Biggest Missed Opportunities with NHL Free Agents

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NHL general managers have gotten better about recognizing talent and capitalizing on it. However, there are still skilled players that fall through the cracks. These players were pushed out of the league in some way or another. Whether it be by not qualifying them, terminating their contract, or sending them to the AHL, they have all been neglected by NHL teams. Other teams even had the chance to acquire them as an NHL free agent. These are all players who still could make an impact at the NHL level but weren’t given the opportunity.

NHL Free Agent Missed Opportunities

Sven Andrighetto

Sven Andrighetto is a player that was always an interesting case to me. He constantly had some of the best zone entries and exits and shot assist data according to Corey Sznajder’s tracking. Constantly ranking in the 85th percentile in a number of different micro stats, he had the tools to be a fantastic NHL player. 

Data from Corey Sznajder; visuals from CJ Turtoro

While he struggled to put it all together in order to translate to on-ice results, he still had a strong skill set that should have warranted more time in the NHL. Instead, in 2019, the Colorado Avalanche decided not to qualify him as an RFA, making him a UFA. Rather than getting another opportunity in the NHL, or even taken as a “reclamation project” by another team, he ended up in the KHL for a season. Today he is currently on a five-year contract with the ZSC Lions in Switzerland.

Julius Honka

Julius Honka is a player that didn’t quite live up to his draft pedigree. At 14th overall in 2014, the Dallas Stars expected much bigger things for Honka. While he didn’t live up to the expectations of his draft position, Honka still provided good value as a defenceman. Being scratched in the final 35 games and all of the 2018-19 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it seemed like the Stars were focused on what he wasn’t rather than what he was.

Data and visuals from Evolving Hockey

What is meant by this is Honka wasn’t a top-pair defender, but he was still a very good bottom four-player for the Stars defence. However, it seems they could never get past this. Dallas viewed him as a “bust” rather than an effective bottom four defender. His RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey shows he was still a good defenceman, but again, he was just never great like Dallas wanted him to be. They decided they did not want Honka to be a part of the teams’ future.

Honka left to play in Finland for the 2019-20 season, and for part of the 2020-21 year before eventually coming to a deal with the Stars. Dallas, however, kept him in the AHL for the entire rest of the season, with Honka never getting a game in the NHL. Now, Honka is playing in Sweden and is set to become a UFA in the summer of 2023. He could potentially be an NHL free agent again and join any team if he so chooses.

Cody Franson

This is a player very near and dear to me. The Chicago Blackhawks were not a very good team in 2017-18. They finished their season 25th in the NHL and last in their division. During this stint, they sent defencemen Cody Franson to the AHL. This was in order to make room to recall Erik Gustafsson. Calling up Gustafsson makes sense looking back on it. He ended up being the Blackhawks’ best defenceman that season. However, there were plenty of worse defenders to send down instead of Franson. Jan Rutta and Gustav Forsling both made more sense, as they were both worse defenders at the time and had similar cap hits to Franson. What’s worse is that no NHL teams claimed that capable defenceman at just $1,000,000.

Data and visuals from Evolving Hockey

Data and visuals from HockeyViz

Franson was still a good hockey player on some very bad teams in his later years. As we can see from his RAPM charts (2015-17 Buffalo Sabres; 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks) and his WOWY heatmaps (2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks), he still provided good defensive value and even provided some offence in Chicago. But rather, Cody Franson maybe had a reputation associated with him. This could be because he was on some very bad teams over his career (Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres).

Franson, after being sent to the AHL in 2017-18, went on to sign with Avangard Omsk in the KHL for the next two seasons. Today he’s back in the AHL with the Hershey Bears, after being named to the 2021 AHL Central All-Star Team in Rockford.

Brandon Pirri

This is a player I wanted the Toronto Maple Leafs to target in the off-season. He does one thing, and one thing well. Score. And I’d even argue he was better defensively than some gave him credit for. In 2018-19, Brandon Pirri was able to put up a magnificent offensive campaign. He was able to score 12 goals in 31 games with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Data and visuals from HockeyViz

He has also seen sustained success at the AHL. Perlini has posted 36 goals in 48 games over the last three seasons. This should certainly be worthy of a look at the NHL level again. While he’s played an NHL game as recently as 2020-21, it was only one game and Pirri is really a player that hasn’t been given a fair shake in recent history given his past of goal scoring at every level. Even in 2018-19 when he was producing well with the Vegas Golden Knights, he only played a total of 31 games for them.

Vadim Shipachyov

This is a saga that was nearly forgotten to time. Shipachyov was a fantastic player in the KHL when he signed in Vegas for their inaugural season. He was primed to be their top-line center. Making $4,500,000 per season, it turned out the Golden Knights couldn’t fit him under the cap. They cited him being an on-ice disappointment and that he needed to work on his play, but in reality, George McPhee mishandled the cap. I often cite McPhee as a great GM during his time in the role in Vegas. However, the inability to make cap room for Shipachyov was a gigantic blunder. This error often gets overlooked because Vegas made it to the finals in the same year.

Shipachyov has since led the KHL in scoring three of the four following seasons after leaving Vegas. Prior to that, he was also consistently among the league’s top-5. Shipachyov was forced out not for his own play (they only saw three games from him), but because their GM was unable to find a place for him.

These are five players who are still playing professional hockey that should be at the NHL level but have been forced out some way or another. They could all be signed as an NHL free agent down the line if teams wake up and recognize their skill.

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