Is The Era Of Building Through Unrestricted Free Agency Over?

 

The NHL’s unrestricted free agent period begins in just over a month’s time on July 1, 2014. The opening days of free agency are usually a hectic time as general managers with cap space to spend and roster needs to fill get into bidding wars for the best available free agent talent.

For nearly two decades, free agency was seen as one way for NHL teams to improve their rosters. Boston Globe columnist Fluto Shinzawa, however, believes “the era of building through free agency is over”.

Teams re-sign their stars before they hit the final years of their contracts, to say nothing of letting them reach the market. The July 1 gems are a calcifying Thomas Vanek, a nice but far from elite defenseman in Matt Niskanen, and 33-year-old Ryan Miller, a bust in St. Louis. When these players reach the market, multiple teams enter the bidding process, thereby driving up the price. GMs are wising up to paying inflationary prices for non-impact players. The free market is an opportunity to sign complementary players, not stars. 

Two years ago I examined the history of notable unrestricted free agent signings since 1995, the first year in which the UFA market as we know it today came into being.

Is building through free agency, as the Wild did with Zach Parise & Ryan Suter in 2012, a thing of the past?

Is building through free agency, as the Wild did with Zach Parise & Ryan Suter in 2012, a thing of the past?

Throughout the period of 1995 to 2004, when there was no salary cap, there was only three years when teams successfully used free agency as a means of building competitive rosters. The first was in 1997, when the Dallas Stars signing goalie Ed Belfour, who would backstop the club to a Stanley Cup two years later.

The next was 1998, when the Stars added Brett Hull, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Curtis Joseph and the Carolina Hurricanes inked Ron Francis. Hull helped the Stars win the Cup in 1999, Joseph starred in Toronto for four seasons while Francis helped the Hurricanes gain respectability, captaining them to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final.

2001 was the final year, when the Detroit Red Wings signed Hull and Luc Robitaille, while the Philadelphia Flyers brought aboard Jeremy Roenick. Hull and Robitaille helped the Wings win the Cup in 2002, while Roenick had a couple of good years with the Flyers, helping them advance to the Eastern Conference Final in 2004.

Throughout that period, unrestricted free agency usually began at age 31, meaning teams were signing a lot of ageing stars who were either past their primes or approaching the downturn of their respective careers. Few of those free agent signings, other than those noted above, brought about significant improvements for the clubs which signed them.  Nevertheless, NHL general managers (particularly those in big markets with money to burn) willingly ponied up big bucks for the best available talent.

Following the season-killing lockout of 2004-05, a new CBA with a salary cap was implemented, resulting in a gradual lowering of the eligibility age for UFA status from 30 to 27, or if a player completed seven full NHL seasons, whichever came first.

As teams had to replenish depleted rosters following that lockout in the summer of 2005, there was an unusually high number of UFA signings. The most notable saw the Anaheim Ducks add Scott Niedermayer, who would help them win a Stanley Cup two years later.

2006 saw another high number of notable free agent signings, though most of the players were past their respective primes. The exception was the Bruins signing Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. Chara would establish himself as an elite defenseman, instrumental in the Bruins winning the 2011 Stanley Cup and becoming a perennial Cup contender. Savard had three productive seasons with the Bruins before his career was cut short by injuries.

2007 was yet another busy free agent period, with the most notable signings being Scott Gomez and Chris Drury joining the Rangers, Daniel Briere signing with the Flyers, Brian Rafalski jumping to the Red Wings and Ryan Smyth signing with the Colorado Avalanche. At the time all these players were still considered in their respective playing primes as most were in their late-twenties or early-thirties. Of these, only the Briere and Rafalski signings panned out. Briere starred for several seasons with the Flyers, while Rafalski helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in 2008.

2008 also saw significant free agent signings, but only the Red Wings signing Marian Hossa to a one-year deal and the Chicago Blackhawks adding Brian Campbell proved to be worthwhile moves. Hossa helped the Wings reach the 2009 Cup Final, while Campbell had three productive years with the Blackhawks, helping them win the 2010 Stanley Cup.

The trend continued in 2009, especially as teams signed players to ridiculously long contracts in order to garner a more cap-friendly average salary. The most notable saw Hossa sign with the Blackhawks, Marian Gaborik join the Rangers, while Mike Cammalleri landed with the Montreal Canadiens. Hossa helped the ‘Hawks win two Stanley Cups and remains a key part of their roster. Gaborik enjoyed two 40-plus goal seasons before he was eventually dealt to Columbus. Cammalleri enjoyed two solid seasons with the Habs until dealt to Calgary in 2012.

2010 saw the New Jersey Devils sign Ilya Kovalchuk, the San Jose Sharks ink Antti Niemi and the Vancouver Canucks take on Dan Hamhuis. Kovalchuk lasted three seasons with the Devils before jumping to the KHL. Niemi has had varied degrees of success with the Sharks while Hamhuis helped the Canucks reach the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

2011 saw the most notable example of roster building via free agency, as the Florida Panthers signed Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Fleischmann, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim and Marcel Goc. They helped the Panthers make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, but the success was short-lived as the club struggled the following two years.

The Rangers made the most expensive signing of that summer by inking Brad Richards to a nine-year. $60 million deal. Though his regular season numbers are well down from his career-highs, he’s helped the Rangers reach this year’s Eastern Conference Final. The best signing that summer was among the most unheralded, as the Phoenix Coyotes inked goalie Mike Smith to a two-year deal. Smith backstopped the Coyotes to the 2012 Western Conference Final.

The summer of 2012 saw the Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to expensive long-term contracts. They were the most notable stars available that summer, as most teams by that point had re-signed their key free agents in anticipation of the end of the CBA later that fall.

It’s apparent that, following the summer of 2009, the number of available free agent stars declined. In 2010, Kovalchuk was the only true star available. In 2011, it was Richards. 2012 saw only two in Parise and Suter and they both signed with the same team. The summer of 2012 was also notable for a lack of quality second-tier talent compared to previous years.

That trend continued in the summer of 2013, the first under the current CBA, which introduced limits on contract length (seven years maximum for UFAs) and salary variance. It was also the first summer in years that there weren’t any true superstars in their prime available via free agency. Sure, there were recognizable names (Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Daniel Briere, Daniel Alfredsson) but they were all well past their best-before dates. The best available player in his prime was oft-injured winger Nathan Horton, who joined the Columbus Blue Jackets.

As Shinzawa noted, this summer’s UFA market features two players (Vanek and Niskanen) who aren’t considered superstars, while Miller is about three years past his prime. Gaborik is available again, and while he’s enjoying a resurgence with the LA Kings, his days of attracting top dollar are behind him.

Shinzawa overlooked 28-year-old Paul Stastny, who has played first-line minutes in his career but seems better suited for a second-line center role. Right wing Ryan Callahan, 29, could be available, but he’s also best-suited for second-line duty. Matt Moulson, 30, could be a good secondary scorer on a deep club. Dan Boyle is ageing (37) but still has enough left to be a decent short-term acquisition. Same goes for 35-year-olds Derek Morris, Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta.

Other notables include Milan Michalek (29), Ales Hemsky and Mikhail Grabovski (30), Steve Ott (31), Jonas Hiller and Radim Vrbata (32), David Legwand and Brooks Orpik (33). Some familiar names (Iginla, Cammalleri, Alfredsson) are in this year’s group, while those well past their prime include Martin Brodeur, Dany Heatley, Ray Whitney, Tim Thomas, Todd Bertuzzi and Evgeni Nabokov.

There’s more decent talent available in this year’s UFA market compared to last summer’s, but it’s lacking superstars.

This year is also unique in that there’s more trade speculation regarding bigger names like Ottawa’s Jason Spezza, Carolina’s Eric Staal and Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler, plus an unusually high number of teams (Buffalo, Calgary, Carolina, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Vancouver and Washington) have changed management this year. Combine those factors with an anticipated increase in the salary cap from $64.3 million to perhaps as high as $70 million, and the ability of teams to retain part of a player’s salary to facilitate a trade, and this summer’s seems ripe for more significant trade activity than notable free agent signings.

It may be premature to write off free agency as a means to build a roster. We don’t know yet what the full impact of the current CBA will have upon future free agent markets. We can also never underestimate the ability of NHL general managers to succumb to auction fever every July and overspend on free agent talent. But with more teams re-signing key players before their UFA eligibility, the possibility of a constantly increasing cap ceiling and the ability to retain portions of a traded player’s salary, free agency could become less important than it once was.