Best under-the-radar signings of the NHL offseason, including Frank Vatrano, Eric Comrie

ByKristen Shilton ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The dust of NHL free agency is continuing to settle. Those big-name players we analyzed for weeks have (mostly) signed up somewhere, on deals we've thoroughly analyzed.

We're here to talk about the less chewed-over moves. The ones that maybe flew under the radar. Or got caught in a logjam of other action. One way or another, some signings simply didn't get proper attention.

Dylan Strome going to the Washington Capitals on a one-year contract? Could be a major upgrade for the Capitals' offensive prospects this season.

Max Domi seizing a superb opportunity to showcase himself on a one-year pact with the Chicago Blackhawks? Have to like that -- especially if he lands with a contender at the trade deadline again.

Whether the deals were long- or short-term, big-dollar or on the cheap, these are more of the free agent stories worth going over again, just in case you missed 'em the first time.

Andre Burakovsky, F, Seattle Kraken

The deal: Five years, $27.5 million

Sometime between the praise for Valeri Nichushkin's eight-year extension with Colorado and the manufacturing of hot takes about the still-unsigned Nazem Kadri, their (now former) teammate Andre Burakovsky quietly left for Seattle.

And it's about time we shone a light on that.

The 27-year-old played his way into a deserved new deal that went slightly undetected because, well, the Kraken weren't great in their inaugural season. Not the most sought-after free agent landing spot. But Burakovsky can help change the narrative.

He arrives in Seattle fresh from a strong regular season (22 goals and 61 points in 80 games) and Stanley Cup-winning run with the Avalanche. Burakovsky wound up playing a critical role in that push to the finish, making everyone forget those healthy scratches in Colorado's earlier-round series.

When Kadri was injured in the Western Conference finals, Burakovsky -- who broke his ankle in Game 2 of that series -- stepped up to help clinch Colorado's sweep of the Oilers.

Once there, Burakovsky scored the overtime winner in Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and lit the lamp again in Game 2 before breaking his thumb. Burakovsky wouldn't play again for Colorado. The Avalanche had too many free agents, and Burakovsky slipped away.

That was great news for the Kraken. Burakovsky has been a 20-goal scorer in three consecutive seasons and will elevate a Seattle offense that finished 28th overall in its first season, averaging a paltry 2.60 goals per game. Burakovsky is a physical winger with good touch around the net and adds to the mix on special teams. He'll be a great complement to some of Seattle's skilled forwards and give Seattle fans more to cheer in the coming campaigns.

Eric Comrie, G, Buffalo Sabres

The deal: Two years, $3.6 million

A backup-goalie signing doesn't always draw attention. Comrie's arrival in Buffalo deserves some love.

The 27-year-old is coming off an underrated season in Winnipeg, where he went 10-5-1 with a .920 save percentage and 2.58 goals-against average behind a below-average Jets defense. For whatever reason, Winnipeg opted to overplay Connor Hellebuyck down the stretch, and a lack of minutes for Comrie ultimately turned him from an RFA -- whose rights the Jets could have retained -- to a UFA.

Too bad for them. The Sabres swooped in to capitalize.

Buffalo was searching for a low-risk, high-reward complement to veteran -- and projected starter -- Craig Anderson. Comrie looks like his perfect match. The player from Edmonton has been paying dues in the American Hockey League for nearly a decade waiting on an NHL opportunity. The fact that Winnipeg wouldn't give Comrie more of a chance when he performed so well had to sting.

Comrie shouldn't have the same problem in Buffalo. The Sabres are targeting a tandem situation, and assuming Comrie's recent success was no fluke, he should see an appreciable increase over last season's 16 starts.

More importantly, Comrie wanted to play in Buffalo, a place that hasn't always had good luck signing good players. Comrie is one. The Sabres' goaltending held them back even as other areas improved in 2021-22. Having Comrie in the fold goes a long way toward ensuring that doesn't happen again. He's a great addition to the team's depth, with a reputation for being a terrific teammate. It's a real win for Buffalo.

Ondrej Kase, F, Carolina Hurricanes

The deal: One year, $1.5 million

There's always one big "if" with Ondrej Kase. And it's if he can stay healthy.

Because when Kase is not sidelined by injuries, he's an impactful middle-six winger. Carolina wanted to improve its offense with scoring talents and Kase could fit the bill. If that's the case this season, then the Hurricanes have executed one of the sneaky-good free agent deals of the summer bringing Kase in for cheap.

But first: the "if."

Kase has been plagued by concussion issues throughout his career. Those problems contributed to his exits in both Anaheim and Boston. Kase played only three regular season games for the Bruins in 2020-21 because of head injuries and post-concussion syndrome. And Boston subsequently didn't give Kase a qualifying offer when he hit restricted free agency last summer.

Toronto rolled in with a one-year deal. Kase was good for the Leafs in a bounce-back 2021-22 season, scoring 14 goals and 27 points in 50 games primarily on the team's third line. But Kase suffered another concussion that held him out from late March until the postseason. He returned for the first-round series against Tampa Bay and was solid, adding three assists in seven games.

The Leafs didn't qualify Kase either. In came an offer from the Hurricanes, who can recognize value when they see it. Kase is capable of playing a variety of roles in Carolina's lineup, which is deeper than ever now with the addition of Max Pacioretty. Plus, Kase is a strong penalty killer, and the Hurricanes place a high value on their shorthanded play.

The fit is certainly there. After Kase's resurgence in Toronto, success should follow him to Carolina -- ifhe can avoid further injuries.

Brett Kulak, D, Edmonton Oilers

The deal: Four years, $11 million

Edmonton originally acquired Kulak at the trade deadline to stabilize its blue line before the playoffs. Kulak did exactly that and graduated to a well-earned -- if unheralded -- long-term extension.

The 28-year-old has been an ideal depth player for the Oilers. After arriving in March, Kulak churned out consistently solid performances that helped Edmonton reach its first Western Conference finals since 2006. Kulak added eight points in 18 regular-season games and five assists in 16 playoff tilts along the way.

Contributing offensively isn't really Kulak's strong suit, nor is it what the Oilers love about him. Kulak is a true defensive defenseman who's poised with the puck and excellent on zone entries and exits. That feeds directly into the Oilers' transition game, allowing the team's talented forwards to do what they do best. What Kulak lacks in flash he makes up for as a facilitator all over the ice.

Kulak could probably have managed a heavier workload than the 17:05 per game doled out by coach Jay Woodcroft. That's almost certainly in the cards for him now. Duncan Keith retired in July, leaving the Oilers down one top-four defender. Kulak re-upping fills the void on Edmonton's second pairing where Kulak could conceivably match with Evan Bouchard or Tyson Barrie.

The Oilers' defensive depth chart would be dangerously thin if Kulak had moved on elsewhere in free agency. Edmonton was fortunate to retain him on a good deal that should pay major dividends over its life.

David Perron, F, Detroit Red Wings

The deal: Two years, $9.5 million

Detroit made a flurry of moves early in free agency. Adding Perron was among their best.

The 34-year-old turned back the clock again last season for the St. Louis Blues, scoring 27 goals and 57 points in 67 regular-season games, then tallied nine goals and 13 points in 12 playoff tilts. It was big-time stuff from a veteran who's been quite good since joining the Blues for their 2018-19 campaign.

That St. Louis couldn't find the salary-cap space to hold on to Perron was a disappointment -- but not to the Red Wings, who have reeled in a difference-maker on a tidy contract.

Perron is going to produce on the ice in a middle-six role that boosts Detroit's stable of young, talented forwards. That group started hot last season and ran out of gas; Perron is a firecracker to keep that spark alight. He's an excellent two-way winger who excels along the perimeter, drives play and will be a valuable asset in raising the bar on Detroit's power play (which was 26th overall last season). Perron could be just what struggling sniper Jakub Vrana needs in a linemate, bringing veteran presence with enough speed to keep up.

While Andrew Copp's signing might have garnered more attention in Detroit -- and Copp deserves it -- Perron coming on board will have just as immediate an impact. He and Copp could even see playing time together. Detroit's youth caught up to them last season. Perron has experience that could push the Red Wings to greater heights. And Detroit gets that without a longer-term pact that may have aged poorly. It's good for everyone.

Frank Vatrano, F, Anaheim Ducks

The deal: Three years, $10.95 million

There wasn't much buzz around Vatrano's deal with the Ducks, but this was a low-key genius move by GM Pat Verbeek and the Ducks' front office.

Vatrano was shipped from Florida to New York at the trade deadline last March and fit in right away with the Rangers. The 28-year-old slid in early with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on New York's top line and found easy chemistry there with good results (eight goals and 13 points in 22 games). Coach Gerard Gallant put his lineup in the blender come playoffs, so Vatrano bounced around but was nevertheless productive (five goals, 13 points in 20 postseason tilts).

That was enough for the Ducks to make a serious investment in Vatrano. Anaheim is getting a well-rounded player it can count on to produce around 20 goals in a second- or third-line role, and who may be bumped up the lineup as needed. The Ducks boast a tantalizing collection of talent up front -- including Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras -- and with Ryan Getzlaf having retired, Anaheim was on the lookout for more veteran players to fill in around the youngsters.

Vatrano is a great option for them now. He'll add some stability to an offense already capable of soaring, and the Ducks didn't have to go overboard on term with Vatrano either. That allows them to bask in his contributions now without worrying about salary-cap issues down the road when those burgeoning stars are on the hunt for their own new contracts.