Top bargains to watch out for ahead of NHL free agency

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin (46) drives Philadelphia Flyers forward Travis Konecny (11) into the boards during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday April 19, 2022 (Nathan Denette/CP)

With free agency approaching, it’s time to start digging into available players.

We’ll leave the projected destinations to the insiders. Instead, this series is going to breakdown what each pending free agent brings to a lineup.

Before we get to the big, flashy names on the market this year, we’re starting off in the bargain bin by analyzing cost-effective players who could make savvy depth signings.

Ilya Lyubushkin

The 2022 deadline saw quite a few depth defencemen on the trade market, many of which at a higher cost than most would have saw coming. Teams seeking on support on the backend probably can find some options in free agency who won’t come with such a high price tag.

Lyubushkin’s one of those options. The defender was moved from the Arizona Coyotes to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the regular season, which gave managers a chance to see him on a stronger, fast, and more offensively skilled team.

Now, his game doesn’t really fit into that last category. He’s a very defensive player, who does well to separate his opponents from the puck with his checks, block passes, and deny entry over the blue line. But that can pair quite well with a strong skating defenceman with offensive upside for balance, and actually keep up with his partner instead of dragging them down with his one-dimensional play. That’s what made him a fit in the Maple Leafs’ line up.

Just how cost effective could he be? Evolving-Hockey projects as one year contract with a sub-$900,000 cap hit. Even if a team were to sign him to some term, it would likely come in $1-2 million range.

Johan Larsson

Let’s stay on theme here with Larsson, talking about a defensively sound skater who was also flipped at the deadline as a rental from the Coyotes. Sure, this may not be the sexiest of signings relative to the pool of free agents available this year, but he can be an effective one for a team that wants some stability in the bottom-six.

The centre helps limit quality chances against, and his ability to block shots and passes helps accomplish that. Plus, he can retrieve loose pucks out of his own zone to help turn plays around. With the Washington Capitals to end the season, he even showed a bit of offensive pop that may not have been expected from him; he managed to move pucks to the slot and create some quality chances from that area of the ice as well.

Most importantly, he should be inexpensive. Teams shouldn’t dump too much cap into their bottom-six, and Larsson projected $1,087,000 cap hit on a one year from Evolving-Hockey is something most could easily slot into their books.

Colin Blackwell

The trend continues with depth players. Sure, these aren’t the splashy names that everyone will be paying attention to on deadline day. But they’re important pieces who shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Blackwell was a smart add for the Maple Leafs on deadline day, especially because he didn’t come with the price tag of other utility players. In New York, he showed just how well he could keep up with top players while skating alongside Artemi Panarin; he added defensive stability without dragging down the elite playmaker.

With the Seattle Kraken, and even in Toronto, he showed his strengths back in his own zone at even strength and on the penalty kill. His game stems from smart positioning, versus relying on physical play. That makes him, at the very least, a good fourth line option for most teams in the league with the potential to move up wherever needed. Teams could do a lot worse than the forward who is projected to sign for one year at less than a million, according to Evolving-Hockey.

Frank Vatrano

And finally, for someone who brings offence. Like the three aforementioned players, Vatrano was a low-risk add at the deadline to bolster a team’s postseason chances. He went from a depth player with the Florida Panthers who couldn’t carve out a mainstay role to a top-liner with the New York Rangers.

Post-deadline, the winger spent over 186 even strength minutes with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider and the trio earned a 59.2 percent expected goals rate. That was the second-best rate of any combination that spent at least 100 minutes together this past year for the Rangers. He held onto that role for much of the playoffs as well.

Evolving-Hockey doesn’t have Vatrano costing too much; the highest probability belongs to a four year contract that carries a $3.9 million cap hit. But if a team doesn’t want to commit to that term, it could push his AAV lower to the $2 million range.

That’s pretty cost effective for a player who could slot right into the middle-six on a team deeper than the Rangers. At five-on-five, Vatrano can push the slot area and generate scoring chances off the rush and the cycle. And he can recover loose pucks to keep plays alive and extend his team’s zone time. Plus, he has the finishing ability to match — that shows in his scoring rate over the year. The drawback is that he isn't some defensive stalwart and he’s streaky, but his usage can be maximized within a lineup to add some secondary scoring.

Data via Sportlogiq, contract projections from Evolving-Hockey.

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