Friday, June 29, 2018

Rating UFA signings on the fit/hit/term scale

We’re days away from the official opening of the NHL free-agency market. On Sunday at noon, the league’s UFAs will be free to start signing with any team they’d like.

Well, they won’t be free. Many of them will be quite expensive. In some cases, ridiculously expensive. And most of them won’t end up being worth it.

That’s kind of how it goes at this time of year, as NHL GMs compete to see who can make the biggest UFA mistake. The occasional big signing works out, and some come and go with only minor pangs of regret. But others will be disasters that will leave us wondering what anyone was thinking.

The days ahead may feel like chaos. But the sort of deals we see actually fall into some predictable categories. In fact, with the benefit of a little hindsight, we can evaluate most UFA signings by asking three questions.

Was the player a good fit? In other words, did it make sense for the team to sign this player in the first place, given their roster and their needs in other areas? Was he even any good?

Did the deal carry a reasonable annual cap hit? Self-explanatory, and probably the first question we wonder about when we hear about a new signing.

Did the team commit to a reasonable term? How many years did a team have to cough up to get a deal done? This tends to take a back seat to cap hit in most of the immediate evaluations, although it probably shouldn’t.

Combine those three categories and you’re left with what we could call the Fit-Hit-Term scale. By answering yes or no to each question, we can figure out which of eight different categories a deal might fall into. And we can look back through the cap era to find the UFA signings that best represent each one.

Category #1: Good fit, good hit, good term (aka “The Chara”)

We’ll start with the best possible kind of signing. These are the deals where everything makes sense. The player is a star who fills a need. The cap hit may sting a little but isn’t unreasonable. And the length of the deal means a team won’t spend most of it paying star money to a player who’s well past his prime.

Here’s the bad news: Man, there aren’t many significant signings that fall into this category.

In fact, you could make the case that the two best UFA signings of the cap era both came well over a decade ago. Scott Niedermayer’s four-year deal with the Ducks back in 2005 worked out beautifully, as Anaheim nabbed the reigning Norris winner and were celebrating a Stanley Cup within two years. That was followed by Zdeno Chara signing a five-year deal with Boston in 2006 that carried a $7.5-million cap hit through his early 30s. By the end of that deal, he’d won a Norris and a Stanley Cup.

Both deals made sense at the time, and look even better in hindsight. They also both came before teams decided to start agreeing to contracts that carried massive term. That trend started around 2009, give or take a year, and since then it’s been hard to find a major UFA deal that checks all three boxes.

You could probably pick out a few other candidates from recent years, depending on how willing you are to stretch the concept of a “major” deal – if you want to count guys like Anton Stralman in Tampa or Alexander Radulov in Montreal, your list gets a bit longer. But if you’re looking at the big names, it’s slim pickings. The best a GM can really hope for these days is to go two-for-three, which will make up our next few categories.

Category #2: Good fit, good hit, bad term (aka “The Hossa”)

You still see these deals crop up from time to time. But the golden era for this sort of signing came in the years leading up to the 2013 lockout, as teams (and agents) figured out that going long on term could result in a reduced cap hit. Back then, going long meant really long, often well into the double-digits in terms of years. When those deals didn’t work out, they were disasters, because you were locked in forever. When they did work, you got The Hossa.

Back in 2010, Marian Hossa was on the open market for the second straight year. The previous summer, he’d signed a one-year deal to chase a Cup with the Wings, which didn’t really work out. This time, the 31-year-old was looking to sign a deal that would be his last in the NHL. And that’s what he got, as the Blackhawks gave him an eye-popping 12 years in exchange for a discount cap hit of just $5.275 million. Hossa was a perfect fit in Chicago, and helped them win three of the next six Cups. And due to a rare skin condition, his playing days ended well before the contract turned into a cap albatross.

The NHL changed the rules around long-term deals in 2013, so Hossa-like bargains are harder to find these days. But every year, teams still convince themselves that they can add the final piece of a championship puzzle at a reasonable cost by going as long as possible on term. Hey, if it doesn’t work out, it will probably be the next GM’s problem, right?

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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