I was on vacation last week, but whenever I flipped on a TV or checked Twitter, every sports fan I saw was going nuts about some sort of big free-agency signing. I checked the hockey transactions when I got back, and I’ll be honest: I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. I guess everyone was just really excited about Bryan Lerg.
But now that I’m back, I figured today would be a good day for a look back on NHL free agency. And not just this year’s edition — I want to go all the way back over the past decade. After all, this summer marks the 10th offseason of the NHL’s salary cap era. If you remember, that era kicked off in 2005 with a brand-new CBA that, among other things, allowed players to earn unrestricted status much quicker than under the old rules. That was supposed to make free agency a more important part of building a contender, as more big names hit the market in their prime. Of course, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
So let’s take a look back through that first decade of salary cap free agency and use the powers of hindsight to figure out which were the best and worst deals handed out each year (from the teams’ perspective). A few quick ground rules: First of all, we’re dealing only with players who changed teams; extensions feel like a different category. And we’re focusing on the big-dollar deals here, since we don’t want the “best” category to be overrun with minor deals for players who went on to unexpectedly develop into stars.
Let’s start at the beginning: August 2005, when the league emerged from a yearlong lockout and teams got their first crack at a new world of free agency.
The 2005 offseason was a strange one. The lockout ended in July, and teams were given the opportunity to use unlimited compliance buyouts to get under the new salary cap. In theory, that should have flooded the market. In reality, teams largely played it cautious.
Best: Scott Niedermayer, Mighty Ducks, $28 million over four years
This one’s not an especially tough call, as Brian Burke and the Ducks nabbed a reigning Norris winner and future Hall of Famer who still had plenty of good years left. (They also had an advantage over other teams in the form of Scott’s brother Rob, who was already on the roster. The two had always wanted to play together.)
Scott Niedermayer posted a career high in points in his first season in Anaheim. When he was joined by Chris Pronger for 2006-07, the dominant duo gave the Ducks the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Worst: Alexander Mogilny, Devils, $7 million over two years/Vladimir Malakhov, Devils, $7.2 million over two years (tie)
You see what I mean about playing it cautious — while these two deals were mistakes, they weren’t the kind of long-term cap crushers we’d see in later years.
But yeah, it was a bit of a rough offseason for the Devils, who used the cap space saved by Niedermayer’s departure to sign a pair of bad deals. Mogilny lasted only half a season before being buried in the minors and eventually being placed on the injury list. Malakhov was sent home around the same time, and was eventually dealt to the Sharks in a deal that saw the Devils send a first-round pick to San Jose just to get rid of his cap hit.
With one salary cap season under their belts, NHL GMs started getting more aggressive. The results were mixed, although most of the biggest deals signed this summer — like Brad Richards, Patrik Elias, Marty Turco, Bryan McCabe, and, most memorably, Rick DiPietro — were teams re-upping with their own players.
Best: Zdeno Chara, Bruins, $37.5 million over five years
Another easy call, and arguably the last big-time free agency deal that actually worked out well. The Senators famously chose to keep Wade Redden and let Chara test the market, a decision that was an utter disaster in hindsight (but, despite what you may remember, not all that unthinkable at the time). The Bruins swooped in and signed him to one of the league’s richest deals and he’s been their top defenseman ever since, winning a Norris Trophy and a Stanley Cup along the way.
One largely forgotten piece of this story: Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli had been hired but had not yet officially started work for Boston when the Chara deal was signed, as his previous team had insisted that he not leave until July 15. That old team: the Ottawa Senators. Was Chiarelli secretly involved in making the Chara deal anyway? We may never know, but let’s just say that Senators fans have their suspicions.
Worst: Ed Jovanoski, Coyotes, $32.5 million over five years
For the second straight year, NHL GMs managed to avoid signing any truly disastrous deals. Jovanoski had just turned 30 and was already battling injuries when the cash-strapped Coyotes made the curious decision to give him a deal that was just short of Chara’s. But it’s not like the deal was awful — he played well enough while finishing out the full deal in Arizona, and he’s even still (technically) active today.
Hey, maybe NHL GMs aren’t so dumb after all!
Huh. Hold that thought. This is the year things started getting ugly.