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THN.com Blog: Under-the-radar UFA deals

Jay McKee had only eight points in 69 games for St. Louis last season, but his asset comes in blocking shots and playing a sound defensive game. (Photo by Tom Gannam/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Jay McKee had only eight points in 69 games for St. Louis last season, but his asset comes in blocking shots and playing a sound defensive game. (Photo by Tom Gannam/NHLI via Getty Images)

There were a few signings in the NHL over the past seven days that didn’t garner the attention they deserve, because it’s players like the following five who can be the difference between making, and advancing in, the playoff dance.

JAY MCKEE, D, PITTSBURGH
I naturally assume Ray Shero is an avid reader of my blog as one day after I postulated on the impact of losing two stay-at-home blueliners in Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, the Pens GM inked Jay McKee to a bargain deal of $800,000 for one year.

McKee, who was bought out of the final year of his contract with the Blues, remains one of the league’s premier shot-blockers – he was seventh in the league with 185 in 2008-09 – and is arguably an upgrade over the two departed defensemen…for far, far less.

TOM KOSTOPOULOS, RW, CAROLINA
The former Canadien, who put pen to paper on a three-year deal worth $2.75- million Tuesday, will be a stellar addition to a Hurricanes lineup that’s rounding into a solid Tier II threat in the East.

If coach Paul Maurice gets 10 goals out of the 30-year-old, he should consider himself lucky, but Kostopoulos’ game isn’t about offense, it’s about high-energy and first-rate board play – a trait the Canes, and every other team for that matter, can sorely use.

How useful players like Kostopoulos are paid less than a million per year, while one-dimensional pugilists get seven figures is beyond me.
 
BRENDAN MORRISON, C, WASHINGTON
Everyone outside of Vancouver may have forgotten, but Morrison can flat out play. Some will argue he can only produce when flanked by gifted wingers, but that’ll be a moot debate in Washington where the No. 2 center role is his to lose and the Caps’ cup runneth over with talent.

The 33-year-old’s numbers dwindled over the past two seasons, but expect that trend to reverse in ’09-10. At $1.5 million for one year, Morrison could wind up with one of the NHL’s top PPD – points per dollar.

ANTERO NIITTYMAKI, G, TAMPA BAY
A current THN intern, who also happens to be a Philly native, didn’t have too many flattering things to say about the 29-year-old when his one-year, $600,000 deal was announced, but the numbers tell a pretty positive story.

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Niittymaki was 15-8-6 last season with a 2.76 goals-against average and .912 save percentage when spelling Marty Biron in Philadelphia; the best numbers of the Finn’s five-year NHL career.

More importantly, Niittymaki is comfortable and has had success as a starter (if incumbent Mike Smith’s injury woes continue), a co-No. 1 (if Smith becomes inconsistent) and as the backup (if Smith thrives).

NIGEL DAWES, LW, CALGARY
Dawes doesn’t really belong on this list as he was a waiver pickup, not a UFA signing, but it’s a crafty move for which GM Darryl Sutter deserves credit nonetheless.

The Flames are thin on the left side and Dawes, who split last season between the Rangers and Coyotes scoring 10 goals and 21 points in 64 games, will have an excellent opportunity to rediscover the scoring prowess he had in junior, but hasn’t found in the NHL.

Flames coaches are well aware of Dawes’ capabilities: head coach Brent Sutter was the 24-year-old’s coach during Team Canada’s gold medal run at the 2005 world juniors and assistant coach Ryan McGill was Dawes’ bench boss during his first year in the Western League with Kootenay when the Ice won the 2002 Memorial Cup.

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Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog normally appears Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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