By Sean Hartnett
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July began with a bang when NHL free agency opened at the start of the month, yet teams have continued to stay active in the weeks that have followed. While there are still moves to be made and training camp battles to be won, the most astute signings of July can be instrumental in separating the Stanley Cup contenders from the pretenders and determining which teams claim the final playoff seeds.
Let’s review the top 10 summer signings thus far:
1) Kevin Shattenkirk (RHD) – New York Rangers – Four years, $26.6 million ($6.65 million AAV)
Shattenkirk’s arrival in the Big Apple will make the Rangers stronger in possession and more dangerous on the power play. Since his rookie season of 2010-11, Shattenkirk is one of four defensemen to post at least 30 assists and 40 points in six different seasons. The 28-year-old has recorded 25 or more power-play points in each of the past four seasons. His five-on-five Corsi For percentage over the past four seasons is 53.6.
After finishing the playoffs with a 7.7 power-play percentage, it was imperative for the Rangers to acquire a difference maker in man-advantage situations. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Shattenkirk, who played for the Blues and Capitals last season, ranks second among defensemen with 131 power-play points, only trailing Erik Karlsson’s 146. He is also third among defensemen in power-play goals (32) and power-play assists (99) over the same stretch.
There will be lofty expectations placed on Shattenkirk’s shoulders, but he’s capable of being an excellent signing over the course of a contract that covers his prime years.
2) Tyler Johnson (C) — Tampa Bay Lightning – Seven years, $35 million ($5 million AAV)
Getting Johnson to re-sign for an average of $5 million for seven years is a big win for the Bolts. Johnson has averaged 0.73 points per game over the past three seasons and is a key contributor for Tampa Bay on both ends of the ice and on the power play. At 27, he has many great years ahead.
3) Patrick Marleau (LW/C) – Toronto Maple Leafs – Three years, $18.75 million ($6.25 million AAV)
The fact that the Leafs gave Marleau, who will be 38 years old on opening night, a three-year deal raised more than a few eyebrows. But the former Shark has been as durable as it gets, still has quick legs and goal-scoring punch. Every player’s body ages differently, and Marleau is a young 37. He hasn’t missed a game in the past eight seasons and is money in the bank for 20 goals.
Toronto boasts some of the most talented youngsters in the league and appears to be on the cusp of making a serious run at the Cup. Marleau’s wealth of experience and 120 points in 177 career playoff games will make the Leafs much more dangerous when the postseason rolls around.
4) Justin Williams (RW) – Carolina Hurricanes – Two years, $9 million ($4.5 million AAV)
The Hurricanes are confident that their young core is ready to seriously contend for a playoff berth after finishing eight points shy last season. A strong, late push and upward trending youth are reasons to believe that the Canes are for real, but general manager Ron Francis went back to a familiar face to aid Carolina’s ambitions.
Williams, who spent the past two seasons in Washington, captured the first of his three career Stanley Cup rings in Carolina. He’ll be counted on to show this young team the way. Should the Canes qualify for the playoffs, “Mr. Game Seven” and his 0.67 postseason points per game will be an asset.
5) Scott Hartnell (LW) – Nashville Predators – One year, $1 million
Hartnell goes back to where it all began in Nashville. The 35-year-old is a durable, possession-strong winger. His 2.42 points per 60 minutes in even-strength situations for the Blue Jackets ranked eighth-best in the NHL last season. All in all, $1 million for Hartnell is very good value.
6) Joe Thornton (C) – San Jose Sharks – One year, $8 million
You’re not going to get many goals from Thornton, but the 38-year-old plays terrific hockey on both ends of the rink. He remains one of the league’s finest playmakers. It was a must that San Jose re-signed him.
7) Trevor Daley (LHD) – Detroit Red Wings – Three years, $9.5 million ($3.16 AAV)
The two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins will fill an important top-four role for the Wings and is capable of playing on either side. Daley will turn 34 shortly after opening night, but he’s still great at advancing the puck and is sound in the defensive end.
8) Benoit Pouliot (LW/RW) – Buffalo Sabres – One year, $1.15 million
The Sabres are pinning their hopes on a bounce-back year from Pouliot, who endured a frustrating final season in Edmonton. Pouliot’s points per game dipped to 0.21 after averaging 0.65 a season before. He has what it takes to be a solid contributor from the second line down, and it’s a low-risk gamble that could pay off nicely.
9) Patrick Sharp (LW) – Chicago Blackhawks – One year, $1 million
Talk about a deep discount. After his final season with the Dallas Stars was cut short due to hip surgery, Sharp returns to the franchise he won three Stanley Cups with. He’s still a terrific skater at age 35. As long as he can stay healthy, Sharp will provide solid two-way play and get close to the 20-goal mark.
10) Adam Clendening (RHD) – Arizona Coyotes – One year, $650,000
This has steal written all over it. Clendening is an offense-driving defenseman at a bargain basement price. The 24-year-old made the most of his limited chances with the Rangers last season, posting a 56.1 Corsi For percentage in five-on-five situations. Arizona will be the sixth team Clendening has played for in four seasons. Maybe he’s finally found the right fit?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey