Buyer’s Remorse – NHL Style.

NHL fans love the free agent frenzy, but often the expensive acquisitions end in disappointment.

The NHL may not be in action on the ice every July 1st, but most hockey fans understand that, starting on that date, there’s plenty of action away from the rink  which can dramatically affect the rosters of all 30 NHL clubs for the following season.

Since the implementation of NHL free agency (in the form as we know it) in the 1995 collective bargaining agreement, the unrestricted free agency period has become one of great activity, with teams – usually big-market, deep-pocketed ones – engaging in bidding wars for the best available talent.

The  subsequent application of a salary cap in the current CBA has reduced the number of available unrestricted free agent stars, as teams increasingly re-sign their best players to long-term, usually front-loaded contracts before their eligibility for UFA status.

That’s made the bidding for the best available players more frenzied, resulting in not only the top players getting expensive contracts – witness Zach Parise and Ryan Suter getting identical 13-year, $98 million, heavily front-loaded deals from the Minnesota Wild – but also lesser lights (Dennis Wideman, Jason Garrison, Matt Carle) earning considerably more than their worth.

It’s great fun for the fans, especially for those whose teams land the best free agents, sparking plenty of debate over which teams “won” and “lost” in the UFA market.

Yet history indicates that,  in many cases, these big name signings fail to pan out as hoped.

Though July 1 has been the start of the NHL’s free agent period since 1995, the signings back then for the best available talent were usually spread out over the course of the summer, as teams adjusted to the concept of unrestricted free agency. Indeed, up until 1999, teams usually preferred to wait until after July 4th to sign up the best available talent.

It wasn’t until July, 2001 that the “free agent frenzy” as it know it today – where teams snap up most of the top players within the opening four days of the free agent period – truly began, leading to the inevitable media-generated, fan-driven hype which now accompanies it.

That’s resulted in “auction fever” which grips most NHL general managers, leading some to spend outrageous amounts for players who largely fail to play up to their hefty salaries, and the heightened expectations which come with it.

Brad Kurtzberg of The Bleacher Report recently examined 25 of the NHL’s “worst free agent signings ever”, and while hockey fans can quibble over the placement of some of the players on Kurtzberg’s list, it is a fine example of how free agent signings which seemed like great ideas at the time can go horribly wrong.

Among Kurtzberg’s worst signings: Mark Messier’s ill-fated three year deal with the Vancouver Canucks in 1997, Bobby Holik’s five-year, $45 million deal with the NY Rangers in 2002, ,  Michael Nylander’s four-year, $19 million contract with the Washington Capitals in 2007,  Ryan Smyth’s five-year, $31.25 million deal with the Colorado Avalanche in 2007, Cristobal Huet’s four-year, $22.5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2008, Scott Gomez’s seven-year, $51.5 million blockbuster in 2007,  Wade Redden’s six-year, $39 million eye-popper with the Rangers in 2008, and Alexei Kovalev’s two-year, $10 million contract with the Ottawa Senators in 2009.

All of these deals were prime examples of two old sayings: a fool and his money are soon parted, and be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

The true beneficiaries of free agency are the players and their agents, but these aforementioned examples also bring to mind another quotation: money doesn’t buy you happiness.

Yes, all those players got wealthy, some obscenely so, but because they were unable to play up to the expectations which come with such contracts, their time with their new clubs didn’t ended well.

Messier is considered one of hockey’s greatest players and leaders, but that reputation was tarnished during his three seasons in Vancouver. Nylander was buried in the minors then loaned overseas. Holik failed to help turn the Rangers into a playoff club during his time in the Big Apple. Smyth was deal to the LA Kings, then requested a trade back to Edmonton, where he’d had his best seasons and the only NHL city where he was truly happy.

Huet was banished overseas. Gomez was dealt to Montreal in one of the worst trades in Canadiens history, where he’s faced increasing criticism over the decline in his performance. Redden, after two seasons, was buried in the minors to free up cap space. Kovalev was a dud in Ottawa and dealt away in the final season of his contract to Pittsburgh, where he finished his NHL career a spent force.

The teams which signed those players ultimately came to regret their acquisitions, while the players’ reputations were damaged.

It’s something Minnesota Wild fans, giddy over their team’s signings of Parise and Suter, don’t want to think about, but should bear in mind. They understandably believe the addition of the pair indicates a significant, positive shift away from their club’s history of mediocrity. Season tickets sales have jumped significantly only days after their signings.

Given the long history of failed UFA signings, it remains to be seen if the Wild will buck the trend of buyer’s remorse.

4 Comments

  1. Jeff Finger
    Ales Kotalik
    Jason Blake

  2. the worst contracts are deemed worthwhile if the team signing them wins the Cup just once. if Richards & Carter never do anything else during their time in LA and Simonds, Schenn, and Johnson go on to have Hall of Fame careers then LA fans will still point to those trades as being a key to eventually winning. Penner was an absolute dud for the money he signed for in Edmonton but came to life for a couple of months this year and was rewarded with a new deal.
    as a side note Vancouver’s signing of Messier was a reaction to having lost out on Gretzky the year before when negotiations broke down at the 11th hour. at that time Vancouver had a murder’s row of wingers that could only be compared to Pittsburgh during their heyday, they included Bure, Mogilny, Naslund, Linden (who they converted to a center but always played his best on the wing), Gelinas, and Courtnall but without a true number one center (Mike Ridley ended up being their top center that year with Mike Sillinger not far behind, both of them would’ve topped out on the 3rd line on most teams that year). Vancouver also had character players in Tikkanen, Odjick, Brashear, and Walker. with MacLean in goal and a defense that boasted Lumme, Murzyn, Babych, Aucoin, and Hedican all that Vancouver was really missing was a couple of top centers and i bet that if they’d signed Gretzky before Messier they would’ve won a Cup and nobody would be saying it was a bad deal.

  3. I loathe Bleacher Report. First, I object to their setup, whereby you have to click every paragraph, just to get a picture on the screen. Second, their writers are idiots who know nothing about sports.

  4. I have had similar feelings for quite a while and thanks Lyle for the link. I have often wondered, with all the advanced stats available if someone has comeup with a co-efficient involving the %increase of a FA salary against %decrease in numbers. I have played a little with the numbers the last few years and there have been minimal, very minimal FA who have come out on the positive side.