Hockey fans, by and large, are focused on one thing right now — the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Everybody is captivated by which team will hoist hockey’s holy grail. It takes precedence every spring and garners more attention with each passing round, culminating when the calendar flips to June. It is what the men on the ice play for and what those behind the scenes build toward. So it is easy to get caught up in the Cup hype, then — once it is handed out — play catch up on all the other headlines pertaining to the upcoming NHL draft and looming free agency.
Only the hardcore fans — and those of non-playoff teams — are keeping tabs on the daily transactions, be it prospect signings or European additions. These tend to fly under the radar and often get lost in the off-season shuffle.
Since the end of the regular season, there have already been a handful of free-agent signings worth knowing about — especially if you’re a fantasy player in a keeper league with a rookie draft coming up. Here are five names you’ll want to remember:
Artemi Panarin (F Chicago)
With the Blackhawks busy battling for another Cup — which would be their third in six years — their general manager Stan Bowman has been getting a jump on next season. He inked this 23-year-old Russian to a two-year entry-level deal on April 30th, the day before Chicago opened its second-round series against Minnesota.
Panarin appears to be a late-bloomer, having went undrafted before tearing up the KHL the last two seasons. He’s coming off a whale of a year, capturing a league championship as Ilya Kovalchuk’s teammate with SKA St. Petersburg. Panarin tallied 26 goals and 62 points in 54 regular-season games — ranking 4th among KHL scoring leaders — followed by 5 goals and 20 points in 20 playoff games. From there, he represented Russia at the recent world championship, settling for silver but playing a key role in recording 5 goals and 10 points in 10 games to finish tied for third in team scoring and 12th among tournament leaders. He previously won gold with Russia at the 2011 world juniors.
This guy could be next year’s Jori Lehtera, who came over from the KHL and made an immediate impact for the St. Louis Blues. Unlike Lehtera, who was turning 27 and too old to be eligible for the Calder Trophy, Panarin could be in the running for rookie of the year as a dark-horse behind the likes of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel — the projected top two picks in next month’s NHL draft. Consider Panarin a sleeper pick for your fantasy drafts as well.
Panarin could also be Patrick Sharp’s replacement among Chicago’s top-six forwards, with Sharp potentially being shopped on the trade block this summer because of the cap crunch facing the Blackhawks once new contracts kick in for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
For more on Panarin, including a scouting report on his skill-set, check out this feature by THW colleague Kyle Morton.
Andrew Hammond and Matt O’Connor (G Ottawa)
The Senators have locked up their Hamburglar, along with a Big Mac. Make it a double quarter-pounder with cheese, please. Too cheesy? In all seriousness, the potential is limitless with these two in the fold. But Ottawa now has a log-jam between the pipes with three goaltenders on one-way contracts — plus O’Connor, Chris Driedger and Marcus Hogberg as prospects in the system — so expect the Senators to move Robin Lehner or potentially Craig Anderson this off-season.
Hammond, who carried Ottawa to an improbable playoff spot with an incredible second-half run but was slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, inked a three-year extension worth $4.05 million on Wednesday. He’s likely penciled in as Anderson’s backup — or platoon partner — to start next season.
O’Connor, a college sensation who backstopped Eichel’s team (Boston University) to the NCAA championship game, signed a two-year entry-level contract on May 9 after entertaining offers from several NHL teams, including Vancouver, Edmonton and the New York Rangers. He’s another late-bloomer, hailing from Toronto but going undrafted through junior before reaching another level in the college ranks. O’Connor’s size (6-foot-5) and numbers this past season (.927 save percentage) make him an intriguing prospect, but he’s projected to start his pro career with the Baby Sens (AHL Binghampton), so he’ll need to bide his time and won’t likely make an immediate impact for your fantasy team.
As for the Hamburglar, he may or may not be a flash in the pan, but he’s hot off the grill coming into next season.
Steve Moses (F Nashville)
The next Tyler Johnson? Unlikely, but this undrafted 5-foot-9 dynamo did lead the KHL with 36 goals ahead of former fringe NHLers Nigel Dawes (32) and Stephane Da Costa (30). Moses, who will turn 26 years old in August, added 21 assists for 57 points in 60 games with Finland-based Jokerit, finishing top 10 in overall offensive production and garnering significant interest back in North America.
Nashville signed Moses to a 1-year, $1-million contract on April 9 in hopes that scoring ability can accompany him across the pond. The Predators rolled the dice on Swiss forward Simon Moser in similar fashion this past season, inking that undrafted 26-year-old to a 1-year deal that produced underwhelming results. Moser only suited up for 6 NHL games, tallying 2 points (1 goal, 1 assist), while adding 26 points (8g, 18a) in 48 AHL games.
Expectations will be presumably higher for Moses, who played for the bronze-medalist Team USA at the recent world championship, picking up 2 points (1 g, 1a) in 7 tournament games.
Joonas Donskoi (F San Jose)
The Sharks have a knack for finding diamonds in the rough and they might have unearthed another in this former Florida Panthers draft pick (4th rounder in 2010). This signing, which was finalized on May 18, is eerily similar to last year’s unheralded addition of Melker Karlsson, who exceeded all expectations by winding up on San Jose’s top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski and producing 24 points (13g, 11a) in 53 games as a rookie.
Like Karlsson, now 24, Donskoi is 23 years old and appears to be just hitting his stride. He was a point-per-game player for Finland at the world championship — leading the team with 5 goals and finishing third with 8 points in 8 games — and is coming off a stellar season with Karpat in the Finnish league. Donskoi put up 49 points (19g, 30a) in 58 regular-season games followed by 22 points (6g, 16a) in 19 playoff games.
There is no guarantee that success will translate to North America, but given the Sharks’ track record for scouting these kind of talents, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Donskoi crack the roster and be a decent contributor over the course of this two-year deal.
Jakub Nakladal and Kenney Morrison (D Calgary)
Another double whammy here, as the Flames landed two solid pro-ready defencemen as free-agents to beat the off-season rush. Nakladal was a standout for the Czech Republic at the world championship — 5 assists in 10 games — and fielded offers from a handful of NHL teams before signing a one-year deal with Calgary on Tuesday. It’s a two-way contract for the 27-year-old, but the Flames see good upside in the 6-foot-2 rearguard. Consider this a low-risk, potentially high-reward signing.
It is much the same for Morrison, a 23-year-old from Lloydminster, Alta., who signed a two-year entry-level contract on March 19. A product of Western Michigan University, Morrison got off to a hot start in the AHL after joining the Adirondack Flames on an amateur tryout basis following his NCAA season. Also 6-foot-2, Morrison debuted with a 3-point performance and finished with 6 points (2g, 4a) in just 10 games for the farm club. Morrison has drawn some favourable comparisons to Christian Folin of the Minnesota Wild, another NCAA free-agent signing from a year ago who played 40 NHL games as a rookie.
Both Nakladal and Morrison will be in the mix for jobs in Calgary, but the Flames already have an impressive defence corps and other youngsters such as 22-year-old Tyler Wotherspoon, who got some NHL playoff experience this spring. So it remains to be seen what roles might be available for these newcomers.
Evan Rodrigues (F Buffalo) — Eichel’s linemate at Boston University and soon-to-be teammate with the Sabres, Rodrigues is an undrafted, slightly undersized forward from Etobicoke, Ont., who turns 22 in July. His 61 points (21g, 40a) were second only to Eichel’s 71 (26g, 45a), but Rodrigues was probably riding coattails a bit to reach those totals. Rodrigues is also likely to start his pro career in the minors, but if those two are eventually reunited in Buffalo, Rodrigues could again become a big point producer.
Casey Bailey and Nikita Soshnikov (F Toronto) — Bailey, 23, already debuted for the Leafs and looked decent in that 6-game stint, which included scoring his first NHL goal. He had 40 points (22 g, 18 a) in 36 regular-season games with Penn State University prior to turning pro, so he’s got some scoring upside. As does Soshnikov, 21, who had the third highest point total (32) among all KHL skaters under the age of 23. He led his Moscow Oblast Atlant team with 14 even-strength goals and ranking second with 139 shots. Soshnikov also has some feistiness to his game, a bit like Leo Komarov, so it’ll be interesting to see how he develops over this 3-year contract.
Markus Hannikainen (F Columbus) — Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen knows his Europeans and especially his Finns, so it’s noteworthy whenever he signs one of them. Hannikainen, 22, tallied 46 points (19g, 27a) in 60 SM-liiga games and added 5 points (2g, 3a) in 4 playoff games. He finished second on his team in goals, third in both assists and points, and was among the league leaders in goals (tied for 4th) and points (8th). He also led the entire SM-liiga with a plus-22 rating. Hannikainen attended Columbus’ development camp last July and will look to stick around this time.
Kristian Nakyva (D Nashville) — This could be another sneaky good signing for the Preds, who inked the 24-year-old late-bloomer to a 1-year contract. In his first season with Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League, Nakyva tied for the league lead among defencemen in goals (10) and also tied for fifth in points (29). He spent the previous three seasons in the Finnish Elite League, ranking among the top-10 blue-liners in points in both 2012-13 and 2013-14 while winning a league title in 2011-12. Nashville is another team with a deep defence, but Nakyva might be able to force his way onto the roster.
Christian Marti and Yevgeni Medvedev (D Philadelphia) — The Flyers have also had some luck with signing European free-agents, including Pierre-Edouard Bellemare out of France last summer. Marti is a 22-year-old from Switzerland who could be mentored by compatriot Mark Streit, while Medvedev is a 32-year-old who has won two KHL titles and been an all-star three times over the last seven seasons in Russia’s top league. He was also a member of Russia’s silver-medal team at the world championship, but this will be Medvedev’s first foray to North America. His signing, which was announced Wednesday, is reminiscent of Edmonton inking Anton Belov two years ago, but Philadelphia will be hoping new coach Dave Hakstol can get more out of Medvedev, who will be earning $3 million on a 1-year deal.
Eetu Laurikainen (G Edmonton) — When the Oilers lost out — or dropped out — of the O’Connor sweepstakes, this guy was their consolation prize. Laurikainen is familiar with North America, having been one of the WHL’s top goaltenders for a couple years with the Swift Current Broncos. He stepped his game up another notch in the SM-liiga this past season, posting a .933 save percentage over 37 contests. Expect the 22-year-old Laurikainen to split time with the Oilers’ top goaltending prospect Laurent Brossoit, also 22, in AHL Bakersfield next season.
On The Horizon
Mike Reilly (D Columbus) — He’s this year’s Kevin Hayes or rather the next Justin Schultz, a similar offensive blue-liner planning to take the same approach by becoming available to the highest bidder. He has de-committed to the University of Minnesota and will be a free agent in mid-June. He’s apparently still considering the Blue Jackets as an option, but won’t likely sign with them before hitting the open market. Reilly, who turns 22 in July, racked up 42 points (6g, 36a) in 39 NCAA games this past season, and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college player of the year, though that honour will almost certainly go to Eichel. Reilly played for Team USA at the worlds, but was limited to 1 assist in 10 games. Still, he earned praise from Torey Krug, who said he sees a lot of himself in Reilly, who has also been compared to Toronto’s Morgan Rielly in terms of playing style. A poor man’s version, of course.
Zane McIntyre (G Boston) — He’s also expected to wait it out and test the free-agency waters come July 1, but might still sign with the Bruins at that time. There will be interest from other potential suitors after McIntyre’s standout NCAA career with North Dakota, backstopping Hakstol’s team over the last three seasons with his save percentage rising each year (.920, .926, .929). He turns 23 in August and, like O’Connor, might not need much seasoning in the minors.
Auston Matthews (F draft eligible) — The consensus top prospect for the 2016 NHL draft is expected to announce this week where he’ll play next season. The options include the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, several top NCAA programs and the Zurich-based ZSC Lions in Switzerland. The latter, which is believed to be the favourite to land Matthews, would be an unprecedented move in becoming the first big-name North American prospect to play overseas during his draft year.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.