The NHL free agent frenzy period is typically met with a lot of excitement from fans. Fans anxiously await to see their team pop up and make a big signing that will lead them to glory. However, more often than not, teams overpay for average players and end up regretting their moves. Let’s use the Toronto Maple Leafs as an example because over the last decade it would be difficult to find a team that has made as many mistakes as them in free agency. Last year they overpaid for David Clarkson, a one-dimensional player who’s paid like an elite forward. Over the last few years huge contracts have been given to Jeff Finger, Mike Komisarek, Jason Blake, and the list could keep going if we wanted it to. Now, if they hadn’t made these horrible signings, along with trading Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft, it’s entirely conceivable that the Leafs could be a contender right now thanks to their talented young core. Sadly, they’ve wasted too much money on sub-par players like Clarkson and Dion Phaneuf.
All that to say that July 1st is a time for general managers to be cautious because a string of horrible signings might bury a team for years to come. With this article, we’re going to look at the 5 biggest winners and the 5 biggest losers from July 1st. A lot took place and we’re going to try and break down who came out ahead and who’s lagging behind.
10. Loser: Florida Panthers
It’s hard to classify the Panthers as losers because they needed to spend, but that’s the sad reality here. Dale Tallon is familiar with Dave Bolland from his time in Chicago, but $27.5 million over 5 years for an injury prone forward who’s scored more than 50 points once (52) and has only played over 80 games once. It looks a lot like the deal that the Red Wings gave Stephen Weiss last year ($24.5 million/5 years) for an injury prone center. They then decided to waste $16 million over 4 years on Jussi Jokinen, a historically inconsistent scorer and $1.2 million a year for Shawn Thornton. They needed to spend to get to the cap floor, but it seems like they wasted a lot of money on players who won’t be difference makers.
9. Winner: Buffalo Sabres
When you finish last in the league, the first thing you should do when rebuilding your team is get guys that understand what it takes to win in the league. The Sabres have done just that with Josh Gorges, Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson. Only Gionta has a Stanley Cup ring of those three, but all three are hardworking players who will lead by example on the young Sabres team. Did they overpay for them? Yes, with the exception of Moulson who is a consistent 30-goal scorer. However, they sent a valuable message to their young players with the acquisition of three quality NHL players. Also, they needed to spend to get to the cap floor, so at least they didn’t spend foolishly on players like some other teams we’ll see on this list.
8. Loser: Thomas Vanek
Poor Thomas Vanek. If only he hadn’t been traded to a playoff team, maybe we all would’ve assumed that he could be a great playoff performer. Instead he went to Montreal, did well in the lead-up to the playoffs and vanished for their entire run to the Conference Finals. Montreal refused to even make an offer to him and he hit the market with many assuming he’d land in Minnesota for big bucks. He is going to Minnesota after all, but he’s only getting $19.5 over 3 years. Rumor has it that the Islanders offered him a seven-year, $50 million deal in the middle of the season and this is a minuscule contract in comparison. Minnesota did very well here as he should be motivated to prove his detractors wrong, but he got way less money than we all expected.
7. Winner: Brad Richards
We may have believed Brad Richards is on the decline, but he’s re-emerged in the best possible situation for his career. The Blackhawks have been looking for a 2nd line center for the longest time and they may have finally found one at a modest price. After being bought out by the Rangers (he’ll receive another $20.6 million from them over the next 6 years), he decided to sign with Chicago for $2 million. He may have lost a step over the years, but the reduced stress of his contract and role on the team may lead to one of his best seasons yet. Not only will he keep bringing in a lot of money thanks to the Rangers, he’ll have the luxury of playing with Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp and Keith. Lucky guy.
6. Loser: New York Islanders
It’s rare that an important date passes in the NHL where we don’t assume that the Islanders did poorly. Their last good decision was the signing of John Tavares to a long-term contract. Ever since, they’ve made a variety of questionable decisions. This summer, they traded for the rights to Dan Boyle and offered him more more than the Rangers, but he still decided to stay put. They made another huge offer to Thomas Vanek, who took less money to sign with the Minnesota Wild. So what did they do? They signed Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin to 4-year contracts worth $20 and $16.75 million respectively. They obviously need to overpay for players, but this seems to be a pretty large leap of faith in two streaky players. All in all, another wasted free agency for the Islanders.
5. Winner: Teams That Stood Pat
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. In this case, not signing overrated players may make for the best attack. One good example being the Leafs, who didn’t make a huge splash on an overrated player like last year, though they did manage to overpay for Leo Komarov and Stephane Robidas. The Canadiens trimmed their salary while improving their team with smart additions like P-A Parenteau. The Penguins let their duo of overrated and overpriced defenders go and made a smart signing in the form of Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year, $4 million dollar deal. The Kings resigned Marian Gaborik before the start of free agency and stood pat, while letting others waste money around them. The same goes for the Ducks, the Sharks and the Blackhawks who made small, intelligent deals.
4. Loser: Washington Capitals
You can explain why they’re losers by saying two words: Brooks Orpik. This was the 2nd worst signing of the day, as the overrated defender was given $27.5 million over 5 years. Orpik has clearly been in decline for the last couple of years and at the age of 34, this contract has buyout written all over it. Anton Stralman, Christian Ehrhoff and Dan Boyle all signed for smaller cap hits. That’s incomprehensible. The Caps also signed Matt Niskanen for $40.25 over 7 years which is way too much for him as well. That contract has better odds of succeeding than the Orpik one as he’s only 27, but it seems like way too much for an average player. What about the Penguins’ terrible defense made the Capitals say that they needed to sign two of their defensemen for big bucks?
3. Winner: St. Louis Blues
To win the Western Conference you need to be strong down the middle and the Blues improved in that area on July 1st. The St. Louis Blues signed Paul Stastny to a reasonable contract of $28 million over 4 years. $7 million a year might be a little expensive for Stastny, but at least the shorter term makes it more understandable. With Stastny in the mix, Backes can become a top level 2nd-line center rather than a low-end 1st liner. Also, signing Stastny from Colorado weakens a rival in their divison. They also signed their 2008 3rd round pick from the KHL, center Jori Lehtera, who is familiar with their young superstar, Vladimir Tarasenko. He’s been a near point-per-game player over the last two years in the KHL and can hopefully contribute to the Blues offense.
2. Loser: Edmonton Oilers
Has anyone in the Oilers organization ever seen Benoit Pouliot play a game in the NHL, apart from his decent playoff performance this year? Though he did show some of his talent in the playoffs, he still did what he does best, take dumb penalties at inopportune times. Giving him $20 million over 5 years is the worst deal of the day. At least Orpik has shown some quality in the past, but Pouliot has never scored over 36 points in a season. 36!!! Other than this atrocious signing, which will definitely be a buyout, they made two decent signings for a reasonable amount in Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin to shore up their terrible defense. But Pouliot? Come on, Edmonton.
1. Winner: Dallas Stars
The Stars did their big move through trade, acquiring Jason Spezza from the Sens for a smaller package than the Ducks gave for Ryan Kesler. Spezza is a top level talent and a one-two punch of Tyler Seguin and Spezza down the middle will be deadly to play against. They also signed Ales Hemsky to a reasonable deal worth $12 million over 3 years. Two strong moves to improve their powerplay and their depth down the middle. Like we said when discussing the St. Louis Blues, you need to be strong down the middle to compete in the West and they made a huge upgrade at that position. Even Mike Modano tweeted that he liked the moves, so you know that has to be good.