Maxim Afinogenov has nine goals and 20 points in 20 games with the Thrashers this season. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)
With so much scrutiny (and rightly so) placed upon GMs by media and fans alike for an alarming number of ill-advised, cap-unfriendly deals, it’s time to take a look at the top 10 performances so far from players on one-year deals, making less than $3 million, who can become unrestricted free agents next summer.
10. Doug Weight – Islanders
This has nothing to do with Weight's limited time on the ice for the Islanders so far and everything to do with his ability to be a leader/surrogate father/older brother/landlord for newcomers John Tavares and Matt Moulson.
If the injured Weight doesn't score a single goal this year, but Tavares and Moulson – both of whom live in his guesthouse – continue at their current clip, it will be $2.2 million well spent by Garth Snow and the Isles.
9. Andrew Raycroft – Vancouver
After locking up Roberto Luongo on a lifetime contract, the Canucks needed to go cheap at the backup position and Raycroft met their asking price of $500,000.
When Luongo missed time with a rib injury, all Raycroft did was improve his early-season numbers to 4-2-0 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. If he plays only a half-dozen games the rest of the way, he'll have earned every penny of the deal for his surprising ability to come in and play strong with the team under duress.
8. Mike Grier – Buffalo; David Steckel – Washington; Robert Lang – Phoenix; Jay McKee – Pittsburgh
OK, so it's no longer a true top 10, but in their own way, these four (who combine to make just less than $4 million) have brought a lot to their respective teams.
The Sabres have been too soft and too small in recent years and now in his second tour of duty in Buffalo, Grier has shown all of his mates what it takes to prepare and play like a pro every night.
For Steckel, it's about dominating. Not on the scoresheet, but the faceoff dot. Among the best in the league – winning 61.5 percent of his draws – everyone knows Steckel’s role on this star-studded squad.
It took a long time for Lang to find a new home, but he's been a nice fit in Phoenix as a veteran presence/point producer/faceoff man on a team that used too many kids last year and looks better for the change in philosophy so far this year.
And coming off his best season as a St. Louis Blue, but making too much for their budget, McKee was going to be a bargain for whoever picked up the bought-out blueliner. Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero knew that and McKee was an ideal candidate to help replace departed defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill.
And now that he'll soon be over an infection that has forced him to miss a couple games already, McKee will likely be around for all the critical moments to come as the champs look to defend their title.
7. John Madden – Chicago
Hard to find anyone who didn't expect this one-year, $2.75 million deal to pay dividends for a team on the rise. Pick an intangible and Madden likely excels at it. But will the Hawks be able to keep him beyond this season?
6. Adrian Aucoin – Phoenix
He may not be the same defenseman who scored 23 goals for Vancouver in 1998-99, or the one who used to average about 29 minutes of ice time per game for the Islanders, but in his 14th season, Aucoin is the ice-time leader for the Coyotes and will likely produce 10 or more goals and 30-40 points. GM Don Maloney has had a huge return on this one-year, $2.25 million investment already when you consider the injuries Phoenix has sustained along the blueline.
5. Brendan Morrison – Washington
On the heels of a pair of disastrous seasons, one year and $1.5 million may have seemed too high a price to pay for Morrison. Not anymore. Morrison is not only on pace for about 60 points, it's the ease and confidence with which he's doing it some nights that makes you believe he's got at least a few more years left in the tank.
4. Tomas Plekanec – Montreal
This situation was a little different than most. Plekanec was a restricted free agent who can now become unrestricted at the end of this season. It's hard to imagine any GM wanting to give a player a cap hit raise of $1.2 million after the player saw his point total drop by 30 and his plus/minus dip by 24.
But that’s what Bob Gainey did and the 27-year-old Plekanec is rewarding him by putting himself on pace for a career high in points. Where will Plekanec go next from the $2.75 million he's earning this season?
3. Ray Emery – Philadelphia
Not unlike Madden in Chicago, but for different reasons, Ray Emery in Philadelphia just seemed right. His $1.5 million salary fit into their limited cap space, he plays with a passion Flyer fans love and he's been to more Cup finals – one – than any of their recent puck-stoppers.
So far, so good for both parties in this deal.
2. Vaclav Prospal – Rangers
It doesn't seem right that big spenders on Broadway are benefiting from a buyout, but they are – and in a big way.
Prospal will get $6.67 million over the next six years to not play for the Lightning. If he manages to stay in the top 30 in NHL scoring, which he has done before, you have to believe he'll be getting a lot more than $1.15 million per season to play for the Rangers next season and perhaps beyond.
1. Maxim Afinogenov – Atlanta
The only one on this list who had to earn his contract by way of a tryout, perhaps Afinogenov's early-season surge will prove to be a turning point for Thrashers GM Don Waddell, who could use a few deals/contracts to go his way.
After showing up for only the first year of his final three-year deal in Buffalo, crazy legs Max appeared destined for the Kontinental League or anywhere but the NHL after an embarrassing six-goal, 20-point season.
Now, with the money they're saving by paying Afinogenov a mere $800,000, perhaps the Thrashers can launch an aggressive marketing campaign based on their Russian Five – Ilya Kovalchuk, Max Afinogenov, Nik Antropov, Slava Kozlov and Rich Peverlov...
Brian Duff is a host of On The Fly on the NHL Network. Like his minor hockey days (playing goalie, defense and forward) his broadcasting career has been all over the map. In radio and TV from Medicine Hat to Edmonton, Toronto to Ottawa and back, Brian has been with the NHL Network since 2007 and has been covering the game for nearly 15 years. Read more of his THN.com Blog HERE.