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Top 10 NHL UFAs That Could be Tryout Targets – Sports Illustrated

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

NHL training camps are just around the corner, but there’s still a bunch of questions that need to be answered on the free agency front.

After a wild start to the open market in late July, the league has stayed rather quiet ever since. A bunch of serviceable NHLers are still available, and with teams preparing their training camp lineups, a few of them may get the call to play quite soon on tryout contracts.

Here’s a look at 10 names to keep an eye on heading into training camp:

James Neal, RW, 34
It’s been 10 seasons since Neal scored a career-high 40 goals and 81 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since then, Neal has struggled to maintain his offensive flair and was ultimately bought out back in July. Neal has struggled to stay healthy over the past three seasons but can still score at close to a 20-goal pace. Still, his play has deteriorated in a big way over the past few campaigns so his value isn’t overly high, but if you need scoring in a pinch, Neal can get the job done.

Travis Zajac, C, 36
Many believed that Zajac would return to the Islanders, but when the club announced all its summer signings a few weeks ago, Zajac wasn’t one of them. Zajac was a big piece of the Islanders’ trade deadline playoff push but didn’t produce much offense with just four points in 27 games in the regular season and playoffs. Zajac’s offensive contributions have been rather minimal overall the past couple of years but there’s still value in his experience and his defensive play.

Jason Demers, D, 33
Despite a poor final season in Arizona, Demers has made a career out of being a solid complimentary defender and could still be, albeit in a lesser role. Demers has been known as a decent possession player that can play higher in a lineup if the need arises, although as a third-pairing defender, you could definitely do worse. 

Alex Chiasson, RW, 30
Chiasson is no stranger to tryout deals. Chiasson, who had 22 goals in 2018-19, did so after signing a tryout contract. The year before that, he helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup after starting training camp on a PTO. But Chiasson has struggled the past two seasons, recording 24 and 16 points, respectively. Playing alongside Connor McDavid definitely helps your production, as it did in 2018-19, but can a team find space for him on a bottom line? There’s still some value here and he plays his best hockey when there’s something on the line.

Sami Vatanen, D, 30
For most of his NHL career, Vatanen was a 20-minute a night defender capable of being effective in many different situations. But injuries, among other things, have really taken Vatanen down another level over the past two years. But maybe that’ll actually help Vatanen find a job, in a weird way. He’s still a good puck-moving right-shot defender who, on a third-pairing, could provide significant value at a low price. 

Alex Galchenyuk, LW, 27
Given his play near the end of the regular season and into the playoffs, it’s a bit surprising that has been left unsigned. Galchenyuk seemed to have revived his game with 12 points in 26 games with the Leafs before posting four points in six post-season matches. Galchenyuk has bounced around from home to home, including three this past season (although he never suited up for Carolina) and seven teams since 2019. Obviously, Galchenyuk’s career hasn’t been pretty, but he’s the second-highest scorer from the 2012 draft class and can still provide some value in a bottom-six.

Tyler Ennis, C, 29
It feels like, throughout Ennis’ entire NHL career, we’ve been talking about him showing value, but not enough to play a meaningful role. After scoring just three goals and nine points in 30 games with the Oilers last season, he’s off looking for another home after playing for five teams since 2017. Ennis isn’t really a full-time NHLer in this stage of his career but can spice up a fourth-line in need of speed. Ennis reportedly had some KHL offers, but he’s not ready to give up on his NHL career just yet. He’s no stranger to having to prove people wrong, especially as an undersized player, so it might be worth throwing him a bone here and see what he can do.

Nikita Gusev, LW, 29
Gusev might be considered another failure over-hyped player to come out of the KHL, but he still isn’t a total write-off just yet. Gusev had 44 points in 66 games as a rookie for a poor Devils team, but his shooting percentage dropped and he looked brutal at points near the end of his tenure in New Jersey. He played well for a few games in Florida to end the season but the team elected to let him go. Gusev bounced around a variety of lines last season and never looked that comfortable, but bottom-six on a lousy team has a different feeling than bottom-six on a top team – especially when you made a career, both in the KHL and in international play, as a key offensive contributor. 

Devan Dubnyk, G, 35
Dubnyk’s stock has dropped off dramatically in the past few years. In 2018-19, Dubnyk recorded over 30 wins for the fifth time in his career, albeit in a bit of a step down from two really strong years before that. Dubnyk essentially lost the starting gig in 2019-20 after a rough regular season and was sent to San Jose last fall, but with a 3-9-2 record, he couldn’t do anything to save that team. Is there still a market for the 35-year-old? On a team that doesn’t need him for more than 20 starts, Dubnyk can still bring value, but after years of having to do the heavy lifting for the Wild and coming off a rough year overall, he’ll want to go somewhere competitive. Don’t count on him calling it quits yet.

Erik Gustafsson, D, 29
Gustafsson’s struggles were on full display in the Stanley Cup final, giving up the puck that led to multiple goalies in Game 3 before getting pulled from the lineup for Game 4 and 5. Gustafsson might actually benefit from playing forward and moving back to the point on the power play, but he’s still a defenseman at this point. The offense isn’t the concern here: it’s his incredible ability to give the puck up at the absolute worst times. In bursts, he can provide value, but someone, somehow, needs to tone him down a bit.

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