The NHL free-agency period opened two weeks ago, and marquee names such as Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Martin Brodeur have either moved on to new destinations or re-signed with their 2011-12 team.
However, in all of this, AHL players tend to get overlooked or ignored altogether until later in free agency. These players are AHL journeymen or can put up big numbers in the minors and play efficiently when the NHL comes knocking.
Here are 10 of the best players from the past AHL season that are still looking for new homes or hoping to return to their team for 2012-13.
10. Nathan Lawson, Goaltender, Hamilton Bulldogs: Lawson spent three years with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers prior to joining the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate this year. While with the New York Islanders organization, Lawson had three winning seasons and was called up to the Islanders in 2010-11 when the team had a rash of goaltending injuries. In 10 games, he went 1-4-2 with a .893 save percentage and a 4.06 GAA.
He continued his winning ways with the Bulldogs this year with a 19-17-4 record to go with a .914 save percentage and 2.57 GAA in 44 games. He has never had a save percentage lower than .913, and at 29 years old, he will be serviceable to any AHL team looking for a solid starting netminder.
9. Scott Munroe, Goaltender, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins: Munroe signed with the Baby Penguins after spending the 2010-11 season in the KHL. At times this year, he outplayed Penguins goaltending prospect Brad Thiessen, going 19-10-3 and posting a 2.52 GAA and .907 save percentage.
Munroe, like Nathan Lawson, is capable of consistent winning seasons. He is also an AHL veteran, having also played for the Sound Tigers and the Philadelphia Phantoms. He is 30 years old and has plenty of good goaltending left in him.
8. Alexandre Picard, Defenseman, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins: Picard was second among Penguins defensemen in scoring this year with 21 points and also had a plus-10 rating. He spent most of his prior AHL career with the now-defunct Philadelphia Phantoms and is good for 20-30 points in a typical AHL season.
Picard also boasts over 200 games of NHL experience and has played notable stints in the big leagues with the Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens. This season, he played 17 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins and had four assists.
While Picard will be a help to any AHL team looking to improve its defense, don’t be surprised if he makes a big club right out of camp.
7. Mark Parrish, Right Wing, Binghamton Senators: Parrish has played in over 700 NHL games, mostly with the Islanders, Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild. He has been in the AHL the last two seasons and had 30 points in 51 games with Binghamton. This was a significant dropoff from his 2010-11 campaign, when he had 51 points in 56 games with the Portland Pirates.
Parrish is 35 years old and running out of time on his career, but most AHL teams love to have a veteran player. He won’t go unsigned for too long into the summer.
6. Mike Zigomanis, Center, Toronto Marlies: Zigomanis has played over 200 NHL games with the Carolina Hurricanes, Phoenix Coyotes and the Penguins. However, he has been stuck in the AHL for the last two years, save an eight-game stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010-11.
That said, he has been a key part of the Marlies offense. After posting 47 points in 64 games in 2010-11, he improved to 61 points in 68 games in 2011-12. He also had six points in 13 playoff games as the Marlies went to the Calder Cup Finals.
Zigomanis’ demotion from the NHL has not had a negative effect on his game, and a team looking for offense will have no problem giving him a home.
5. Denis Hamel, Left Wing, Adirondack Phantoms: Hamel, a three-time AHL All-Star, has spent the last two seasons with the struggling Adirondack Phantoms. He had 50 points in 66 games in 2010-11 but dropped to 46 points in 74 games this past season. Overall, he has put up at least 50 points in four of the last five seasons.
Hamel also has 192 games of NHL experience, mostly with the Senators and the Buffalo Sabres. However, he is 35 years old and likely approaching the end of his career. But, he can still produce and provide leadership in the locker room.
4. Jonathan Cheechoo, Right Wing, Peoria Rivermen: Cheechoo was sent down by the Senators in the 2009-10 season and has been in the AHL ever since. He was named to the AHL All-Star Game in 2011 (but did not play) after tallying 47 points in with the Worcester Sharks. This year, he improved to 56 points in 70 games with Peoria.
Cheechoo’s story of being sent back to the AHL after a strong start to his NHL career is one of the most known in recent history. He seems to be back on his game and has likely earned himself another two-way deal like the one he had this year with the St. Louis Blues.
3. Graham Mink, Right Wing, Hershey Bears: While Mink is mostly known for winning two Calder Cups with Hershey (2006 and 2009), he is also an AHL journeyman who has played for the Worcester Sharks, Rochester Americans and Peoria Rivermen. He played for Worcester from 2006-2008 before returning to Hershey for 2008-09, then played for Rochester (2009-10) and Peoria (2010-11) before once again coming back to the Bears this season.
Mink had 42 points in 48 games with Hershey this season. At 33 years old, he can still add to an offense, but may get an AHL-only deal, as he has just played seven career NHL games with the Washington Capitals. However, if the Bears don’t re-sign him, he will be a hot commodity on the market.
2. Bryan Helmer, Defenseman, Oklahoma City Barons: Helmer was the Hershey Bears’ captain during the team’s back-to-back Calder Cup seasons in 2009 and 2010. An AHL journeyman himself, Helmer has also spent significant time with the former Worcester Ice Cats, the Grand Rapids Griffins and the San Antonio Rampage.
He has been with the Barons the last two years. After putting up 25 points in 42 games in 2011, he stayed steady this year with 24 points in 64 games and had three points in 14 playoff games as Oklahoma City went to the Western Conference Finals.
Helmer has played over 1,000 AHL games and is the league’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen with 562 career points. He will turn 40 this month, and whoever lands him in free agency will have won one of the AHL’s biggest prizes outside of the Calder Cup.
In fact, he’d be No. 1 on this list if not for one of his former Hershey teammates…
1. Keith Aucoin, Center, Hershey Bears: Aucoin is a veteran of over 600 AHL games, largely playing with the former Lowell Lock Monsters and Albany River Rats teams before joining the Bears in 2008-09. He was a large part of Hershey’s 2009 and 2010 championship squads and was named the AHL MVP in 2010 after posting 106 points in 72 games.
In addition to being a Calder Cup champion, Aucoin is also a three-time AHL All-Star and has 102 NHL games to his credit. In fact, he finished this season with the Capitals and had 11 points in 27 games. He also had two points in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Prior to his call-up, he had 70 points in 43 games with the Bears.
Aucoin is by far the best AHL player still available. It would be hard to imagine Bears hockey without him, but the team that signs him will have no doubt it is getting a bona-fide star player.