SPRINGFIELD, Mass – It’s been about two weeks since the official start of the NHL’s free agency period, and several big trades and signings have occurred at the highest level. Signing depth talent to NHL rosters is no different, and there have been plenty of signings to bolster the rosters of AHL squads as the 2021-22 season nears.
Despite a large amount of movement, there are still many quality players available. Each of them could be ideal additions to bolster an NHL roster or add a lot to an AHL team and might not be free agents much longer. Here are a few notable standouts who are still without contracts at this juncture.
Greg Carey: The 31-year-old Carey brings an element of consistent scoring to any team he’s on. The forward did not play during the 2020-21 season but has three seasons of hitting 50+ points and has hovered around a number of 30 goal campaigns. Adding the winger is a move teams would love to make for instant goal scoring and shot producing as he led the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in those categories much of his four-year tenure at the AHL level.
Cole Bardreau: Teammates in Lehigh Valley with Carey, Bardreau is a two-way skater with tremendous upside. The 28-year-old had a ten-game stint with the New York Islanders during the 2019-20 season and played well at both ends of the ice. He was a large factor in Lehigh Valley’s success during the 2017-18 season by adding 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) and would be a huge benefit to any team looking to solidify themselves as a contender.
Michael Dal Colle: Dal Colle is technically an AHL graduate, having last dressed at the AHL level during the 2018-19 season. During his last AHL stint, he had an even spread of points, tallying 34 points (18 goals, 16 assists) in the same amount of games. In 2020-21, he seemed to be a bubble player on the New York Islanders, dressing in only 26 regular-season games. An NHL team signing him would get a strong player at the AHL level and a reliable call-up option, if not a bottom-six forward at just age 25.
Matt Ford: Ford is a veteran of 716 total AHL games at age 36 and brings a leadership presence to the group. The forward has proven that he can still light the lamp with 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 52 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins during the 2019-20 season and plays on the power play. With other veterans in the league like Matt Moulson providing invaluable leadership, mentoring, and scoring, it shouldn’t be surprising if a team would add Ford for that type of presence and as a big piece of a championship run.
Matt Lorito: The well-traveled forward skated in 27 games with the San Diego Gulls during the 2020-21 season and is an invaluable veteran presence for a team to sign. Lorito had back-to-back 20+ goal seasons which were his best in the AHL during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, and he’d easily be able to find that level of production again on a strong team as well as be a reliable call-up option for an NHL team. His leadership during his time with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers before moving on was a key reason for their success during the 2018-19 season.
Ben Thomson: A diamond in the rough in free agency, Thomson has spent the majority of his career within the New Jersey organization and is a player any team would love to have. A tough-as-nails competitor that has a way of getting under the skin of his opponents, Thomson has shown he can score in addition to providing the physical presence. Placing him on a skilled team with a lot of depth would bring out career-best numbers for the veteran of 365 AHL games.
Chris Mueller: Mueller enjoyed a good season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms during the 2019-20 season and is a strong scorer with a lot of experience at the AHL level and enough at the NHL level to make him an attractive depth option. When he plays a full AHL season, Mueller will produce a lot for any team that signs him, as he scored 65 points (33 goals, 32 assists) in 60 games during the 2018-19 season with the Toronto Marlies. At 35 years of age, Mueller is among the veteran forwards a team should be dying to sign to add to a potential playoff run and add to their group of centers.
Paul LaDue: The 28-year-old defenseman has been in consistent competition for NHL playing time and can excel at the AHL level. Fresh off a one-year contract with the Washington Capitals, LaDue played 18 games with the Hershey Bears and acquitted himself nicely, spending half of the season on the Capitals’ taxi squad lineup. LaDue is a solid power play quarterback with a nice shot and should be a comfortable option for an NHL team to rely on.
Cameron Schilling: A solid season for Schilling saw him among the best in the AHL for scoring among defensemen and the top scorer from the blue line for the Hershey Bears. Schilling was selected as a North Division All-Star representative and played excellently on both offense and defense this past season. At 32, Schilling is a great role model for younger defenders to model their game after and brings a great leadership quality to the locker room.
Aaron Ness: Not too long ago, Ness led all American Hockey League defensemen in scoring during the 2018-19 season, racking up 55 points (five goals, 50 assists) with the Hershey Bears along with an outstanding plus-24 rating. At 31 years of age, Ness can still bring it, and his poise is something young players should strive to attain. A leader on and off the ice for both the Bears and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, NHL teams shouldn’t be shy to add him to their lineup with 72 games of experience at the highest level – a winning proposition to sign him.
Rob O’Gara: The blueliner enjoyed a strong season with the AHL-leading Hershey Bears in 2020-21, and he quickly worked his way into the team’s leadership group. While he was only signed to a professional tryout agreement, teams should be eager to sign O’Gara as a mentoring defenseman with strong upside as an NHL recall option.
Tyler Wotherspoon: Wotherspoon is a veteran defender who has been on the bubble as an NHL player and brings a good amount of scoring from the back end. He had three seasons of more than 20 points, excluding 2020-21, and had a career-best 37 points during the 2017-18 season. With 30 games of NHL experience under his belt, he’s hungry to compete for a spot at the highest level, and a team should be eager to acquire his services for the upcoming season.
Cameron Gaunce: The 31-year-old veteran defenseman with a Calder Cup Championship to his name from the 2014 Texas Stars remains a free agent, and it’s very rare for a defender with 670 games of AHL experience to be without a contract. Gaunce has 262 points to his credit (41 goals, 221 assists) and has the veteran leadership teams dream about. It’s a shock teams wouldn’t be lining up to have his experience in the locker room and his strong defensive abilities on their side for their young prospects to learn from.
J.F. Berube: An excellent selection to add to the stable for any organization, Berube is well-traveled and brings excellent numbers to the table. Berube had a 2.56 goals-against average, and a 0.906 save percentage during the 2019-20 season. Overall, Berube is a reliable option for his team. He’s shown he can either shoulder the workload or share the net with a young prospect.
Zane McIntyre: Perhaps the most shocking available free agent on this list, McIntyre brings excellence between the pipes for any organization he plays for. He registered a 2.33 goals-against average and a 0.917 save percentage in 19 games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this past season and is a valuable commodity to work with a younger goaltender. McIntyre is experienced and wouldn’t have a hard time competing at the NHL level, as he’s frustrated plenty of AHL shooters during his time in the league.
Evan Cormier: Cormier played parts of the past two seasons with the Binghamton Devils and their ECHL affiliate, the Adirondack Thunder, over the past few seasons and looked ready at the AHL level this past season. Although Binghamton’s struggles this past season were well-documented, Cormier should thrive with a good team at only 23 years of age and would end up looking like a steal with a solid team in front of him.
Phillippe Desrosiers: The 25-year-old netminder was part of a solid tandem for the Springfield Thunderbirds during the 2019-20 season, posting a 3.05 goals-against average and a 0.916 save percentage. His numbers have been solid during his AHL career, and a team giving him a chance would benefit with a strong defense in front of him. Springfield was down but not out when the season was shut down, and Desrosiers was a large part of the solution for their group with 16 wins.
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