With the Columbus Blue Jackets signing Sam Gagner to a one-year, $650K contract earlier this week, it seems that a new bar has been set for the unrestricted free agents still available on the market. Gagner, though he struggled last season, is still young and has a history of strong point production, yet settled for a contract that is over $4MM less than he was paid per year in his previous deal. While it is unlikley (and in most cases impossible) for any of those still looking for a contract to accept that kind of pay cut, it seems that bargain deals are the only deals being offered in a deep, but stagnant August market. While the destinations of the following players are still up in the air, their values have changed significantly since July 1st. Here is an updated prediction of what some of our Top 50 Unrestricted Free Agents and other notable players will sign for before the puck drops on the 2016-17 season:
Kris Russell (#12) – 2 years, $4.5MM
Russell remains our top-ranked unsigned free agent so far, and considering the hype that he was given prior to free agency as one of the best available defenseman in a shallow market for blue line help, it is shocking to many around the hockey world that he remains unsigned. The shock is much worse for Russell himself, who was reportedly looking to sign a long-term deal for $5MM+ per season. At this point, a deal like that seems far from the realm of possibility. Unfortunately for Russell, is playing style does not make him a darling of the analytics movement, which could be a primary reason for the surprising lack of interest. That, and his ineffectiveness with the Dallas Stars after coming over from the Calgary Flames at the Trade Deadline. Our original prediction for Russell was a four-year, $18MM contract. Given the situation he is in, it seems that both the term and value are likely to be cut in half.
Jiri Hudler (#18) – 1 year, $1.75MM
Hudler is the other player who’s availability is very surprising and difficult to figure out. Just one year removed from a 30-goal season, Hudler has shown that he is an offensive force and has found success playing on both wings and with many different types of line mates. Scoring and versatility, even at 32, generally earns a player a contract pretty quickly. That has not been the case for Hudler. A down season and concerns over size and toughness seem to be keeping him from getting the contract that he wanted and believed he deserved. Hudler is coming off a contract that carried a cap hit of $4MM per year, and we predicted that he would sign a deal for exactly that for four years. NHL teams are clearly concerned about paying for 2014-15 production and getting 2015-16 numbers, so term is likely a sticking point and a cheap, “show me” deal seems to be the most likely outcome. With similar stats to Teddy Purcell last year, expect Hudler to settle for a similar deal to the one-year, $1.6MM contract given to Purcell by the Los Angeles Kings.
Radim Vrbata (#27) – 1 year, $1.5MM
Similar to Hudler, Vrbata is likely asking for payment based on his 2014-15 numbers and getting offers based on his 2015-16 numbers. The veteran winger was excellent in the first year of a two-year $10MM deal with the Vancouver Canucks, scoring 63 points, but the second year did not turn out so well, as he scored less than half that amount. 27 points for a 35-year-old does not scream “hot commodity”, but even given his age and drop-off, we still predicted that Vrbata would secure a one-year, $3.7MM deal. The possibility of that value is long gone. Vrbata’s name seems to keep popping up, so it seems more likely that he’ll find a home in the NHL, rather than head overseas or retire, but it is likely to be more in the $1MM neighborhood.
Kyle Quincey (#44) – 1 year, $750K
If Sam Gagner got $650K after an awful season last year, Quincey’s prospects for anything over $1MM seem bleak given his dismal number in 2015-16 as well. We acknowledged in our prediction that Quincey severely under-performed the past two seasons in Detroit with a cap hit of $4.25MM, but still felt that a puck moving defenseman would earn at least $1.5MM on a one-year deal. Well, it’s now August and Quincey is not even the best defenseman on the market. Luke Schenn just got two years and only $2.5MM and he is better and younger than Quincey. Quincey will have to take a very cheap deal to play this season.
Jhonas Enroth (#50) – 1 year, $900K
It seemed like Enroth was set to sign with the Maple Leafs last week, but nothing ever came of it. It could be that the exact price was being nitpicked, as the Leafs are currently very close the salary cap ceiling. Unfortunately, the other team in the market for a backup goalie is San Jose, and they too are in a cap crunch. Enroth earned $1.25MM with the Kings last season and was excellent and thus was surely hoping for a raise. The market simply didn’t develop for the net minder, and now it is a bidding war between two teams with little to bid. Enroth could get lucky and sign a two-year deal for expansion draft purposes or simply to keep his cap hit low, but at this point a contract over $1MM seems unlikely.
Antoine Vermette (NR) – 1 year, $2MM
The newest addition to the free agent frenzy (or lack thereof) is Vermette, who was bought out by the Arizona Coyotes recently. Prior to the buyout, Vermette was put through waivers, and no team wanted any part of his 3.75MM cap hit. Using that as a starting point, it is safe to say that Vermette will not be getting 3.75MM from any team, nor will he likely get within even a million dollars of that mark. However, with 38 points in 76 games last season, Vermette is still producing at a similar rate as he has for the past five years or so, which made the buyout so surprising. The Coyotes likely wanted roster space for younger players, and the buyout was more about that than a commentary on Vermette’s ability. This late in free agency, most teams who would be interested in Vermette likely lack the cap flexibility to give him fair market value. He should still make a decent amount of money in 2016-17, but it will likely be a better bargain for his new destination.
James Wisniewski (NR) – 1 year, $850K
The off-season has not been kind to players coming off of bad seasons, and nothing is worse than missing an entire season with an injury. Such is the case with Wisniewski, who was injured in his first game with the Carolina Hurricanes, missed the remainder of the 2015-16 season, and was promptly bought out this off-season. Injury concerns are almost definitely the reason that Wisniewski remains unsigned, as he has top pair offensive ability when healthy, but simply isn’t healthy very often. However, even in this stagnant market, there are still D-needy teams who may be willing to pay for the chance at 30 to 40 points for an affordable, one-year deal if Wisniewski can play in the majority of the games this upcoming season. Unlike Quincey, who was actively bad this past season when healthy, Wisniewski’s ability post-injury is still somewhat unknown and may just give him a leg up in securing a contract.
Brandon Pirri (NR) – 2 years, $1.2MM
Finally we come to Pirri, who may be the closest comparison to Gagner remaining on the market. At 25 years old, Pirri perhaps has greatest potential of any remaining free agent, but is also a huge question mark. Despite showing some scoring ability in 166 NHL appearance, it seems many teams are still unsure of what his true ability is. He was expected to be tendered by the Anaheim Ducks, who acquired him at the Trade Deadline, and when they did not and he became an unrestricted free agent, he was expected to be scooped up quickly on July 1st. That also did not happen. Now, like Gagner, who is only 26 but must re-prove his NHL ability, Pirri is likely going to have to take a short-term deal for little money to show that he is an NHL-caliber player. At this point, Pirri is likely asking for a one-year deal so he can show himself and cash in next year, but don’t be surprised if he ends up signing for two or more so that the team can maintain control if their gamble pays off.