Best under-the-radar signings from the early days of 2022 NHL free agency

Iain MacIntyre and Dan Murphy discuss the Vancouver Canucks signing of Russian forward Ilya Mikheyev, detail why despite it being a bit of a surprise he'll fit in well, and touch on how Curtis Lazar will slot into the team.

The opening flurry has come and gone, and what a wild stretch it was.

Johnny Hockey chose Columbus, Claude Giroux went home, and the goalie carousel continued to spin. According to CapFriendly, Wednesday set a new benchmark for the total sum of money dished out by NHL general managers on a single day — an absurd $919 million was tabled as 2022’s free-agency window officially opened, topping 2018’s previous record of $790 million.

But while silly season got underway, and a few whopper deals were signed that seem sure to bring plenty of hurt down the line, there were more than a few gems dotted among the bunch.

That said, let’s take a look at some of the best low-key, under-the-radar signings from the early days of free agency:

DAVID PERRON, Detroit Red Wings
Signed For: 2 years x $4.75 million

After a sterling third stint with the St. Louis Blues, veteran winger David Perron opted to move on from the club with whom he found Stanley Cup glory and ink a two-year deal with Steve Yzerman’s on-the-rise Detroit Red Wings. It was a tidy bit of business for Yzerman, who also beefed up his forward corps with the additions of Andrew Copp and Dominik Kubalik. The trio joins an offensive group that already seemed to be trending upwards on the back of young stars Lucas Raymond and Filip Zadina (not to mention Mo Seider on the blue line), and bolstered by the presence of more established talents like Dylan Larkin and Jakub Vrana.

In adding Perron, the Wings drop another 20-30-goal weapon into that mix — perhaps to play alongside Copp on a newly formed second line — without having to stomach a bloated cap hit or dicey term for the 34-year-old. And don’t be fooled by the winger’s age. Perron’s having more than a career renaissance in his mid-30s — he’s playing the best hockey of his career. 

Through 67 games last season, he put up 27 goals and 57 points. The year before, he posted 19 goals and 58 points in just 56 games. Before that, 25 goals and 60 points. The past five years of Perron’s career have been his best in terms of overall production. Still able to find open space and burn teams with his wicked release, or make plays at the netfront if the game gets tighter, Perron should inject some more reliable scoring into Detroit’s offence, along with some veteran savvy and Cup-champion know-how for the team’s young stars.

Signed For: 4 years x $4.5 million

Fresh off a fantastic breakout season in Florida, Mason Marchment headed into free agency as one of the most intriguing under-the-radar names on the market, and his potential earned him a four-year commitment from Dallas. First, it’s a nice moment for a guy who went undrafted, paid his dues with a half-decade in the minors, and was navigating this free-agency process amid heartbreaking circumstances, having lost his father Bryan earlier this month.

He’ll head to Dallas as a long-needed boost for the Stars’ secondary scoring. Through 54 games last season, the 27-year-old posted 18 goals and 47 points — a scoring pace that would amount to a 27-goal, 71-point campaign over a full 82 games. What’s more, he did that while getting just 14 minutes of ice a night, playing on the third line amid a stacked Florida offence. In Dallas, he should slot in beside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, which means more minutes, a bigger role, and a greater opportunity to show what he can do.

If he continues on the path he laid out last season with the Panthers, his impact should be felt plenty. A big-body power forward who knows how to use his size (six-foot-four, 209 pounds) and throw his weight around, Marchment’s offensive potential is equalled in his reliable defensive game. He’ll forecheck hard, outwork the opposition, and should do enough on both sides of the puck to earn his pay raise.

ONDREJ KASE, Carolina Hurricanes
Signed For: 1 year x $1.5 million

Amid the flurry of moves the Carolina Hurricanes set in motion over the past week as they reshaped their club up front and on the back end — most notably swinging a pair of trades to acquire veterans Max Pacioretty and Brent Burns — the club slipped in a low-risk, high-reward one-year gamble on Ondrej Kase.

He might seem a grizzled vet on his last legs given the injury history and the amount he’s bounced around over the past few years, but Kase has plenty more to give in the big leagues. He’s still only 26 years old, and while injuries have had a massive impact on his career so far and might still moving forward, the winger’s always shown glimpses of intriguing talent when he has gotten into the lineup.

Coming off a bounceback season in Toronto that saw him suit up for 50 games — after playing only three the year prior — Kase put up 14 goals and 27 points, sniping at a 20-goal pace once again after hitting the mark once already a few seasons ago. He proved a valuable depth piece among the Leafs’ bottom six, earning time on Toronto’s second power-play unit. The Canes already have plenty of offensive muscle up top — and just added some more in Pacioretty. With Kase, they’ll inject some more skill into their bottom six, and risk little in terms of injuries potentially limiting him once again, with a one-year deal at a manageable cap hit.

ILYA MIKHEYEV, Vancouver Canucks
Signed For: 4 years x $4.75 million

They key for Ilya Mikheyev in Vancouver will be versatility. Through his first two seasons in Toronto, Mikheyev had the Maple Leafs faithful intrigued by the potential of what he could be if he put it all together. Last season, he took that step, putting up a career-best 21 goals and 32 points through 53 games. That pace projects to a 39-goal, 60-point effort over a full 82-game season. But it still seems like there’s another level for the 27-year-old.

Like Marchment, Mikheyev earned those offensive numbers in a bottom-six role with the Maple Leafs, averaging just over 15 minutes of ice. Given the knack for goal-scoring he displayed last season, he could be in line for a bump up into a top-six role in Vancouver. If he does, he has more than enough speed and skill to hang with the Canucks’ top options up front.

But if he slots into a role similar to the one he had in Toronto, Mikheyev’s already proven his value there, too. He’ll give head coach Bruce Boudreau some welcome offence from the bottom six, he’ll be an excellent defensive presence down there as well, and he’ll add a new dimension to the club’s penalty kill, turning over pucks and forcing the issue on that unit. While the cap hit might be a tad high, that ability to thrive in all situations should allow Mikheyev to prove his worth pretty quickly with his new club.

Signed For: 5 years x $5.5 million

‘Under the radar’ may be pushing it for Andre Burakovsky, but with all the attention on fellow Colorado free agents Nazem Kadri, Val Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen, Darcy Kuemper, and Josh Manson, the former Capitals winger got lost in the shuffle just a bit. While three of the above opted to return to the defending champs, Burakovsky elected to move on, cashing in on his Cup-ring cache with a five-year deal in Seattle.

The cap hit is surely a bit high, but that’s down to more than just the usual UFA silliness we see every year — it’s also a reflection of just how dire Seattle’s need for bona fide offensive talent is. In Burakovsky, they’ve got it. The 27-year-old is a legit top-six talent, and coming off a career-best 22-goal, 61-point season with Colorado. He’s been around the 20-goal mark for three straight seasons, and, like a few others on this list, earned his 2021-22 numbers in a limited role playing on a stacked Avs team. How exactly he’ll perform with a Kraken squad that doesn’t boast anything near the talent he was surrounded by in Colorado or Washington remains to be seen, but Burakovsky should still be able to produce beside a talented pivot in Matty Beniers.

For Seattle, the Kraken pay plenty to add an established scorer to their top six, but at $5.5 million, it’s not exactly an exorbitant amount. If he can chip in at the same pace he has up til now, and raise the overall level of Seattle’s top six and top power-play unit, he’ll earn his paycheque. And after battling through a broken ankle and broken thumb to help Colorado claim the Cup — the second of his career after winning it all with Washington in 2018, too — there’s plenty Burakovsky can teach Seattle’s young centre duo, Beniers and Shane Wright, about winning in the big leagues, too.

NICOLAS AUBE-KUBEL, Toronto Maple Leafs
Signed For: 1 year x $1 million

Everyone knows where the Maple Leafs stand heading into free agency each year. With $33 million tied up in their top three forwards, this window is all about finding workable bargains for Kyle Dubas and Co. to fill out the rest of their roster. We’ve seen them hit on some hidden gems before, and Toronto should have another one in Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who joins the club after a Cup-winning campaign in Colorado.

According to Dubas, the 26-year-old was brought in to help offset some of the impact of losing Mikheyev to Vancouver. Aube-Kubel won’t have quite the offensive impact the now-Canuck brought, having topped out at a career-high 11 goals this past season, but in terms of the other aspects of Mikheyev's game — the speed, the stifling forechecking — he should be an interesting replacement for the bottom six.

And bigger picture, he might be more of what the team actually needs. Toronto shouldn't necessarily be looking for all-offence pieces with every add at this point. They have plenty of scoring ability dispersed throughout their top nine. In Aube-Kubel, they might not find the next Mikheyev or the next Michael Bunting, but they'll get a tenacious, straightforward presence who can chip in on the sheet and play a stout defensive game. A steady, reliable piece to fit in around the team's higher-profile talent, and a key part of a bottom six that was in need of retooling. And on a one-year, $1-million deal, there's little risk no matter how it turns out, only potential upside.

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