Jiri Hudler (Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
We’re two weeks into free agency and there are still a number of talented players looking for work this season. From veteran scorers to some players potentially set to hit their stride, here are the five best players who haven’t yet been scooped up.
Two weeks of free agency are officially in the books, and there are still a number of interesting names available.
The top-tier names have already found homes, but teams looking to bolster their depth can still do so by looking to the crop of free agents. There’s everything from young, project players to veteran scorers looking for one more shot at Stanley Cup glory. There’s a very real chance that some of the players still available could have breakout years — think Lee Stempniak this past season as a New Jersey Devil — if put in the right situation.
Among the misfit toys, there are five players who stand out. These are the five best free agents still looking for work next season:
1. Jiri Hudler, 32, RW
2015-16: 72 GP, 16 G, 30 A, 46 Pts.
Hudler is coming off of a four-year, $16-million deal that saw him end this past season with the Florida Panthers, but his remarkable drop off in production from the 2013-14 campaign to this past season may have some wary about the 32-year-old.
After having an awesome 31-goal, 76-point campaign, Hudler failed to get back to even the 20-goal plateau. That’s been Hudler’s habit, too. He’s a streaky player who’s failed to ever have any real consistency. Early in his career he showed flashes of being a 20-goal scorer before dipping down to 10 goals in a 73-game campaign and his past three seasons have seen him score 17, 31 and 16 goals.
The biggest issue may be salary. Hudler’s best days are behind him, so he shouldn’t be expecting to get a raise on the $4 million he earned this past season. The most likely scenario sees him settling for something in the $2.5-3 million range on a short-term — possibly even one-year — contract.
2. Radim Vrbata, 35, RW
2015-16: 63 GP, 13 G, 14 A, 27 Pts.
Vrbata is coming off of a down season, too, and he’s doing so as a veteran player that would have to sign a 35-plus deal. That means it’s almost certain that if Vrbata signs somewhere, it’s going to be either a one- or two-year deal. But age is really the only thing keeping Vrbata from the top of this list, especially if a team can nab the aging winger to a cheap deal.
At this point, Vrbata is only a year removed from scoring 31 goals and he’s been a consistent 20-goal scorer for much of his late-20s and early-30s. He no doubt had some tough times with the Vancouver Canucks this past season, but who on that roster didn’t? If a team can nab Vrbata and put him with a playmaker, there’s a good chance he could pop at least 15-20 goals home this coming season.
3. Brandon Pirri, 25, LW
2015-16: 61 GP, 14 G, 15 A, 29 Pts.
Unless his demands are way too high, it’s kind of mind-boggling that no one has snatched Pirri up quite yet. While it’s not as if he’s a super established scorer, the 25-year-old has shown the type of raw goal scoring ability that is hard to find. If he can piece the rest of his game together, he could be a serious steal for someone.
In 2014-15, Pirri scored 22 goals in just 49 games for the Florida Panthers. Sustainable? Not at all, but it wasn’t by fluke, either. He followed it up with a respectable 14 goals in 61 games, including three in nine games in Anaheim.
He’s not going to come in to any team and be an immediate top-six forward and he might still be a bit of a project, but with the right fit, Pirri could be a consistent 20-goal scorer. The best part is that the longer he remains a free agent, the cheaper he may come.
4. Kris Russell, 29, D
2015-16: 62 GP, 4 G, 15 A, 19 Pts.
The shot-blocker extraordinaire remains a free agent, but it appears a number of teams remain at least mildly interested in Russell. Blocking shots is somewhat of a thankless job and Russell’s ability to do so makes him a great addition to a team’s penalty kill, so a team seeking someone to bolster an ailing PK might be the best fit for Russell.
It’s not as if he lacks the ability to contribute offensively, either. He potted four goals and 19 points in 62 games this past season and has been a 20-plus point player four times in the past seven years.
The thing about him, though, is that the underlying numbers don’t support him as a top-tier, top-four defenseman. However, as a No. 5 with sheltered minutes, he could be a great fit for a team lacking depth.
5. Kris Versteeg, 30, RW
2015-16: 15 G, 23 A, 38 Pts.
Only Hudler put up more points than Versteeg among the free agents still available. So, what’s the hold up on him finding a home? Well, he might be looking for a long-term deal and some security.
Versteeg has played for six teams — Toronto, Philadelphia, Florida, Chicago, Carolina and Los Angeles — in the past six seasons. While that speaks to his versatility and what teams see in him, it doesn’t do much for his own ability to settle down somewhere.
There’s a lot to like about Versteeg’s game, though. He’s feisty and knows how to score, and he’s not afraid to shoot the puck. Four times in his career he’s scored 20-plus goals and he can be a nice asset on the second unit of a power play. The issue is that he’s inconsistent and has a habit of trying to make a harder play than necessary, which can lead to turnovers.
As a third-line winger, though, Versteeg can offer a lot and he might be willing to even do it for cheap if someone — anyone — can promise to let him stay somewhere for longer than a couple of seasons.
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