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Michael Del Zotto among 'risky' free agents worth taking chance on

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Michael Del Zotto remains available in a thinning free-agent market. (USATSI)
Michael Del Zotto remains available in a thinning free-agent market. (USATSI)

More NHL Offseason: NHL rumors | Rumor mill | Trade Tracker | 2014-15 preseason odds

The first two weeks of free agency brought a flurry of activity at the beginning and it's reaching the point of summer where news of free agents signings is coming in dribs and drabs. For those unrestricted free agents still on the market, desperation may be setting in. As more players sign cheap deals, it's more about the opportunity than the money at this point for most still looking for new NHL homes.

As deals get signed around the league at this later stage, there are still options for teams to improve their lineups at a discounted rate. There are a number of players available that have plenty to give in the NHL but for one reason or another remain unsigned. It may be the element of risk tied to some of the available free agents that is giving teams pause.

With that in mind, here's a look at five unrestricted free agents that may be viewed as risky additions, but can also bring quite the reward relative to an inexpensive contract.

1. Michael Del Zotto -- Defenseman

What happened to the once promising career of Michael Del Zotto? Where did it all go wrong? Did it really go wrong or was it just a bad season? Those are the types of questions general managers may be asking themselves as the 24-year-old remains unsigned after not receiving a qualifying offer from the Nashville Predators.

That he wasn't able to find his way in Nashville's defense isn't necessarily a knock as the Preds' top four is well established and they had a homegrown power-play specialist on the roster in Ryan Ellis. There wasn't a real fit for Del Zotto in Nashville. But that he has been unable to find work as an unrestricted free agent makes his situation seem a bit trickier than initial appearances.

Here is a player that broke into the league with a 37-point season and just two years ago put up 41 points. His deficiencies on defense are well noted, but there aren't a ton of 24-year-old defensemen available that have that kind of production on their resume. There are only seven defensemen 24 or younger that have more points than Del Zotto's 126 over the last five seasons, and just about all of them are growing into league stars.

That has to be worth something, but Del Zotto had a rough go last season with just 16 points in 67 games. He was traded by the Rangers after spending games in the press box as a healthy scratch, an ill fit for what Alain Vigneault wanted. The Rangers did better without him. Del Zotto's arrival in Nashville brought no discernable improvement as he put up five points in 25 games and appeared to struggle in his own end, long a concern.

Knowing that the market for the young defenseman has thinned, is there a team out there that would throw him a one-year, show-me deal? There should be several, but that hasn't materialized yet.

It should be easier to take a risk on a player that has done it before, though. At the rate any team would pay him at this point, he could be put in a low-leverage, bottom pairing role, given favorable matchups and working on the power play, and the team likely recoups some of its money. If he has bigger success at a low rate, it's a home run.

Seems like the risk-reward situation here favors the teams and gives Del Zotto a chance to prove he's an NHL-caliber defenseman.

2. Dustin Penner – Right Wing

In a league obsessed with size and championship pedigree, it's a wonder that Dustin Penner hasn't been snapped up by any number of teams. At 6-foot-4, 247 pounds, he's a big man (some might say too big at times) and last year showed what he can do when playing with top players.

He was rather curiously traded by the Anaheim Ducks last year after being such a solid contributor playing alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. He's not a top-line player on a lot of teams, but he sure looked like one in Anaheim.

He had 32 points in 49 games with the Ducks before he was shipped to the Washington Capitals, where he no longer was the bit player on a top line like he was in Anaheim. In 18 games, he had three points.

Penner has been part of two Stanley Cup teams and has a 32-goal season on his resume. Though his scoring hasn't returned to that level in some time and likely won't again, he seems like a good veteran option for a team needing some scoring pop out of its bottom six.

There are often concerns about whether Penner will be in shape, and that's where the risk factor comes in. But he looked good in Anaheim and showed no noticeable signs of an inability to keep up. As teams fill their rosters, Penner is running short on options. His last contract was a one-year deal worth $2 million and he very well make less next year.

In his next destination, Penner is unlikely to be as good as he was in Anaheim, but probably won't be as bad as he was in Washington. Getting something somewhere in between would help a lot of teams, especially with his level of experience.

3. Tomas Vokoun – Goaltender

The last time we saw Tomas Vokoun in an NHL uniform, he was backstopping the Penguins in the playoffs to the tune of a .933 save percentage after wresting the starting gig away from Marc-Andre Fleury. Unfortunately, he lost all of the 2013-14 season to a blood clot.

Vokoun, who just turned 38 on July 2, has declared himself fit to play and ready to land somewhere next season.

Teams in the market for a backup goaltender probably should be seriously considering the veteran. His competition right now includes Martin Brodeur, Ilya Bryzgalov and Tim Thomas. Over the last four seasons in which Vokoun has played, only Thomas has a better save percentage than the .921 mark Vokoun put up among goaltenders who have appeared in at least 100 games.

The year off is going to scare teams away, but when Vokoun did play, he played well. That's even with getting limited minutes over the last two seasons he appeared in. He is a career .917 save perentage goalie and if he brings something close to that level as a backup, he's going to help some teams.

There are only so many goalie spots available around the NHL and really there aren't many left. It could be an instance where teams look to Vokoun in an emergency basis during the season as opposed to him getting signed over the summer.

Perhaps the Capitals could be an option, even though the club siged Justin Peters to back up Braden Holtby. With Barry Trotz at the helm and Mitch Korn serving as goalie coach, it could be a Nashville reunion in the nation's capital. That might be a redundant signing for them, however.

Either way, Vokoun deserves a chance to get back into the league after his health scare last season.

4. Peter Mueller – Center

An unfortunate study in the effects of early-career concussions, Mueller entered the NHL with such promise in 2007-08, putting up 54 points as a 19-year-old rookie for the Phoenix Coyotes.

After slogging through a bit of a sophomore slump in 2008-09, Mueller suffered the second concussion of his career in 2009-10. He missed all of the following season with post-concussion symptoms and only got into 32 games in 2011-12, then with the Colorado Avalanche.

Mueller landed with the Florida Panthers in 2012-13 and actually was having a pretty decent season with the Cats. He finished with just 17 points in 43 games, but showed flashes of his former self as a positive possession player (52.6 Corsi for percentage). But after the season, there were no takers and he spent 2013-14 playing in the Swiss professional league.

He finished third in the NLA in scoring with 46 points in 49 games playing for Kloten. That earned him an invite to play for Team USA at the World Championship where he had four points in eight games.

The former No. 8 overall pick is now 26 years old and made it through an entire season in good health over in Switzerland. He likely comes at an extreme discount to a team looking for some veteran help up front. He has good size at 6-2, 205 and while it is unlikely he'll ever reach the level he showed as a rookie, he's got enough versatility to give a team some lineup flexibility.

Considering Matthew Lombardi, another player plagued by concussions and last year's leading scorer in the Swiss league, got an NHL deal from the New York Rangers, there's reason to believe Mueller is also due another chance.

5. Kevin Hayes – Center/Wing

One of the more intriguing free agents left unsigned currently is a guy who can't be signed yet. The Chicago Blackhawks have yet to get Hayes, a former first-round pick, under contract. If they don't get him signed by Aug. 15, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and can sign with anyone.

Hayes is coming off a successful four-year run at Boston College. As a senior, he put up 65 points, second most in the entire country, as part of college hockey's most productive line with Flames prospects Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold.

There's obviously risk in Hayes as he has never played in the NHL. In fact, he may not even be ready for the big leagues next year, but it's not very often that a team is going to find a 22-year-old at 6-3, 200-plus pounds and a lot of upside at this late stage of the summer. It's a unique case.

Where some of the risk is mitigated is in the fact that Hayes can only sign an entry-level deal, which allows a team to move him freely between the AHL and NHL without waivers, and his cap hit won't exceed $925,000. If he's not ready for the NHL just yet, he could be an AHL asset and look pretty good in just about every prospect system with a shorter timeline for NHL arrival.

Hayes very well could still sign with the Blackhawks, but that doesn't appear likely at this point. A number of teams could compete for his services after Aug. 15. If you want to learn more about who Hayes is and why there could be heavy interest in him, click that shiny little aside next to this capsule for a full rundown.

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