The offseason is always a pretty busy time for GMs across the NHL as they tinker with their rosters, preparing for a brand new season. As such, every year brings a mix of great value signings and terrible contracts that will eventually handcuff a team—especially in a salary cap world.
The 2016 offseason had a handful of contracts that made headlines, as well as a healthy collection of deals that barely caused a ripple but proved to have big impacts on their respective clubs. Today’s list will take a look at both sides of the coin, as we examine eight seemingly small signings that are having positive impacts and seven big signings that are already looking a little disappointing, if not terrible.
Most of the good signings are one-year deals, and most of the players who signed those contracts were in desperate situations prior to the season’s start. Some of them would have signed any contract anywhere, so long as it was offered. Those players are rewarding their GMs for taking a chance on them.
Conversely, the big offseason signings often were coupled with longer terms, meaning that if the deals already look a little suspect, they’re only bound to get worse as we move through the deal. It’s not unusual for teams to overpay mid-to-high profile UFAs, so it’s not a huge surprise that we found seven bad signings to include here on the list today.
Without further ado, here are the top eight small offseason signings that look great, and the top seven big signings that are already giving their coaches' ulcers. Enjoy:
15 Small/Good – Kris Russell
When July 1 hit this past offseason, some pundits expected veteran defenseman Kris Russell to sign somewhere for big term and decent money. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, Russell found himself sitting on the sidelines in the first week of October, still without an employer. Finally, on October 7, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli decided to shore up his defense and sign the veteran to a one-year deal worth $3 million.
Russell has been a very divisive player so far in Edmonton. Old-school fans—and there are many of those in Edmonton—appreciate his experience, shot-blocking, and tenacity, and they've have loved him since day one. The analytics crowd detests Russell and his lackluster underlying numbers. I lie somewhere in the middle, but there is no question that Russell has helped Edmonton overall this season, especially with the major injuries to mainstay left-shot defensemen Brandon Davidson and Darnell Nurse.
14 Big/Bad – James Reimer
Things aren’t going very well for the Florida Panthers this season, a team that is just one year removed from winning the Atlantic Division. The playoffs are looking like a pipe dream for the club at this point; it’s not that goaltending is the sole reason for that, but it’s safe to speculate that the Panthers expected a little more from James Reimer than what he’s given so far.
Reimer was supposed to push Roberto Luongo for time this year. He has seen action in 15 games, but lots of those appearances were because Luongo’s iffy health so far this year. Reimer has won just six of his 12 starts, and he’s trailing the elder Luongo in every major statistical category thus far. Florida is on the hook to pay Reimer $3.4 million through 2020-21.
13 Small/Good – Eric Staal
While there was once a time Eric Staal was considered an elite NHL forward, this past offseason teams certainly weren’t clamoring to sign the veteran center. He was dealt from Carolina to the Rangers at last year’s deadline, and upon his arrival in the Big Apple he did a whole lot of nothing, which is likely why his status was at an all-time low this past summer. The Staal signing wasn’t a huge headline when it went down.
The Minnesota Wild decided to take a chance on Staal, signing the 32-year-old to a three-year contract that would pay him $3.5 millionagainst the cap each season. So far, Staal is making GM Chuck Fletcher look good for his gamble, as Staal has posted 35 points in 39 games. Compare that with the six points he notched in 20 games with the Rangers last season, and it’s easy to see why the Wild must be ecstatic with Staal to this point.
12 Big/Bad – Kyle Palmieri
The 2015-16 season saw Kyle Palmieri break out in a big way, scoring 57 points in a full 82-game campaign with the Devils. New Jersey was sold on Palmieri enough to offer him a five year extension that would see the winger make $4.65 million per season against the cap. So far, 2016-17 has seen Palmieri take a step back from last season’s production, meaning he’s a little overpriced for the Devils now.
New Jersey is traditionally a conservative team, as their hot and cold market hasn’t allowed them to spend to the cap every season. That’s probably why the Palmieri regression stings just a little bit; they’re paying this man nearly $5 million per season to put up points, and to this juncture he’s only managed 22 points in 39 games. If he doesn’t pick it up, this could turn out to be a rough deal for the Devils.
11 Small/Good – Kris Versteeg
Kris Versteeg signed a PTO with the Edmonton Oilers prior to 2016 training camp. That’s why many people found it rather odd when the veteran winger turned around and signed a one-year deal with the Calgary Flames at the end of camp—just down the highway from Edmonton. It was a strange turn of events, and with the way Versteeg has played thus far, one that has benefited Calgary.
Versteeg has missed some time due to injury, but while he’s been in he’s been extremely effective for his $950,000 price tag. In 30 games of work he’s put up a respectable 18 points, and he’s second on his team in five-on-five points per 60, posting a figure of 1.99 (for those curious, ahead of him isn’t Johnny Gaudreau but rather rookie Matthew Tkachuk). He’s delivered what the Flames hoped for, that’s for sure.
10 Big/Bad – Andrew Ladd
The start Andrew Ladd had to the 2016-17 season was nothing short of abysmal. He registered two points in his first 12 games, causing fans in New York to wonder why they essentially chose to replace Kyle Okposo with Ladd in the offseason. Ladd has picked it up ever so slightly, but still not quite enough to justify the $5.5 million cap hit he carries with him through 2022-23.
The contract is still in its infancy of course, so over the course of the seven seasons the possibility of Ladd righting the ship is certainly present. However, if the early returns from 2016-17 are indicative of what the Islanders should expect for the duration of this deal, then they are in deep with this contract. Don't they still have John Tavares to re-sign? Uh-oh.
9 Small/Good – Alexander Radulov
This entry was a tough one to decide whether to include, given that some feel this was a big signing. Well, if it was a big signing, it sure flew under the radar. After four years out of the NHL, the Canadiens lured former Nashville Predator Alexander Radulov back to the NHL on a one-year deal worth $5.75 million. Talents like Radulov don't usually get signed on one-year deals, but Radulov chose the Habs among numerous other offers.
If the Habs only get one year out of Radulov, they've already gotten their money's worth. Radulov has emerged as the team's best right winger, and has made everyone around him better. He controls the puck and has been able to set up Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, who before his recent knee injury, was averaging a point-per-game. Radulov leads the team in assists and is second in points.
He'll likely land himself a big contract, in either Montreal or elsewhere, once free agency rolls around this summer.
8 Big/Bad – Andrew Shaw
When GM Marc Bergevin acquired the rights to RFA Andrew Shaw for two 2nd round picks in the offseason, he cited Shaw’s winning pedigree as one of the main factors. When he turned around and signed Shaw to a six-year contract that came tethered with a $3.9 million annual cap hit, most fans of the game of hockey saw this as a bit of an overpay.
Shaw has battled injury a bit this season, so there’s still time to find his way, but so far in Montreal he hasn’t been a major driver at either end of the ice. Sure, he was never really a driver in Chicago over the years, so perhaps it’s a bit unfair to say at this point. In any case, the Habs certainly want more from their almost-$4 million than the 15 points he’s pitched in so far.
7 Small/Good – Thomas Vanek
After a relatively disappointing 2015-16, the Minnesota Wild decided to pull the trigger on a Thomas Vanek buyout. The highest-scoring Austrian of all-time recorded just 41 points last season, and the Wild decided that wasn’t close to what they wanted for the paychecks they were signing over to him, so they cut him loose. They’ll pay him out through the 2017-18 season.
Vanek was a UFA on July 1 2016, but not for long, as he signed a one-year deal with the Red Wings for a cap hit of $2.6 million on day one of free agency. So, far, Vanek has made the Red Wings very happy from a production standpoint, as the winger has put up 26 points in 30 games so far. That’s a production level that even Minnesota would have been happy with, and if it weren’t for an injury that saw him miss about 10 games earlier this year, he’d likely be leading the team in points.
6 Big/Bad – Frans Nielsen
While Detroit made a good signing with Thomas Vanek, they made a pretty bad signing when they inked the 32-year-old Frans Nielsen to a six-year deal on the very same day. Nielsen’s deal will pay him a cap hit of $5.25 million until he’s 38 years old, and that’s simply too much for a guy who has only cracked the 50 point plateau twice in his career, and is likely past his prime anyway when you consider his age.
Nielsen definitely brings some intangibles to the table that don’t show up on the score sheet every night, but the thing about intangibles is good management teams don’t pay a premium for them. The Red Wings are up against the cap as it is, and they have a handful of key pieces who will want raises soon enough—including youngsters Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha, whose ELCs expire after next season.
5 Small/Good – Justin Schultz
The Edmonton Oilers finally gave up on Justin Schultz at last year’s trade deadline, sending the under-performing defenseman to Pittsburgh for a third round pick. Schultz won a Stanley Cup with the Pens later that spring, playing a depth role on the Pittsburgh blue line throughout the playoffs. He re-upped in Pittsburgh as a champion, signing a one-year deal that pays him $1.4 million.
So far, that signing is paying dividends for the Penguins. Schultz is leading all Pittsburgh defensemen with 25 points in 39 games, and he is tied atop the whole league in plus/minus with a plus-24 rating. Sure, that’s an archaic stat these days, but it’s still quite a turnaround from his days in Edmonton, when he went minus-78 over parts of four seasons.
4 Big/Bad – Milan Lucic
Fans in Edmonton are pretty happy these days, and why shouldn’t they be? They’re in the thick of a playoff race for the first time in over a decade, and they have generational talent and current scoring leader Connor McDavid on their roster. However, there was an offseason signing made by GM Peter Chiarelli that was one of the worst of the summer, and that was the seven-year, $6 million AAV contract he inked Milan Lucic to on July 1.
After shipping out Taylor Hall in one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer, Chiarelli signed LW Milan Lucic to fill the void left by Hall. The idea was that Lucic would be on McDavid’s wing, for at least the first part of his career, so that he could both protect the phenom while scoring goals in the process. Well, Lucic has recently been usurped by Patrick Maroon on the top line in Edmonton. Maroon has already scored as many EV strength goals with McDavid in four games (five) than Lucic had with McDavid pretty much all year.
3 Small/Good – Chad Johnson
After a disappointing 2015-16, one thing was for sure; the Calgary Flames needed to find a reliable starting goaltender. To remedy the situation, GM Brad Treliving signed Brian Elliott to a one-year deal. Elliott has been very hot/cold so far this season, and if not for the stellar play of (backup?) goalie Chad Johnson, the Flames could be in deep trouble.
Johnson was signed as insurance to Elliott, but his play has been far superior to that of Elliott so far, therefore he’s thrust himself into a 1B type of situation. In fact, he’s probably done enough to earn the 1A label in that scenario. He’s started 24 games to Elliott’s 19, and he’s put up 14 wins in comparison to Elliott’s eight. To top it off, his save percentage is leaps and bounds above Elliott’s (.922 vs. .889)
2 Big/Bad – Loui Eriksson
The script was too good to be true. The Sedins would finally get that high-scoring winger they always wanted in Loui Eriksson, and he’s a fellow countryman to boot! So far in 2016-17 in Vancouver, Eriksson (and the Sedins, for that matter) have under-delivered, and that’s a major problem because the Canucks have Eriksson on the payroll at an AAV of $6 million for five more seasons beyond the current one.
The trio played together on team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey back in September, and the early signs of chemistry were encouraging for the Canucks and their fan base. Flash forward to today and Eriksson has been taken off their line in favor of a revolving door of other players (currently Jason Megna). Eriksson has just 19 points in 42 games.
1 Small/Good – Sam Gagner (CBJ)
Sam Gagner spent the previous three seasons prior to the present one bouncing around the NHL. He’s had trouble finding a permanent home in the world’s best league since being dealt from Edmonton, the team that drafted him 6th overall in 2007. In the 2016 offseason he was offered a contract by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and he accepted. The pint-sized forward signed a one-year, $650,000 contract with the club.
So far in 2016-17, that contract has proven to be one of the best values in the league. As the first-place Blue Jackets roll along in the NHL, Gagner is pitching in far more than should be expected for his $650,000. He’s already hit the 30 point plateau, and is on pace to best his career high of 49—set in his rookie year. Fourteen of those points have come with the man advantage; Gagner centers the top unit of the league’s most potent power play. Did anyone see that coming before the season began?