Free agency as we know it today has only been around since 1995. Prior to that, the only reliable way to acquire a star player was to get lucky in the draft or make a trade for one. Of course, some teams got insanely lucky with undrafted free agents, but as you can imagine that was far from an everyday occurrence.
Even today, with many talented players hitting free agency ever year, it’s hard to get a good deal. The league is competitive and a player’s price gets bid up well beyond what anyone was hoping to pay. You can’t get a decent player on a decent contract. You either get a decent player on a star-level contract or you don’t get him at all.
Some teams have done much better in free agency than others. They know how to properly assess the value of the players and can exploit market inefficiencies. They only pay big money for free agents when they feel it’s really worth it.
With that in mind, every team has managed to hit big on at least a single free agent in their history. Whether it was a Superstar signed a decade ago who panned out as expected or an unknown UFA four decades ago who shocked everyone, every franchise has had success with free agency in one way or another.
Anaheim Ducks – Scott Niedermayer
The Ducks brought Scott Niedermayer on board after a long and productive career with the New Jersey Devils. The Norris Trophy winner was given a four year deal worth $27 million and the payoff was instant. In his first two years with his new team, he recorded the two highest point totals of his career; 63 and 69 points respectively. Previously, he had only managed to exceed 50 points on two occasions.
In the ’06-’07 season he was paired up with Chris Pronger. This unquestionably gave Anaheim the best defensive pairing in the NHL and certainly one of the greatest of all-time. Their talent and chemistry was enough to secure a Stanley cup victory for the franchise that year.
Arizona Coyotes – Mike Smith
Mike Smith was a fifth round pick back in the 2001 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars. For the majority of his time there, and in Tampa Bay where he was later traded, he was used as a backup goaltender; never playing more than 45 games in a season.
In 2011, he signed a two year deal worth $4 million with the Arizona Coyotes. The low risk contract paid off in spades as Smith carried them to the Western Conference Finals. He posted an impressive 2.21 GAA in his first season and later earned a six year extension worth over $5.5 million a year.
Boston Bruins – Zdeno Chara
It’s hard to think of Zdeno Chara and not think of Boston (and vice versa). Surprising for many, prior to joining the team in 2006, he had already played four seasons with the New York Islanders and four with the Ottawa Senators.
He ended up coming to Boston on a five year deal worth $37.5 million. Since then, he hasn’t been anything less than an absolute force on the blue line. At 6-9 and 255 pound, his physical impact on the game is well documented. But Chara remains a very complete player. He plays stout defense and has a thundering shot from the blue line that makes him feared all over the ice.
He will go down as one of the most famed Bruins of all time. For a franchise that has had more than its fair share of great players, that certainly isn’t something to be taken lightly.
Buffalo Sabres – Christian Ehrhoff
In 2011, the Buffalo Sabres signed a somewhat surprising contract – 10 years and $40 million in total for a 28 year old defenseman. The money was relatively low, but the 10 years was quite surprising.
Regardless, he was what they were expecting. He played solid defense and was clearly the best defenseman on the team. They were noticeably worse whenever he was missing from the lineup; though that wasn’t too often.
In 2014, the Sabres used one of their compliance buyouts on Ehrhoff. This had less to do with performance and more to do with his contract. The Sabres were concerned that if Ehrhoff retired they’d be stuck with his cap hit for several more years. They were a team looking to rebuild anyway and felt it wasn’t worth the risk.
Calgary Flames – Jiri Hudler
After seven solid years with the Detroit Red Wings, Jiri Hudler went over to Calgary on a four year deal worth $16 million in 2012. He was a valuable veteran presence for a young Flames team for several years.
He almost instantly became a fan favorite player. In his first two years, he maintained his production of about 50 points a year. In 2014-15, he set a career high and became one of the league’s top scorers when he notched 76 points.
He was severely slowed down by a groin injury later on and his play suffered significantly as a result. After a great run in Calgary, he was dealt to the Panthers in the last year of contract for second and fourth round picks.
Carolina Hurricanes – Ron Francis
Ron Francis is among the most underrated NHL players of all-time. Part of that comes from playing the shadow of Jaromir Jagr and Mario Limoux for a significant part of his career. One of the most impressive things about Francis is that he was known as being more of a two-way forward, yet he exceeded 100 points three times in his career.
He didn’t join Carolina until 1998 at age 35. With his prime years well behind him, he still managed to hit at least 50 points every season with his average being just under 65.
He retired in 2005 and is currently the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Chicago Blackhawks – Marian Hossa
Marian Hossa has been a star player ever since being drafted 12th overall by the Senators in 1997. He bounced around a bit before signing a massive contract with Chicago in 2009. While having some injury issues, the elite winger has brought a strong scoring touch and helped the Blackhawks become the dominate team they’ve been over the past few years.
He has been a reliable goal scorer with Chicago who can be counted on for about 25 goals a season and roughly 60 points. Though, his numbers have declined somewhat as he’s entered his late 30s.
Colorado Avalanche – Andrew Brunette
Andrew Brunette is Colorado’s highest scoring free agent in the team’s history, despite only playing with them for three seasons.
He joined prior to the 2005-06 season at age 32. He had already had a long and impressive career, but despite that he broke his career high for goals in his first season with the Avalanche, as well as recording his second highest points total. As impressive as that was, he topped it in the following season as he set personal bests for goals and points, at 27 and 83 respectively.
Columbus Blue Jackets – David Vyborny
David Vyborny was selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1993 NHL Draft though he never managed to make their lineup. He played one year with their AHL affiliate, the Cape Brenton Oilers, in 1994-95 but quickly returned to the Czech Republic League.
In 2000, he signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the only NHL team he would ever play for. He spent seven years with the team in total. While he was never a superstar, he was a highly consistent player. Over his first six years, he played all but 15 games and could be counted on to score around 20 goals and 50 points a season.
The 2007-08 season was the last Vyborny played in the NHL. Currently, he is second all-time among Blue Jackets in scoring, behind only Rick Nash.
Dallas Stars – Ed Belfour
Ed Belfour is one of the most famous goalies to ever play the game. He began his career with the Chicago Blackhawks and spent seven seasons there, averaging a 2.65 GAA and .903 save percentage.
The two-time Vezina Trophy winner came over to Dallas following the 1996-97 season and went off. In his first two years, his goals against average dropped under 2.00 and his save percentage jumped to .915; both of those being career highs. He continued his dominance throughout his five year tenure in Dallas and even carried them to a Stanley Cup in 1999, where he posted a .930 SV% and 1.67 GAA throughout the playoffs.
Detroit Red Wings – Brian Rafalski
The Detroit Red Wings have a plethora of players to choose from here. They’ve done an incredibly good job of scouting and attracting free agent talent.
Brian Rafalski is the most notable however. The long time Devil came over to Detroit on a five year deal worth $30 million in 2007. He was 34 years old at the time, but had the best year of his career with the Red Wings (statistically). With the Devils his highest point total was 55, but he hit 59 with the Red Wings in 2008/09.
In addition, Rafalski was a key part of the 2008 Red Wings team that went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Edmonton Oilers – Charlie Huddy
Charlie Huddy went undrafted and signed with the Edmonton Oilers in 1980, two years after Wayne Gretzky joined.
Huddy was versatile and reliable. He didn’t have one area he specialized in, but he was good at many things. He actually put up highly impressive numbers for a defenseman, but a large part of that likely comes from playing alongside the greatest NHL player in history.
Huddy was claimed by Minnesota in the 1991 expansion draft after playing 11 years in Edmonton. He did return in 2000 as an assistant coach however.
Florida Panthers – Terry Carkner
Although Terry Carkner was drafted by the Rangers with the 14th overall pick, he ended spending him prime years playing in Philadelphia. As a member of The Broad Street Bullies, Carkner stood out and established himself as one of the league’s toughest and most physical defensemen in the game.
At age 29 in 1995, he signed with the Florida Panthers. He was a force on the back end and a key piece on their 1996 Stanley Cup Finals run. After four impressive years, Carkner retired as a Panther.
Los Angeles Kings – Charlie Simmer
It took Charlie Simmer a few years to get on his feet. He was originally drafted by the California Seals in the third round of the 1974 Draft but got very little NHL time, playing primarily in the OLA and CHL.
Eventually, he signed with the Kings in 1977. He didn’t get a real chance on their roster until the following year, where he proved himself by scoring 48 points in 38 games.
1979 was Charlie Simmer’s first full year in the NHL. He instantly made a name for himself playing alongside Kings’ legends Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor. He scored 56 goals and 101 points, as well as earned his spot on the first team All-Star lineup with Dionne.He recorded nearly identical stats the next year and earned a second trip to the All-Star game in 1980.
Overall, he spent eight seasons in Los Angeles. Currently, he sits eighth in goals and 10th in points all-time among Los Angeles Kings players.
Minnesota Wild – Niklas Backstrom
Niklas Backstrom was never drafted. He played in the Finnish Elite League for the bulk of his career before deciding to come to Minnesota in 2006.
He was an instant success. After their starter went down with an injury, Backstrom stepped in and finished the season with a 1.97 GAA and .929 save percentage; both of which led the league that year.
He played nine years in total for the Wild. Over that period, he managed an impressive .915 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average. He will go down as one of the greatest players in Minnesota Wild history.
Montreal Canadiens – Brian Gionta
Brian Gionta came over to Montreal on a five year deal following a long and productive tenure in New Jersey. At 31 years old, it didn’t take long before his numbers began to drop off. He still provided a solid amount of scoring, but his contribution to the team was much, much more than just scoring.
He came on board in 2009 and it took him a single season to become to team’s captain. In addition, he was a very skilled on special teams. He was a valuable asset on the penalty kill in particular.
His production warranted more of a second line role, but his leadership and defensive ability is what makes him an amazing signing for the Canadiens and one of their best in recent memory.
Nashville Predators – Paul Kariya
This was close between two highly productive Predators, Paul Kariya and J.P. Dumont. Dumont was the Predators leading scorer in his first two years with the team. He took a massive hit early in the 2009 season and was never the same player. The whole situation was horribly unfortunate.
However, Paul Kariya gets the nod as the Preds best free agent signing ever. While he was only on the team for two seasons, they were both insane seasons. He signed with the team at age 31 in 2005. He went on to score a total of 161 points over 164 games. He was a small guy, but his unbelievable speed made him a highly feared and respected player.
New Jersey Devils – Scott Stevens
Scott Stevens is not only the best free agent signing in the Devils’ history, but likely the best in NHL history. He’s known as one of the hardest hitting players ever and among the best defensemen to play the game.
He will always be known as a Devil. As a result, many have forgotten (or simply never knew) that he had a long stint with the Washington Capitals to begin his career. They drafted him fifth overall and he played there for eight years.
Stevens joined the New Jersey Devils following the 1990-91 season. He continued to reign of dominance on the blue line. He helped the team win the Stanley cup three times and secured his place in the Hall of Fame.
New York Islanders – Matt Moulson
The Matt Moulson signing in 2009 wasn’t terribly notable. At the time, the winger had only played 29 NHL games and scored 10 points in total. As a result, he only got a one year deal on a two-way contract.
The signing paid off massively. He ended up spending five years in total with New York. He exceeded the 30 goal mark in each of his first three seasons and managed to not miss a single game over that period either.
He ended up developing amazing chemistry with 2009 first overall pick John Tavares, as they complimented each other perfectly.
New York Rangers – Adam Graves
Adam Graves was drafted by the Red Wings in the second round of the 1986 NHL draft. He spent three years in Detroit as well as two in Edmonton. As far as personal accomplishments go, he failed to make a noticeable impact; never exceeding 25 point in a season. Though, he did win the Stanley Cup with the Oilers in 1990.
The Rangers brought him on board in 1991, offing an expanded role. The risk paid off in spades for New York. In his first season he recorded 59 points, proving to be a real offensive force.
He was a Ranger for a very long time as well. This would still be considered among the best signings ever if he had only played for a few years. Graves stayed with the team for a decade though, managing to be an impact player through the entire duration of his time in New York. As a result, he goes down as one of the greatest free agent signings of all time.
Philadelphia Flyers – Jeremy Roenick
Jeremy Roenick was signed by the Flyers in 2001. On a team with many talented scorers, including Simon Gagne, Keith Primeau, Mark Recchi, and John LeClair, Roenick still managed to lead the team in scoring in both his first season and his second.
He was a massive offensive weapon as well as a leader. He helped the Flyers become one of the league’s best teams in the early 2000s. Though his tenure in Philadelphia was short, lasting only three years, he has gone down as one of the most beloved players by the Flyers fan base.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Sergei Gonchar
Prior to the 2005 season, Pittsburgh was lacking badly on their blue line. They needed a playmaker; someone who could move to puck and be a scoring threat.
They solved it when they signed Sergei Gonchar to a five year contract. In his first three seasons, he averaged over 60 points for the Penguins. Crosby and Malkin were the only players to outscore him over that period.
Although he missed a lot of time during the 2008-09 season, he was back for the playoffs. He ended up scoring 14 points over 22 games and was a key part in the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup win that year.
Ottawa Senators – Ron Tugnutt
Ron Tugnutt had bounced around the league quite a bit before landing with the Senators. He began his career in 1987 with the Quebec Nordiques, and then played in Edmonton, Anaheim, and Montreal, before making his way to Ottawa.
He signed with the Senators in 1996 and stayed with the team for four years. His best came in the 1998-99 season where he led the league with a 1.79 GAA and finished third in save percentage at .925.
San Jose Sharks – Antti Niemi
Antti Niemi didn’t begin his NHL career until 2008 at age 25 when he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks. He stayed for two years and played in 42 games over that period, posting an impressive .912 SV% and 2.25 GAA.
With a small sample size, he only managed to get a one year deal with San Jose worth $2 million to start off with. He made the most of it though, playing 60 games and recording a .920 SV% and a 2.38 GAA.
He remained the team’s starter for the next four years, posting very similar numbers. His best season came in the shortened 2012-13 season where he had a .924 SV% and a 2.16 GAA. He also led the league with 24 wins (due to the lockout, that season only had 48 games played).
St. Louis Blues – Brian Elliott
Brian Elliott signed with St. Louis in 2011 after a very poor season, where he posted sub .900 SV% and a paltry 3.34 GAA. He followed it up with something special though. In 38 games, he led the league in both SV% and GAA, with .940 and 1.56 respectively.
He’s been playing in St. Louis for five years now and his numbers are absolutely insane. His worst season so far was 2013-13 and is still something that many goalies would kill for (.907 SV%, 2.28 GAA).
Tampa Bay Lightning – Martin St. Louis
Martin St. Louis was not drafted into the NHL. He originally signed with the Calgary Flames and played there for two years, recording marginal numbers.
In 2000, at age 25, he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning and would stay there for the vast majority of his NHL career; a total of 13 seasons. He was the team’s most talented scorer and even led the league in scoring in 2004, as well as exceeding 100 points in 2007. He routinely put up at least 80 points a year and around 30 goals.
He continued his highly impressive point-per-game production into the playoffs. With the Lightning, he played 63 playoff games and recorded 33 goals and 68 points.
Currently, he is the highest scoring player in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as second in goals.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Curtis Joseph
Curtis Joseph had already played six seasons with the St. Louis Blues and three with the Edmonton Oilers before coming to Toronto. Over that period, his lowest recorded GAA was 2.63.
He took a huge step forward when he joined the Maple Leaves at age 31 in 1998. In four years, he never once posted a GAA higher than 2.63. He helped Toronto make the playoffs every year he was there, including two Eastern Conference Final appearances.
Vancouver Canucks – Dan Hamhuis
Dan Hamhuis was a former 12th overall pick and spent his first five years with the Nashville Predators. In 2010, he was among the hottest names in free agency.
Vancouver signed him to a six year deal worth $27 million and he’s been a highly reliable player on their blue line. He plays solid defensive hockey and is capable of logging lots of minutes every game.
In 2014, he won an Olympic gold medal with team Canada, as well as the World Hockey Championship the following year.
Washington Capitals – Joel Ward
Joel Ward’s numbers aren’t eye popping, as he averages a solid 40 points each year as a bottom six forward. His production is very consistent though, a trait that’s highly underrated. Even still, the bulk of his valuable comes from his ability as a playoff performer. He steps up when it matters the most. Capitals fans will not soon forget his game seven overtime goal against the Boston Bruins in 2012. But he’s known for more than just a single amazing play. His overall playoff numbers are impressive for someone in his role. In 71 playoff games, he’s put up 20 goals and 46 points.
Winnipeg Jets – Ray Ferraro
Ray Ferraro signed with the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999 at age 35 (the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011). His prime years were well in the past, but he still had an impressive run there.
Most notably in the 2000-01 season where he recorded 29 goals and 76 points, totals that rival the best seasons of his career. Over his three seasons in Atlanta, Ferraro played in 223 games and recorded 56 goals and 147 points.
He was traded to St. Louis at the end of the 2002 season and retired shortly after the Blues were eliminated in the playoffs by the Red Wings in the Conference Semi-Finals.
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