With the excitement of the NHL Draft fresh in many people’s minds, it’s time to turn the page and focus on July 1st, when a number of free agents will hit the open market. While the crop of players available may be thin in both top-end talent and depth, there are a number who could be game-changers for shrewd general managers.
In this year’s class, there’s a real good chance for a team in need of some top-six or top-nine help to add to their roster. From players that have Stanley Cup experience, ring or not, to depth on the wing, this year’s forwards group doesn’t exactly scream out to be one of the best, but there is certainly a lot of depth if you look close enough. Considering the names, and the teams looking to add, some of these top-six players could even find themselves contributing on a team’s top line. Here’s a look at the top 10 NHL UFA forwards available on July 1st.
Top 10 NHL UFA Forwards 2015
1) Mike Ribeiro
2014-15 Cap Hit: $1.05 million
Ribeiro signed a one-year deal with Nashville in hopes of reviving a career that had tailed off in the last season, with the Phoenix Coyotes. As a member of the Predators, Ribeiro went from a low-risk/high-reward player to one of the biggest reasons why Nashville made the post-season.
Drafted in the 2nd round, 45th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 1998, Ribeiro has enjoyed a career spanning from the 1999-00 season and lasting 15 years thus far. Playing for the Canadiens, Dallas Stars, Washington Capitals, Phoenix Coyotes and most recently the Predators, Ribeiro has had to overcome a great deal throughout his career. Upon being traded from Montreal to Dallas, Ribeiro had a well-documented dispute with then-captain Saku Koivu, causing for him to be traded. After a successful run with the Stars that lasted six seasons and included his best points-per-game ratio (1.09) in 2007-08, scoring 83 points in 76 games, Ribeiro spent one season with the Capitals and Coyotes, before his ordeal with substance abuse became a public matter.
Dealing with family problems, Ribeiro was bought out and would then sign with Nashville on a “Show us what you got” type contract At the age of 35, the team signing him should not expect the same 80-point player from eight seasons ago, or even the 70-point guy from five years ago. On a good team, Ribeiro’s role would be best suited on either a second or third line and favorable with a shooting winger, as he had with Nashville.
There is still some game in him and he has shown that despite hitting his md-30s, he can perform and contribute offensively. Of his 62 points last season, 50 came five-on-five. His Corsi For improved from 53.6 to 57.3 and he started in the defensive zone 51.9% of the time, showing he can still play a solid two-way game. After turning down a deal from Nashville, Ribeiro looks like he’ll test the market in hopes that the one-off he had as a Predator will be enough to earn him a bigger deal. The only thing going against him currently is the sexual assault charges he is facing.
2) Justin Williams
2014-15 Cap Hit: $3.65 million
Williams wants to stay in Los Angeles but as July 1st nears and the two sides are not making progress on a new deal, it appears as though the 33-year-old, three-time Stanley Cup champion will look to new beginnings.
Williams started his career in Philadelphia, spending four years as a member of the Flyers. In the 2003-04 season, Williams was dealt to the Hurricanes and responded well by putting up two consecutive 30-goal seasons, while winning the Stanley Cup with the 2006 Carolina team. As injuries started to pile on, Williams was dealt two seasons later to the Los Angeles Kings. While he never hit 30 goals again, he still was a contributor on a strong Kings team, hitting 22 goals twice, winning two more Stanley Cups and capturing his first Conn Smythe in the 2014 playoffs. While his days of hitting 70 points ended after the 2006-07 season, Williams can still add reinforcements in a complimentary role.
Although his points-per-game total continued to decline for a fifth consecutive season and his Corsi For has gone from 63.4 in 2012-13 to 56.4 last season, Williams is still receiving favorable defensive-zone starts. While his game is regressing slightly in terms of the defensive side of things, a team may still take a gamble and hope that a change of scenario in a top-six role could benefit him.
3) Matt Beleskey
2014-15 Cap Hit: $1.35 million
Last season, Beleskey set career-highs with 22 goals and 32 points, and a plus-13 rating. It was his first 20-goal season in six years, the closest being 11 goals in his rookie year.
Drafted in the 4th-round, 114th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2006, Beleskey is somewhat of an intriguing case. Standing at 6’0, he’s a pretty nifty player that combines a nose for the net and a good, accurate wrist shot that he utilizes to score big goals. He’s also capable of camping out in front and banging the puck away, while taking abuse (which in the Western conference, that’s a pretty big deal).
In the playoffs this past year, Beleskey scored at a 0.50 rate, putting eight goals on the board in 16 games, including a thrilling game-winner in overtime against the Blackhawks. Beleskey averaged a career-high 14:29 of ice-time and received favorable starts in the offensive zone, where coach Bruce Boudreau was able to somewhat shelter the 27-year-old forward. While his Corsi% (53.5), Corsi Relative (4.0), Fenwick% (53.2) and Fenwick Relative (3.1) were all up by a wide margin last season, it’s also important to note that he went from a player to started in the defensive zone 53-55% to starting in the offensive zone 51% last season.
Beleskey is a risky case because the team signing him is banking on one good season, with remarkable advanced stats and 22 goals, hoping he can do the same on a different team in a top-six role. Commanding around $5 million a season on a multi-year deal, it seems like the bumpy road he and Murray are experiencing in negotiations may just hit too big a speed bump before July 1st, and ultimately steer completely off the road.
4) Martin St. Louis
2014-15 Cap Hit: $5.625 million
With 16 years of experience and breaking the age of 40, St. Louis could join Jaromir Jagr as one of the only 40-year-olds playing in the NHL and still making an impact.
A Stanley Cup Champion, Gold medalist, Hart Trophy winner, Ted Lindsay winner, two-time Art Ross winner and a three-time recipient of the Lady Byng, there isn’t much left for St. Louis to accomplish. However, given his age and his compete level, there is still a lot he has to offer in today’s game, but it’s becoming a wonder if that wall that he’ll eventually hit is closer than we expect. Last season, his 52 points in 74 games was his lowest point total since his 35-point season in 2001-02 as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he also mustered just one goal in 19 playoff games. However, his 21 goals was good enough for second on the team and St. Louis also finished fourth in points, so it could be a production matter on the whole team and not just St. Louis himself.
His Corsi% went from a 50.6 combined with the Lightning an Rangers (slight increase after joining New York) last season to a 47.3, it’s important to note that he got more defensive zone starts than last season, going from 51.5% last season to 53.3% this past season. This number steadied back to 51.2% during the playoffs. While his future in the Big Apple is now in doubt, he should garner enough interest on a one-year or two-year deal.
5) Brad Richards
2014-15 Cap Hit: $2 million
Taking a chance with a $2 million deal, Richards came in and performed behind an offensive juggernaut in a depth role, creating a surplus of offense and major problems to opponents.
Already a Stanley Cup Champion and Conn Smythe winner as part of the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning, Richards landed in Chicago for his 14th year in the NHL. After spending time with the Lightning, Dallas Stars and New York Rangers, Richards played on a team in Chicago with tons of depth in front of him, that he didn’t even need to play much. In fact, his average ice-time of 14:53 was the lowest of his career, and two minutes lower than his rookie season. Still, Richards had chemistry when Patrick Kane was on his wing and following their 2015 Stanley Cup win, Kane expressed his interest in Richards sticking around.
Richards’ 0.49 was his career-low point-per-game total, by a fair margin. This can be attributed to his lack of playing time and a low shooting percentage (6.0%). While his Fenwick% has steadily declined over the last three seasons, hitting 52.8% last season, his Corsi% has remained stagnant at the 54% mark, changing only by the decimals over the last three seasons. His defensive zone deployment was 52.8%, a total point higher from last season, which indicates Richards can be used in a depth role and get the puck up the ice in a hurry. It will have to be on another cheap deal if Richards hopes to remain in the league. At 35, he isn’t producing on an elite level but his defensive game is good enough to get him by. Odds are, he could finish the season in Chicago, where he likely has his best chance of winning the Cup one more time.
6) Michael Frolik
2014-15 Cap Hit: $3.3 million
Frolik hit 19 goals last season and a second consecutive campaign of 42 points, playing on the top line with Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little. His versatility to move up and down on the depth chart has made him a valuable asset.
Coming over from Chicago two seasons ago, after winning the Stanley Cup while playing on their fourth-line, Frolik has taken his opportunities when he’s been given them and made the most out of them. He went from averaging 12 to 13 minutes with the Blackhawks, to averaging a career-high 17:30 last season with the Jets. While he still hasn’t managed to hit the 20-goal mark like he did in his first two seasons in the league, Frolik’s play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Winnipeg staff, or the league for that matter. His shooting percentage has been one of the biggest surprises, as he went from scoring three goals on a 3.1% shooting average in his final season with the Blackhawks to scoring 19 goals last season on a shooting percentage of 9.2%. Unfortunately for himself and the Jets, he couldn’t break the scoresheet in the post-season, as he was held pointless in the four-game sweep against the Anaheim Ducks and was a minus-2.
Frolik’s Corsi% wasn’t his best showing last year, at 54.5, but it was a slight improvement from last year’s 53.0. His deployment in zone starts was just about even, with a slight advantage to the defensive zone at 50.6%, but his playoffs looked amazing beyond his lack of point production. His Corsi% soared to 63.7, up from his 50.8 with the Blackhawks when they won the Stanley Cup. His Fenwick was also up in numbers, hitting 61.5, coming up big for the Jets despite being unable to score a goal.
What can Frolik expect for a new contract? Definitely a raise from his $3.3 million, especially if the Jets want to retain his services. North of $4 million is realistic, but if his agent Alan Walsh can push it towards $5 million and up, he’d likely become too expensive for the Jets taste.
7) Antoine Vermette
2014-15 Cap Hit: $3.75 million
Vermette was leading the Arizona Coyotes with 35 points before he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, coming in as a pure rental. He failed to click at first and was even a healthy scratch to start the playoffs, but he turned it around in time to be a regular en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
In his eleven-year career, Vermette has played with the Ottawa Senators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes and most recently the Blackhawks. While his 65-point season with the Blue Jackets remains his best year, production-wise, Vermette has managed to remain a 30-40 point guy throughout his career, while providing good numbers in the face-off circle, hovering around the 55-57% mark.
When Vermette joined the Blackhawks, his game struggled with new surroundings. He was unable to put up a point in 19 games and his face-off percentage dropped to 50%, from 56.6% with the Coyotes prior to being traded. Vermette was even scratched early into the playoffs but when he was re-inserted into the line-up, he tied a career-high 58.7% in face-offs and added four goals, including three game-winners (two coming in overtime).
Vermette’s Corsi% (48.4) and Fenwick% (48.4) aren’t exactly promising or the best among other free agents hitting the market, but they have improved over the last three seasons, which can be a positive sign as he passes his 30’s. It’s also important to note that his deployment for zone starts has gradually shifted. Since 2011-12 to present day, Vermette has gone from 44.8% offensive zone starts all the way to 51.0%.
Whether that’s enough to earn him a lucrative deal at his age, it likely won’t be with the Blackhawks as they are facing cap problems heading into next season and are expected to make some moves. His ability to win face-offs sets him apart from a few other centers hitting he market and if he can continue adding 30-40 points a season, he could see anything north of $4 million. He’s not counted on his two-way game as much as he once was, but in a complimentary role, with a shooting winger, Vermette could be worth the money.
8) Joel Ward
2014-15 Cap Hit: $3 million
At the age of 34, Ward is one late-bloomer that is garnering a lot of attention. Scoring 19 goals last season, Ward has the flexibility to play on any line and fit into any role.
Ward has been an essential key to Washington’s past four seasons, missing a combined 18 games. Coming off a career-year of 24 goals and 25 assists, Ward averaged 16:53 of ice-time the following season, which was his highest TOI since joining the Capitals. His hard-nosed brand of hockey made him an asset on any line, whether the Capitals needed some heavy forechecking and defending, or a big goal while playing on the top line. Playing a power game, his shooting percentage has remained above 10% over the last three seasons, his peak coming two years ago during his 24-goal season, where he put up a shooting percentage of 18%.
Ward’s Corsi% was up from last season, improving from 47.7 to 50, but it goes hand-in-hand with his deployment in zone starts, as he got more offensive-zone starts than last year, going from 49.8 to 51.6. What’s most impressive however is that in the playoffs, Ward started more in the defensive zone, 50.5, and his Corsi% soared to 57.8. Granted this is in a 14-game sample size, but during elevated play in the post-season, it’s remarkable on its own merit.
Although he has stated that he wants to remain in Washington, he’ll need to think along the lines of staying stagnant at or around $3 million per season. What’s coming currently out of both sides is that the team wants a two-year deal while Ward wants an extra year. If both sides can’t come up with an agreement, Ward could easily get $3 million on the market, perhaps even more, for three years.
9) Eric Fehr
2014-15 Cap Hit: $1.5 million
Fehr came close to recording his second 20-goal season, coming up just short at 19. Still, Fehr played an important role on the Capitals third line and helped anchor one of the best shut-down lines in the league last season.
In his final two seasons in junior, Fehr put up consecutive 50-goal runs and while that production hasn’t translated (and nobody really expected it to), he has been capable of adding secondary scoring while playing good, defensive hockey at the NHL level. Injuries have not been kind to him, but when he is healthy he adds a dimension to a team that is craved in today’s NHL.
Excelling in shorthanded situations, Fehr averaged a career-high 14:51, won 52% of his face-offs and scored on 13.4% of his shots. While he shouldn’t be expected to stay at that pace, it was a nice indication of Fehr’s ability to play a solid two-way game. His five-on-five play has received tons of praise, from analyst Pierre McGuire to Capitals fans everywhere. Of his 19 goals, all but two came at even strength. Unfortunately, for himself and for the Capitals, Fehr could only play in four games during the post-season, suffering a shoulder injury and being forced out of the line-up. His absence crushed the team, and although they put up a valiant fight, they couldn’t overcome the Rangers.
What’s interesting to note is that despite being praised for his ability to shut down opponents, his advanced stats are quite average, compared to some of the other free agent forwards in this year’s crop. His Corsi% of 50.2 was up from last season’s 48.8, but still registered as his second-worst rating. The same can be said for Fehr’s Fenwick% of 50.3, which was up from last year’s 47.8. His deployment in defensive-zone starts has also decreased over the course of the last three seasons, going from 55.9% in 2012-13 to 50.9% this past season.
At the $1.5-2 million mark, Fehr is a good signing and can still provide some good shut-down hockey, despite what the advanced numbers suggest. Properly utilized in where his face-offs start, Fehr can still be an asset if he can remain healthy. His elbow surgery is expected to be fully healed by the start of the 2015-16 season.
10) Mike Santorelli
2014-15 Cap Hit: $1.5 million
Before Santorelli was traded to the Nashville Predators last season, he was doing an exceptional job in Toronto. With 11 goals in 57 games and a 10.8 shooting percentage, Santorelli was a great add to the top-nine. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do as much with Nashville in 22 games, putting up only 1 goal and 4 points, and a minus-7 rating.
Unable to avoid injuries, Santorelli’s last full season came in 2010-11, which is also the last season that he scored 20 goals and hit 40 points. His 2013-14 season looked promising given he only played in 49 games, where he scored 10 goals and 28 points, averaging a career-high 18:34 ice-time. On a decent-to-good team, Santorelli is an exceptional bottom-six player that adds a tenacious work ethic and can notch some points on the side. He should never be counted on as the go-to guy but he is one that can turn a top-nine into a good looking line-up.
Santorelli’s Corsi% improved from 46.7 to 49.6 upon his move to Nashville and prior to joining Toronto, he was at the 50-54% rank. Same goes for his Fenwick%, which went from 45.7 to 49.7, which is a good indicator that his numbers took a drop due to the poor overall possession numbers of the Maple Leafs. What’s most important to note is how Nashville utilized Santorelli’s abilities. In Toronto, he was deployed in defensive-zone starts at 50.4%. In Nashville, that number shot up to 60.6%. Yet his advanced stats improved with more defensive-zone time.
The contract he was paid last season is a good starting point and he may not see much more than that. Granted, his services are sought after and his name has been passed around the league, so that number could approach $2 million if a team is willing to pay for his services on the third line.