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Sharks' signings of Martin, Ward key in Cup Final run

Looking back at top free agent signings of 2015

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

The opening day of free agency is either an exciting or excruciating time for players, management and fans. On one hand, it's a new beginning. On the other, it's saying goodbye to an old home.

Last summer didn't boast the strongest free-agent market in recent memory, but there were a few players who not only changed addresses, but also the fortunes of teams hoping to move in the right direction.

Here is NHL.com's top five free agent signings from the summer of 2015:

Justin Williams, LW, Washington Capitals (July 1) -- The Capitals didn't win the Stanley Cup, but Williams helped them cruise to the Presidents' Trophy.

After spending six seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, Williams signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract with Washington, and had 22 goals and 30 assists in 82 games. The Capitals lost in the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Williams did have three goals and four assists in 12 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm5: Williams converts turnover into goal

Paul Martin, D, San Jose Sharks (July 1) -- Sharks general manager Doug Wilson decided against trying to break up the core of his team after it missed the 2015 postseason, and instead added to it.

Martin, a quality two-way defenseman, signed a four-year contract to help the quality of the defense. Martin, paired with Norris Trophy finalist Brent Burns, had 20 points in 78 regular-season games and five assists in 24 playoff games to help the Sharks reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time.

Thomas Greiss, G, New York Islanders (July 1) -- Nobody could have envisioned the contributions Greiss would make to the Islanders, who desperately needed help at the backup goalie position.

Greiss, who signed a two-year contract that Newsday reported is worth $3 million, never had played more than 25 games in an NHL season. But he had a 2.36 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage in 41 regular-season games in 2015-16 and became their No. 1 goalie in the playoffs when Jaroslav Halak sustained a lower-body injury in March. Greiss was sensational in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Florida Panthers and led the Islanders to their first playoff series win in 23 years.

Joel Ward, RW, San Jose Sharks (July 3) -- The Sharks felt they needed more grit and another playoff-tested veteran, and that is exactly what Ward provided after signing a three-year contract.

After spending four seasons with Washington, Ward headed for the West Coast and had 21 goals and 22 assists in 79 regular-season games, and seven goals and six assists in 24 playoff games during San Jose's march to the Cup Final.

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm3: Ward blasts home equalizer

Matt Cullen, C, Pittsburgh Penguins (Aug. 6) -- More than a month after the market opened, the Penguins made arguably the most underrated free agent signing of the summer.

Cullen, 39, did not miss a game from October through June; he had 16 goals and 16 assists in the regular season and four goals and two assists in the playoffs, helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time.

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