Nobody thought twice when the Florida Panthers signed forward Carter Verhaeghe to a two-year, $2-million contract last offseason. He'd just turned 25 and only had 13 points in 52 career NHL games to that point. However, it proved to be the best signing of the summer, as Verhaeghe tallied 18 goals and 18 assists in 43 contests during his first year in Sunrise.
Finding players who can outplay their contracts is a crucial aspect of NHL team building, especially in the flat salary cap era.
While there may not be a player in this year's unrestricted free-agent class who takes off the same way Verhaeghe did, we'll try and predict the ones who appear to have similar breakout potential. The UFAs below all project to sign contracts at around $1.5 million per season or lower.
Last team: Coyotes
Bunting had just five games of NHL experience prior to the 2020-21 campaign, but he scored 10 goals in 21 contests for the Coyotes. Obviously, a 26.3% shooting percentage isn't sustainable, but most of Bunting's goals came in the dirty areas on rebounds or deflections.
The 2014 fourth-round pick drove play at a high rate, too, posting a 56.1 shot-attempt share and a 51.2% expected goals percentage, albeit with a favorable 73.3% offensive-zone start percentage.
Bunting was a perennial point producer in the AHL, though. If he ends up in the right situation - much like when Verhaeghe was placed on a line with Aleksander Barkov - he could flourish by getting in the forecheck and capitalizing on his chances around the net. For a player who'll likely sign for $1 million or less, that's a chance worth taking.
Last team: Sharks
There have been several stretches in Donato's young career where it felt like he'd arrived, but those hot streaks were only brief and he'd soon revert to a replacement-level NHLer.
Upon making his debut following a storied NCAA career at Harvard, Donato registered nine points in 12 games for his hometown Boston Bruins. However, he couldn't replicate that brief success to begin the following season, bounced between the AHL and NHL, and was eventually dealt to the Minnesota Wild.
He initially looked reborn in Minnesota, tallying 16 points in 22 contests after the trade. The next season, though, Donato struggled and was dealt to San Jose the following offseason, where he's coming off another poor campaign with the Sharks. He was non-tendered Monday.