Puck Lists: 7 UFAs still worth taking a chance on

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Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

(PUCK LISTS is a special Tuesday series from yer boy RL, in which he arbitrarily lists hockey things.)

The middle of July is typically when we hit the month-and-a-half dead period in free agency. Mostly it’s teams getting a bit of house cleaning done, re-upping RFAs and locking in rookies on ELCs, and there’s just not much activity on the unrestricted free agent market.

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Many teams, instead, wait to make a lot of small signings in the run-up to training camps, but that leaves a long and uncomfortable period in which teams can sign players — probably for pretty cheap — that will materially improve their clubs without actually tying them to expensive deals. Most of these guys can be had for a year and probably less than $1.5 million.

Of course, maybe it’s preferable to throw these guys a training camp invite in another month or two instead, but the fact is that if you can get them now, they’re going to be guaranteed to attend your camp, and there’s no bidding at the last minute for a bottom-six forward or bottom-pairing defenseman in most cases.

With this in mind, knowing what’s out there, and which players probably constitute good deals can be very helpful.

7. James Wisniewski (maybe)

The data-driven Carolina Hurricanes just bought this guy out, so one might wonder what the story is there. Indeed, a lot of the numbers on this guy over the last few years indicate that he’s still a pretty good blue line contributor even if he’s not necessarily viewed as such.

The problem is that he played just one game for Carolina — or anyone else for that matter — last season, then got bought out this summer. And fair enough: he was due a $5.5 million cap hit and $3 million salary. But if they could buy him out, that theoretically means he’s healthy enough to keep playing. Maybe. If so, and if used in a depth role, he might have some utility.

Of course, a 32-year-old defenseman who basically misses an entire season with a torn ACL probably doesn’t sound very attractive. I might still invite him to camp at the very least.

6. Radim Vrbata

The risk of signing old players like Vrbata (he’s already 35) who are coming off down seasons (13 goals in 63 games down from 31 in 79 the year before) is that they just hit a wall because they’re old and not good any more.

Vrbata kinda crashed and burned from a production standpoint, no two ways about it. To be fair, his linemates weren’t great — he played less than half his season with his old buddies the Sedins, but did get plenty of time with the likes of Chris Higgins and Sven Baertschi — but still, the age thing is a major factor.

It might not be a terrible idea to give him another kick at the can, because you don’t often see a guy go from scoring 30-plus one year to being this ineffective the next, even at that age. If he did hit a wall, he did it like this, and you might sign him with the understanding that he’d retire or accept a contract termination if this doesn’t work out. And if he didn’t, maybe you just got 20 or so goals for next to nothing.

5. Cody Hodgson

Hodgson’s most recent campaign with Nashville was more than a little ugly. He split time between the AHL and NHL and only had 3-5-8 in 39 games with the big club. You can also trust that he was used sparingly by Peter Laviolette when he was in the games. All but one of his points was at 5-on-5.

But what that ignores is that, in part because he got such soft treatment from his coaching staff, he also helped Nashville’s depth players push play in the right direction. We’re talking plus relative numbers pretty much across the board including a huge bump in goalscoring, largely because he was so good at shot suppression.

Now, you may say to yourself, yeah, but wasn’t he a 20-goal guy like three years ago? He was, yes. And while his goals per game has plummeted, that might be largely due to a much lower shooting percentage. After regularly being north of 11 percent for the start of his career, over the last two seasons it comes in at just 4.7 percent, well below the league average. Huge decline, and it’s been going on for more than 100 games. At some point, logically, it has to end, right?

So while any contract to which you might sign Hodgson comes with the caveat that he’s best used way down the depth chart, if his shooting percentage rebounds he might even provide some scoring punch from the fourth line. Maybe you take a flyer on that.

4. Justin Schultz

Similar to Hodgson, Schultz’s reputation suffers because there’s a huge gap between what he’s perceived to be and what he actually is. Unlike Hodgson, that’s because the team he played for to start his career thought he was a hell of a lot better than he actually is.

Schultz was miscast as anything other than a middle- or bottom-pairing defenseman who could chip in on the power play, but Mike Sullivan showed in the playoffs that Schultz could be useful in a limited role.

That’s not to say anyone signing him is getting, say, the next Anton Stralman or anything (a guy who similarly was seen as a specialist rather than an overall dependable guy, but became a juggernaut). You might not even be getting a guy who can handle middling competition. But again, filling out your lineup is all about getting bang for your buck, and it’s undeniable that Schultz has some special teams talent, and that might make him worth whatever kind of short-money deal you can get him for.

3. Sam Gagner

Only 16 points in 53 games for Philadelphia last season, plus a nine-game stint in the AHL. Gagner’s only 26 and it feels like he’s been around forever (he debuted with a full season at just 18 back in 2007-08).

This really shouldn’t be the end of the line. Big-time shot suppression numbers for the Flyers last year in what is, again, a limited role, and a huge driver of goal differential. If you’re using him deep in the lineup, that can be valuable.

We typically expect Gagner to be a 40-point guy — the only other time he finished with less than 40 in his entire career was the lockout-shortened 2013 season, and he still had 38 in 48 — so the decline this year was obviously a disappointment. But Gagner has always been very good at the underlying things he was good at last season, and it’s therefore possible that his on-ice shooting percentage ticks back up.

He’s a much better player than he showed last season.

2. Jakub Nakladal

The Flames rookie is already a UFA because he’s 28 and last season was his first ever in North America. He was really good in the AHL, got an NHL call-up midway through the year, and was really good again, even if he scored less.

Not to read too much into a 27-game sample, but he had a huge impact on Calgary’s shot suppression — no easy task under Bob Hartley — and significantly boosted goals-for percentage. The Flames really like him and are looking to re-sign him, but if it’s lasted this long there may be some room to make something else happen from another team.

He does everything you’d want except put up points (2-3-5 in 27 NHL games), and there’s plenty of room for bottom-pairing defensemen who can’t score but do everything else well.

1. Jiri Tlusty

Tlusty might just be the new Lee Stempniak, though without the reliable scoring. He could reliably put up 15 or so goals in a given season, but only played 30 last year for New Jersey and scored just twice.

But as with all these other guys, the underlying numbers tell a convincing story: He was very unlucky to go 2-2-4 last year, shooting just 2.9 percent at 5-on-5. His career average coming into the season: 11.4 percent. Think that might come back?

And when it does, which it probably will, that just complements the fact that he does everything else well.

As with the other guys on this list, you’re not going to succeed putting him into a top-six role, but he can thrive on the bottom-six and regularly outplays his opponents. He’s only 28, and his last contract — which he admittedly underperformed — came in at $800,000. Any team can make something work in that price range, and they’ll likely get a strong return on investment.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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