The goal of every team should be to find players that can contribute without breaking the bank. The 2021 free-agent class was no different, as teams were able to find key contributors for low prices. Here are the top seven value free-agent contracts that were signed last offseason.
Michael Bunting — Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting has been fantastic this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After multiple years in the Arizona Coyotes organization, the Ontario native made a move closer to home, signing a two-year deal with a cap hit of $950,000 each season. Fast forward to today, and he has become one of, if not the best deal in the NHL.
This season, Bunting has scored 23 goals and added 40 assists, playing most of the season with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Although he is 26, he is still considered a rookie and should be a finalist for the Calder Trophy. The Leafs are a cap team and were desperate to find some value on the free-agent market last season. Little did they know they may have just signed one of the best deals in free agency history.
Luke Schenn — Vancouver Canucks
When the Vancouver Canucks signed Luke Schenn, it was seen as a depth move that would help the team here and there if injuries hit. His contract ended up being a two-year deal that carried an $850,000 cap hit each season. While he did start the season as the seventh or eighth defenceman on the team, as the season progressed, he became a key part of the blue line playing on a pair with Quinn Hughes.
Schenn played over 65 games this season and will finish with his highest average time on ice since 2016-17. He has also become a fan favourite winning the team’s unsung hero award as voted on by the fans. The 32-year-old has turned back the clock and provided the Canucks more value than they probably thought they would ever get from him. Although he had problems signing free agents, this is one move Vancouver fans can thank former general manager Jim Benning for.
Trevor Lewis — Calgary Flames
Trevor Lewis arrived in Calgary this season after a successful season with the Winnipeg Jets last year. The long-time LA King signed a one-year, $800,000 contract and was brought in to help the penalty kill. He did a lot more than that, helping Calgary establish one of the strongest fourth lines in the league while being a physical force registering 176 hits.
As mentioned, where Lewis has been effective is the penalty kill. He helped the Flames go from 20th last season to sixth overall in the league playing 137 minutes shorthanded. When he was on the ice, Calgary only surrendered eight total goals. Although he may not be talked about consistently, he was a great find for the Flames last offseason.
Ryan Donato — Seattle Kraken
Ryan Donato was one of the last free agents signed this past offseason, signing on Sep. 12, 2021. He signed a one-year deal worth $750,000, hoping to catch on with the NHL’s newest franchise. It is safe to say their last-minute bet paid off after the season he had with the Kraken.
Related: Kraken Should Extend Ryan Donato
Donato put up career highs in points with 31 and goals with 16. He also has the distinction of scoring the very first goal in Kraken history. If the Kraken were smart this offseason, they would re-sign the 26-year-old, as he was one of the best free-agent finds for the 2021-22 season.
Travis Boyd — Arizona Coyotes
Not a lot went right for Arizona this season, but one thing that did was Travis Boyd. The 28-year-old signed a one-year deal worth $750,000 this season and repaid the Coyotes with 16 goals and 34 points in 73 games. Whether it was on the power play, shorthanded or at even strength, he has been one of the Coyotes’ best players all year.
For most of his career, Boyd has been considered a depth forward that can move up into the top-six if injuries hit. This season, however, he got a chance to be a first-line player and ran with it. He showed strong chemistry with Clayton Keller this season and ended up earning a contract extension for the next two seasons that will see him make a million dollars more each season than he did this year. Not bad for a player who was on waivers last season.
Jonathon Merrill — Minnesota Wild
Jonathon Merrill has helped the Wild create one of the strongest blue lines in the league. Playing mostly on the third pair, the former Vegas Golden Knight has 14 points, which is one off his career-high in 68 games. He has also been a key part of their penalty kill, all for the low cost of a one-year deal worth $850,000. Most importantly, he has shown the ability to play both sides on the ice, which is a skill most defenders struggle with.
Merrill is not flashy, but he gets the job done. He blocked 110 shots this season which is a new career-high, and played over 17 minutes per game. Teams around the league struggle to find cheap, effective defencemen, but the Wild seem to have struck gold with his addition to the lineup. The hope is he can continue his strong season as Minnesota looks to make a long run in the playoffs.
Darren Helm — Colorado Avalanche
After 14 years with the Detroit Red Wings, Darren Helm packed up and joined the Colorado Avalanche. He signed a one-year deal worth $1 million in hopes of capturing a second Stanley Cup. This season, he has produced 15 points in 67 games, with most of his value coming from his work on the penalty kill.
Helm has played 123 minutes shorthanded while holding the opposition to 13 goals against. He has also scored a shorthanded goal and registered 14 shots on goal. The hope for Avalanche fans is his 82 career games of playoff experience will finally help Colorado get over the hump and into the Stanley Cup Final. He has been good for the Avalanche this season and has provided some additional value based on the contract he signed.
Value Contracts Are Always Available
With many teams right up against the salary cap, it is more important than ever to find these value contracts in the NHL. In some cases, like with Bunting or Schenn, it is more valuable to bring in a cheap player teams know will compete every game than to spend big on a player whose only strong season was the year before their contract ended. While there are many fantastic deals around the league, these seven stand out as some of the best signed during the 2021 offseason.
Adam is excited to be joining The Hockey Writers as part of the Seattle Kraken and Vancouver Canucks team. His work can also be found at area51sportsnet.com where he covers the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League.