Unrestricted Free Agents No Sure Pathway to The Stanley Cup

by | Jul 23, 2017 | Soapbox | 21 comments

Marian Hossa is among the few expensive UFA signings over the last decade to help a team win a Stanley Cup championship.

Considering how much money NHL teams invested in signing each year’s top unrestricted free agents, one can assume those clubs believe these moves will improve their chances of becoming Stanley Cup contenders. But if the notable UFA deals of the last decade are any indication, such efforts do not guarantee championship glory.

In 2007, the biggest UFA signings saw Scott Gomez and Chris Drury join the New York Rangers, Daniel Briere head to the Philadelphia Flyers, Paul Kariya sign with the St. Louis Blues, Ryan Smyth joining the Colorado Avalanche, Sheldon Souray inking a deal with the Edmonton Oilers and Brian Rafalski move to the Detroit Red Wings.

Of these deals, only the Rafalski signing contributed to a team winning the Stanley Cup. Briere would help the Flyers stage their underdog run to the 2010 Cup Final.

2008’s notable signings included Marian Hossa to Detroit, Markus Naslund and Wade Redden to the Rangers, Rob Blake to the San Jose Sharks, Todd Bertuzzi to the Calgary Flames, Mike Commodore to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Brian Campbell to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Hossa helped the Wings reach the 2009 Cup Final. Campbell played a key role in the Hawks 2010 championship.

In 2009, Hossa moved on to Chicago while Marian Gaborik joined the Rangers, Martin Havlat headed to the Minnesota Wild, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta went to the Montreal Canadiens, Mike Komisarek left the Habs for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Alexei Kovalev inked a deal with the Ottawa Senators.

Only the Hossa deal panned out. He played a significant part in the Blackhawks’ Cup titles in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

It was a shallow pool of notable UFA talent in 2010. Sergei Gonchar went to Ottawa, Paul Martin moved to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Tanguay went to Calgary, Antti Niemi to San Jose and Dan Hamhuis joined the Vancouver Canucks. 

Hamhuis was an important part of the Canucks blueline for several years. He also helped them reach the 2011 Cup Final.

Brad Richards headlined the 2011 UFA class, signing a long-term deal with the Rangers. Other notables included Jaromir Jagr returning to the NHL with the Flyers, Erik Cole head to Montreal, Ed Jovanovski to the Florida Panthers, Mike Smith to the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes, Simon Gagne to the Los Angeles Kings and J.S. Gigeure join the Avalanche.

Richards helped the Rangers advance to the 2014 Cup Final. He was later bought out by the Rangers, signed with the Blackhawks as a free agent and helped them win the Cup in 2015.

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signing with Minnesota were the biggest UFA moves of 2012. Others included Ray Whitney going to the Coyotes, Jason Garrison to Vancouver, Jiri Hudler heading to Calgary, Matt Carle joining the Tampa Bay Lightning and Alexander Semin signing with the Carolina Hurricanes. 

Following a lockout shortened season, the summer of 2013 saw Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss go to Detroit, Jarome Iginla to the Boston Bruins, Nathan Horton to Columbus, David Clarkson to Toronto and Valtteri Filppula to Tampa Bay 

The summer of 2014 saw Ignila on the move again, this time to Colorado. Paul Statsny went to St. Louis, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik joined the Washington Capitals, Dan Boyle went to the Rangers, Thomas Vanek to Minnesota, Dave Bolland and Jussi Jokinen signed with Florida, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin headed to the New York Islanders and Anton Stralman signed with the Lightning.

Stralman played a key role in Lightning’s march to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

In 2015, the notable signings included Mike Green to Detroit, Justin Williams to Washington, Andrej Sekera to Edmonton, Alex Semin to Montreal and Joel Ward to San Jose. Ward helped the Sharks reach the 2016 Cup Final.

Last summer saw Milan Lucic sign with Edmonton, Eric Staal head to Minnesota, Loui Eriksson sign with Vancouver, David Backes moving to Boston, Troy Brouwer going to Calgary, Andrew Ladd join the Islanders, Frans Nielsen land with Detroit and Kyle Okposo shuffle off to the Buffalo Sabres.

So far none of those moves pushed their respective clubs any closer to championship contention, though some of these deal could pan out over time.

As we can see, very few notable UFAs played a significant role in helping their new clubs reach the Stanley Cup Final. If that trend continues, this summer’s big signings – Kevin Shattenkirk to the Rangers, Patrick Marleau to Toronto, Alexander Radulov to Dallas, Karl Alzner to Montreal – could become costly moves that fail to push those teams any closer to a championship.

The argument can be made that the salary-cap era has drained the UFA market of any significant talent. Teams tend to re-sign their best players, leaving mostly second-tier talent available in the free-agent pool. However, that was usually the case before the advent of the cap.

But as I noted in May 2014, teams from that era rarely had success landing talent that carried them to championships. The Dallas Stars’ signings of goaltender Ed Belfour (1997) and Brett Hull (1998) and the Red Wings’ additions of Hull and Luc Robitaille in 2001 are the only notable examples from that period.

The UFA market does have some value for clubs seeking depth in talent. Over the years, teams have added players that improved their rosters to various degress. Championship teams also benefited from free agency, usually through the addition of affordable depth players.

Free agency can help an NHL club build a contender, but it’s never been a sure path to a championship. In today’s salary-cap world, pursuing expensive, often overhyped veterans can do more harm than good, tying up invaluable salary-cap space necessary for retaining homegrown talent. 



  1. GOOD READ… BUT not to be an editing edison but nisk and brooks “free candy” orpik to warshington.

  2. I think you meant Orpik to the caps in 2014. You have Boyle joining NY and Washington.

  3. Some of those mentioned above have certainly been established as classic examples of misguided signings – but with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, every one was likely regarded as a primary key to success, and all it takes is one or two such signings to be vividly successful to provoke a GM into taking a similar plunge.

    But when it comes to money NOT well spent I prefer to follow the thoughts of one Bill Veeck of baseball lore who once observed that “It isn’t the high price of stars that is expensive; it’s the high price of mediocrity.”

    On that score here is a tongue-in-cheek observation made by a friend in Nova Scotia: (Ryan) Dzingel will make $56,250 per point next season based on last year’s scoring stats. Connor McDavid will make $125,000 per point. Based on the McDavid test, Dzingel should have gotten approximately $ 3 million next year, about the same as JG “the midget” Pageau, he of 1 more point and 2 fewer goals. Pageau will make $93,939 per point. Nate Thompson will make $825,000 per point.”

    THAT kind of spending is what will eventually ruin the game.

    • Could not agree more George. Nhlnumbers has a great area for this. Breaking down point production per dollar. If nothing else it’s a great time killer to flip through.

    • And how many Dzingel jerseys are selling on the net or in shops? How many potential stars are lining up sign with ott to play with dzingel (maybe they can talk rick berry out of retirment and have the dzingel-berry line! yeah… I went there.) How many tickets is dzingel selling, home and away, to see him play? that argument, unlike most you usually make george doesnt hold any water.

      • I wasn’t aware I was making any specific argument. I was quoting Veeck and used the Dzingel signing as an example of the high cost of mediocrity. Maybe you could explain what it is you read into what I said?

      • If I’m not mistaken, doesn’t nhl merchandising get split up anyway? I’m pretty sure if it’s sold through NHL.com etc it is.
        If that’s the case Crosby selling 8 million vs. Dzingel selling 8 really doesn’t mean very much…. I could be wrong here.

      • Also, I think it heavily depends on which market a player is in. Raise your hand if you think Mathews would have sold as many Jerseys last year if he played in Arizona. Anybody, Buhler, anybody?

      • about points per dollar being a viable metric for comparison. good question about the merch… if its sold on nhl.com of course but even just in shops in the arena itself? who gets that money? the city is also a valid point. the leafs had been terrible for years yet continued to sell out every game. didnt need a mcdavid or mathews to do so. was edm selling ever game out before mcdavid?

      • According to hockeydb they were selling out before Mcdavid. The new arena holds 2k more seats….. but the 10 years prior to Mcdavid were the same attendance to Mcdavids 1st season.

      • I don’t think anyone’s disagreeing with that chrisms – nor does it reflect what any of us said above. I used the term “tongue-in-cheek” to preface what my friend said and made it quite clear – or so I thought – that, as Veeck observed, it wasn’t a question of what a McDavid is making or will make, but rather what is being handed out to the likes of Dzingel, Pageau and Thompson (among many other similar examples throughout the league).

      • I seem to have misunderstood then george.

        so the past two generational stars went to teams that didnt even need them?!?!? sarcasm btw

    • Mcdavids contract is very similar to sids 2nd contract in cap hit percentage , and that’s for 8 years , sids was 5 , when dealing with generational talent the comparables are quite simple . The types of contracts that have driven up the market and continue to do so are the toews Kane kopitar kuznetsov type , thats where the comparables were ignored and teams over paid there own guys . Who can go in and really argue they are comparable To Mcdavid ? Very few . The list grows large with guys who can compare to the overpayments of kopitar toews Kane and lately kuznetsov

    • If the THAT is pageau / Thompson type over payments for mediocre . Then I agree . Kind of the same thing I was saying with the guys I mentioned . No way should guys in the second tier (great great players but not generational) , should have gotten 10.5 and more than sid , kuznetsov deal will drive up th younger class , shouldnt have got more than gaudreau , tarasenko , etc . Probably didn’t help chiarelli with draisaitl deal .

      • I believe you have to pay your top players top money. You can’t always use generational players as a guide how to play your top players. Crosby, Mcdavid etc aren’t falling in your lap. When Stamkos, or Tavares are your Crosby or Mcdavid you have to pay them. Mathews will be seeking Mcdavid money or similar. What’s the team going to say? ” you’re not as valuable as Mcdavid? And that answer will be…. go get Mcdavid.

        I have a bigger problem with guys going from elc deals to multi year , multi million $$$ deals. Or just flat out gross overpayment of players.

      • In a realistic world, the difference between what stars like Crosby, McDavid, Ovechkin, Malkin, Karlsson et al do and should make, and those mediocrities that fill out the bottom portions of the rosters should be even more astronomical than it is. But of course that is never going to happen simply because you will always have the situation where one GM will try and get a leg up on the competition by offering huge, long-term deals to their RFAs, often with nothing more to go on than one decent season, or to UFAs who have decent but nowhere great seasons under their belts. And even though it probably backfires down the line just as often as it proves to be successful, that’s just the way it goes when a GM’s long-term employment is dependent upon on-ice success. One solution to saving them from themselves is to bring in a form of the NFL approach – hand out the big contracts, yes, but with no guaranteed contracts, they better perform in a manner seen as beneficial to the team or it’s bye-bye. Maybe – just maybe – that will be the direction the owners will want to go in the next bargaining session.

  4. Since only one team can win the Cup each year, the fact that only one free agent each year helped his club win the Cup is not really all that surprising, to say the least.

  5. Dollars per point only works for certain types of players. So looking at everyone at that angle is not an accurate way to judge all players/contracts. Points are good to have for sure but not something every player produces or needs to produce to be valuable. Fun to look at but that’s about it.

    • Chaque un ä son goût.

    • I’d say it’s a better way than how some compare players. Like +// or personal bias toward or against certain players. And definitely more than a fun tool when comparing similar type of players, with similar types of roles or deployment.

  6. Brilliant write up and insightful read.