Notable NHL UFA signings since 1995.

With little taking place in the current NHL unrestricted free agent market, here’s a look back at some notable free agent signings since 1995.

1995: St. Louis Blues sign Dale Hawerchuk, Geoff Courtnall, Shane Corson and Grant Fuhr. 

The first off-season with unrestricted free agency as we’ve come to recognize it, the Blues made the most notable signings of the summer of ’95. Corson was coming into his own as a two-way forward, Courtnall had several productive seasons with the Blues, and Fuhr played a mind-boggling 79 games backstopping the Blues into the playoffs. Hawerchuk, however, was dealt to Philadelphia in March of 1996.

1996: New York Rangers sign Wayne Gretzky to a three-year contract, Dallas Stars sign Pat Verbeek.

Gretzky was NY Rangers first big UFA signing.

The Great One would have one last year of playoff glory in his first season with the Rangers, helping them upset the New Jersey Devils on route to the Eastern Conference Final, but couldn’t help the Blueshirts make the playoffs in his final two seasons.

NHL fans today forget that Bob Gainey used to be a terrific general manager. His signing of Verbeek, “the little ball of hate”, was one of three notable free agent signings which were key to the Stars winning the Stanley Cup in 1999.

1997: Dallas Stars sign Ed Belfour. Vancouver Canucks sign Mark Messier. 

Belfour was a significant part of the Stars championship run in 1999, but Messier was a spent force when he joined the Canucks, which Vancouver fans consider among the worst moves in team history.

1998: Dallas Stars sign Brett Hull, Toronto Maple Leafs sign Curtis Joseph, Carolina Hurricanes sign Ron Francis, Philadelphia Flyers sign John Vanbiesbrouck.

Inking Hull turned out to be the final piece of the championship puzzle for the Stars. “CuJo” had arguably his best seasons with the Maple Leafs, carrying them to two Eastern Conference Finals. Francis returned to the organization he began his NHL career with (when they were the Hartford Whalers), and played an important role in the Hurricanes’ 2002 run to the Stanley Cup Final. The Flyers hoped an aging“Beezer” would solve their goaltending problems, but in an all too familiar story for their fans, he had a good regular season, but struggled in the post-season.

1999: NY Rangers sign Theo Fleury, Valeri Kamensky and Stephane Quintal.

The UFA market of ’99 wasn’t a particularly deep one, with the Rangers making the biggest splash. None of these signings panned out for the Blueshirts, who were in the midst of a seven-year playoff drought.

2000: NY Rangers sign Mark Messier, Toronto Maple Leafs sign Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson. 

Another rather lean year for star free agent talent. The return of “The Messiah” to New York did nothing to help the Rangers end their non-playoff streak. Watching a fading Messier in his final NHL seasons was painful for fans who remembered him at his best. Roberts and Corson, meanwhile, had several good seasons with the Maple Leafs.

2001: Detroit Red Wings sign Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, Philadelphia Flyers sign Jeremy Roenick, Toronto Maple Leafs sign Alexander Mogilny, Dallas Stars sign Pierre Turgeon, Minnesota Wild sign Andrew Brunette, Montreal Canadiens sign Doug Gilmour, New York Islanders sign Garth Snow. 

The Wings definitely emerged the “winners” of the ’01 UFA market, as Hull and Robitaille helped them win the Stanley Cup nearly a year later. Roenick had three solid seasons with the Flyers, helping them reach the 2004 Eastern Conference Final. Mogilny had a couple of good years in Toronto, but was hampered by injuries in his final season with the Leafs, which foreshadowed his eventual retirement. Turgeon was a disappointment during his three seasons in Dallas, while Brunette would emerge as a star with the Wild. Gilmour had his last playoff hurrah with the Canadiens, helping them upset a powerful Boston Bruins team in the opening round of the ’02 playoffs. Snow’s signing by the Islanders was significant in that, several years later, he retired and became their general manager.

2002: Detroit Red Wings sign Curtis Joseph, Toronto Maple Leafs sign Ed Belfour. Dallas Stars sign Bill Guerin. 

“CuJo” was a bust with the Red Wings, while Belfour had the final productive seasons of his career with the Leafs. Guerin, like Turgeon before him, turned out to be a bust with the Stars, and would be bought out of the final season of his five-year contract.

A rare happy moment for Kariya (L) and Selanne with the Avalanche.

2003: Colorado Avalanche sign Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya, Anaheim Ducks sign Sergei Fedorov, LA Kings sign Luc Robitaille, Detroit Red Wings sign Ray Whitney, Toronto Maple Leafs sign Joe Nieuwendyk.

The Avs signing of former Ducks linemates Selanne and Kariya to inexpensive, one-year deals was considered at the time one of the biggest free agent coups in NHL history. More than a few observers predicted Colorado would win the Stanley Cup solely on the basis of these signings. Unfortunately, they turned out to be disastrous moves, as both were sidelined by injuries. Fedorov turned out to be a disappointment with the Ducks.

Robitaille’s return with the Kings was more for sentimental reasons, yet he still had a productive year, with 51 points in 80 games. Whitney played only one, injury-hampered, season with the Wings. Nieuwendyk also struggled through injuries in his short tenure with the Leafs, though he did play a memorable role in helping the Leafs eliminate the Ottawa Senators from the first round of the 2004 playoffs.

2004: Phoenix Coyotes sign Brett Hull and Petr Nedved, Pittsburgh Penguins sign Mark Recchi, Colorado Avalanche sign Vincent Damphousse, Philadelphia Flyers sign Mike Knuble. 

There weren’t a lot of notable signings in the summer of 2004, because of the looming labor war resulting in the season-killing lockout of 2004-05. Hull would retire after a brief appearance with the Coyotes early in 2005-06, Nedved would be dealt to the Flyers. Lucky Recchi got traded to the Hurricanes where he helped them win the 2006 Stanley Cup. Knuble spent four productive years with the Flyers. Damphousse never laced ‘em up with the Avs, retiring following the lockout.

2005: Philadelphia Flyers sign Peter Forsberg, Anaheim Ducks sign Scott Niedermayer, Carolina Hurricanes sign Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman, Atlanta Thrashers sign Bobby Holik and Peter Bondra, , Nashville Predators sign Paul Kariya, Pittsburgh Penguins sign John LeClair and Ziggy Palffy, Toronto Maple Leafs sign Eric Lindros, New Jersey Devils sign Vladimir Malakhov, Dan McGillis and Alex Mogilny. 

The first summer under the new CBA, and boy howdy, it was a busy one! Indeed, it was the busiest since the UFA system was introduced ten years earlier, and remains the most active in NHL history. The reason, of course, was teams scrambled to fill the yawning gaps in their respective rosters after a year long work stoppage.

Forsberg’s first year in Philadelphia was a good one, but  injuries led to an inevitable decline and several short-lived attempts at comebacks. Niedermayer’s signing helped turn the Ducks into Cup contenders, and in 2007 he led them to their first championship in franchise history. The best “under the radar” moves were those of the Hurricanes inking Whitney and Stillman, becoming critical pieces in Carolina’s  Cup championship in 2006. Kariya had a couple of good years with the Predators. Concussions would ultimately shorten his NHL career after leaving Nashville.

As for the remainder, none of those signings panned out as hoped by their respective teams. The three Devils signings became notable for GM Lou Lamoriello becoming the first general manager to exploit loopholes in the brand new CBA, as he buried McGillis in the minors, put Mogilny on long-term injury reserve, and parlayed the sidelined Malakhov to San Jose for “future considerations” to free up cap space.

Chara’s signing laid the foundation for Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup win.

2006: Boston Bruins sign Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard, Phoenix Coyotes sign Ed Jovanovski and Jeremy Roenick, Columbus Blue Jackets sign Anson Carter, Detroit Red Wings sign Dominik Hasek, Florida Panthers sign Ed Belfour, Montreal Canadiens sign Sergei Samsonov, NY Rangers sign Brendan Shanahan. Toronto Maple Leafs sign Pavel Kubina, Michael Peca and Hal Gill, LA Kings sign Rob Blake. 

Of these signings, only the Chara (and to a lesser degree, Savard) signings by Boston and the Hasek signing by the Red Wings proved worthwhile. Signing Chara laid the foundation for the Bruins Cup championship five years later.

Jovanovski did help provide a young Coyotes blueline with experience and leadership, but he was never again the dominant offensive defenseman he was earlier in the decade. The same can also be said of Blake’s return to the Kings. The Blue Jackets discovered the hard way Carter’s 33-goals the season prior with Vancouver was the result of playing with the talented Sedin Twins. Samsonov proved to be one of the worst free agent signings in Canadiens history. Shanahan was more a role player with the Rangers by this point in his career. Kubina, Peca and Gill failed to noticeably improve the Maple Leafs.

2007: NY Rangers sign Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, Philadelphia Flyers sign Daniel Briere, Detroit Red Wings sign Brian Rafalski Colorado Avalanche sign Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan, Toronto Maple Leafs sign Jason Blake, Washington Capitals sign Michael Nylander, Anaheim Ducks sign Todd Bertuzzi. 

The Rangers took a bath on the Gomez and Drury signings, though they were able to find a sucker in the Canadiens to take Gomez’s contract off their hands. The Briere signing continues to pay big dividends for the Flyers. Rafalski helped the Red Wings to consecutive Cup Final appearances, including winning the first in 2008. As for the rest, the less said, the better.

2008: Chicago Blackhawks sign Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet, New York Rangers sign Wade Redden,Toronto Maple Leafs sign Jeff Finger, Columbus Blue Jackets sign Mike Commodore, Dallas Stars sign Sean Avery, Atlanta Thrashers sign Ron Hainsey, Columbus Blue Jackets sign Kristian Huselius, Detroit Red Wings sign Marian Hossa, NY Islanders sign Mark Streit, Washington Capitals sign Jose Theodore, Vancouver Canucks sign Mats Sundin. 

This summer will go down in NHL history as the “WTF? summer”. Pundits, bloggers and fans alike were nearly unanimous in their amazement at how much many of these players were overpaid for their services.

Campbell’s signing did eventually help the Blackhawks win the 2010 Stanley Cup, but his big contract also led to the quick dismantling of that championship roster for salary cap reasons, including his own departure via trade in 2011 to Florida. Hossa played only one season with the Wings, then bolted for Chicago via free agency. Streit became among the few good things about the Islanders, coming into his own as a puck-moving defenseman.

The biggest shocks were the Maple Leafs and Rangers respective overpayments for Finger and Redden, both of whom wound up buried in the minors to free up cap space. The others, for various reasons, never played up to expectations which came with their expensive contracts. Avery turned into a well-documented PR nightmare for the Stars, and he was eventually claimed off re-entry waivers by the NY Rangers, where he played out the remainder of his career.

2009: Chicago Blackhawks sign Marian Hossa, New York Rangers sign Marian Gaborik, Minnesota Wild sign Martin Havlat, Montreal Canadiens sign Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek, Toronto Maple Leafs sign Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, Ottawa Senators sign Alex Kovalev, Tampa Bay Lightning sign Mattias Ohlund and Alex Tanguay, Edmonton Oilers sign Nikolai Khabibulin, Anaheim Ducks sign Saku Koivu. 

Hossa finally won his Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, and the Rangers made out well with the Gaborik signings. Havlat had a couple of good years with the Wild, but couldn’t help them make the playoffs, and was eventually deal to the San Jose Sharks. The Canadiens signing paid dividends in the 2010 playoffs, but failed to do much to improve the club after that, with Cammalleri and Gill eventually traded away. The Leafs UFA failures continued as Komisarek and Beauchemin became more notable for not playing up to expectations which came ith their expensive contracts. Kovalev was a total bust in Ottawa, as was Tanguay in Tampa Bay. Ohlund was slowed by knee injuries, and Khabibulin has had an up-and-down tenure with the Oilers, more down than up. The Ducks signing Koivu was the end of an era in Montreal, as the Habs beloved, long-time captain was cut loose by the Canadiens.

Kovalchuk’s first massive deal with Devils was nullified by the NHL for cap circumvention.

2010: New Jersey Devils sign Ilya Kovalchuk, Ottawa Senators sign Sergei Gonchar, Pittsburgh Penguins sign Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, Vancouver Canucks sign Dan Hamhuis, San Jose Sharks sign Antti Niemi, Calgary Flames sign Olli Jokinen.

This summer was overshadowed by the Devils attempts to sign Kovalchuk to a long-term extension, which was rejected by the NHL, and wound up in arbitration, finally resulting with his inking a slightly lesser deal with the Devils. Gonchar’s first season wasn’t particularly good in Ottawa, but last season saw a resurgence in his performance. The Penguins regretted the Michalek and Martin signings, returning the former to Phoenix this June via trade. Hamhuis helped the Canucks reach the 2011 Cup Final but was hampered by injuries. Niemi joined the Sharks as a free agent as the Blackhawks walked away from his arbitration award. The often-maligned Jokinen, meanwhile, found a measure of redemption during his two seasons in Calgary, becoming a better all-round forward.

2011: NY Rangers sign Brad Richards, Montreal Canadiens sign Erik Cole, Washington Capitals sign Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers sign Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Fleischmann, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, and Marcel Goc Buffalo Sabres sign Ville Leino, Carolina Hurricanes sign Tomas Kaberle, Phoenix Coyotes sign Mike Smith. 

To no one’s surprise, Richards went to Broadway, though in his first season there he posted his lowest offensive numbers playing 70-plus games since his first two NHL seasons a decade ago. Cole was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise forgettable season for the Habs. Vokoun inked a bargain-basement deal with the Capitals, but his short tenure wasn’t particularly memorable. The Panthers went on the biggest off-season UFA buying spree ever, helping them clinch their first post-season appearance in over a decade. Leino’s first season with the Sabres was a bust. Kaberle barely last two months in Carolina until he was traded to Montreal. Smith’s signing with the Coyotes turned out to be the best move of the summer, as he carried  the Coyotes to their first playoff series win since their move to Phoenix, as well as to their first Western Conference final appearance.

If there’s any I missed, please feel free to note them in the comments section, along with your take as to what made them notable, pro or con.

4 Comments

  1. Rob Blake signing with the Sharks in summer of 08. He would eventually be named captain and help lead the Sharks to the WCF against the Blackhawks who ended up winning the cup that year.

  2. Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi were the Kings’ best defensive defensemen in their Cup run. Both were signed as UFAs and should have been included.

  3. 2002 Bobby Holik – need I say more

  4. 2006- Jay McKee St Louis Blues $16 million over 4 years and bought out of the last year of his contract when he subsequently signed with the Penguins for 1 yr $800,000. Enough said.