Justin Williams (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Trading has become more difficult in the salary cap era, so free-agent signings can have a huge impact on a team’s fortunes. The free-agent market was tough this off-season, but there were five great signings that are paying off early this season.
The salary cap era has made it increasingly difficult for GMs around the league to improve their clubs through trades. As such, it has put more importance on being able to lock up the right free agent to add to a team’s already stacked roster or be the piece that can change the tides.
If the 2015 free agent market will be remembered for anything, it will be the cost-conscious ways of GMs league-wide, which led to some free agents having a difficult time finding work. Veteran winger Curtis Glencross, for instance, chose to retire instead of heading any further into the season without a contract. Blueliner Cody Franson, who doesn’t appear on this list, waited almost the entire off-season before signing a deal with Buffalo.
But even in a tight market, there are more than a few GMs would made savvy signings, be it by dishing out top dollar or using a cost-effective model. Here are five free agent signings who have been well worth their money:
5. Tomas Fleischmann, LW, Montreal Canadiens
Montreal GM Marc Bergevin waited until nearly the last moment to ink Fleischmann to a deal, but it has paid off wonderfully for the Canadiens. Fleischmann, 31, was coming off of a disappointing eight-goal, 27-point campaign split between Florida and Anaheim, but the one-time 60-point man got a chance when the Habs inked him to a one-year, $750,000 contract.
Through 10 games, Fleischmann has averaged more than 15 minutes per game and has chipped in two goals and five points. For what it’s worth, both of his tallies have been game-winners, too. He skated a season-best 18 minutes in Montreal’s streak-snapping loss to Vancouver, but his ice time has been steady throughout the course of the season.
Depth scoring matters in the post-season and Fleischmann has provided just that. Now it’s up to the Canadiens to get there.
4. Andrej Sekera, D, Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton had two major needs this off-season. First, they needed a capable goaltender, which they got when they landed Cam Talbot from the New York Rangers. Second, the Oilers needed a top-pairing defenseman. GM Peter Chiarelli got his man when he snagged Sekera on a six-year, $33-million deal.
Sekera’s four points in 10 games won’t blow anyone away, but what he provides to the Oilers is a steadying presence on defense for a team that desperately needed one. The 29-year-old blueliner has also skated top penalty kill minutes and on the second power play unit.
Sekera was a hot commodity at the 2014-15 trade deadline and again had many suitors as free agency hit. But he landed in Edmonton and his presence has made a difference.
3. Johnny Oduya, D, Dallas Stars
Is Oduya a Norris Trophy candidate? No. Will he be an offensive juggernaut? No. But did the Stars need an experienced veteran defenseman? Absolutely, and Oduya fills that void perfectly. The Stars’ biggest area of concern was the blueline and they’ve done well to patch it up.
Oduya signed a two-year, $7.5-million deal, and while he has never been the most offensively gifted defenseman, he’s a tremendous skater who can skate the puck out of trouble before dishing it off to any of Dallas’ top scorers. Oduya fits right into the Stars’ second-pairing and has been incredibly useful for the Stars on the penalty kill, where he averages more ice time per game than any other player.
The Stars are looking to take the next step this season and acquiring Patrick Sharp from the Blackhawks was part of that. Adding another piece for Chicago’s Stanley Cup-winning squad in Oduya, though, may be just enough to get Dallas over the hump.
2. Artemi Panarin, W, Chicago Blackhawks
Panarin wasn’t a traditional free-agent signing in that he inked his deal with the Blackhawks in April. The 23-year-old — who will turn 24 tomorrow — signed a unique two-year, entry-level deal with Chicago as an undrafted free agent following a stellar campaign in the KHL. The contract carries a cap hit of $812,500 in both years, but Panarin can earn close to $2.6 million in performance bonuses in each of his first two seasons.
In 54 games in the KHL in 2014-15, Panarin notched 26 goals and 62 points while averaging just 16 minutes per game. Already, his workload has been increased in Chicago, as he has averaged more than 18 minutes per night. Panarin’s production has been great, too. In nine games, he has two goals and eight points while playing on a line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane.
Panarin’s slick puckhandling and creativity have made him a perfect fit in Chicago. Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman was in tough to try to improve his team and replace stars such as Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad who had to be traded. Panarin, however, is making fans quickly forget about the players who had to be dealt.
1. Justin Williams, RW, Washington Capitals
What did Washington GM Brian MacLellan want when he went out and signed Williams to a two-year, $6.5-million deal? He wanted a veteran who could slide up and down the lineup and produce for the Capitals, especially in the playoffs.
The latter part of that is yet to be determined, but through eight games Williams has scored one goal and six points while skating less than 16:30 per game. The 34-year-old right winger has never been a top scorer in the league, but he has cracked the 60-point plateau twice and is a four-time 20-goal scorer.
On the goal-starved Kings over the past five seasons, Williams either surpassed or flirted with the 20-goal mark, so in Washington it seems a given he’ll come close again. And when the post-season comes, the Capitals will be hoping Williams turns it on, just like he did in 2013-14 when he scored nine goals and 25 points in 26 games to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy.