As the old saying goes, if you’re building your team through free agency – you’re probably doing it wrong. Sure, on July 1st there is always a huge opportunity for teams to make improvements by signing available free agents. Some come as big ticket players, while others come as depth signings, both inked for the purpose of improving a team for the long haul.
Now of course some of these signings end up working out brilliantly. Just look at the St. Louis Blues, who added David Perron and Tyler Bozak to free agent contracts last summer. Both players ended up being key contributors to the team’s mid-season turn around and Stanley Cup championship. That being said, a handful of times the contracts signed on July 1st end up doing more harm than good.
Free Agent Frenzy
A bidding war is started in free agency, requiring teams to offer unrestricted free agents more money or more term than they are truly worth. Often on July 1st, contracts signed are less about the players actual on ice value and more about outbidding other teams.
With NHL contracts requiring to be paid until the end of their term, all contracts signed will cost the team until the end of their deals in one way or another. Unless a trade partner becomes available, or a mutual termination of the contract miraculously happens, the money signed on July 1st is being paid no matter what. This system can hinder teams almost immediately, or in the near future, as the inflated costs of July 1st start to take their toll.
No situation proves that more than the looking back at the 2016 free agent class. At the time some of these deals were thought to be over payments to the players, but three seasons later, it shows how truly awful some of these deals have become. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself:
Here is a complete list of UFA contracts that were signed on July 1st 2016 for contracts that totalled at least $5M over the contract length.
It is safe to say that you’ve probably seen, or heard of, some of these contracts before. With hindsight being 20/20, you simply shake your head at these contract decisions. At the time though, most of these players were near or at the top of everyone’s free agent list.
The majority of “bad” contracts were handed out to forwards in 2016, with the majority of defencemen signing shorter term deals that weren’t necessarily too costly. The likes of David Schlemko, Ben Lovejoy, and Dan Hamhuis all provided decent bargains for their respective teams.
Schlemko was taken in the expansion draft just one year into his contract, Lovejoy was eventually traded for Connor Carrick and a third round pick in February, and Hamhuis left last summer for Nashville. All three players ended up providing value for their respective teams one way or another. The forward group is another story.
No offence, but where’d the scoring go?
A big reason behind the forwards being awarded ridiculous contracts was due to “overproducing” in their contract year. Almost all of the players, outside a few, had major upticks in point production during their contract years. This is a common fallacy that all players seem to produce more in their “contract season”, but in 2016 that effect was felt even more.
For the most part, when looking at point per game production, things took a turn for the worst:
|PPG Contract Year||PPG 2016-17||PPG 2017-18||PPG 2018-19||% Decline (Contract year vs 2018-19)|
Besides the 2017-18 campaign from David Backes, not a single player was able to exceed the production they enjoyed in their contract season (Matt Martin managed to match his contract year production in 2017-18 though).
Milan Lucic and Kyle Okposo’s production decreased over 50% when comparing to this past season. Of course with the average age of the players listed being around 29 years old, age most certainly played into a portion of the decline.
Still, age shouldn’t be used as an excuse. There are plenty of players around the same age in the NHL, being paid a similar amount, who are producing at the same point in their careers.
We can give the benefit of the doubt to guys like Okposo and Joe Colborne, who dealt with serious injuries during these contracts which limited their ability to produce. For others the same cannot be said. After signing their big tickets, they simply have not been able to recapture the magic or even produce similar results to make their deals feel worthwhile.
Scoring is the key contributor to most of these deals, but some of these contracts were signed because of additional factors that teams deemed to be “valuable”. Those variables easily provide justification over the spending on some players.
Going down the list of forwards who were overpaid we see somewhat of a trend. Lucic, Brouwer, Backes, and Ladd were brought in for leadership and an “edge”. The Oilers needed someone to play alongside Connor McDavid, while the Flames needed someone beside Johnny Gaudreau. Ideally you could find a cheaper option to provide this role, but sometimes in free agency you think you can purchase the whole package and “save”.
Eriksson, Okposo, Neilsen, and Boedker had all been viewed to consistently produce over their careers thus far. Of course there is no guarantee that the horrific decline will continue to happen. However, what matters is that the decline had already happened. Their offensive numbers dropped, and suddenly without consistency, they are bodies in your lineup taking away time and money for younger players.
Where are they now?
The biggest reason behind such a terrible free agent class is the impact they are having on their teams just three years later. Lucic has four years left on his deal, paying him $7M per season, but he plays a diminished roll on the cap-strapped Oilers team.
The same exact thing can be said for Ladd, but the Islanders have a bit more space and his cap hit is more manageable. That being said, Ladd will make the same amount as Jordan Eberle, which is saying a lot.
Backes has three years left on his deal, but most recently found himself as a healthy scratch during Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final. For someone that is making $6M a season, sitting on the bench isn’t an ideal option.
Eriksson is in a similar position, being healthy scratched near the end of the regular season in exchange for Markus Grandlund. Recent rumours suggest Eriksson could be moving on from the Canucks anyway.
Okposo and Nielsen appear to be the ones on this list who could still effectively contribute to their respective teams, but not quite at the level of compensation they are getting.
Boedker, McGinn, Martin, and Weise were all traded. Brouwer was bought out last summer and James Reimer appears to be heading towards the same fate. Stempniak and Colborne were both out of the NHL before their deals expired this season.
It is worthwhile to point out that some contracts that actually worked out well this free agent period. Eric Staal was able to produce at a 0.79 PPG rate over his three years in Minnesota, and was considered to be an absolute bargain contract.
Perron was decent in his first year of his contract, but was able to produce even more once moving on to Vegas. In addition to these two, some short term depth deals were signed in 2016 that actually worked out.
Unfortunately the majority did not, and it’s costing teams valuable cap space at the moment. As we just saw over the past few days, these types of contracts can be extremely costly for teams to be rid of.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had to use a first round pick to rid themselves of the final year of the Patrick Marleau deal. A necessary deed, but a costly one at that. Other teams may not be willing to part with that type of asset.
The UFA market can be extremely fickle, with teams paying players for past performance in hopes they replicate it with their new team. At the same time, it is entirely possible that the missing piece to the Stanley Cup is being acquired on July 1st.
More often than not, that doesn’t happen and it only causes headaches down the road. With this year’s UFA crop of Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Sergei Bobrovsky almost guaranteed to cash in, it would be worthwhile to take look back at 2016 and consider all the options before handing out a massive free agent contract.
Which contracts from 2016 and beyond grind your gears? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @wincolumnblog.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick via NHLI via Getty Images