We’re halfway through the 2022-23 NHL season, so we’ve got a sizeable sample size from which we can judge last season’s top free agents.
Some of the biggest names – Johnny Gaudreau and Nazem Kadri – have seen their output fall with their new teams. Their cases are more situational – the Blue Jackets are at the bottom, while the Flames underachieved in the first half – but they’re still finding ways to produce.
They’ve been good, as expected, and today, they’re joined by eight others – some you wouldn’t expect – as standout free agent signings from the 2022 class:
Putting up points as a 25-year-old in the KHL is one thing. Producing in the NHL is another. Fortunately for the Canucks, Kuzmenko has lived up to the pre-signing hype with 17 goals and 38 points in 42 games. If he continues at this pace, he’ll break the 30-goal and 70-point barriers. Kuzmenko found instant chemistry with Elias Pettersson on the top line and has been there for most of the season, picking up the slack left by some of Vancouver’s underperforming forwards. In an ideal world, the Canucks keep him long term, but with trade rumors dogging the team all season long, don’t be surprised if he’s moved out before his contract expires this summer.
His .895 save percentage might be ugly, but if you’re winning games, you’re doing your job, right? Jones sits third in the NHL with 21 wins and holds an overall 21-5-3 record with three shutouts in 31 games. The Kraken desperately needed reliable goaltending this season, and after a couple rough years in San Jose and Philadelphia, he’s playing his best hockey since 2018-19. His advanced stats are pretty average too, but as Philipp Grubauer continues to struggle, the signing of Jones – one that was initially laughed at by many – has paid off big time for the Kraken as they look destined for a playoff spot.
The goaltending situation has been volatile in Toronto the past few weeks, but Samsonov’s overall body of work is impressive. Of the 61 goalies with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5, Samsonov’s .928 save percentage is 10th, and his 4.11 goals saved above average is good for 15th. By mid-December, Samsonov’s .953 5-on-5 save percentage was top in the league, and he was near the top in every other category. While it’s definitely been tough sledding the past few weeks, with Samsonov allowing at least three goals in five of his past six games, he still has a 12-4-1 record with two shutouts this season. Not too shabby for a guy the Capitals elected not to qualify before he signed a prove-it one-year, $1.8 million deal.
He was the prized signing of the summer, but many expected a big offensive downturn from Gaudreau in Columbus. That’s definitely the case, but it’s not like he’s playing badly – he’s still on pace for around 80 points for a team that has only had one player break that barrier: Artemi Panarin in 2018 and 2019. He had a better offensive group to work with, so Gaudreau playing at this pace is still solid, even if it's nowhere near the 115 he had with Calgary last year. The Blue Jackets are going to land a high draft pick this year, whether it’s Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli or Leo Carlsson, and that should help Gaudreau down the line.
With the Capitals desperately in need of some center depth due to the long-term injury to Nicklas Backstrom, they went out and signed Strome to a cap-friendly $3.5 million deal. It was incredible value given he had fallen just two points short of 50 for what would have been the second time in his career. At his current rate of eight goals and 31 points, Strome is on pace for 58 points, surpassing his previous best of 57 set in 2018-19. Strome has been exactly what the Caps needed this season, and at 25, his value is about to shoot up this summer. His healthy scratch over the weekend was curious, however.
In a similar vein to Gaudreau, Kadri was expected to see a steep decrease from his career-best 87-point output from Colorado last year, but he’s still on pace to finish with 32 goals and 65 points, which would equal his career best in goals and be the second-highest points output of his career. Kadri was brought in to ease the pain after losing Gaudreau this summer. While he’s not as offensively dominant as he was en route to winning the Cup last year with the Avalanche, the Flames have been a mitigated disaster all season. The Flames hold Kadri’s rights until 2029, so they’ll want to see a bit more of what made him so dangerous last year moving forward, but that’s not all under Kadri’s control, either.
What a pickup Kubalik turned out to be. The 27-year-old Czech-born forward was a runner-up for the NHL’s Calder Trophy in 2019-20 but then saw his output fall over the next two seasons in Chicago. The Blackhawks elected to not qualify him as a restricted free agent last summer, and the Red Wings decided to bring him in on an inexpensive two-year deal. With 31 points in 41 games, mainly on Detroit’s second line, he has been a massive addition to a team on the rise, especially without Jakub Vrana in the lineup and all the goals he brought in the past. Kubalik’s all-around game is a bit flawed, but he’s on pace for 62 points. It won’t be long until he breaks his previous best of 46.
After leading the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup last year, the team moved on from Kuemper, who has been solid for the Caps. He has a 12-11-4 record with four shutouts in 28 games, while holding a decent .918 save percentage. Kuemper has had a handful of game-saving efforts, and he’s just on the outside of the top performers in most major statistical goalie categories. The Capitals needed stable goaltending after a couple of tough seasons with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, and they have seemingly gotten it out of Kuemper.
It was easy to overlook Copley’s signing given he was bound for the AHL and didn’t even get his own press release when the Kings signed him. The organization valued his previous experience as a backup in Washington, and he has been a stalwart in the AHL for the past few years. When Cal Petersen found himself AHL-bound after an ugly stretch of games, Copley was called up and now boasts a 12-2-0 record with the big club, keeping the team in the playoff hunt. Having a good backup goaltender is great, but having a third option you can rely on is so valuable.
Domi is only on a one-year deal, but given the Blackhawks’ disastrous season, he’s playing quite well. He’s up to 13 goals and 30 points in 41 games and is on pace for 26 goals and 60 points in 82 games. His career high is 72, but he has only broken the 50-point barrier one other time in his career – his 52-point rookie season in 2015-16. Domi has situated himself in Chicago’s top six and has found a nice home where, maybe, he can find some stability in his career after having a promising start all those years ago.
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