It's easy for most fans, since a bad signing or a long term injury is often forgotten once they don't see the player on the ice for a long enough time. Unfortunately for the teams themselves, those players could still be on the books. This is where the salary cap is a great equalizer though. It holds teams accountable for terrible contracts by making a team face penalties if a general manager wakes up one morning and realizes he made a terrible mistake. On a brighter note, it also means extended injuries to players signed to longer contracts won't mean a team goes over the salary cap.
Those two circumstances above are buyouts and long-term injured reserve, and they're two ways a team can still pay a player even if he hasn't dressed for their side in years.
For a buyout, a team can essentially end a player's contract prematurely and remove a substantial amount of cap hit to the team's salary cap. The amount a player receives is fairly straightforward, it's just 1/3rd or 2/3rd (based on age) of the salary remaining to be paid for double the length of the remaining term. Beneficial for the players as it's increased job security with regression always a possibility, but great for the general managers who want to cut their losses and move on from the player.
On the other hand, a player on long-term injured reserve still makes his salary. However, if the team were to get close to the salary cap, the contract of the player on long-term injured reserve then becomes freed up cap space.
15 Cody Hodgson - Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo completely bought into Hodgson after only one good (half) season. He had 34 points in 48 games in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. They then signed the 23 year old Hodgson a 6 year, $4.25M per year contract. With that contract came slight regression, where Hodgson had only 44 points but at least scored 20 goals. It was a complete free fall in the third year of his contract though, where he only had 13 points in 78 games and Buffalo wanted nothing more to do with him. His remaining three years were bought out and Buffalo is still paying him $791,667 until 2022-23. It's a manageable cap hit but it just shows you how much of an enormous blunder this signing was.
14 Dennis Seidenberg - Boston Bruins
Seidenberg made up a menacing top defensive pairing with Zdeno Chara and helped them win the cup in 2011. His tenure with the Bruins would come to an early end though, mainly due to injuries. In the 2013-14 season, after playing in only 34 games, he sustained MCL and ACL injuries that would end his season. Then in the 2015-16 season, he had a herniated disk which caused him to miss two months of the season. With two serious injuries and younger defensemen coming up for the Bruins, he was bought out for the final two years of his $4M per year contract. The Bruins are still paying him just under $1.2M per year. He played this last season for the Islanders and is under contract there for one more season.
13 Matt Carle - Tampa Bay Lightning
Age hit Carle pretty hard when he was still in the midst of his contract with Tampa. After signing via free agency with the Lightning for six years at a cap hit of $5.5M per year, Carle kept on doing what he did best: putting up decent points for a defenseman and being a good second pairing defenseman. He had 22 points in 48 games his first year, and 31 points in the second year of his contract. Then, in 2014-15 and at 30 years old, Carle had 18 points in 59 games then 9 points in 64 games the year after that.
No longer a necessity on the blue line, he was bought out and is now receiving just over $1.8M per year until 2019-20.
12 Viktor Stalberg
Really nothing flashy about this bottom six forward apart from his 43 point season with Chicago in 2011-12, Stalberg performed his role well as a defensive minded player. After having won the cup in 2013 with the Hawks, Nashville signed him to a four year deal worth $3M per year. The Preds didn't appreciate the lack of offense in his 18 point season in 2013-14. They had even less patience in the following season with the 10 points in 25 games he had before being sent down to Milwaukee of the AHL. He was bought out in that offseason and is being paid just under $1.2M per year until 2018-19. He played in Carolina on a team friendly contract last season on a one-year deal worth $1.5 million.
11 Nathan Horton - Toronto Maple Leafs
Horton was a bright spot on an otherwise fairly boring Florida team until he was traded to Boston. With the Bruins, he scored three game winning goals during the 2011 playoffs that helped them get to the cup final where they eventually won. In the 2013 playoffs when the Bruins made it all the way to the finals, he had 17 points in 21 games. He missed substantial time during the regular season while in Boston due to injuries, and in the one season he played 80 games he had a decent 53 points. He signed a 6 year contract worth $5.3M per year with Columbus in 2013.
Unfortunately, his first season with Columbus only saw him play 36 games (19 points) before he was diagnosed with a degenerative back injury the following season. He is now on long-term injured reserve for Toronto.
10 Alexander Semin - Carolina Hurricanes
Semin put up elite numbers on a deadly line with Niklas Backstorm and Alexander Ovechkin. Accusations of laziness were often flung at Semin for his lack of production, but his inability to play a full season because of injuries were probably more to blame. Either way, his production decreased and he went into free agency. Carolina signed the streaky winger to a one year deal worth $7M and he met expectations with the signing with 44 points in 44 games of a lockout shortened season. This made Carolina sign him for $7M per year again, this time for five years.
Semin was quick to return to his injury prone, low offensive ways with 42 points in 65 games the first season, and 19 points in 57 games the next. They then bought out his contract and are paying him just over $2.33m per year until 2020-21.
9 Ryan Clowe - New Jersey Devils
Clowe signed as a free agent after several good years as a power forward for San Jose. At 30 years old, the Devils signed him to a 5 year deal, where he'd make $4.85M per year. Unfortunately, Clowe would never live up to his past years with San Jose. Even worse is that he was forced to retire because of concussions. In his first season with the Devils, he played 43 games (only 26 points) before a concussion ended his season early. The next year, he played in an even fewer 13 games (4 points) when he suffered his fourth career concussion. This time the doctors did not clear him and he was forced to retire. He is now on the Devils long-term injured reserve, entering the final year of his deal.
8 David Clarkson - Vegas Golden Knights
The Leafs made a huge splash in the offseason when they signed the one-time 30 goal scorer (prior career high of 17) to a 7 year $5.25M per year contract. His career with the Leafs started well, with a 10 game suspension to start the season because of a brawl in preseason. He then went on to have a minuscule 11 points in 60 games, then 15 points in 58 games before the Leafs traded him to Columbus. He played only 26 games for Columbus spanning from the end of the 2014-15 season and all of the 2015-16 season, scoring only 4 points. Injuries plagued him once he left New Jersey, and he may now never play again due to a back injury. He is now on long-term injured reserve for the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
7 Johan Franzen - Detroit Red Wings
One of the uglier cases of concussions in recent years. Post concussion symptoms have gotten so bad for Franzen that he missed all of this past season, and had missed 167 out of a possible 246 games during the three seasons before that. Prior to all that though, Franzen was a monster and put up quite the numbers in three consecutive playoff years. From the 2008 playoffs to the 2010 playoffs, Franzen had played in 51 playoff games (one cup win in 2008, and a cup final in 2009) where he put up 59 points. Those outstanding numbers came with it the reward of an 11 year contract with an average cap hit of just under $4M per year. He is still getting paid, but the Red Wings put have him on long-term injured reserve.
6 François Beauchemin - Colorado Avalanche
The veteran defenseman signed in Colorado for three years at $4.5M per year and showed no signs of aging, posting 34 points in 82 games. He looked to be a pillar of stability for the club, but then demonstrated his age and the general inability to perform on the part of Colorado, having only 18 points the following season. Since he had a no-movement clause in his contract, Colorado would be forced to protect him in the expansion draft. Having no intention to protect him over their other younger players, Colorado bought out the final year of his contract. They now pay him $4.5M for the next year. The signing looked like a bad fit from the beginning so Colorado buying him out this offseason didn't really come as a surprise.
5 Thomas Vanek - Minnesota Wild
Vanek went back to the state he played his university hockey in hoping to bring his once prominent scoring touch to the Wild. Unfortunately for him and the Wild, things just didn't work out and Minnesota needed to get rid of cap space to re-sign players. Having signed in free agency for three years at a cap hit of $6.5M per, it was fairly predictable that the Wild weren't going to keep him for his third and final year. After 52 points in his first year, and 41 points in his second year, Vanek just wasn't producing to the standards of his salary. He was bought out and the Wild are paying him $2.5M for one more year just to not have him on their team.
4 Simon Despres - Anaheim Ducks
It's odd to see a big and mobile 25 year old defenseman get bought out, but this may have to do with concussions threatening a career once again. After being traded to Anaheim in the 2014-15 season, Despres played to his potential in a top four role on the Ducks blue line. The year after however, he suffered a concussion and only played 32 games. His concussion symptoms never subsided and played just one game the subsequent year before Anaheim placed him on long-term injured reserve. Only one year of his 5 year, $18.5M contract extension had passed before being bought out. Anaheim will pay him $662 500 every year until 2024-25. While Despres would obviously rather be playing hockey, it's not the worst gig in the world.
3 Dave Bolland - Arizona Coyotes
Bolland was amazing depth help for the Hawks in their cup runs in 2010 and especially in 2013 when he scored the cup winning goal. Unfortunately, like most of the Hawks players, he had to traded away due to needing a contract extension soon. He was traded to Toronto but not even they wanted to entertain such a high cap hit, so it was up to Florida in free agency. They signed him to a 5 year, $5.5M per year contract. Though his offensive output disappeared, it was the injuries that may have ended his career. He only played 78 out of a potential 164 games because of injuries and because he was sent to the AHL for two games.
Now with Arizona mainly to alleviate cap space in Florida, Bolland is on their long-term injured reserve due to coinciding back and ankle injuries that won't heal.
2 Mike Ribeiro - Arizona Coyotes
Yup, even though Mike Ribeiro spent much of this season in Nashhille and/or in their farm system, the Coyotes still have him on the books for three more years and he'll be making $1.9 million in those three years. The Coyotes first signed Ribeiro back in 2013 after he had a strong run with the Washington Capitals in the lockout shortened season. However Ribeiro was a big disappointment in the desert, not really because of his scoring (he managed 47 points) but his off-ice issues followed him and the Coyotes wanted him gone at all costs. After signing him to a four-year, $22 million contract, he was bought out after just one season. It's very likely that Ribeiro's career is over at this point, as the Preds kept him in the AHL most of this year.
1 Dan Girardi - New York Rangers
One of the more foreseeable cases of off-season buyouts, Dan Girardi's brutal contract has mercifully come to an end this off-season. It still seems the concept of regression is so foreign to some general managers since the Rangers extended Girardi just a few months before he turned 30. Not known for his offense, Girardi's defensive game has gone from bad to worse these past seasons and is unable to keep up with the speed of the game, especially since his partner on defense was the best defenseman on their team in Ryan McDonaugh. The overpaid Rangers' defenseman was making $5.5M per year until 2019-20 but his buyout will now have him making about $1.11M until 2022-23.
Presumably Girardi will be able to find a new team on a much more affordable deal.