Few remaining NHL free agents are worth signing, but there is value out there

Feb 12, 2019; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres right wing Jason Pominville (29) celebrates after scoring a goal on the New York Islanders during the second period at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Pominville is apparently weighing his options. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, it was speculated that Jason Pominville is weighing his options between signing with Buffalo or Montreal. Waiting for the right situation and all that.

We’re getting to the point in the summer where “the right situation” is anyone at all giving you a contract. As early August rolls on here, the number of new signings you can expect to see as training camps approach is very small.

Many of them will be for one-year show-me contracts and perhaps more will be for tryout deals. The Maple Leafs have already locked some fringe guys — like Matt Read and Michal Neuvirth — into PTOs, and the Flyers have one slated for Chris Stewart.

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There are also some rather useful players still waiting for an employer, though some of them really look like “one destination” kinds of guys, like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, maybe even Justin Williams and Patrick Maroon are either going to sign or not, depending on some factors which may be out of their control. All would likely be good additions to those respective teams on one level or another, but maybe not to the extent their AAVs will suggest.

That leaves just a handful of guys who history suggests are even worth signing to be anything beyond depth replacements if your actual NHLers get hurt or traded for parts. Top of the list, obviously, is Jake Gardiner, who’s the best free agent standing by a decent margin. You don’t really need the explanation on this except to say he’s an excellent defender at even strength and chips in a decent (but not great or anything) amount on special teams.

That might limit his value to teams that are likely being asked to pay a premium for a guy who had 50 points two seasons ago and was on a pace for 40ish this year. Most of Gardiner’s scoring comes at 5-on-5 despite the fact that he got a decent run-out as a power play option for a Leafs team loaded with offensive talent. Can he help your power play? Sure. Can he 50 points help it? Probably not. The fact that he doesn’t spend a lot of time killing penalties might also cut his utility.

But he’s so, so good at 5-on-5 (buoyed in part by that same Leafs talent level, sure) that his lack of a contract today remains a bit baffling.

The rest of the current free agent class is a bit weird. Dan Girardi is fourth in WAR among remaining skater UFAs — behind Gardiner, Thornton, and Williams, in that order — over the last two seasons. No doubt that comes mostly because of how good Tampa was the last two years (fun fact: not one player on the Lightning was below replacement level last season). However, it might show that in the right circumstances, a team could work him into the lineup on occasion and get something of use out of him if he comes cheap enough.

What it also definitely shows is that the rest of the unsigned UFAs aren’t great. After Girardi is Ben Lovejoy, who’s another perfectly fine bottom-of-your-lineup addition but certainly nothing you’d want to get excited over. At that point you’re kind of picking guys for specializations and that’s about it: Lovejoy is a solid enough penalty killer and you can trust him a little bit at 5-on-5 but that’s all. Somewhat similarly, Riley Sheahan looks like a decent enough bottom-six addition as long as you’re not looking to him for offense or letting him kill penalties.

Lovejoy and Sheahan actually lead all remaining defenders and forwards, respectively, in shorthanded time over the last two seasons, but where Lovejoy excelled relative to this peer group, Sheahan got buried. He shouldn’t get much of a look on special teams but he’s just fine at 5-on-5 if you don’t have an ELC guy you think is worth a look on the lower half of your roster.

A few other guys who might be worth a tire-kick or two if you’re trying to fill out your bottom six or third pairing: Oscar Lindberg (5-on-5 only), Freddie Claesson (5-on-5 and shorthanded), David Schlemko (5-on-5 and power play if he can stay healthy), and Dmirij Jaskin (5-on-5 only). Not saying any of them are going to be some big needle-mover for you but you can do worse than using any of them as your 12/13 forward or 6/7 defenseman.

As for Pominville himself, you’re talking about a guy who’s roughly replacement-level at this point in his career but he got that bump early last season from a shooting percentage binge and the opportunity to play with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.

Just goes to show you can get some decent value from just about anyone if you put them in a position to succeed. Guys who make it to the NHL are usually going to be good enough at hockey that they can provide value in some way as long as you’re not asking them to do too much. Probably not a coincidence that as Pominville fizzled, so too did the illusion that the Sabres were any good at all.

Most of the guys still out of contract probably aren’t NHLers anymore, for a number of reasons, or they’ve just priced themselves out of work. But if you’re careful about how you approach them, there’s still a decent amount of value on the market.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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