Free agency opens on Friday, as teams will be officially allowed to sign players on the open market, and fans around the league should be excited.
No, wait, excited isn’t the right word. What’s the one I’m looking for? Terrified. That’s the one. You should all be terrified.
That’s because, despite the occasional success story, NHL teams tend to be terrible at signing free agents. They can’t help themselves. And it rarely takes long for the initial excitement of a big signing to give way to the realization that a team has just handed out too much money for way too many years.
As we count down to Friday’s deadline, let’s take some time to look back at some cautionary examples of how quickly a big deal can go bad. Here are my picks for the five worst unrestricted free agency signings of the last two decades.
5. Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya, Colorado, 2003
The deal: The two friends (and former Ducks teammates) shopped themselves as a tandem deal, eventually signing cheap one-year contracts with the powerhouse Avalanche. How cheap? Selanne took a pay cut to $5.8 million after declining a $6.5 million option in San Jose. But that was nothing compared to Kariya, who took just $1.2 million after making $10 million the year before in Anaheim. Both players could have made much more elsewhere, but they were chasing their first Stanley Cup rings, and joining Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and an already loaded Avalanche team seemed like the best way to do it.
Why it made sense at the time: Are you kidding? Go back and re-read those details – it was foolproof. When the deals were announced, hockey fans everywhere pretty much threw up their hands and conceded the 2004 Cup to the Avalanche.
How it ended: In what may stand as the NHL’s greatest example of a can’t miss move somehow missing, both Selanne and Kariya were busts in Colorado and the Avalanche lost in the second round. That latter part wasn’t a huge shock – while the Avs still had most of their big names from their Cup years, they’d lost Patrick Roy to retirement in the offseason, and winning a title with David Aebischer never felt like a safe bet. But the real surprises were Kariya and Selanne, neither of whom cracked 40 points. When Steve Konowalchuk is outscoring both of your sure-thing signings, it’s safe to say that something has gone terribly wrong.
4. Ville Leino, Buffalo, 2011
The deal: Coming off a career-best 53 points, the 27-year-old winger landed a six-year, $27 million deal from the Sabres.
Why it made sense at the time: After years of drifting into small market status, the Sabres had a rich new owner and were ready to spend some of Terry Pegula’s money. (They also gave Christian Ehrhoff a 10-year, $40-million deal.) Leino had just posted a career year while helping the Flyers make it to the Cup final, and it was time for the Sabres to make some noise.
How it ended: Leino was a massive bust in Buffalo; his eight goals and 25 points in year one ended up being by far his most productive season as a Sabre. He missed almost all of year two of the deal, then went the entire 2013-14 season without scoring a single goal before being mercifully bought out.
(By the way, Leino wasn’t close to the worst contract handed out during the summer of 2011. That honor would go to a deal you’re probably expecting to see on this list: Ilya Bryzgalov’s $51-million deal with the Flyers that led to a massive buyout just two years later. But that one wasn’t technically a free agency deal, since the Flyers had acquired his negotiating rights and signed the deal before he reached the open market on July 1. )