There are really only three ways to build a solid NHL team and those are the draft, trades, and free agent signings. There are some busts, steals and gems in all three of these categories and we’re going to focus on the latter, free agents. Below is a list of 15 free agents who somehow managed to affect the fate of the teams that signed them through their play. Most of these examples are quite positive, but there are a couple of negative scenarios here.
Some players joined weak teams while others signed with contenders and helped them win Stanley Cups. Most of the 15 players are household names with five of the nine retired players being Hall of Famers. One of the retirees, Teemu Selanne, will certainly join them in the Hall when he’s eligible. The other six players are still active and a pair of those, Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa, are also Hall of Fame material. The list consists of players from different positions and nationalities and all of them somehow changed the fate of their teams.
16 Joel Ward-San Jose
San Jose Sharks winger Joel Ward may not be a big-name, glamorous NHL player, but he’s a consistent scorer and performer who has a knack for helping his teams perform relatively well in the playoffs. Ward has been with the Sharks for just one season and he chipped in with 21 goals and 22 assists for 43 points this year in 79 games. Ward’s combative nature helped San Jose reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time ever in the club’s history last season after missing the postseason completely the year before. He signed a three-year deal and proved his value in the playoffs with seven goals and six assists this campaign, basically while playing on the third line. It’s too early to call the 35-year-old Ward a savior, but his grit and experience has already helped the Sharks achieve a franchise first. If Ward can contribute in the same way over the next two years he’ll have helped the Sharks turn a corner.
15 Peter Stastny-Quebec
When we speak of free agents we often forget the undrafted players who were signed by teams which had the foresight to recognize their potential and talent. Perhaps the greatest undrafted, free agent signing of them all was centre Peter Stastny of the former nation of Czechoslovakia. Stastny actually defected from his homeland in 1980, which was behind the Iron Curtain back then, and signed as a free agent with the Quebec Nordiques. The Nordiques had just entered the NHL in 1979-80 after the old World Hockey Association (WHA) merged with it and had drafted Anton Stastny, Peter’s brother in 1979. The Nordiques were allowed to protect just three players in the dispersal draft and won just 25 games in their first NHL season. Once Peter Stastny arrived and was eventually joined by Anton and brother Marian, the Nordiques gained instant respect and made the playoffs for seven straight seasons. Stastny was the NHL’s Rookie of the Year in 1980-81 and the Hall of Famer went on to hold just about every Nordiques’ record and milestone possible.
14 David Clarkson-Toronto
Winger David Clarkson, who’s now with the Columbus Blue Jackets, makes this list in a roundabout negative way. If it wasn’t for Clarkson’s brutal contract and sub-par play with the Toronto Maple Leafs that storied franchise may never have decided to orchestrate its umpteenth rebuild. Leafs fans can actually thank Clarkson’s free agent contract as the motivation for the club’s new and improved approach to things. Clarkson was signed in the summer of 2013 to a ridiculous six-year deal worth $37 million by then-GM Dave Nonis. Clarkson was a bust and somehow the Leafs managed to ship him to Columbus, in return for the injured Nathan Horton’s huge contract. The Clarkson signing might have been the last straw though and because of it the Leafs future looks brighter. Since then, Nonis was fired, the Leafs have drafted some top prospects such as Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, and Mike Babcock has taken over as head coach.
13 Anton Stralman-Tampa Bay
The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in the 2003-04 season, but didn’t really make much noise in the playoffs until reaching the Final in 2014-15. They also had another decent run last season and now look to be one of the league’s stronger clubs. The Lightning appeared to turn the postseason corner with the arrival of Swedish defenceman Anton Stralman in 2014. Stralman was signed to a five-year deal after leaving the New York Rangers and he quickly became a catalyst on the Tampa Bay blue line. Stralman was paired with fellow countryman Victor Hedman and both his offensive and defensive play picked up dramatically. The 30-year-old has chipped in with 73 points in 155 regular-season games in Tampa and has 10 points in 32 postseason games. Stralman’s a good shot blocker and body checker who has no problem logging 22 minutes of ice time per night. Fans can see Stralman and Hedman in action for Sweden at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.
12 Brian Elliott-St. Louis
The St. Louis Blues may have made a mistake by trading 31-year-old goaltender Brian Elliot to the Calgary Flames this summer. The Blues, who have never won a Stanley Cup, became one of the league’s top overall and defensive teams when they signed Elliot as a free agent back in 2011. Elliot didn’t have a very good 2010-11 campaign and the Colorado Avalanche chose not to re-sign him. The Blues took a minimal risk on him with a year-long two-way contract worth $600,000 and it paid off greatly. Elliott stood on his head that season with a 1.56 goals-against average, a .940 save percentage, and record of 23-10-4. Elliot signed two more deals after that, which were worth $1.8 and $2.5 million per season respectively. Elliot compiled a 104-46-16 record in five campaigns with the Blues and his worst goals-against average for a season was 2.28. Elliot’s play in last year’s postseason saw the Blues reach the Western Conference Finals again for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
11 Curtis Joseph-Toronto
The Toronto Maple Leafs can use all the help they can get since they haven’t won a Stanley Cup or even made the Finals since 1967. The club has been a longstanding joke in the NHL for several decades, but let’s not forget they did manage to ice a few good and semi-successful teams in the past 50 years. They had a respectable few years in the late 1990s after signing free agent goaltender Curtis Joseph from Edmonton. Joseph signed a four-year deal in 1998 and he proceeded to post three straight seasons of at least 30 wins and was runner-up for the Vezina Trophy twice. His worst goals-against-average in Toronto was 2.56 and he represented the franchise in a pair of NHL All-Star Games. Cujo also helped the team reach the Eastern Conference final in both 1999 and 2002 and that’s quite an achievement with Toronto. In typical Leafs fashion the good thing came to a sudden end in 2002 when GM Pat Quinn couldn’t come to a contract agreement with Joseph and he signed with Detroit. He did rejoin the Leafs as a free agent in 2008, but was well past his prime.
10 Arturs Irbe-Carolina
Latvian goaltender Arturs Irbe was just 5-feet-8-inches tall and was basically a good journeyman when the Carolina Hurricanes signed him as a free agent in 1998. He’d made a decent name for himself when playing in San Jose, Dallas, and then Vancouver. Once he made his way to Carolina though he became the team’s starter and held that position for the next four years. Irbe was used to playing a lot of minutes and played 77 games one season for Carolina. He has already set an NHL record with San Jose in 1993-94 by playing 4,412 minutes. Carolina wasn’t a very good team in those days, but Irbe’s play led them to the Stanley Cup Final for the very first time in 2001-02. Unfortunately, they lost in five games to Detroit even though Irbe posted a .938 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average in the playoffs. Irbe led the Canes to the postseason for three straight years and gave them the experience and confidence needed to win the Stanley Cup in 2005-06 after he helped them turn the corner a few years earlier.
9 Mark Messier-Vancouver
The Vancouver Canucks have never won a Stanley Cup, but thought they had a good shot at one after signing 36-year-old free-agent centre Mark Messier in 1997. Messier had already won six Cups with Edmonton and the New York Rangers by this time. In fact, he could arguably be on this list for changing the fate of the Rangers by helping them break a 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1993-94 when they beat the Canucks in the Final. Messier had the opposite affect with Vancouver though and some fans feel he even jinxed them. Messier was signed to a five-year, $30-million deal mainly due to his scoring and leadership skills. With him playing between Russian snipers Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure, the Canucks thought they had a sure thing, but missed the playoffs all three years he was there. Messier’s stint didn’t go well as fan favourite and captain Trevor Linden gave up the C to him and was soon traded. Messier also demanded the number 11 sweater even though the Canucks had retired it. Messier’s production dropped and the club bought him out in 2000. Messier then took the Canucks to arbitration over deferred money and was awarded $6 million. Messier is still despised to this day by many Canucks fans.
8 Teemu Selanne-Anaheim
Teemu Selanne was known as the Finnish Flash after scoring an incredible 76 goals and 132 points as a rookie with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992-93. The Rookie of the Year played with Anaheim from 1995-96 to 2000-01, but the team wasn’t really a playoff contender. Selanne left the club for a few seasons and returned in 2005-06 as a free agent right after the NHL lockout. Selanne signed a one-year, $1 million contract and proved he still had the goods. He posted a pair of 40-plus goal seasons when he got back to Anaheim to lead the team. His scoring prowess suddenly turned the Ducks into a legitimate contender and in his second year back, Anaheim won their one and only Stanley Cup with Selanne scoring 15 points in 21 playoff games. The sure-to-be Hall of Famer winger continued to re-sign in Anaheim and retired there after the 2013-14 season as the franchise’s record holder in numerous categories.
7 Bryan Trottier-Pittsburgh
Centre Bryan Trottier was already an established NHL star when he joined the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to the 1990-91 season as he’d already won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders. Trottier may not have had the same scoring touch in his hands by the time he reached Pittsburgh as he was in his mid-thirties. However, his experience and leadership was invaluable as he helped the franchise win its first ever Stanley Cup that year. Young stars such as Mario Lemieux, Mark Recchi, and Jaromir Jagr looked up to Trottier and learned a lot from him in his three seasons with the team. Not only did the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in Trottier’s first season with the team, they repeated the feat again the very next campaign. The Hall of Famer Trottier was basically an unofficial assistant coach with the squad and was so successful after his original two-year stint, the Penguins re-signed him in 1993. He played one more year and served as an assistant coach with the team until 1997.
6 Zdeno Chara-Boston
Big defenceman Zdeno Chara became a free agent in 2006 when the Ottawa Senators made the mistake of deciding to keep fellow blueliner Wade Redden instead. The Boston Bruins jumped at the chance to sign the 6-foot-9-inch Slovakian and inked him to a five-year, $35.5 million deal. During those five seasons, Chara became the team captain, anchored the defence, and helped the Bruins snap their 39-year Stanley Cup drought in 2010-11. Chara was a hot commodity and one of the best defenders in the league. He won the James Norris Trophy in 2008-09 and helped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012-13. Chara’s slap shot has consistently been clocked at over 100 miles-per-hour and he was so impressive in his first five years with Boston they signed him to a seven-year deal in October of 2010. Chara’s now 39-years-old and has played 1275 regular season games, so he’s naturally slowing down. However, he’s certainly changed the Bruins fortunes around since 2006.
5 Adam Graves-New York Rangers
The New York Rangers were mired in a 51-year long Stanley Cup drought in 1991 and decided that signing free agent winger Adam Graves from Edmonton might help them snap it. Graves won the Stanley Cup the year before, but the Rangers figured he’d probably just help provide some secondary scoring with them. Graves went one better though as he ended up on the first line and became one of the NHL’s top-scoring forwards. He broke a franchise record in 1993-94 by scoring 52 goals and his play helped the Rangers win the Stanley Cup that season. By then, the drought had reached an agonizing 54 years. Graves played on the top line with Alexei Kovalev and Mark Messier and hit the 30-goal plateau four times in New York. He also became a fan favourite due to his off-ice charity work and ended up playing 10 years in the Big Apple.
4 Ed Belfour-Dallas
Goaltender Ed Belfour may have been a little flaky off the ice, but he knew how to play the angles in the crease as well as anybody in NHL history. He’s the most successful undrafted netminder ever in the league and helped the Dallas Stars get on the right track when they signed him in 1997. The team became a contender with Belfour between the pipes after they lured him away from San Jose. Belfour was basically an average NHL goalie with the Blackhawks for seven seasons and then a year with the Sharks, but stepped up his game in Texas. His first season in Dallas saw the Hall of Famer win 37 games, post a .916 save percentage, and 1.88 goals-against average while the team won the President’s Trophy. Belfour’s numbers were even better the next year when he posted three shutouts in the playoffs along with a 1.67 goals-against-average and .930 save percentage. Needless to say, Dallas hoisted the Stanley Cup that year for the very first time and Belfour’s goals-against-average in the Final was 1.26. The Stars reached the final again the next season, but fell to New Jersey as Belfour posted another four playoff shutouts.
3 Scott Niedermayer-Anaheim
Defenceman Scott Niedermayer became a huge part of the Anaheim Ducks when he signed with them in 2005 after deciding to leave New Jersey. He had plenty of experience and was a former Norris Trophy winner. This led the Ducks to offer him a four-year deal worth $27 million. The Hall of Famer had helped the Devils win three Stanley Cups with his fine play in both ends of the rink and the Ducks believed he was well worth the financial gamble even though he was 33-years-old. Niedermayer continued his excellent play on the West Coast and recorded 63 points in his first season. He was even better the following year when he had 15 goals and 54 assists for 69 points. His Conn Smythe Trophy-winning play led the Ducks to the Stanley Cup for the first and only time that 2006-07 season. Niedermayer spent five seasons with the Ducks and his brother Rob, was an All-Star each year, and came second in Norris Trophy voting twice.
2 Marian Hossa-Chicago
The Chicago Blackhawks hadn’t won the Stanley Cup for 49 years when the 2009-10 season faced off, but their fortunes changed greatly after signing free agent forward Marian Hossa just a few months earlier. Hossa had been to the Stanley Cup Finals in the previous two seasons with Pittsburgh and then Detroit, but lost both of them. It was third time lucky with Chicago though. The native of Slovakia signed a 12-year, $62.8 million contract with the Blackhawks in 2009 and has helped the team become a powerhouse and arguable dynasty by winning three Stanley Cups since then. The 37-year-old Hossa has chipped in with 370 points in 461 regular-season outings in the Windy City. The right-winger also has 73 points in 103 postseason contests with the club. Hossa’s been a consistent scorer since making his NHL debut in 1988-89 with 149 points in 201 playoff games and 1089 points in 1236 regular-season outings, He needs just one more goal to reach 500 for his career.