Top five remaining NHL free agents still on the market
The Bruins have over $8 million in salary cap space more than a week after the open of NHL free agency, and still have a need for a veteran top-4 defenseman capable of transitioning the puck up the ice quickly, and just simply being an offensive threat. The Black and Gold didn’t have close to enough of that quality on the back end last season, and didn’t add anybody to last year’s blue line group either through free agency or via the trade route.
While it doesn’t appear the B’s are going to do much more on the free agent market after signing David Backes, Anton Khudobin and Riley Nash while re-signing John-Michael Liles, there are still some interesting names out there if the price comes down. Here are the top five players still looking for a job out of the free agent pool as the secondary market begins to take shape for all of these players, and for the teams still doing some shopping while the pickings are starting to get slim:
1) Kris Russell
The biggest name defenseman still available is still looking for a landing spot after failing to find a team willing to offer him the five year, $30 million neighborhood he was initially looking for last week. The 29-year-old Russell has been a top-4 defenseman over the last handful of years while moving the puck, blocking shots and playing big minutes for the Calgary Flames. Unfortunately the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Russell didn’t play well at all for the Dallas Stars after arriving at the trade deadline last season, and seems to be on the same unfortunate trajectory as Cody Franson after turning down a four year contract with the Maple Leafs a week or so ago for $4.3 million per season. There’s no doubt Russell is going to get overpaid as a free agent, or at least there was no doubt until teams backed away from the undersized D-man once free agency opened on July 1. Still, in the previous two seasons with Calgary Russell averaged five goals and 31 points while topping 23 minutes of ice time per game. Those are the kinds of numbers that scream out top-4 defenseman, and that one would expect plenty of teams would be interested in for the right price. It sounds like the right price is coming into view for Russell, and there’s still a chance the Bruins jump in on the blueliner if the price and term are right for the Black and Gold. After all, Russell would be a better left shot defenseman than John-Michael Liles if they can get him at a basement bargain price.
2) James Wisniewski
The 32-year-old Wisniewski played just a single game last season before succumbing to a knee injury that wiped out his season, and he was bought out by the Hurricanes last month. The grand total of 47 seconds that Wisniewski played for the Canes before being bought out might be a new record for the NHL. Still, it was only a couple of years ago that Wisniewski posted seven goals and 51 points for the Columbus Blue Jackets before getting shipped to Anaheim and then Carolina. The 6-foot, 208-pound Wisniewski also posted 28 power play points that season for Columbus as well, and could be an interesting free agent signing for an NHL team that can afford to bring him along slowly this season. The 2008-09 season with the Chicago Blackhawks was the last time Wisniewski averaged less than 20 minutes of ice time per game, so he’s been a frontline guy whenever he’s been healthy enough to play. If a team like the Bruins could get Wisniewski on the cheap for a one-year deal to regain his value on the open market, it could be the kind of contract that would work very well for both the Bruins and for the individual player. There are no indications that Wisniewski is a good fit for the Bruins either on or off the ice, however, and that there’s no push to go after a veteran player with so many young D-man names, like Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk and Robbie O’Gara, being thrown into the mix for Boston.
3) Justin Schultz
The 26-year-old posted 11 goals and 33 points in his second NHL season with the Edmonton Oilers back in 2013-14, but was really put into a bit of a position to fail out in Edmonton as the most talented blueliner among a series of truly underwhelming groups. Schultz’s numbers tumbled with the Oilers over the last four years, and he was cast off to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline when it was clear he wasn’t going to stick around in Edmonton. Schultz essentially became a bottom pair D-man for the Penguins after landing in Pittsburgh and never topped 15 minutes of ice time per game in either the regular season, or during Pittsburgh’s run to the Stanley Cup. But Schultz also played very well in the reduced role and perhaps began to rebuild some of that confidence lost while putting up a brutal minus-78 in four seasons with the Oilers. The size is good at 6-foot-2, 196-pounds, and the skating and shot are both decent for a player that wasn’t given a qualifying contract offer from the Penguins prior to July 1. Schultz is another player that could be a really good bargain for somebody if he gets into a well-coached system where they can break him of some of the bad habits developed during a messy Oilers stint. There should be enough high-end potential there for some D-starved team to give Schultz a shot with a one- or two-year deal for low money, and then hope that last year’s Cup experience with the Penguins turns into a genuine turning point event for him.
4) Jiri Hudler
He’s only one season removed from a magical year where he scored 31 goals and 76 points for the Calgary Flames, and managed 16 goals and 46 points last season for the Flames and Florida Panthers in what’s considered a “down year” for the Eastern European skater. The 32-year-old Hudler has topped 20 goals in the NHL three times in his career, and has topped 50 points five times in an NHL career that’s taken him to the Red Wings, Flames, and Panthers prior to hitting free agency last week. So while the center might be slowing down a little bit at this point in his career while also not exactly overwhelming anybody with his 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame, there’s still plenty of gas left in Hudler’s tank for a team that needs some offensive help up front. It’s not going to be the Bruins given that Boston already has too many top-6 centers to start the year with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and David Backes. Given his professionalism and the production he’s shown throughout his career, it’s mildly surprising that Hudler is still looking for work. One negative not working in his favor: his playoff performance with the Panthers was a bust. Hudler finished with zero points, four shots on net and a minus-1 in five largely invisible playoff games against the New York Islanders. Those that really know Hudler also know that he’s much better than a few bad games with a new team at the end of his hockey season.
5) Luke Schenn
He’s a right shot defenseman. Check. He’s 6-foot-2, 229 pounds and will play to his size in the defensive zone. Check. He was also drafted sixth overall in 2008 given the size, strength and hockey instincts package that sold so many scouts when they first saw the former Maple Leafs D-man. He’s tough and willing to drop the gloves when need be, and Schenn will author the occasional hard hit when he’s looking to punish a puck-carrier. All of these things are needs for the Bruins, but the problem is that it’s never all come together for a guy like Schenn. The 26-year-old finished with four goals and 16 points in 71 games for the Flyers and Los Angeles Kings last season, and was more than decent once the late season pressure really started to ramp up on Schenn. Given where Schenn was drafted combined with the hype of being a Maple Leafs product once upon a time, the D-man was once one of the most overrated players skating in the NHL. That kind of hockey buzz has eluded Schenn a bit after watching his younger brother Brayden raise his portfolio while skating with the Flyers while Luke has become “the other guy” in the NHL hockey brother comparison. Schenn is really not much better than Adam McQuaid or Kevan Miller, so one shouldn’t expect the Bruins to go chasing any stay-at-home defenseman when they already have a couple of their own.