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The Winners and Losers From NHL Free Agency

While the free-agency market isn’t done, it’s cooled off enough that we can start handing out some report cards.

Welcome to the second week of July. Or, as hockey fans call it, a black hole of summer boredom from which no interesting news can escape.

Well, that’s not quite true — there are still lots of free agents out there, and we’re still waiting on that Patrick Sharp trade, so something has to happen over the coming days and weeks. But for the most part, the NHL offseason starts off full of sound and fury during the week of the draft and continues right through the first few days of July, and then slams on the brakes for the next two months or so. It’s a situation you Americans might relate to; by July 5, the fireworks are over.

So while the free-agency market isn’t done, it’s cooled off enough that we can start handing out some report cards. According to long-standing hockey bylaws, all free-agency summaries must be presented in a winner/loser format.1 So let’s take a look back at the first few days since the market opened to see who came out ahead and who’s having a rough start to the summer.


1.

It’s right after the rule about always referring to the first day of free agency as a “frenzy,” even if nothing much has happened yet.

Winners: Andrej Sekera and Michael Frolik. That Sekera and Frolik signed two of the biggest UFA deals in terms of overall money pretty much says all you need to know about this year’s market — i.e., it wasn’t very good. Both are solid players; neither would be considered a star.2 But when there’s not much available, teams pay for what they can get, and that’s what the Oilers and Flames did here. Edmonton has needed a top-pairing defenseman forever, and while Sekera may or may not actually be that, he’s as close as it was going to get this year, and that’s why he’ll make $33 million over the next six years. And a good young Flames team that was looking for some veteran help up front figured Frolik was worth $21.5 million over five years.


2.

Neither guy has been an All-Star or come close to winning a major NHL award.

Those are big deals, although that doesn’t necessarily make them bad deals. Both Alberta teams had a need to address and cap room to spare, and, like most wintery Canadian markets, both probably have to pay a premium to get players to sign. Nobody is looking at either deal as any kind of a bargain, but they’re unlikely to turn out to be disasters — which, as we’ll get to in a bit, turned out to be a bit of a theme.

Loser: Cody Franson. Franson hasn’t signed yet, so we’ll write this one in pencil instead of ink. But history tells us that his odds of cashing in big aren’t good — after the first day or two, the free-agent landscape tends to shift rapidly from a seller’s market to a buyer’s one. Franson went into July 1 as one of the top defensemen available, and he was rumored to be in high demand and looking at a monster payday. But while fellow defensemen like Sekera and Mike Green having already signed big contracts, Franson is still waiting to get a deal done.

He should still get a decent deal somewhere — he’s probably the best player left on the market, and a few teams still have money available. But after spending the last few seasons in Toronto3 getting nickeled-and-dimed (by a franchise that threw crazy money at just about everyone else), he was probably counting down the days until he could hit a home run as a UFA. There’s still a chance it could happen, but it’s fading quickly.


3.

With a brief stop in Nashville.

Winner: Washington Capitals. Remember, we’re going by free agency only here, so the Caps don’t even get credit for acquiring T.J. Oshie via trade. Oshie is somewhat overrated — yes, sure, the shootout against Russia was super-cool, but he’s only scored 20 goals once in his career — but still came cheap enough that it was a great deal for Washington.

But again, that was a trade, so we won’t factor it in here. What moves the Capitals into the win column is signing Justin Williams to a two-year, $6.5 million deal. That’s a perfectly reasonable cap hit, and the short term means there’s not much risk involved. And the synergy is almost impossibly perfect, with the guy nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” joining the team with a history of collapsing in Game 7. This would be like the Oilers signing a guy nicknamed “Mr. Still in the Playoff Hunt in November,” or the Canadiens signing a guy nicknamed “Mr. Pregame Ceremony of an Appropriate Length.”

It wasn’t a perfect week for the Caps — let’s remember that they lost Green to the Red Wings and Joel Ward to the Sharks. But getting Williams on a deal like this makes so much sense that it’s more than enough to move them into positive territory.

Loser: Los Angeles Kings. The Kings went into the week without much hope of improving. They were up against the cap, and with Williams and Sekera hitting the market, they just didn’t have the space to keep either guy. But then came the Mike Richards bombshell, and suddenly there was a flicker of hope that the Kings might have freed up enough room to keep one or both of their key free agents.

Nope. Williams and Sekera both bolted, and the Kings have yet to spend much of that Richards cap space that they may or may not even have. The Kings did sign Jhonas Enroth to a one-year deal to back up Jonathan Quick, which is a nice signing, and they overpaid to trade for Milan Lucic to help in the short term. But for a team that’s usually one of the most desirable destinations in the league, free agency has been a bust.

Losing two UFAs they expected to lose all along is really the least of the Kings’ problems right now, but they are what they are: a non-playoff team that got worse instead of better once the market opened.

Winner: The threat of an offer sheet. It’s apparently what motivated the Blackhawks to trade Brandon Saad, and it likely played a role in the Bruins’ bizarre decision to move Dougie Hamilton. Quake in fear of the mighty offer sheet, NHL GMs!

Loser: Actual offer sheets. And now, here are all the RFAs who actually have signed offer sheets.

[Everyone falls silent in anticipation.]

[Tumbleweed blows by.]

[Don Sweeney trades fourth-round pick to acquire tumbleweed.]

That’s right, for the third straight offseason, there have (so far) been exactly zero offers sheets signed, despite the availability of young stars like Hamilton, Saad, and Vladimir Tarasenko. That’s no great surprise; remember, nobody bothered to sign players like P.K. Subban, Drew Doughty, and Steven Stamkos when they were eligible for offer sheets in recent years.

This tends to drive fans crazy, as it sure looks like the NHL’s old boys’ club is more interested in playing nice than in doing everything it takes to win. But as much as that may be true, there’s more at play. The main problem, as Craig Custance lays out here, is that teams know the odds of actually landing a player via offer sheet are slim. Most teams will match just about anything, even if they hate the contract, simply to protect their assets — Dustin Penner in 2007 remains the only player in the last 17 years and counting to switch teams via offer sheet. So if you’re an NHL GM, why bother spending time and temporarily tying up cap space on a player you won’t end up acquiring?

It’s also important to remember that an offer sheet isn’t something a team can just produce on its own — it has to actually be signed by the player in question. And since the offer sheet is almost always matched, players seem hesitant to make a move that’s going to harm their relationship with the team going forward.

Add it all up, and it makes sense that the threat of an offer sheet is a better weapon than an actual offer sheet. Of course, if we settle into a reality in which nobody ever signs one, then that threat can’t really work. Maybe somebody steps up and surprises us over the next few days, but we wouldn’t count on it.

Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs. Once again, we’re just judging on free agency here, so put your thoughts on the Phil Kessel trade aside for a moment. When they weren’t busy trading their best player for a questionable return, the Leafs spent the first few days of July signing a steady stream of solid depth players to short, cheap deals. The contracts for guys like P.A. Parenteau, Daniel Winnik, Matt Hunwick, and Mark Arcobello carry virtually no risk and accomplish two things: They give the rebuilding Leafs some bodies to fill out the roster this year, and (far more importantly) they have a good chance of being assets the team can flip for futures at the trade deadline. If you’re already committed to burning it to the ground and starting over, these are the only kinds of signings that make sense.

Loser: Colorado Avalanche. For the second consecutive year, the Avs signed a free agent in his mid-thirties to a three-year deal — this time, it’s Francois Beauchemin, who joins Jarome Iginla after signing a deal that carries a $4.5 million cap hit. That kind of contract is risky, because players tend to drop off quickly at that age, but it can make some sense for a contending team that’s firmly in “win now” mode. Coming off a season in which they finished last in the league’s toughest division, the Avalanche are not that team.

So why do they keep signing these deals? Maybe they feel like their young core players need some veterans around to guide the way; there’d be some logic to that, although you can usually find veterans without having to give long-term deals. It’s also possible the Avs don’t realize they’re not a contender. When you chat with people in the hockey world, there’s no team in the league that generates more puzzled looks than Colorado.4 If some other team makes this move, maybe you offer the benefit of the doubt. But it’s tough to shake the feeling that the Avalanche are a reasonably good young team that let one fluke year trick them into thinking they’re legitimate contenders.


4.

“I’m not sure they know what they’re doing,” was one wise person’s immediate reaction to news of the Carl Soderberg signing.

Winner: Matt Beleskey. You’d expect a 112-point guy to generate plenty of interest. In Beleskey’s case, however, those 112 points represent the total output for his entire six-year career. Yet thanks to a 22-goal season that doubled his previous career best, and eight more goals during an inspired playoff run, Beleskey found himself as one of the year’s most sought-after free agents. He turned that into a five-year, $19 million deal with the Bruins. Not bad for a guy few fans outside of Anaheim had even heard of before this season.

Loser: Matt Beleskey. And yet … the numbers on Beleskey ended up coming in far lower than what had been rumored; he was expected to get closer to $5 million annually on a deal that could stretch as long as seven years. He reportedly left some of that money on the table because he saw the Bruins as a good fit for his skill set. But for whatever reason, the numbers didn’t get anywhere near what had been predicted. As we mentioned, that turned out to be a theme.

Winners: Sanity and common sense. While the opening days of free agency were busy, there was a distinct lack of truly awful deals. Some players got more money than expected, and most deals were probably a year or two longer than they deserved to be. But guys like Ward and Zbynek Michalek settled for reasonable deals, and the league’s GMs managed to avoid any spectacular disasters — there was no David Clarkson deal to be found here, or even a Dave Bolland or Ville Leino.

That leads to the obvious question: Why? After a decade of increasingly awful decisions, what changed this year? Why did everyone suddenly get smart — or, at least, somewhat less dumb?

The increasing use of analytics would appear to have had an impact, as formerly foolish teams like the Maple Leafs and Oilers have recently loaded up on modern thinkers. The salary cap is no longer growing as quickly as it once was, which has presumably caused some teams to pump the brakes. And it’s possible that the still relatively new negotiating window, which allows teams to touch base with free-agent targets in advance of July 1, has doused some of the Day 1 panic we used to see.

Those factors, among others, have likely had an impact. But maybe the explanation is simpler. Maybe GMs have finally looked back at the last decade of free agency and realized how badly they were screwing up their teams. Even the biggest dummy you know can only hit himself in the head with a hammer so many times before it occurs to him that it might feel better to stop.

Loser: All of us. Criticizing GMs for signing stupid free-agency deals had been the easiest part of the offseason. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, if those fish were randomly throwing loose change at you the whole time while praising your intangibles and compete level.

It’s possible this could be a one-year outlier. Let’s hope so. I’m not sure we’re ready for an NHL in which GMs are reasonably smart on July 1 every year. We’ve already all but lost the glorious madness that used to be trade deadline day — they can’t take this away from us too. If this is the new reality, when are we going to get a chance to roll our eyes at the collective stupidity of NHL front offices?

[Realizes that we’re only a year or two away from watching these guys try to find their way around an expansion draft.]

Yeah, I think we’re going to be OK.