Four undervalued UFAs who could be bargains when free agency opens

Montreal Canadiens winger Tomas Tatar (90). (Jason Franson/CP)

Thanks to the expansion draft, there has been plenty of player movement since the Tampa Bay Lightning lifted the Stanley Cup three weeks ago. There’s about to be a whole lot more once unrestricted free agency opens on Wednesday.

The list of big-name, pending UFAs is long and includes players like Alex Ovechkin, Dougie Hamilton, Gabriel Landeskog, Philipp Grubauer, Phillip Danault, and more.

As they do every year, teams will overpay in order to acquire certain players -- it’s called the silly season for a reason. However, finding undervalued assets is also possible in unrestricted free agency and the teams who can do it will gain a competitive advantage in the flat cap world we are living in.

With that in mind, here are four players who the market may currently undervalue that are set to hit unrestricted free agency.

Tomas Tatar

Previous Contract: Four years, $5.3 million AAV

At 30 years old, Tomas Tatar finds himself at an interesting point in his career. Tatar scored 30 points in 50 games with the Montreal Canadiens last season. The year before, he had 61 points in 68 games. Since his first full season in the NHL in 2013-14, Tatar has been a lock to score at a 20-25 goal pace. That’s the good news. The bad is twice in the past four years, with two different teams, Tatar has been in the press box while his club was competing for the Stanley Cup.

Tatar was a healthy scratch for much of the Vegas Golden Knights' run to the Cup Final in 2017-18 and the same thing happened this past season with the Habs. So, the question inquiring teams should be asking themselves is whether Tatar is worth the risk with his perceived value likely lower than his actual value. Tatar, alongside Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher, formed one of the top 5-on-5 lines in the NHL in recent years, consistently out-chancing and outscoring the opposition.

Tatar is a skilled playmaker, capable of getting the puck to his teammates in contested scoring areas. Last season, Tatar completed 51.7 per cent of his passes into the slot at even strength, which ranked 19th among 320 forwards with at least five attempts per 60 minutes.

Tatar is able to buy time and space to create plays by beating defenders one-on-one at a high rate. At even strength, Tatar ranked 47th among qualified forwards in open-ice dekes per 60 minutes -- plays in which a skater beats a defender in open ice. An effective puck mover, Tatar ranked 98th in controlled zone entries and helped generate scoring chances at a high rate for the Canadiens when entering the offensive zone with the puck. Montreal produced scoring chances on 31.5 per cent of Tatar’s entries, which ranked 38th among all forwards.

Tatar is a gifted offensive player, but is not one who impacts the game defensively. The right fit will be key for him and the team he signs with next season. In terms of value, a four- or five-year contract at $4-5 million per season seems appropriate for Tatar, but due to his recent playoff struggles/inactivity, there’s a chance he could end up being an undervalued asset.

Michael Bunting

Previous Contract: Two years, $737,500 AAV

Remember when Carter Verhaeghe signed a two-year, $2 million contract last off-season? One year later it is one of the best non-entry level, value contracts in the NHL. While not as fast or quite as offensively gifted, Michael Bunting possesses some of the same traits as Verhaeghe and could be a steal this off-season.

A fourth-round draft pick by the Arizona Coyotes in 2014, Bunting scored 10 goals in 21 games with them this past season. This, after averaging nearly a point per game with the Tucson Roadrunners in the AHL over the previous two seasons.

Bunting showed a willingness and ability to get to the front of the net and produce shots on goal, especially from the inner slot, a diamond-shaped area in front of the goal crease where roughly half of all goals are scored. Players who produce shots from here at a high rate typically score a lot of goals. Auston Matthews led the NHL in inner slot shots per 60 at even-strength this season and he scored more goals than anybody. Bunting ranked 25th, averaging 3.1 inner slot shots per 60. His comparables in this area are William Nylander and Brady Tkachuk.

Bunting likely won’t continue to score at a half-a-goal-per-game pace in his NHL career, but if he can generate high-danger shots at the rate he did this season, he will be a goal scorer worth having on your roster.

Bunting also proved to be an effective forechecker for the Coyotes last season. Among forwards with at least 200 minutes played at even strength, Bunting ranked 60th in dump-in recoveries, averaging 5.6. Only five players averaged more puck battle wins in the offensive zone than Bunting who averaged 8.3. His comparables here: Ross Colton and Jordan Staal.

Listed at 5-foot-11, 197 pounds, Bunting is smaller than average, but he is a smart player who puts himself in a good position with and away from the puck. If Bunting can be a disruptive player away from the puck while scoring 12-18 goals per season, he will be a value on his next contract.

A smart player with a nose for the net, Bunting is a tenacious player worth betting on.

Mike Reilly

Previous Contract: Two years, $1.5 million AAV

Do you know who should want a smooth-skating defenceman that makes a good first pass and is responsible with the puck? Every team in the NHL. That’s what Mike Reilly is. No, he isn’t a perfect defenceman, but the good far outweighs the bad with Reilly.

Reilly split time last season with the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins. In 55 games, Reilly posted 0 goals and 27 assists. He played well in Ottawa and continued that solid play in his final 15 games of the season with the Bruins. An effective puck mover, Reilly ranked top-50 among qualified defencemen in controlled zone exits and entries per 60 minutes at even-strength.

Reilly snaps a great first pass out of the defensive zone as well. Last season, he completed 28.5 outlet passes per 60 minutes, which ranked 27th among qualified defencemen. He completed 75.7 per cent of those passes, the 13th best completion rate in the league.

Additionally, Reilly can be trusted to make good decisions with the puck, which is imperative when a third-pairing defenceman is on the ice. Reilly has a low turnover rate.

In Boston, Reilly played mainly on the Bruins' third defence pair, though he spent 50-plus minutes with Connor Clifton, Kevan Miller, and Brandon Carlo. Regardless of his partner, the Bruins posted an expected goals for rate north of 60 per cent with Reilly on the ice.

Whether Reilly takes the next step in his career and handles more minutes against tougher competition remains to be seen. However, he has demonstrated that he can be an effective third-pairing defender who can play on the power play and penalty kill. If a team is looking to add a smart, slick skating depth defenceman, Reilly is a solid option.

Jonathan Bernier

Previous Contract: Three years, $3 million AAV

After spending the past three seasons with the Red Wings, Bernier is currently the property of the Carolina Hurricanes following a trade that saw Alex Nedeljkovic shipped to Detroit. With the Red Wings in rebuild mode, Bernier’s strong play has flown under the radar over the past couple of seasons.

Bernier posted a .914 save percentage in 2021, which ranked 17th among 47 goalies with at least 20 games played. Bernier ranked 15th in goals saved above average, which takes shot quality into account to determine the difference between his actual goals-against average and how many goals he was expected to allow based on the shots he faced. Per 60 minutes, Bernier saved the Red Wings 0.10 goals above expected, which slotted him in between Tuukka Rask (0.13) and Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer (0.07).

Bernier has finished top-35 in save percentage, high-danger save percentage, and goals saved above average in each of the past two seasons. At 32 years old, Bernier’s days as a No. 1 goalie on a contending team are likely behind him, but as a backup or platoon option, his recent play suggests he can still perform at a high level.

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