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NHL Free Agency: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

by Anthony Pucik
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Wikimedia Commons

Overpayments and quick-fix veteran buys summarize this year’s market.

After a busy first ten days NHL free agency has calmed down a bit, and there have been some interesting deals to say the least thus far.  There have been some overpaid players, veterans that have gone to play elsewhere and some deals that just leave you scratching your head.

One trend that has come from NHL Free Agency thus far has been the overpayment of players. On the very first day, former New York Rangers third liner Benoit Pouliot received a five year contract worth $20 million from the Edmonton Oilers. The Florida Panthers were the kings of overpayment on July 1, signing Dave Bolland to a five year deal worth $5.5 million a year and Jussi Jokinen for four years, $16 million total. Pouliot, Bolland and Jokinen are decent players, but none of them are worth $4 million plus per year.

The problem is that they were not given that money as a result of their play, but due to the Oilers and Panthers’ need to hit the cap floor. If the Panthers and Oilers didn’t overpay for players like Pouliot, Bolland and Jokinen, they would find themselves with a nearly full roster that was under the necessary cap floor of $51 million. Other teams like the New York Islanders made similar overpayments (signing Mikhail Grabovski for four years, $20 million and Nikolai Kulemin for four years at a little over $4.1 million per year) in order to reach the cap floor, so while we may look back on these deals after next season and say that these players were overpaid due to how they produced, the money was not given for their production, but the need of that particular team to hit the cap floor.

But this is not the case for every team. Some teams made overpayments for players that they did not need to overpay for, but simply overvalued. One clear cut example is the Detroit Red Wings with defenseman Kyle Quincey, who signed a two year deal for $8.5 million. Quincey is not very good offensively, had a -5 plus/minus rating and allotted 88 penalty minutes during the season which put the Wings in very difficult positions. Quincey will now be making $250,000 a season less than former Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman (who signed a five year deal worth $4.5 million per season with the Tampa Bay Lightning), who is a better player by far.

Another team that became victim to overpaying defenseman was the Washington Capitals, who took a pair of former Pittsburgh Penguins blue liners for a hefty price. The Caps signed Matt Niskanen for seven years at $5.75 million a year and Brooks Oprik for five years at $5.5 million per year.  While Niskanen and Orpik are extremely talented, those prices are a bit steep. The Capitals top two defensive pairings are over 30 percent of their cap, with three of them being heavily offensive minded in Mike Green, Niskanen and John Carlson. While Orpik and Carlson do provide some hitting ability, to have that much money tied up in defense and none of them be upper echelon lockdown talent in stopping opposing offenses puts the Capitals at a severe disadvantage.

Some teams, however, were able to avoid overpaying for talent, and were able to pick up solid pieces that would either help their team, or take a small gamble on a player that might provide depth for them in a spot that they needed. The New Jersey Devils are a perfect example of this. While signing Mike Cammalleri for five years and $5 million per year might seem like a bit of an overpayment, they were able to acquire someone who can help them in the place where they needed to most help: offense. But the Devils also picked up Martin Havlat at a discount for one year at $1.5 million, which is a very small gamble with potentially great upside.

Havlat is not the goal scorer he once was, but has the potential for tremendous upside at a low price. If Havlat is able to flourish alongside fellow Czechs Jarmoir Jagr and Patrik Elias, the overpayment of Cammalleri will be countered by his surprising production and New Jersey could come away as one of the most well off teams in this free agent market. The Anaheim Ducks made a similar move in acquiring veteran Dany Heatley for one year at one million dollars, hoping much like the Devils that Heatley will have a turnaround year at a low price, making him a steal if he ends up producing like he used to be able to.

Other teams that made good moves in free agency thus far were contenders like the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, who signed Paul Stastny (four years, $28 million) and Jarome Iginla (three years, $5.33 million per year) respectively. The Blues improved their offense in acquiring Stastny, and the Avalanche acquired Iginla in order to soften the blow of losing Stastny to St. Louis. Both players went for reasonable prices given the market and cap ceiling of $69 million, and has probably given both teams enough to not only do as well as they did last season, but take the next step towards winning the Cup.

Even with all these moves, there are still plenty of free agents on the market that have yet to find a home. Veteran Martin Brodeur has yet to find a new team to play for,  as well as Mike Ribeiro, Ville Leino, David Booth, Derek Roy and many more. So NHL free agency is certainly far from over, which means more overpayments and potential low risk, high reward moves are yet to come.