Paul Vernon/Associated Press

Virtually all of the biggest NHL free agents have signed new contracts by now. The 2018 class was a notoriously thin one—especially once John Carlson re-signed with the Washington Capitals with just days to spare—and mostly all of the clearcut top-six forward/top-four defenseman help vanished by the end of July 2.

Yet savvy general managers never rest, turning over every stone to try and secure competitive advantages wherever they may lie. It’s tough to find a player in the middle of the summer that 30 other teams simply missed out on, though.

Usually, by this time of the offseason, it’s about finding skaters who can be placed into favorable positions by only a small handful of organizations. If Antoine Vermette was more than a faceoff-winning machine who can do almost nothing else well, then he would have a contract by now.

Anthony Duclair deciding to join the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 5 or Devante Smith-Pelly heading to Washington last year are perfect examples of late-blooming deals that turn (or could turn out, in Duclair’s case) out well.

While none of the following players are going to be All-Stars or even everyday NHLers, they could offer the right team what little gas they have left in the proverbial tank to some benefit.

Dan Hamhuis, D, 35 years old

It’s at least somewhat surprising that Dan Hamhuis doesn’t have a new contract yet. He scored at a respectable clip last year, generating 0.3 points per game while starting nearly 60 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the defensive zone.

The thing is, for a defenseman, Hamhuis sometimes struggles when it comes to defending. The Dallas Stars were much (much, much) better at preventing goals when Hamhuis was on the bench instead of out on the ice, so a lot of the offense he brings is negated by errors in his own end.

Still, general managers around the NHL love players like Dan Hamhuis. He’s a former first-round pick, has over 1,000 regular season games under his belt and isn’t afraid to block shots or hit when the chance is there. Heck, he was getting Norris Trophy votes six years ago while he was in Vancouver.

The days of Hamhuis carrying a pair or providing top-four minutes are gone, though. Any team looking to sign him and use him for 20 minutes a night is making a mistake. A strong squad with a need for help on the third pairing would make some sense.

It might not be a bad gamble for a team like the Chicago Blackhawks to take. Hamhuis shouldn’t command a high salary, and they have some cap space to burn after trading away Marian Hossa’s dead-money contract last week.

Of course, Chicago probably wants to get quicker in its own end, so perhaps Hamhuis isn’t a perfect fit. Yet he could be a decent No. 6 or 7 option in the Windy City.

Cody Franson, D, 30 years old

If it’s somewhat surprising that Hamhuis hasn’t landed on his proverbial skates yet, then it’s downright perplexing that no one has taken a chance on Cody Franson yet. Sure, this is the same story that was written last year before Chicago scooped him up, but it isn’t like he stunk up the joint while with the Blackhawks. 

Franson eventually ended up in the AHL (where he scored 13 points in 13 playoff games with the Rockford IceHogs), but never looked particularly bad when at the NHL level. Joel Quenneville’s doghouse may as well be the giant pit of death Leonidas kicks the Persian messenger down into during 300 while screaming “This Is SPARTA!” and that’s where Franson found himself in 2017-18.

In Joel Quenneville’s proverbial pit of death.

But, in the right circumstance, Franson could prove to be an outstanding and cheap add. And what NHL GM doesn’t love both the stellar and the frugal? They rarely (if ever) go hand in hand in professional sports, after all.

The reality is that Chicago took more shots while Franson was on the ice, and did a decent job of suppressing goals while he was playing as well. He only got into 23 games, so small sample size alert, but he’s been a positive Fenwick for player on some pretty awful teams.

He gets the puck up ice well, doesn’t get crushed in the defensive zone and has even shown some moxie on the power play.

Why not give Franson a look if you’re one of those odd tweener teams? The rebuilding-while-competing types. He proved last season that he’s willing to plug away in the AHL is he has to, so there’s very little downside to offering the journeyman a contract.

For a squad like the Detroit Red Wings, it could even be argued that Franson would be an upgrade to their third pair. They want to give youngsters a chance to make the opening-night roster, and rightfully so, but if Joe Hicketts doesn’t look ready to be an everyday defenseman just yet, Franson could be a great insurance policy.

Kari Lehtonen, G, 34

Last season, the Dallas Stars were held back by shoddy netminding.

Blaming goalies can be a dangerous practice, but in this case, the Stars were, without question, victims of their own masked men. Most of the blame falls on Ben Bishop’s sizable shoulders, but Dallas didn’t hesitate when the opportunity to replace Lehtonen with Anton Khudobin when he hit free agency.

That’s because Khudobin is the kind of backup who can steal starts, while Lehtonen, at this stage of his career, mostly hopes to survive them.

Still, his save percentage in 2017-18 was the best it had been in four years, suggesting that he might be worth a flier from a contender looking for goaltending help on the cheap. The Washington Capitals come to mind here.

Braden Holtby will likely start 60 or more games as the Capitals look to defend their Stanley Cup championship. That leaves around 20 contests for Pheonix Copley, who is Washington’s de facto No. 2 heading into training camp.

Trouble is that he’s only started two NHL games in his career, and if it turns out he isn’t ready for the show just yet, then it could be tough for Washington to find a suitable stop gap in-season. Right now, they could add Lehtonen for nothing. In two months, they’ll likely have to swing a trade for an underperforming veteran.

Why not scoop said underperforming veteran up for $1 million now, or at least invite him to training camp to see what happens? If Lehtonen can’t stick with a team like the Capitals, then it may be the end of the line for the former second-overall draft pick.

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