Organizations generally wait until around the quarter mark of the campaign before making determinations on their team. Are they contenders or pretenders? Do they anticipate being buyers or sellers at the deadline? These are among the questions teams begin to ponder at this point in the season. Subsequently, now seems like a good time to look back at the summer’s free agent signings to see which are outperforming expectations and can safely be called free agent bargains.
Eric Staal (Minnesota) – Three years, $10.5MM: After a down season in 2015-16 split between Carolina and the New York Rangers, questions surfaced about whether Staal was a legitimate top-line center or if his decline in production was representative of a player past his prime. Staal recorded 10 consecutive seasons – 2005-06 through 2014-15 – in which he recorded at least 53 points but stumbled to a 39-point output last season. Those concerns led to a discounted contract which compensates Staal at the level of a well-paid third liner as opposed to a top-line player.
Staal has rebounded this season and through 20 games with the Wild, the 13-year veteran has registered 15 points. Perhaps a better sign his early-season production may be based more on ability than on luck, Staal is back to averaging close to three shots per game. Last season he averaged just 2.4 shots per contest and for his career he is at 3.3. Staal is currently tied for 57th among forwards in points-per-game; a rank perfectly in line with that of a top-line forward.
Jonathan Marchessault (Florida) – Two years, $1.5MM: Marchessault could prove to be the steal of the summer. He signed a two-year deal with the Panthers worth just $1.5MM this summer after failing to find a permanent role in either Columbus or Tampa Bay. Through 20 games in South Florida, the 25-year-old forward has nine goals and seven helpers and is on pace for a 65-point campaign.
While Marchessault struggled to earn regular NHL work prior to this season, he has an excellent junior and minor league track record. In 306 AHL games, the 5-foot-9, 174-pound wing tallied 98 goals and 262 points. That success at least suggests Marchessault can continue to produce at the level of a top-six forward. That’s a steal for $750K.
Michael Grabner (New York Rangers) – Two years, $3.3MM: Grabner was a solid producer while with the Islanders, averaging 0.30 goals-per-game over parts of five seasons. But after registering just nine goals and 18 points in 80 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2015-16 campaign, Grabner was available at a bargain price for the Rangers.
All he’s done for the Blue Shirts is register 12 goals, all at even strength, and 16 points in 22 games with the Rangers. He ranks third overall in goals scored while his total at even strength leads the league. He’s also tops in the NHL in plus-minus with a rating of +20. His penalty-killing ability has also been welcome on Manhattan. Perhaps he won’t continue to produce at this level but even then, he’s well on his way to a 20-goal campaign which would be a tremendous return on a $1.65MM investment.
Brian Campbell (Chicago) – One year, $1.5MM: Campbell was dead set on returning to Chicago as a free agent this summer and he did, at a rate the cap-strapped Hawks could afford. Campbell has eight points in 22 games this season, despite seeing nearly four fewer minutes of ice time per contest than he averaged in 2014-15. Currently, the 37-year-old blue liner is on pace for a 29-point campaign, which is pretty good value relative to Chicago’s minimal commitment.
Patrick Wiercioch (Colorado) – One year, $800K: Wiercioch inked a one-year contract with Colorado after his previous employer, the Ottawa Senators, elected not to submit a qualifying offer to the restricted free agent. Wiercioch has been a good fit on the Avalanche blue line, ranking fifth on the team in scoring with eight points and leading the club with a +2 plus-minus rating. The 26-year-old has been utilized primarily as a third-pair defender and is fifth among the team’s blue liners in average ice time at 17:27 per game.
Chad Johnson (Calgary) – One year, $1.7MM: Johnson was signed by Calgary to ostensibly serve as the understudy to summer trade acquisition Brian Elliott. But while Elliot has struggled in his new surroundings – 3.43 GAA and a 0.882 Save % – Johnson has provided the Flames with steady play between the pipes. In 11 starts this season, Johnson has a GAA of just 1.98 and a Save % of 0.928. Only five goalies who have appeared in at least 10 games have a better GAA than Johnson.