Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The best and worst cap era UFA deals of every length

We’re a few days into free agency, and most of the bigger names have found landing spots. The flat cap made for some tight fits, and we saw lower AAVs on many deals than we’d thought. But even though it was October instead of July, the last few days still had plenty of the “who’ll go where” intrigue that fans love.

But one thing was missing: Deals of varying lengths. Aside from Torey Krug and Alex Pietrangelo, virtually everybody was getting one or two-year contracts. It was a noticeable difference from previous years, where deals would span the range from short-term to long to way-too-long.

It’s always fun to come up with lists of the best and worst signings, and I’ve certainly made my share. This time, I wanted to take a different angle. So today, we’re going to try to figure out the best and worst free agent deals of the cap era for each specific length. One year, two years, and so on down the line.

To be clear, we’re looking for UFA deals where a player changed teams. Teams almost always get good value out of RFAs, who are close to their prime and don’t have much leverage, and players who re-sign with a team they’re already playing for will usually leave some money on the table. We want those signings where a team drops a big bag of money on a table and says “Join us”. For our purposes, that will include cases where a pending UFA’s negotiation rights were acquired in the days before the market opening, as long as it was by a team they hadn’t played for before.

(Please read that last paragraph again before you go into the comments and just post the name of some other player with a question mark at the end and nothing else. Please? I even bolded the important part. You won’t, will you. Awesome, can’t wait.)

We’ll start with one-year deals and work our way up to the longer ones, recognizing both the best and worst. Spoiler alert: One of those categories gets harder as we go, and the other does not.

One-year deals

We’ll start off with the easiest one. Or so I thought, because it turns out that at least until this year, one-year deals are fairly rare in free agency. That makes sense – if you’ve made it all the way to the open market, you’re going to want to try to land some term. One-year deals are for the depth guys, or the veterans who may not play more one more season. The big names, for the most part, aren’t interested.

Still, we see some from time-to-time, including Kevin Shattenkirk last year and Robin Lehner in each of the last two. Those worked out pretty well, and of course Taylor Hall just went for a one-year prove-it deal in Buffalo. But I’m going to go in a different direction for my pick for the best one-year UFA deal ever.

Best deal: Marian Hossa, one year at $7.45 million with the Red Wings, 2008

Hossa didn’t come cheap – at over 13% of the cap, his AAV would translate to north of $10 million today. But his willingness to sign a one-year deal in the prime of his career was the key to finding a fit with the defending champs in Detroit. He reportedly turned down a five-year offer to stay in Pittsburgh because he thought he had a better chance of winning a Cup with the Wings.

OK, that part didn’t work out great, as those same Penguins beat Hossa’s Red Wings that spring. Still, you have to give him credit for taking his swing, and he did his part with a 40-goal season before heading back to the market in 2009.

On the flip side, there aren’t a ton of candidates for truly awful one-year deals because… well, they’re one year. Most veterans on expiring deals can be flipped at the deadline for at least a pick, and the absolute worst-case scenario is that the guy is a complete bust and you free up some cap space at the end of the year.

My first thought here was Alexander Semin’s $7-million deal with the Hurricanes in 2012, but he played pretty well on that one – it was the subsequent extension that blew up on Carolina. I’m not going to pick on Jack Johnson and the Rangers. So instead, I’ll let recency bias kick in and go with a signing from last year.

Worst deal: Wayne Simmonds, one year at $5 million with the Devils, 2019

This deal was signed back when the Devils had just drafted Jack Hughes and traded for P.K. Subban and we all thought they’d be good. They weren’t, and neither was Simmonds, and while they were able to trade him at the deadline, all they got was a fifth. So not great. But still, far from any kind of a disaster, because one-year deals are virtually no-risk scenarios.

Two-year deals

If anything, two-year deals for big-name players are even harder to come by than one-year signings. After all, the thinking might go, if you’re going to take short-term then you may as well go really short and get ready to hit the market again in a season’s time. And if you want security, two years doesn’t really offer much.

We do see some two-year deals, of course, especially to older players. Justin Williams did it twice, with the Capitals in 2015 and again with the Hurricanes in 2017, and both worked out well. Dan Hamhuis was solid for the Stars in 2016, and at least OK with the Predators in 2019. And Johnny Oduya was a solid add for the Stars in 2015.

But my pick for the best two-year deal is going to be one that I’m not completely sold on, but have to choose just for the magnitude of it.

Best deal: Peter Forsberg, two years at $5.75 million with the Flyers, 2005

This was one of the very first big signings of the cap era, with the 32-year-old former MVP jumping from the Avs to the Flyers team that had originally drafted him. The deal looks like a bargain to today’s eyes, as a guy who was at least in the conversation for the best two-way player in the game got less than $12 million total. But while Forsberg’s injury history kept the term short, that cap hit took up nearly 15% of the Flyers’ space – the equivalent to someone signing for over $12 million today. We’re talking McDavid money.

Did it work out? Pretty much, yeah. Forsberg missed games, but he was excellent when he did play, racking up 75 points in 60 games in year one and a point-a-game in year two before being traded to the Predators for a nice haul.

The candidates for worst two-year deals is a little longer than the best category, and mostly made up of veteran gambles that didn’t pay off, like Danny Briere to the Habs in 2013, Mathieu Schneider to the Ducks in 2007, Alexei Kovalev to the Senators in 2009, and maybe Dan Boyle to the Rangers in 2014. That’s never great, but again, at just a two-season commitment none of these deals really ruined anyone. Neither did my pick for the worst deal.

Worst deal: Steve Mason, two years at $4.1 million with the Jets, 2017

This one was always a little weird, coming on the heels of Connor Hellebuyck establishing himself as the full-time starter. The Jets were looking for some insurance, but it turns out they didn’t need it – Hellebuyck blossomed into a Vezina finalist in 2017-18, Mason only started 12 games, and was traded, bought out and retired one year after signing this deal.

Three-year deals

We’re getting into the territory where teams are taking on bigger risks, especially with older players. But we’ve still seen some signings that worked out well, including Mike Green with the Red Wings in 2015 and Adam Foote with the Blue Jackets in 2005. One year in, the Stars’ deal with Joe Pavelski might be headed to this category too. But my pick for the best three-year UFA signing goes back a few seasons.

Best deal: Eric Staal, three years at $3.5 million with the Wild, 2016

Staal had just been one of the big deadline prizes, going from Carolina to the Rangers. But he hadn’t lit it up in New York, prompting some whispers that he might be done. He signed a surprisingly cheap deal with the Wild, then put up three productive seasons before re-upping last summer.

On the worst side, the danger of paying for past performance starts showing up here, as we find regrettable deals like Jarome Iginla with the Avalanche in 2014 and Ilya Kovalchuk with the Kings two years ago. Paul Kariya’s $6-million was a big price for the Blues in 2007, and didn’t really pay off because he didn’t stay healthy. But I’ll go with one that hits closer to home for me.

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