Every year we hear hockey fans ask themselves: Why oh why did my team sign this chump for X million bucks? No matter how many middle-tier players have fallen flat on their face trying to live up to the expectations their rich new contract set out for them, there will always be a general manager willing to sign a player for far more than he is worth. Overzealous general managers are part of the problem, but the media should also shoulder some of the blame for the madness of unrestricted free agency.
I admit I am a sucker for what I call "Free Agent Sweepstakes Day". I love the analysis on television and on websites. I love thinking about how a big free agent could help my team win the Cup. Yes, July 1st has become a part of our hockey culture, but we should tell ourselves that what we hear in the media is complete hogwash. If we pay too much attention to the hype, we actually start to believe that Wade Redden, Scott Gomez or David Clarkson is going to lead our team to the Promised Land.
Why do we bother listening to all the hype? It doesn't even make any sense. For one thing, it is impossible to judge who is the best UFA available. It is just as impossible, after the contracts have been signed, to judge who is going to truly earn their money. There are too many X factors that have to be considered. How is the new guy going to mesh with his teammates? How is he going to respond to the coach? How is he going to adapt to the climate? How is he going to react when he falls under the microscope of Canadian fans? Yet that doesn't stop anyone from making bold predictions which, in retrospect, are highly laughable. It's like predicting the Stanley Cup winner before the season has even begun. How many experts are kicking themselves for picking the San Jose Sharks for the eighth year in a row? Then again, how could anyone have predicted the Sharks would end up playing Los Angeles in round one and then defy the odds by blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Kings?
Curiously, players who sign large contracts and remain with their teams seem to do quite alright. Shea Weber, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf all signed lengthy contracts and had excellent seasons with their respective clubs. Brad Richards, on the other hand, signed a nine-year, $60 million deal and saw his points per game average drop from .93 (in 772 games with Tampa Bay and Dallas) to .72 with New York, and is now a candidate to be bought out during the summer. You would think the Rangers had learned their lesson after signing Wade Redden to a ridiculous six-year, $39 million deal, and then shipped him to the minors after just two years. If players want their careers to progress, they should strongly consider sticking with their current clubs.
Over the last few years, the media has grossly distorted the value of more than a few players in the NHL. Richards was the highest profile free agent back in 2011, but he wasn't the first to be grossly overhyped. For example, in 2009, a website called The Bleacher Report rated Martin Havlat the fourth-best player available of all the UFA forwards and defensemen (1). Since then, he has scored 183 points in 278 games, definitely not earning the six-year, $30 million contract he signed with Minnesota (2). The Bleacher Report ranked Jay Bouwmeester sixth and Nik Antropov eighth, neither of whom made much of an impact in their new cities unless you consider eating up cap space a skill (3). Bouwmeester went from .43 PPG in Florida to .35 in Calgary, while Antropov scored a career-high 67 points with Atlanta in 2009, then saw his production drop to 41 points, and then to 35 before bottoming out at 18 in 2013.
Remember when Sergei Gonchar and Anton Volchenkov were hyped as highly sought-after UFAs back in 2010? Seems like a long time ago now, doesn't it? Gonchar played three unspectacular seasons in Ottawa, and produced only .49 points per game there, compared to .69 in his previous 976 games. Volchenkov has spent the last four years in and out of the Devils' infirmary.
Of course, it is one thing to predict a player's desirability, but what about the media's predictions after the contract signing? In 2011, The Hockey News rated each team's off-season performance, including trades, personnel changes, and free agent signings. THN awarded Buffalo an A-, mostly based on their signings of Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff, and Ville Leino. The Sabres haven't seen the playoffs since, and in 2013/14, they finished dead last. Regehr has long since left town, Leino has scored 10 goals in 137 games with the Sabres, and Ehrhoff finished -27 this past season.
In 2011, the New York Rangers earned a B+ for signing Richards, whose career has been on the decline ever since. The Toronto Maple Leafs got a B for signing John-Michael Liles and Tim Connolly, who are both in the "Where are they now" file. On the other hand, the publication rated Phoenix a C- because all they did was sign Mike Smith as their new number one goaltender (4). Those poor Coyotes are probably still ruing the day they stepped on that landmine considering all Smith has accomplished is leading the undertalented team to the Conference Finals in 2012 and keeping them in playoff contention every year despite a lack of offense and persistent relocation rumours. He was also named to the most recent Canadian Olympic hockey team, and has recorded nineteen shutouts the last three years, including three in the playoffs. Hindsight says The Hockey News rankings would be a lot different today
The media not only misfires on NHL free agents, but also those coming out of Europe. For every underhyped Antti Niemi there is a grossly overrated Jonas Gustavsson. I clearly remember how the experts couldn't talk more than 30 seconds without mentioning how "The Monster" was going to lead the Leafs to the Promised Land. With his 2.98 goals-against average, .900 save percentage, and 39-45-15 career record with the Leafs, that was never going to happen. And do you remember how Fabian Brunnstrom was going to teach us all a thing or two about scoring goals? He last played in 2012-13, for Frolunda HC of the Swedish League, where he scored a grand total of 18 points in 51 games.
In short, there is no way of predicting how a player will adapt to his new surroundings, so why does anyone care about the media's opinion of free agents? Dipping into the NHL free agent pool is, at the very least, a crap shoot for general managers. Sometimes teams luck out, and sometimes they pay dearly. Some free agents, no matter their skill, mesh better with their new coach or teammates, while others flounder. More often than not, the high risk brings few, if any rewards.
In many ways, it is best to go the safe route and offer short-term deals to average players who have an upside, and who may surprise you with a better-than-expected performance in the end. Tagging someone as "best available" does not guarantee future success, and if that player falters under the weight of an expensive long-term deal, it can cripple his career and his franchise. A player of lesser skill signed to a reasonable contract can be even more valuable. Just look at Clarke Macarthur, whose 24 goals and 31 assists cost the Ottawa Senators just $6.5 million over two years, or Mason Raymond who scored 45 points for the Leafs and earned just $2.275 million (5). Jarome Iginla signed a one-year deal with Boston and scored 30 goals. When low-risk players succeed, the general manager looks like a genius, and when these players fail, no one seems to notice.
Of course, playing it cool during the free agent frenzy is easier said than done. Fans want their general manager to land an expensive star player, logic be damned, so general managers are under pressure to deliver. Fans should not listen to the media hype, however. There is no guarantee the free agent their team signed will live up to expectations, but we still can't resist all the hype. Making matters worse for general managers is the fact it is difficult to sign a player for what he is actually worth, because there is always another team ready to offer more money and a longer term. Don't forget the rule of supply and demand as well. Sometimes a general manager has to pay a little more to get a free agent just because the talent pool is shallow. For general managers, free agency is like going to prom. Everyone wants to go to the dance with the star quarterback or the head cheerleader, but in the long run, looks aren't everything. Sometimes it's better to go with the person you're most comfortable with and who fits your personality best.
(2) All salary information found at www.capgeek.com.
(4) "NHL Team Reports," The Hockey News (August 2011), p. 36-47.
(5) All salary information found at www.capgeek.com.