A salary cap league means getting bang for your buck is imperative, and these five players have been the best low-risk, high-reward pick ups of the off-season through the campaign’s first two months.
Sam Gagner has embodied the very definition of a low-risk, potentially high-reward off-season signing.
Having come off the worst year of his career, Gagner was looking for the opportunity to prove he still had something left in the tank. At 26, Gagner had just finished one of the most disappointing seasons he’s had to battle through. He managed just eight goals and 16 points with the Flyers, had been sent down to the minors during the campaign and the one time Edmonton Oilers first-liner had turned into a seldom-used bottom-six utility player in Philadelphia.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were the team who finally stepped up and inked Gagner, signing him to a one-year, $650,000 deal. It was a cheap signing and one that had little chance of blowing up in Columbus’ face. If it backfired, the Blue Jackets could simply shuffle Gagner to the minors and forget the whole thing.
The good thing is that the Gagner signing has been far from a disaster. Through 20 games, Gagner has eight goals and 13 points, he’s providing a bottom-six offensive punch and he’s been a good hand on the power play. And with a cap hit that’s not breaking the bank on a team that’s right up against the upper limit, that’s a useful kind of player to have.
Gagner doesn’t top the list of the most cost-effective off-season signings, though. Here are the five unrestricted free agents who have provided the most offense on a budget:
(Note: The players listed below have to have at least 10 points. Additionally, all players have to be in new locales. Matt Cullen, for instance, re-signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins and has 10 points in 23 games at a $1-million salary. You won’t find him, or any other re-signees, on this list. All cap figures via CapFriendly.)
5. Michael Grabner, New York Rangers — Cost per point: $103,125
The only player who’s really tipping the scales in terms of annual salary on this list is Grabner, but he’s making his $1.65-million cap hit seem like a song for the Blueshirts. They just hope he can keep it up.
The 29-year-old has had a hot start and an unexpected hat trick is to thank for his big numbers. He opened the season with two goals in three games, went quiet for five games and then put up three on the Lightning on Oct. 30. He’s actually stayed pretty consistent since then, but he’s currently riding a five-game pointless drought.
His 12 goals are already the most he’s scored since 2013-14, and with 16 points, he’s only 11 shy of posting his best season in the past five seasons.
4. Radim Vrbata, Arizona Coyotes — Cost per point: $66,667
As far as cost per point goes, this is about as technical a case as it gets. As of right now, Vrbata’s cost the Coyotes next to nothing, but in the (albeit unlikely) scenario he doesn’t register another point in his next nine games, his cost per point is going to jump by 50 percent.
Vrbata signed a one-year, $1-million deal in Arizona, but it’s bonus-laden. He gets an additional $500,000 after 30 games, another $500,000 if he hits either the 20-goal or 40-point plateau and there’s an additional $1.25-million tied to playoff bonuses, though it seems rather unlikely he’ll be hitting many, or any, of those.
There’s something about Vrbata and the Coyotes, though. It’s uncanny. He’s always played his best hockey in Arizona, and his eight goals and 15 points in 21 games have him on pace to more than double his output from 2015-16.
3. Rene Bourque, Colorado Avalanche — Cost per point: $65,000
No one will forget where they were during the great Rene Bourque sweepstakes of 2016. The hockey world waited anxiously to learn where the 34-year-old would sign, in hopes that he could bring a boost and Stanley Cup dreams to…Who are we kidding? No one would have predicted this.
On a roster with players such as Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and intriguing rookie Mikko Rantanen, it’s Bourque, with eight tallies in 19 games, who leads the Avalanche in goals. That’s already good for the second-best goal scoring season he’s had since 2011-12.
His signing in Colorado was seen as the Avalanche taking a flyer on a veteran who could potentially have some scoring punch in him, with hopes he could recapture the three-straight 20-goal years from his days as a Calgary Flame. The one-year, $650,000 deal is looking pretty good so far with Bourque third on the team with 10 points.
2. Sam Gagner, Columbus Blue Jackets — Cost per point: $50,000
Gagner’s season is one to watch for reasons beyond the fact that he’s coming off of a terrible year, because not only has he found his game again in Columbus, he’s done so at a rate that could potentially make this the best campaign of his career.
The best season of Gagner’s career remains his rookie year, when he potted 13 goals and 49 points in 2007-08. That was good enough to earn him a handful of votes and finish seventh in Calder Trophy voting. His next best year was his lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, as he scored 14 goals and 38 points in 48 games, good for .79 points per game.
Gagner isn’t in line to bust that points per game pace, but he is staring at potential career highs in goals and points. Right now, he’s on pace to crack the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career and his 52-point clip would signal the highest scoring season of his 10-year career.
1. Jonathan Marchessault, Florida Panthers — Cost per point: $41,667
If you saw this coming, you’re either a liar or a witch.
Over a span of just 23 games, Marchessault is one point shy of doubling his career point total in roughly half the games. He has already scored more goals this season than he did in 45 outings with the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2015-16 campaign. Marchessault has been nothing short of outstanding in Florida, and the signing is proving to be a fantastic one by the Panthers.
There’s certainly some reasons for the uptick in scoring, such as injuries allowing him to play more than 18 minutes a night and skate on a line with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr, but credit where credit is due. Marchessault has been consistent and he’s been effective.
The only thing about this deal that bites is that Marchessault inked a two-year, $1.5-million deal. That means Florida doesn’t have to be in any hurry to re-sign him if he continues to have a big year, and the 25-year-old might have to prove himself again next year in order to get a payday.
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