Every July 1, the NHL free agency window opens, and it’s always a fun ride for fans. It’s such a busy time of the year that you often find yourself watching hockey in October, flabbergasted that player ‘x’ plays for a particular team (he plays THERE, now???).
While there are deals and signings that fly under the radar, there are also several that jump out at you immediately due to the terms of the deal itself. Sometimes it’s because the team obviously overpaid (either in term, dollars, or both), and sometimes it’s because the deal is a steal (WHY DIDN'T MY FAVORITE TEAM SIGN HIM?!?!).
Today I took a look at all of the signings that happened in the first few days of the 2017 free agency season, and I picked out eight deals that were awful, awful bets and seven that should turn out to be pretty savvy signings. Of course only time will tell if I’m right or wrong here, but it’s fun to speculate nonetheless.
As per usual, there were some asinine deals handed out in the first week of July, as well as some pretty reasonable bets that maybe flew under the radar a bit. Here’s a closer look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of what was the 2017 NHL free agent frenzy:
20 Worst: Karl Alzner - Montreal Canadiens
Karl Alzner was one of the bigger UFAs on the market this offseason, and the Montreal Canadiens were the “lucky” team that got the veteran defenseman to put pen to paper. The 28-year-old signed a five year pact with the Habs ($4.625M AAV), and he’ll be expected to fill the void left by the departure of Alexei Emelin.
At first glance, this seems like a reasonable bet. Alzner played nearly 20 minutes a night on a very good Washington Capitals club in 2016-17, meaning he was mostly a second-pairing option for the Caps. However, a closer look reveals that Alzner bled chances against more than any other Capitals defenseman, recording a 46.3 CF% and the worst CF% Rel on the team (via Hockey Reference). In summary, when Alzner’s on the ice, it tilts toward his own net. Good thing they have a solid ‘tender in Montreal!
19 Best: Sam Gagner - Vancouver Canucks
From eight-point man to AHL/fringe NHLer, to solid fourth line C/power play specialist, the Canucks made a good bet on Sam Gagner. The 27-year-old hit the UFA market this year after making good on a one-year pact with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2016-17, recording his first career 50 point season. Vancouver agreed to a three-year deal with Gags, with an AAV of $3.15M.
The encouraging part regarding Gagner’s 2016-17 season was that he posted elite possession metrics in addition to his stellar point totals. He tied with Brandon Saad for the best CF% on the team at 54.8. On a side note, that can’t be good for the Jackets, who’ve lost their two best possession forwards already this offseason. Regardless of what's going on in Ohio, Gagner will be a solid addition to a rebuilding Canucks dressing room.
18 Worst: Evgeny Kuznetsov - Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals were already on the highway to cap hell, but the moves they made this offseason so far have only exacerbated the issue. Of course there was the T.J. Oshie re-signing (way too much money for a 50-ish point player) that happened before July 1, but then after July 1 they dropped the big hammer and announced the Evgeny Kuznetsov extension.
Kuznetsov is a great player, don’t get me wrong. But he’s also their second line center, playing behind Nicklas Backstrom on the depth chart. Locking up the 25-year-old for eight years is actually good for the Capitals, but it only takes a quick glance at their payroll to realize it pretty much means Backstrom is a goner when his deal expires in three years. A $7.8M AAV for guy who’s had one elite season, and it wasn’t even last season? I’d be timid to ink Kuznetsov to this type of deal if I were a GM.
16 Best: Ales Hemsky - Montreal Canadiens
Don’t worry Habs fans, it hasn’t all been bad. Sure, the terrible signing I’ve identified thus far was made by Bergevin, but he did find a nice deal in veteran winger Ales Hemsky, and I write this knowing that he’ll be lucky to stay healthy for 30 games this year. On the rare occasion that Hemsky is healthy, though, he’s actually still a fairly effective player.
The nice thing about having Hemsky on your team is that you can slot him in almost anywhere in the lineup and he will do what is asked of him. Need a set up guy on the second unit? Hemmer is there. Need a defensively responsible winger to stabilize your bottom six? Ales can help. As you may find out, I’m a fan of these cheap veteran wingers on one-year deals.
14 Worst: Steve Mason - Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg has had its struggles in the crease, so they did what any right-minded hockey club would do and they went out and signed Steve Mason. I’m joking of course, as Steve Mason has had one good season in the NHL, and that was back in 2008-09 when he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Since then Mason’s performance in the crease has been wildly inconsistent, ranging from abysmal to borderline acceptable. That said, he should fit right in in Winnipeg, as they’ve feature a plethora of goalies with those qualities ever since they were still the Atlanta Thrashers. Mason’s deal in Winnipeg carries a $4.1M cap hit and lasts for two seasons, at which point Connor Hellybuyck should have full control of that crease.
13 Best: Patrick Sharp - Chicago Blackhawks
Back to the good signings of the month, we have Patrick Sharp’s return to Chicago. The veteran signed a one-year pact with the Hawks that will pay him a paltry $800,000, which is a startlingly low number to be honest. Sharp isn’t the player he was four or five years ago of course, but even taking into account his regression, he could potentially be the best value contract in the league this season.
Sharp’s 2016-17 season in Dallas was riddled with injuries and he was never able to find the groove, registering just 18 points in 48 games played. If he can return anywhere close to form—his 55 points in 76 games the season prior seems like it could be attainable—then this deal will go a long way in helping the Hawks get over the fact that they’re paying Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook nearly $30M a season.
12 Worst: Alexander Radulov - Dallas Stars
Alexander Radulov returned to the NHL last season after a hiatus of nearly a decade (well, if you discount that time he came back for the last nine games of the regular season and eight playoff games in 2012). The Montreal Canadiens signed the Russian to a one-year deal worth $5.75M, and he made good on it, recording 18 goals and 54 points, and was consistently one of the club’s most dynamic forwards.
That was enough to convince the Dallas Stars to double down on Radulov, not only offering him a raise in salary ($6.25 AAV) but a healthy five year term to go with it. It’s not that this deal will hurt the Stars within the first couple seasons of the deal, but towards the end of it they’ll likely find themselves regretting it. Five years is a lot for a guy with a history of flaking and who’s also on the wrong side of 30.
11 Best: Radim Vrbata - Florida Panthers
Radim Vrbata is not an elite goal scorer, but he’s certainly proven to be a fairly reliable one over the years. He was truly one of the best bargains of 2015-16, signing a one-year pact with the Arizona Coyotes for $1M. The contract was laden with bonuses which he hit, so the cap hit actually ended up being $2.5M, but that’s still a great deal for a guy who potted 20 goals and 55 points.
The Florida Panthers decided to take on Vrbata for next season, and that seems like it was a reasonable bet. He’s guaranteed $2.5M and can potentially earn another $1.25M in bonuses, and that’s a great deal for a guy you can expect to hit the 45-50 point ballpark. Vrbata showed well from a possession standpoint to boot, tying for third on the ‘Yotes in CF% Rel (2.1).
9 Worst: Dmitry Kulikov - Winnipeg Jets
Though once a highly touted prospect, Dmitry Kulikov didn't exactly pan out as the Florida Panthers had hoped. They sent him to Buffalo a year ago, and the Sabres let him walk after one disappointing season in upstate New York. The Winnipeg Jets thought it was a good idea to sign the Russian defenseman to a three year deal worth $4.33M per season, and I’m here to tell them it probably wasn’t.
His first three seasons in Florida showed evidence of a young defenseman who was slowly but surely finding his way in the world’s best hockey league. However, his play regressed over the following few seasons, and 2016-17 in Buffalo was arguably his worst to date. He also had one of the worst CF% on Buffalo last season, meaning it’s not likely it was just a case of bad luck.
8 Best: Trevor Daley - Detroit Red Wings
Quite frankly, I was surprised that Trevor Daley wasn’t able to command more on the open market than what he got. He spent the last two years helping the Pittsburgh Penguins capture two Stanley Cups, and that alone is usually enough to inflate a guy’s perceived value across the league. Maybe his age held him back a little, but a three-year contract worth an AAV of $3.17M a season is a good deal for the Red Wings.
Daley brings a responsible game to the table, although the analytics do show that he struggles a little bit in terms of shot attempts for and against. That said, he doesn’t seem to struggle as badly as, say, Kris Russell, who just signed a 4 x $4M extension in Edmonton, and Russell doesn’t even have the Stanley Cups that Daley does.
5 Worst: Kevin Shattenkirk - New York Rangers
The hottest commodity on the UFA market this season was probably Kevin Shattenkirk. The American defenseman was sent to Washington at the deadline as it became clear that the Blues and Shattenkirk weren’t going to be able to agree on terms of a new contract. He didn’t do enough to convince the Capitals to splurge on him either, and so he became a UFA on July 1.
As was long speculated, he ended up signing with the New York Rangers. The deal runs for four seasons, and carries with it a cap hit of $6.65M. The term here isn’t much of an issue, but the dollar value is what I have an issue with. Shattenkirk, while a great power play specialist and offensive D-man, isn’t a true top pairing defenseman, but the Rangers chose to pay him like one anyway.
4 Best: Mike Cammalleri - Los Angeles Kings
For my next great signing, I’m going back to another inexpensive veteran winger in Mike Cammalleri. Cammalleri was bought out of the last two years of his deal by the New Jersey Devils last month, and as a result became an unrestricted free agent. He’ll be returning to familiar territory, as the L.A. Kings—the team that drafted him back in 2001—signed him to a one-year, $1M deal.
This is a great bet for the Kings on many levels. First off, they have cap issues, so they can use all the cheap help they can get. Secondly, Cammalleri is only a year and a half removed from a season in which he scored 38 points in 42 games before an injury ended his 2015-16 campaign. If he can get anywhere remotely close to that production again at the age of 35, that’s great news for the fading Kings.
3 Worst: Carey Price
Habs fans aren’t going to like this smoking hot take, but the extension that Carey Price signed on July 2 is terrible. Yes, Carey Price is still one of the best (if not THE best) goalies in the league, but this is a classic case of paying a player for an elite past performance. By the time the eight year pact kicks in, Price will already be 31 years old, the exact age most goalies begin to decline.
It’s not like the guy took any sort of hometown discount, either. His $10.5M cap hit is tied for the second highest in the league. In GM Marc Bergevin’s defense, he pretty much had no choice here. You can’t let your franchise player walk, and he has to make more money than Shea Weber, who himself is on a contract that takes him past his 40th birthday. Oof.
2 Best: Scott Hartnell
And there you have it; my pick for possibly the best signing post-July 1 is Scott Hartnell (keep in mind that at the time of this writing, Jaromir Jagr is still a UFA. Once he signs, he probably takes this spot because he’s Jaromir Jagr). Hartnell was bought out of the last two years of his contract in Columbus, and quickly found a home with the defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators.
Hartnell returns to the team that drafted him 6th overall way back in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Nashville will enjoy the services of Hartnell for one season at the reasonable cost of $1M, which is great value even if he only repeats his somewhat disappointing 37-point 2016-17 season. He averaged 54 points per season over the previous three campaigns though, and if he bounces back to that level this will be the best contract league wide in 2017-18.
1 Worst: Patrick Marleau
While teams around the league were nabbing serviceable veteran wingers at bargain-basement, one-year deals, the Leafs decided to go against the grain and sign a serviceable veteran winger to a three-year, $18.75M contract. Look, I consider myself a fan of Patrick Marleau. The guy can score goals, and he’s done so at an incredibly consistent pace.
This deal is a major concern, though, as it may mean that they lose the services of James Van Riemsdyk or Tyler Bozak moving forward, all so they get the 38, 39, and 40 year old seasons of Marleau. No doubt Marleau will make the Leafs marginally better, but other teams pulled that off without committing big money and term to an aging, regressing veteran. Don’t be surprised if Cammalleri and Hartnell put up similar totals to Marleau this season.
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