Unrestricted Free Agents No Sure Pathway to The Stanley Cup
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.