Long-Term Free Agency Deals A Big Risk In NHL


When most NHL free agents are paid the big bucks and signed to long-term deals it’s because they’ve already proven themselves to be stars in the league for a few seasons. However, the longer the term is the bigger the risk becomes. That may seem obvious to most general managers but they continue to somewhat overpay players and hand out unmanageable contract lengths.

Looking at this year’s recently-signed unrestricted free agents we can see there are some clear winners and losers. But today’s winners may ultimately end up on the other side of the list after a few seasons. Let’s first take a look at the winners so far when it comes to free agency in no particular order.

We might as well start off with the Carolina Hurricanes since they were able to re-sign top scorer Sebastian Aho without having to do much work. Carolina can thank Montreal Canadiens’ general manager Marc Bergevin for that since he signed the 21-year-old Finnish star to a five-year offer sheet. The Habs were hoping to land the forward for the price of a first, second and third-round draft pick as compensation and who can blame them?

Bergevin was willing to pay an average of about $8.5 million a season for Aho’s services and the contract was front loaded. Aho would have received approximately 50 per cent of the contract’s worth during the first season thanks to a $13 million signing bonus. Meanwhile, it was a no-brainer for Hurricanes’ GM Don Waddell to match the offer and that’s exactly what he did on July 7th. Waddell was saved the arduous task of contract negotiations and the money figure was already set for him. Fans and experts can argue about the value but there are many who feel Aho is worth a lot more than $8.5 million a year.

The Dallas Stars did relatively well by acquiring veteran forwards Joe Pavelski from the San Jose Sharks and Corey Perry, formerly of the Anaheim Ducks. They also added blue liner Andrej Sekera from the Edmonton Oilers. Dallas is one of the league’s best defensive teams and felt they needed some additional scoring to balance things out. Pavelski was signed for three years at $21 million but let’s not forget they lost fellow forward Mats Zuccarello to the Minnesota Wild in free agency.

Pavelski’s arguably an upgrade over Zuccarello though and the 34-year-old Perry was signed for a year at just $1.5 million so there’s not much risk there. As for Sekera, he posted six points for Slovakia in 11 contests at this year’s World Championships and was inked for a year at $1.5 million.

The Florida Panthers will be hugely disappointed if they don’t make the playoffs next season under new head coach and three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville. The club lost netminders Roberto Luongo to retirement and James Reimer via trade and were able to free up some valuable salary cap space. They used it to sign a trio of veterans in goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, defenseman Anton Stralman and forward Brett Connolly from Columbus, Tampa and Washington respectively. They also added forward Noel Acciari from Boston for three years at $5 million.

Bobrovsky has won the Vezina Trophy twice already and the 31-year-old was inked for seven years at $10 million a season. Connolly will be paid $13 million for four years and Stralman cost $16.5 million for three seasons. Florida came close to making the playoffs last year and the league should hold an investigation if they miss the postseason next year.

The New York Rangers landed the biggest forward free agent fish by signing Russian sniper Artemi Panarin to a seven-year deal worth approximately $81.5 million, making him the highest-paid winger in the league. They’ve also strengthened the squad with the addition of defenseman Jacob Trouba via trade and by picking Kaapo Kakko with the second-overall draft pick. Utility forward Greg McKegg was also signed as a free agent from Carolina and a return to the playoffs appears to be in the near future.

The Chicago Blackhawks signed goaltender Robin Lehner, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last year and co-winner of the Jennings Trophy, for a year at $5 million from the New York Islanders. This puts Chicago back on track to make the playoffs in 2019/20.

We should also mention the Nashville Predators as winners by signing high-scoring forward Matt Duchene from Columbus for seven seasons at $56 million.

When it comes to free agency losers there’s none bigger than the Columbus Blue Jackets. These guys took a chance last season by holding onto Bobrovsky and Panarin even though they knew their chances of re-signing them were slim and none. They could have pulled in several valuable assets if they had been traded at the deadline. Also, Columbus traded for Duchene late in the season and gave up some of their future only to see him walk away on July 1st.

The Boston Bruins didn’t fare too well either as they lost forwards Marcus Johansson to Buffalo and Noel Acciari to Florida. These were two of their better players in the run to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Winnipeg Jets lost blue liner Tyler Myers and forward Brandon Tanev to Pittsburgh and Vancouver respectively after already trading Jacob Trouba to the Rangers.

The Islanders tried to replace the departed Robin Lehner with Seymon Varlamov from Colorado and signed the goalie to a four-year deal but they’re definitely going to feel the pain.

But while the long-term contracts handed out to veterans such as Duchene, Panarin and Bobrovsky may pay dividends in the short term, there’s a good chance they will cause problems in the long run. The stats show that a good portion of recent long-term free agency deals have ended up being busts.

We can start with the Maple Leafs inking David Clarkson for seven years at $36.75 million when he was 29 years old. Clarkson was never a proven consistent NHL scorer and was grossly overpaid. He scored five goals in his first season in Toronto and the Leafs pulled off a miracle by trading him to Columbus for Nathan Horton in his second season. Horton was a fellow free agent who had unfortunately suffered a career-ending injury.

There were 35 unrestricted free agents signed to deals of five or more years with new teams between 2009 and 2016. Fourteen of of them were traded before their contracts expired with nine of those being dealt within the first three years. This was because their contracts were deemed too high and needed to be dumped to free up salary cap space. In addition, another 10 of the free agents had their contracts bought out for the same reason within four years of signing.

Meanwhile, just three of the players are still playing with the teams that signed them. These are Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in Minnesota and Michael Frolik in Calgary. A grand total of four of the 35 players managed to complete their lucrative free agent deals with the team that inked them. These were Dan Hamhuis in Vancouver, Anton Stralman in Tampa, Paul Martin in Pittsburgh Penguins and Brian Gionta in Montreal.

In total, the 35 players ended up playing an average of just 57 per cent of their long-term free agency contracts.

General managers don’t really think that far down the line though as they’re paid to win now or look for another job. The majority of GM’s believe the signings will be somebody else’s problem a few years down the road and they won’t have to deal with it.

A further 13 unrestricted free agents were given contracts of five or more years from 2016 to 2018 and several of those already appear to be mistakes. These include Milan Lucic in Edmonton and Kyle Okposo in Buffalo at $42 million for seven years; David Backes in Boston for $30 million over five years; Frans Nielsen in Detroit at $31.5 million for six years,  Loui Eriksson in Vancouver for six years at $33 million, James Reimer with Florida at $17 for five years and  Andrew Ladd with the New York Islanders at $38.5 for for seven years.

This isn’t to say all long-term free agency signings turn out to be a bust but the majority of them lately have been quite disappointing. Time will tell how this year’s crop turns out in the future.

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