scoring during Game 7 of their opening-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring both goals in the Bolts' 2-1 series-clincher. He leads their forwards in shorthanded ice time, averaging 3:38 per game.

    Pressed for salary-cap space next season, the Lightning may be unable to re-sign Paul. On March 20, the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reported he rejected a four-year, $10.4 million offer from the Senators. If he spurned $2.6 million annually from them, he could seek something between $3.5 million and $4 million on the open market.

Frank Vatrano, New York Rangers

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    After spending over four seasons with the Florida Panthers, Frank Vatrano was traded to the New York Rangers in a cost-cutting move on March 16. A pending unrestricted free agent, the adaptable 28-year-old fit well with his new club. After scoring 10 goals and 19 points in 49 regular-season games with the Panthers, he tallied eight goals and 13 points in 22 games as a Ranger.

    The 5'11", 197-pound Vatrano can play either wing and is capable of playing top-six minutes as well as logging checking-line duty. A 24-goal scorer in 2018-19, Vatrano followed that with 16 and 18 goals in two COVID-shortened seasons and another 18 this season.

    On April 26, the New York Post's Mollie Walker noted Vatrano has been the "ultimate complement" to Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on the Rangers' top line. Though he's moved up and down among their top three forward lines in the postseason, he had seven points in 11 playoff games heading into Thursday's Game 5 against the Carolina Hurricanes.

    Vatrano is completing a three-year contract with an annual average value of $2.5 million. His ability as a top-nine forward and his 20-goal potential should draw interest from clubs seeking affordable depth.


    Stats (as of May 26, 2022) via NHL.com. Salary info via Cap Friendly.