It has been a very active offseason around the NHL with many players finding a new home after testing the market. There are reports that the New York Islanders have signed four forwards including Kyle Palmieri and Zach Parise. While it hasn’t become official, we’re going to assume it’s accurate and won’t include them for that reason. On top of that, Tuukka Rask is out until 2022, and his future remains unclear, so he won’t be included either.
The market has been swept clean for the most part, and there aren’t many more intriguing names that remain. After the announcement of Tomas Tatar’s two-year deal with the New Jersey Devils, there aren’t any players left in free agency now that could be considered top-six forwards. At this point, there are just depth options, albeit some of these undervalued players on cheap contracts could provide value next season. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few veteran depth options remaining, but surprisingly, there are some younger players still waiting to be offered a contract.
All Contract Projections Via Evolving-Hockey
1. Dominik Kahun
Projected Contract: 3 Years x $2.42 Million Average Annual Value (AAV)
After a strong rookie season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Dominik Kahun showed a lot of promise. The problem is that he hasn’t been able to find a home where he can flourish as he’s been jumping around since he entered the league. He is looking for his fourth home in just the fourth season of his career. In his time with the Penguins and Sabres in the 2019-20 campaign, he produced 2.43 points-per-60 at 5-on-5, which ranked as the 36th-best rate among forwards in the league — higher than many star players.
During that season with the Penguins, he had a 53.86 Corsi for percentage (CF%) and a 54.12 expected goal share. Over the past three seasons, he has been worth 2.2 wins above replacement (WAR). So, while he did struggle with the Edmonton Oilers this past season, perhaps a change of scenery could help. The fact is that he has some upside that could be unleashed in the right environment and role. For teams looking for a sneaky, cheap forward, that could become a mainstay in the middle six, they should take a flier on the 26-year-old forward.
2. Ryan Donato
Projected Contract: 2 Years x $1.95 Million AAV
Ryan Donato’s path is very similar to Kahun. A few strong seasons before struggling last season. This led to Donato falling out of favor and not being tendered a qualifying offer. He really displayed promise with the Minnesota Wild back in the 2019-20 season. His 1.40 goals per 60 was the eighth-highest in the league, which is an impressive feat given he was on pace for 20 goals while being limited to just over 10 minutes a night. While his game at even strength hasn’t yielded strong results, he has become a power-play specialist over the past few seasons.
There are concerns surrounding Donato’s game. He’s not a great skater, so he tends to lose a lot of puck battles in the corner and can easily be pushed off the puck. That said, there are still more pros than cons when it comes to the 25-year-old winger. He has been worth 2.2 WAR over the past two seasons, so there’s an argument he’s the best player left on the market. His struggles last season were exaggerated, so a team should jump on this immediately. He has middle-six upside, is still relatively young, and will be a cheap acquisition.
3. Nikita Gusev
Projected Contract: 3 Years x $2.45 Million AAV
There is beginning to be a common theme among the crop of players that remain in free agency. Players that have a decent track record, but are coming off sub-par seasons. Nikita Gusev came over from Russia and excelled in his first season. He tallied 13 goals and 44 points in 66 games in 2019-20. His underlying numbers that season offensively were very good, but he had a lot of defensive shortcomings. Last season, he struggled across the board.
It’s surprising that a team hasn’t signed him yet, given that he improved with the Florida Panthers after being moved there at the trade deadline. He is a low-risk, high-reward option for a team desiring another middle-six option at wing.
4. Zdeno Chara
Projected Contract: 3 Years x $3.14 Million AAV
Even at 44 years old, Zdeno Chara is still an effective defensive option for a team on the third pair. He won’t provide much offensively, but he’s still a strong defensive presence on the blue line. The big-bodied, physical defenseman utilizes his size to yield above-average defensive results. While his value did dip this past season, he was still worth 0.2 WAR.
Chara would be a good acquisition for any team and it wouldn’t be very expensive. The contract projections are definitely high as he wouldn’t get a term longer than a year. There’s not much risk that comes with the veteran defender.
5. Alex Galchenyuk
Projected Contract: 3 Years x $2.75 Million AAV
Alex Galchenyuk is running out of time. He has been with five different teams over the past three seasons, and it’s hard to imagine that he will keep getting chances. After hitting the 30-goal plateau in the 2015-16 campaign, he has yet to hit the 20-goal mark since, which has led to his downfall. He looked fine with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season in the small sample size, but he has yet to find a permanent home.
If a team is willing to give the 27-year-old winger a chance, perhaps he could produce in the right place. That noted, he appears to be more of a long-term reclamation project rather than a guaranteed producer. The potential is present, so if a team is willing to do the work, it could pay off. Given the flat cap and market, he would be a cheap pick-up on a one-year deal.
6. Eric Staal
Projected Contract: 1 Year x $1.32 Million AAV
Eric Staal is a very intriguing option left on the market. He has such a strong pedigree and has continued to produce into his mid-30s. In his four seasons with the Wild, he remained a quality top-six forward and it didn’t appear he was ever going to slow down. This past season, however, could be the signs of him declining. He graded out as the third-worst forward in the league, producing minus-1.1 WAR.
The biggest question is whether last season was an indicator of the future or a tough season on one of the worst teams in the league after a trade that completely upended his life. If it’s the former, there’s a chance he could provide value for a team looking to add to their bottom six. The only concern is that he didn’t do much for the Montreal Canadiens in the postseason, either.
7. Tyler Bozak
Projected Contract: 1 Year x $1.27 Million AAV
Tyler Bozak dealt with some injury issues that limited him to just 31 games last season. He had 17 points in 31 games and was still playing in a middle-six role. While he was was moderate in terms of point production, his underlying numbers should be a red flag to teams. He was the worst Blues’ forward posting a 40.43 CF% and a 36.08 expected goal share.
If teams want a bottom-six veteran forward to round out their forward corps, he would be a fine addition. He should be cheap on a one-year deal, but there shouldn’t be high expectations as his prime is way behind him.
8. Sami Vatanen
Projected Contract: 3 Years x $3.82 Million AAV
One of the most surprising elements of free agency this year was the number of defensemen taken off the market as soon as free agency opened. There were a ton of multi-year contracts handed out, so it was surprising that nobody took Sami Vatanen. Ever since leaving the Anaheim Ducks, he hasn’t been the same. He was fine with the New Jersey Devils two seasons ago, but was underwhelming last season.
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One would have to assume that his lack of point production and underwhelming performance post-trade deadline with the Dallas Stars is why his stock has gone down. The contract projections are certainly very high, so expect a one-year deal on an inexpensive contract when he gets an offer.
Honorable Mentions: Christian Djoos, Jimmy Vesey, Alex Chiasson, Erik Gustafsson, Ben Hutton & Marcus Johansson
While teams have already landed the big fish in free agency, including the Devils landing Dougie Hamilton, there are still some depth options that could provide value for teams next season on cheap contracts.
All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference