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Five potentially underrated free-agent signings

by Mike G. Morreale

Isn't it funny how the wild world of NHL free agency has a way of providing fans and hockey scribes reason for analytical thinking during the dog days of summer?

Which team struck it big, and which team struck out? Which general manager paid too much, and who got the best bargain?

NHL general managers handed out more than $500 million in new contracts to unrestricted free agents July 1, according to Kevin Gibson of TSN. There were a total of 94 signings July 1, the opening day of free agency, likely helped by a new five-day window that allowed teams to meet with potential free agents before the signing period began.

Now more than a week into free agency, here are five signings that went a bit under the radar but could prove to be well worth the time, effort and money spent to bring each player aboard (a complete rundown of all the free-agent signings this offseason may be accessed here).

Ray Emery, Philadelphia Flyers: For the first time in a quite a while the Flyers didn't enter free agency with question marks in goal, and the primary reason for that was the effectiveness of the tandem of Steve Mason and Emery during the 2013-14 season.

The one-year, $1 million contract Emery signed was worth it for first-year general manager Ron Hextall and the Flyers, despite their salary-cap crunch. At 31 Emery is more than a capable backup. The bottom line is when it comes to goaltending in the City of Brotherly Love, if it isn't broke, there's no need to fix it. The signing of Emery also gives prospect Anthony Stolarz a year to develop with the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate in Lehigh Valley.

"If [Mason] has a year like last year and I can contribute a little bit better than I did last season, I'll be happy," Emery said after his signing. "I wasn't happy with my season, but team-wise, as the season went along, we got better and better."

Jussi Jokinen, Florida Panthers: Panthers GM Dale Tallon was one of the busiest executives during the free-agent period, but left wing Jokinen, who was signed to a four-year contract worth $4 million per season, could be just what a young roster needs to get over the hump.

Jokinen had 58 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013-14 and could turn out to be a fantastic complementary piece and mentor for Aleksander Barkov, a fellow Finn. Additionally, Jokinen is effective on the power play and in the shootout, scoring twice in nine attempts last season.

Reports were Jokinen wanted to join the Panthers because of Barkov and the other young players Florida has. In 660 career regular-season games, Jokinen has 149 goals and 414 points.

Clayton Stoner, Anaheim Ducks: The 29-year-old defenseman, who spent the previous five seasons with the Minnesota Wild, is a big, physical presence. Though he didn't come cheap, signing a four-year contract worth $13 million, the 6-foot-4, 216-pound left-shot defender is the type of player the Ducks need in the Pacific Division against the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.

Selected by the Wild in the third round (No. 79) of the 2004 NHL Draft, Stoner had one goal, five points, 99 hits, 65 blocked shots and 84 penalty minutes in 63 regular-season games last season, and one goal, three points, 36 hits and seven blocks in 13 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Anton Volchenkov, Nashville Predators: The hard-hitting Russian defenseman signed a one-year contract worth $1 million July 7 after receiving a compliance buyout from the New Jersey Devils for the final two years of his contract.

Volchenkov, 32, adds a solid veteran presence to the back end and perhaps enable Seth Jones, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis some more freedom to push the pace. The left-handed shot led the Devils with 129 hits last season despite missing 16 games due to injury. He was second in blocked shots with 91.

Since 2005-06 Volchenkov ranks second in blocked shots (1,395) and 10th in hits (1,313) among NHL defensemen. In 85 playoff games he has four goals, 17 points and 58 penalty minutes. He'll see time on the penalty kill as well as match against top-line forwards.

Radim Vrbata, Vancouver Canucks: After failing to land Jarome Iginla on the opening day of free agency, Canucks first-year GM Jim Benning reeled in Vrbata one day later, signing the veteran Czech forward to a two-year, $10 million contract. Vrbata could skate alongside twins Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin on the top line and work on the first power-play unit.

He had 20 goals and 51 points in 2013-14 and, as a right shot, would seem to be a legitimate replacement for Ryan Kesler, who was traded to the Ducks at the 2014 draft. Vrbata also is good in the shootout, scoring five goals on 12 attempts in 2013-14.

Vrbata, 33, has 215 goals and 464 points in 792 regular-season games, and has scored at least 20 goals five times in a career that includes time with the Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. His best season was with the Coyotes in 2011-12, when he had 35 goals and 62 points.


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