NHL Free Agents: The Top 25 Free-Agent Signings of All Time

Brad KurtzbergContributor IJuly 2, 2012

NHL Free Agents: The Top 25 Free-Agent Signings of All Time

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    True free agency is still relatively new to the National Hockey League, but nobody doubts its importance. Along with draft day, the first few days of free agency are the most important days of the offseason for NHL teams. 

    Key building blocks for a championship team can be put into place by signing the right free agent. Signing the wrong free agent can take up large pieces of your salary cap and prevent a team from signing other players that may help.

    With that in mind, here's a look at the 25 best free-agent signings of all time. Many of these helped a team win a Stanley Cup. All of them helped teams add a very good player to their roster.

25. Alex Tanguay

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    OK, Tanguay didn't lead the Flames to any dramatic Stanley Cup wins, but sometimes a guy just fits well with his new team and makes a steady contribution.

    When the Flames signed Tanguay as a UFA prior to the 2010-11 season, they didn't know what to expect. The two seasons he spent away from Calgary resulted in decreased scoring for the center who helped provide offense for the Flames during his first stint with the club.

    In his first year back with the Flames, the veteran center regained his offensive touch and finished second on the Flames with 69 points. He also gave the team an effective center to play with Jarome Iginla.

    The Flames signed Tanguay to a long-term deal and expect him to continue to provide effective scoring for them for the foreseeable future.

24. Bryan Trottier

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    Sure, Trottier's high scoring days were behind him when the Pittsburgh Penguins added him to their lineup in 1990-91, but he added the right kind of veteran leadership and Stanley Cup-winning experience to a young Pens team on the cusp of greatness.

    Trottier won four Cups with the Islanders and then helped the Penguins win two more in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. Instead of a scorer, the future Hall of Famer was more of a checking center, penalty killer and unofficial assistant coach.

    Young players like Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemiuex and Mark Recchi (yes, he was young once) all learned valuable lessons from Trottier.

23. Curtis Joseph

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    In 1998, the Maple Leafs signed goalie Curtis Joseph as a free agent. "Cujo" paid immediate dividends for the Leafs, topping the 30-win mark for three straight seasons.

    Joseph was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender in both 1999 and 2000 and his goals against average was never higher than 2.56 in four seasons in Toronto. He represented the Leafs at two NHL All-Star Games.

    The only thing "Cujo" couldn't do was bring a Stanley Cup to Toronto although he did get them to the Eastern Conference final in 1999 and 2002.

    Joseph was one of the more popular players on the team during his tenure in Toronto.

22. Marian Gaborik

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    Gaborik was the latest in a long run of free agents the Rangers have signed to try to get them back to Stanley Cup contention.

    When healthy, he has produced for the Rangers, scoring more than 40 goals in two of his three seasons on Broadway.

    Gaborik's health continues to be an issue. It slowed him down during his second year with the Rangers. After the 2012 playoffs ended, it was announced that Gaborik will miss the start of next season because he required surgery to repair his injured shoulder.

    When healthy, Gaborik remains a dangerous goal scorer and a big part of the Rangers attack.

21. Arturs Irbe

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    Arturs Irbe was a journeyman goalie before signing as a free agent with the Carolina Hurricanes just before the start of the 1998-99 season, having already made stops in San Jose, Dallas and Vancouver.

    When the Latvian netminder joined the Canes, something just clicked. Irbe spent the next four years as Carolina's starting goalie, playing as many as 77 games in a single season.

    In 2002, Irbe helped lead the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history before falling to the Red Wings in five games. In the playoffs, Irbe posted an impressive 1.67 GAA and .938 save percentage.

20. Brad Richards

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    Brad Richards was considered the top available UFA in the summer of 2011 and the New York Rangers were able to ink the veteran where he was able to rejoin John Tortorella, the coach he won a Stanley Cup with in Tampa Bay back in 2004.

    Richards had a good but not outstanding first season with the Broadway Blueshirts, scoring 25 goals and 66 points in 82 games. He picked up the pace in the early rounds of the playoffs, however, helping to lead the Rangers past the Senators and Capitals in a pair of thrilling seven-game series.

19. Marian Hossa

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    Marian Hossa reached the Stanley Cup final in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, only to lose to the Detroit Red Wings.

    The following summer, Hossa turned down more money from the Oilers and a long-term offer from the Penguins to sign a one-year contract with Detroit because he felt it would give him a better chance to win his first Stanley Cup.

    Hossa was effective with the Wings, scoring 40 goals and 71 points in 74 contests. In the playoffs, the high scoring Slovak added six goals and 15 points as the Wings returned to the Stanley Cup final—only to fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.

    It was a short-term deal, but Hossa produced for Detroit, scoring 40 goals and helping them come within a game of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.

18. Petr Sykora

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    Sykora signed with the Penguins as a free agent during the summer of 2007 after spending the previous season with the Edmonton Oilers.

    The results were good for both Sykora and the Pens. The veteran Czech had the best offensive season of his career with the Pens when teamed with Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby and the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup final in back-to-back years, winning the Cup in 2009.

    Sykora scored 109 points in two seasons with Pittsburgh before moving on to the Wild the following year.

17. Dominik Hasek

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    In 2006, the Red Wings signed 41-year-old Dominik Hasek as a free agent to begin his second tour of duty in Hockeytown.

    Hasek appeared ageless as he had a 2.05 GAA in his first year with the Red Wings and helped them become the top seed in the Western Conference.

    In his second year, he teamed with Chris Osgood to help the Wings win the Stanley Cup. Hasek and Osgood split games during the regular season and Hasek was given the nod to start the playoffs, but after a shaky performance in Game 2 of the opening round series, Osgood took over the led the Wings to another title.

    While Hasek was not the starter in the final, he played a key role throughout the season for a team that had the best record in the league and won the Stanley Cup.

16. Luc Robitaille

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    Luc Robitaille took less money to sign with the Detroit Red Wings in 2001 because he wanted to have a chance to win his first Stanley Cup.

    The result was a 30 goal season for Robitaille and a Stanley Cup win for the Red Wings. "Lucky Luc" bought into the team concept and was a key contributor for the 2002 Cup winning team despite seeing less ice time than he was accustomed to in Los Angeles.

15. Chris Osgood

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    Chris Osgood was never a spectacular goaltender and was rarely appreciated by fans, but all he did was win. Osgood was a very steady player who was good enough to win more than 400 career NHL games and some Stanley Cups for the Detroit Red Wings because he was consistently very good even if he never was excellent.

    The Wings signed Osgood for a second tour of duty with the team in the summer of 2005. Although he battled injuries early on, he eventually beat out Dominik Hasek for the starting job and helped lead Detroit to the Stanley Cup title in 2008. His final playoff stats that year included a 14-4 record and a 1.55 GAA.

    Osgood became the first goalie since the legendary Terry Sawchuk to win Stanley Cups 10 or more years apart.

    The following season, Osgood led Detroit to the Stanley Cup final again only to fall to the Penguins in seven games.

    He finished his career with the Wings in 2011.

14. Sergei Gonchar

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Sergei Gonchar to a five-year, $25 million deal in the summer of 2005 and Gonchar gave them offensive production from the point that the franchise hadn't seen since Paul Coffey left town.

    In his second season with the Pens, Gonchar totaled career-high 67 points. He was a big part of the team's trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2008 and their Cup winning team in 2009 when he put up 14 points in 22 postseason games.

    Gonchar left Pittsburgh after the 2009-2010 season to join the Ottawa Senators, but his contributions to the Penguins power play and their championship season made him a part of Pittsburgh hockey history that fans will always remember.

13. Ron Francis

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    Ron Francis signed with the Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent in the summer of 1998. It was a second tour of duty for Francis with the Canes organization as he broke into the NHL after being drafted by the Hartford Whalers.

    Francis was an immediate help to the Carolina lineup. In addition to providing solid offensive production, Francis became the Canes captain and leader on and off the ice.

    In 2002, he was a big part of the Hurricanes surprise run to the Stanley Cup final where they eventually fell to the Red Wings. Francis had 16 points in 23 playoff games for Carolina that year.

    By the time he retired, Francis held nearly all meaningful offensive records for the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2007.

12. Brian Rafalski

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    After many successful years playing for the Devils, Brian Rafalski signed a five-year, $30 million contract to join the Detroit Red Wings in 2007.

    Rafalski scored more than 10 goals and 55 points in each of his first two seasons in Detroit. He was a big part of the 2008 Stanley Cup championship, the third time the Dearborn, Michigan, native won the Stanley Cup. He scored four goals and 14 points during the Wings playoff run that season.

    The following year, Rafalski helped get Detroit back to the Stanley Cup final although injuries slowed him down during the playoffs and the Red Wings fell to Pittsburgh in seven games.

    Rafalski retired a year before his contract expired due to nagging back and shoulder injuries. He still proved a big addition to the Wings lineup and helped them win another Stanley Cup title while providing steady all-around play from the blue line.

11. Brian Campbell

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    Sure, the Chicago Blackhawks overpaid when they signed defenseman Brian Campbell to an eight-year deal worth more than $7 million per season. But, two years later, Campbell was a big contributor to Chicago's first Stanley Cup winning team since 1961. In fact, Campbell even drew the only assist on the Stanley Cup winning overtime goal scored by Patrick Kane.

    Campbell scored 52 points from the blue line for Chicago in his first season with the club and followed that up with a pair of solid but injury-shortened campaigns.

    The Blackhawks couldn't afford to pay Campbell and stay below the salary cap ceiling, so they dealt him to Florida where he totaled 53 points and became the first defenseman to win the Lady Byng Trophy since 1954.

    Campbell remains a very good NHL defenseman, and while the Blackhawks couldn't keep him long, he became a major piece of a Stanley Cup-winning team which is the ultimate goal of any free-agent signing.

10. Brett Hull

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    Brett Hull had already won one Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999, but he wanted another one badly. So, in the summer of 2001, when he became a free agent, Hull signed with the Red Wings, a team that had become a consistent contender.

    Hull was successful in Detroit. He topped the 25-goal mark in each of his three seasons with the Wings including 76 points in 2002-03. Hull helped Detroit win the Stanley Cup in his first season in Hockeytown. In the playoffs that year, scored 10 goals and 18 points in 23 games.

    Hull was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. While he will be remembered more for his play with the Blues and Stars, signing Hull was an important move that led to the Wings championship run in 2002.

9. Marian Hossa

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    Marian Hossa was always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it came to the Stanley Cup final. In 2008, Hossa was with the Pittsburgh Penguins who lost to Detroit. The following year, Hossa signed with Detroit and they returned to the Stanley Cup final, only to lose to Pittsburgh.

    Hossa was a free agent again in 2009 and decided to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite battling injuries, he scored 51 points in 57 games for the Hawks in his first year with the club. Hossa reached the Stanley Cup final for the third consecutive year, but finally was on the winning side as the Hawks beat the Flyers in six games to win the franchise first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years.

    Hossa has remained a steady point producer for Chicago, averaging slightly less than a point a game and provided very good goal scoring for a potent Hawks offense the past three seasons.

8. Teemu Selanne

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    Teemu Selanne signed with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent in the summer of 2005, just after the NHL lockout ended. It was the second tour of duty with the Ducks for the "Finnish Flash."

    In his first season back in Anaheim, Selanne scored 40 goals and totaled 90 points. He had an even better year in 2006-07, scoring 48 goals and 94 points and helping to lead the Ducks to their first ever Stanley Cup championship.

    Selanne eventually re-signed with Anaheim after his initial contract ended and was the team's leading scorer again in 2011-12.

    Selanne is probably the Ducks all-time most popular player and was a great free-agent signing for Anaheim.

7. Joe Nieuwendyk

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    The Dallas Stars spent $11.3 million to lock up Joe Nieuwendyk up for five seasons in the summer of 1995. It proved to be money well spent.

    Nieuwendyk never scored a point-per-game with the Stars, but he provided steady offense and consistent defense while playing on the Stars second line. He was also one of the leaders of the team and was quickly named an alternate captain.

    Nieuwendyk was a major part of the Stars 1999 Stanley Cup championship run. In 23 postseason games that season, he scored 10 goals and 21 points. Six of his goals were game-winners, and he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

    The Stars traded Nieuwendyk to New Jersey midway through the 2001-02 season, but not before the Oshawa, Ontario, native gave Dallas more than six seasons of consistently great hockey, two trips to the Stanley Cup final and one Stanley Cup championship.

6. Scott Niedermayer

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    Scott Niedermayer left New Jersey during the summer of 2005 to sign a four-year, $27 million contract with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, joining his brother Rob on the team.

    Niedermayer wasted little time in giving Anaheim production for their money, totaling 63 points in his first season on the West Coast and 69 points and a Norris Trophy in his second year with the club.

    In 2007, Niedermayer was the quarterback of the Ducks power play the year they won the franchise's first Stanley Cup. He added three goals and 11 points in the playoffs that year and he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He and Chris Pronger gave the Ducks two of the top defensemen in the NHL and were a tough combination to beat.

    Niedermayer remained a productive player for the Ducks until he retired after the 2009-10 season.

5. Ed Belfour

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    Eddie "The Eagle" Belfour signed a free-agent deal with the Dallas Stars in 1997 and immediately turned Dallas into Stanley Cup contenders.

    In his first campaign in Dallas, the Stars won the President's Trophy with the league's best record. They had the most points again the following season and went all the way to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup.

    Belfour was incredible in the playoffs, defeating Hall of Fame goalies in Grant Fuhr and Patrick Roy along the way. His goals against average was 1.26 in the Stanley Cup final which saw him better Buffalo's Dominik Hasek.

    The following season, Belfour led the Stars back to the Stanley Cup final, but they lost to the New Jersey Devils despite "The Eagle's" four postseason shutouts that year.

    Belfour spent five very productive seasons with Dallas and solidified his Hall of Fame credentials with the club.

4. Brett Hull

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    Brett Hull signed with the Dallas Stars in the summer of 1998 and spent three very productive seasons in Dallas.

    In his first season with the Stars, Hull scored one of the most controversial Stanley Cup-winning goals in NHL history when he scored on Dominik Hasek of Buffalo in overtime of Game 6. The goal was allowed despite the fact that Hull's skate was clearly in the crease before the puck arrived there.

    Nevertheless, the goal counted and it brought the Stars franchise the first and only (to date) championship in the team's history.

    Hull scored eight goals and 15 points during the 1999 playoffs and followed that up with an 11-goal and 24-point performance the following year when the Stars reached the final again only to be defeated by the New Jersey Devils.

    In his final season in Dallas, Hull scored 39 goals before heading off to Detroit and another Stanley Cup title. For three years, "The Golden Brett" provided the Stars will a scoring threat that proved a key to their championship season.

3. Adam Graves

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    Adam Graves signed with the Rangers in September 1991. He had already won a Stanley Cup with Edmonton in 1990, but when he joined the Rangers, Graves went from spare part to first-line winger.

    He scored 52 goals in 1993-94, breaking Vic Hadfield's franchise record of 50 set back in 1971-72. Graves was a big part of the Rangers run to the team's first Stanley Cup title in 54 years in 1994, playing on a line with Mark Messier and Alexei Kovalev.

    Four times, Graves topped the 30-goal mark for the Rangers. He also became a big part of the Rangers in the community and was involved in many charitable causes.

    Graves provided the Rangers with 10 seasons of goal scoring, leadership and grit and was the best free-agent signing in the club's history.

2. Zdeno Chara

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    In the summer of 2006, the Bruins signed big Zdeno Chara to a five-year, $37.5 million contract to bolster the Bruins' blue line. It turns out the 6'9" Slovak was worth every penny.

    In six years with Boston, Chara has never scored fewer than 43 points in a season. He is the tallest player ever to play in the NHL, and at 35, Chara remains an intimidating presence on defense. He also provided leadership to the Bruins and eventually became captain of the club.

    Chara won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman in 2008-09 and helped lead the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup win in nearly 40 years in 2011.

    Four times with the Bruins, Chara was named to a postseason All-Star team. He has one of the hardest shots in the entire league and remains one of the top defensemen in the NHL to date.

1. Scott Stevens

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    One year after joining the St. Louis Blues as a free agent, Scott Stevens was on the move again when St. Louis signed restricted free agent Brendan Shanahan from the Devils. New Jersey was entitled to compensation under league rules and was awarded Stevens by the league. It turned out to be one of the best moves the Devils ever made.

    Stevens spent 13 seasons in New Jersey. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 1999-2000 and played on three Stanley Cup-winning teams for the Devils.

    The Kitchener, Ontario, native became one of the hardest hitters the game has ever seen and a dominant defenseman on a team known for its defense.

    He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.