NHL: Free agents who could provide the biggest bang for the buck

The moment Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby hoisted the Stanley Cup above his head in San Jose, the hockey world took one prominent step closer to the exciting free-for-all that is the free-agency period. And while most — OK, all — the attention will be on scoring star Steven Stamkos when free agency officially begins on July 1, it’s the signings that don’t generate headlines that could make the biggest difference come playoff time.

“Certainly the big stars are going to come with a huge ticket. It brings in salary-cap issues. Do you spend all your money on one player or do you spread it out over three or four who are capable performers?” said former Buffalo Sabres general manager Gerry Meehan. “You have to be careful on the free agency side of things. If you’re going to go big on big stars, there are going to be repercussions on your roster later on. Chicago is going through that right now.”

These five unheralded free agents could pay big dividends down the road.

Alex Goligoski, defenseman, Arizona Coyotes

The Coyotes acquired the negotiating rights for Goligoski from the Dallas Starson Thursday in exchange a 2016 fifth-round pick. Whether he stays with Arizona or heads elsewhere, the versatile defenseman should earn a considerable raise from the four-year, $18.4 million extension he signed in 2012. His won’t be the biggest name announced during the free-agent frenzy, but his services will be in demand coming off three consecutive 30-assist seasons and a plus-21 that ranked seventh among defenseman last season. The Minnesota product has also proved remarkably durable, missing only three games over the past four seasons.

Jiri Hudler, center, Florida Panthers

The Czech forward, still productive at 32, is just one year removed from a 76-point season with the Calgary Flames. The veteran provided 11 points in 19 games as a trade-deadline rental for the Panthers before slumping in the playoffs but still has plenty to offer for a team in need of scoring depth. He’s also a proven veteran leader, made clear in his mentorship of top young players Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary. He should draw plenty of interest on July 1 and has also earned a raise after signing a four-year, $16 million deal with the Flames in 2012. Though the Panthers aren’t hurting for cap space, they already have plenty of forward depth, which could make a veteran scorer such as Hudler an appealing pickup for teams in need of veteran help up front, but who aren’t looking to spend the kind of money being commanded by the likes of Stamkos, Kyle Okposo or Milan Lucic.

Frans Nielsen, center, New York Islanders

Maybe it’s because he has spent his entire career with an Islanders team that never drew widespread attention. Or perhaps it’s because he’s been slotted behind John Tavares for the past seven seasons. Whatever the reason, the multifaceted Dane has never truly been acknowledged for the versatility he consistently brings to the rink. A key contributor on the Islanders’ power play and penalty kill, Nielsen is also among the league’s most consistent shootout scorers. Nielsen has expressed his intention to stay with the Islanders, but general manager Garth Snow will have some difficult decisions to make with several key forwards entering free agency, including Nielsen, Okposo and Matt Martin.

Jason Chimera, left wing, Washington Capitals

Don’t let his age fool you. Every indication is that Chimera has plenty to offer as a depth forward, even at 37. He’s coming off a 20-goal season along with 40-point outputs in two of his past three seasons. And he didn’t do that by playing alongside Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom. Chimera instead dutifully accepted his role as a checking forward and was an important depth piece on a team that looked to lean less on its stars after the arrival of coach Barry Trotz. Still considered among the faster veterans in the league, Chimera also has 69 games worth of playoff experience. The Edmonton native has already claimed he doesn’t expect to play somewhere else next season, and the Capitals would love to retain one of their most tenured players. But with T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner all entering unrestricted free agency and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky becoming restricted free agents next season, the Capitals will be hard-pressed to keep everyone.

Radim Vrbata, right wing, Vancouver Canucks

Veteran 30-goal wingers don’t usually come at a discount. But at 35 years old and coming off what is indisputably the worst season of his NHL career, Vrbata could be had for a reasonable price. On paper, he appears to be something of a risk, but it’s been a only year since he scored 31 goals riding shotgun alongsideHenrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin.

Vrbata’s production predictably dipped when he wasn’t playing with the twins, and he could be looking at his last NHL contract. He also missed out on an opportunity to improve his market value when he wasn’t designated for late-season rental duty after the Canucks failed to move him at the deadline. A lower-body injury ultimately forced the Canucks to shut him down in mid-March, and he doesn’t appear likely to return to Vancouver. To his credit, Vrbata has demonstrated the ability to finish around the net when playing with the right personnel. So expect him to hold out during the first few days of midsummer madness before finding the right fit in the later stages of free agency.

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