With only a few days to go before the official opening of NHL Free Agency and after highlighting several free-agent bust candidates, let’s shift our attention to players that could outperform their cap hits. Maximizing one’s salary allocation is the key to success in a cap world, and free agency is the wild west when it comes to exchanging realistic and rational evaluations. Amidst the chaos, value can be found: here are five of the biggest potential bargains of the 2022 free-agent class.
Brett Kulak, Edmonton Oilers
Kicking off the list of bargain-bin candidates is Brett Kulak, most recently of the Edmonton Oilers. The 2022 Trade Deadline acquisition helped solidify the Oilers’ blue line, and his steady play in a depth role was a factor in the team reaching the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2006. The 28-year-old tallied eight points in 18 regular-season games and added another five assists in 16 postseason appearances after joining the Albertan club.
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Much of Kulak’s value is derived from his poise with and without the puck despite not playing a flashy style, with his zone entry defense, in particular, being a striking strength. He was one of the most successful defenders at facilitating clean zone exits with possession relative to his teammates last season, making it easier to transition into the team’s rush offence and create chances when gaining the zone.
In terms of defending the blueline, Kulak has no issue standing his ground and cutting out the opposition’s transition game. Teams only successfully carry the puck into the zone when targeting him 46.7% of the time (eighth-best rate in the NHL) while creating only 2.77 chances off of entries per 60 minutes, well into the league’s upper quartile. It can be a subdued aspect of a player’s impact but is extremely influential nonetheless.
Although Kulak has shown he deserves a look in an elevated role, his usage with the Oilers points to teams being most comfortable with him in a depth role. He played about 17 minutes per game after joining the Oilers but managed to help them dominate the run of play, accounting for 55% of shots on net (SF%) and 53% of all scoring chances (SCF%). He also has penalty-kill experience, albeit limited, but through his on-ice awareness, he can provide positive value even while shorthanded.
Kulak’s last deal saw him be paid $1.85 million annually, but his strong playoff showing could give him the negotiating leverage to demand a raise. Ken Holland has shown an interest in bringing back the underrated defenseman, so a return could be in the cards. Regardless, he provides enough surplus value at that price to be one of the best bargains on the market.
Braden Holtby, Dallas Stars
After a disastrous 2020-21 season in which Braden Holtby posted a .889 save percentage (SV%) with the Vancouver Canucks, he rehabilitated his value around the league with a solid 2021-22 campaign. In 24 games with the Dallas Stars, the 2018 Stanley Cup winner posted a record of 10-10-1 to go along with a respectable .913 SV% and allowed 0.86 goals more than expected (GSAx), which ranked 32nd among goalies with at least 10 games played.
Even after a much improved season, prospective suitors must decide which Holtby they believe is most likely to emerge in 2022-23. From 2019 to 2021, the 32-year-old netminder posted a miserable .895 SV%. and allowed over 22 goals more than expected, one of the worst marks in the league. Keeping his term to a minimum (no more than a two-year commitment) hedges against any drastic declines due to age, and gives his future team the flexibility to cut bait if things go south.
If nothing else, Holtby brings a ton of postseason experience by playing in the third-most games (97) among goalies since making his playoff debut in 2012. Among goaltenders with at least 10 playoff appearances since 2012, he owns the fifth-highest SV% (.926) and has saved 33 goals above expected, the third-most over that span.
In the right situation, Holtby can provide a steady veteran presence at an affordable rate (he made $2 million per year last season) while not being expected to bear the brunt of the workload. Having a dependable backup gives the team confidence to relieve the starter when needed, and extend their effectiveness and energy levels further into the season. It should be noted that Holtby may not play in 2022-23, throwing some uncertainty into his future. If he returns at any point this season or next, teams could do a lot worse for $2 million.
Marcus Johansson, Washington Capitals
Even though Marcus Johansson is on the downswing of his career at age 31, his statistical profile suggests he is still an effective playmaker in transition. He finished the 2021-22 season with 29 points in 79 games split between the Capitals and the Seattle Kraken and added another six games to his extensive total of over 100 playoff appearances since 2011. He played just under 15 minutes a night after joining Washington at the trade deadline (ninth among forwards) and played over two minutes per game on the power play, the sixth-highest usage on the team.
The 31-year-old forward has experience playing all three forward positions and is particularly adept at making incisive passes off of zone entries, especially while travelling down the middle of the ice. Given his ability to create looks off of the rush, he could find success if paired with a linemate capable of finishing at a high rate, with the two feeding off of each other’s strengths.
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At a time when the contracts thrown around rarely resemble good value, the veteran Swede represents a low-risk, high-reward option at a low cap hit in a team’s bottom-six group. His cap impact sat at $1.5 million last season, and there’s nothing to suggest he should command much more than that this summer. Given his positive impact at both even-strength and with the man-advantage, it’s tough to get more bang for your buck with less than $2 million in free agency. However, Nicklas Backstrom’s long-term injury means the Capitals have a need for a playmaker, which could facilitate a return to Washington.
P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils
Although he’s well-removed from his peak Norris Trophy-winning days, P.K. Subban still has a lot to offer at a greatly reduced cap hit. The 33-year-old is coming off of a 2021-22 campaign in which he scored 22 points in 77 games while averaging over 18 minutes a night on the New Jersey Devils’ blue line, including time on both special teams units.
Despite public outcry over his diminished mobility and general physical prowess, he remains a capable defender. With Subban on the ice at 5v5 this season, the Devils controlled over 50% of shots, scoring chances, and expected goals. He isn’t driving play to the same degree as he did in his prime, but he still moves the puck in the right direction more often than not and he is unafraid to test the goalie if the opportunity arises, regularly contributing above-average shot volume.
Teams may understandably be wary of his dip in production, but his larger-than-life persona may have led to an overcorrection of his on-ice ability. As long as he isn’t expected to carry the workload in transition or be the de-facto shutdown option, he remains a talented bottom-pair option who can provide positive value against other teams’ depth players. His market value is nowhere near the $9 million annual average value (AAV) he collected on his last deal, but a couple million here or there isn’t unnecessarily breaking the bank.
Evan Rodrigues, Pittsburgh Penguins
In a year full of surprising breakout performances, the one put on by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evan Rodrigues was perhaps the most unexpected. After sliding into a top-six role due to the absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to start the year, the 28-year-old center enjoyed a sublime first half of the season. He produced 30 points (15 goals and 15 assists) in 35 games, ranking 46th among all skaters in that time. He tailed off once the team’s star centers returned and tallied only 13 points in his final 47 games, finishing the year with 43 points in 82 appearances. Fortunately for Rodrigues and interested suitors, there is substance behind the scoring totals, and teams should be reassured that the center can replicate his career-highs to some degree.
Corey Sznajder’s AllThreeZones tracking data positions Rodrigues as an offensive machine in transition, creating a plethora of chances after completing a high rate of controlled zone entries off of the rush. He led the Penguins in controlled entries per 60 and ranked third in chance assists (the final pass before a scoring chance) per 60 at 5v5 this season. He also flashed a penchant for threading the needle on passes into dangerous areas, completing the second-highest rate of high-danger passes, lagging behind only Sidney Crosby.
Although his increased boxscore numbers might push his salary demands too close to what is palatable, Rodrigues is a bonafide top-nine option who can thrive in the top-six in a pinch. If nothing else, he is the perfect complementary option to more skilled linemates, doing much of the heavy lifting in transition and finding his teammates in profitable areas. He’s sure to earn a substantial raise on the $1 million he took home last season, but a reasonable jump in pay is more than fair for arguably the NHL’s most-improved player.
2022 NHL Free Agency Full of Potential Bargains
Free agency is defined by volatility at both ends of the spectrum. Many contracts are signed that end up being boat anchors on a team’s cap structure while just as many discount deals are inked that turn out to outperform their expected value. It can be difficult to parse out which pacts will belong to which side ahead of time, but the cost of investment in research and scouting is well worth the price in the long run. The 2022 NHL Draft provided a platform for a number of significant transactions to take place, and the upcoming free-agent period should continue the welcome trend of surprise and intrigue. General managers and agents…pick up the phone and start your engines, free agency is about to begin.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.