How Bad NHL Teams in Small Markets Are Finding Ways to Improve in 2014 Offseason

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How Bad NHL Teams in Small Markets Are Finding Ways to Improve in 2014 Offseason
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Brad Richards, the fifth-leading scorer among unrestricted free agents this summer with 20 goals and 51 points in 2013-14, signed for relative peanuts with the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday. Sure, the 34-year-old was bought out by the New York Rangers and is clearly on the back nine of his career, but a one-year, $2 million deal for a No. 2 center is quite the bargain.

According to Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune, Richards said of the new deal:

If I was going to go to Chicago, we had to work out something in this fashion, ... I was very flexible. I'm coming in because I'm pretty confident that I can still play a lot of hockey in this league. I saw a great opportunity to play on a great team and fill a role. If it's one year, that's fine. Hopefully, we make it work and who knows what can happen down the road.

That was the prevailing attitude of Christian Ehrhoff, who passed up far more lucrative offers to a sign a one-year, $4 million deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ehrhoff told Tal Pinchevsky of NHL.com:

When you have [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin on the team, it's pretty obvious that you have two of the top players in the game, ... The supporting cast I think is very good too. I think all around we have a good lineup. Pittsburgh is always one of the names that is mentioned when you talk about teams that have a chance to win the Cup. That's why I signed here.

When a team is perceived as a championship contender, it's easy to draw the best talent available, and it can be had at a discount in some cases.

If a team is consistently at the bottom of the standings or in a location that isn't appealing to free agents, second-tier free agents are usually the target, and they usually require more money to put their name on a contract.

That's why lesser teams need to be more creative—and less frugal—in order to improve themselves.

Look no further than Benoit Pouliot and his five-year, $20 million deal with the Edmonton Oilers if you're searching for criticism of a contract. 

It sure is a lot of money, perhaps more money and a longer term than any other team was willing to offer, but the Oilers are aware of what it takes to bring players to their team, so they shelled out a few extra dollars to get a 20-goal scorer with excellent underlying numbers.

A case can be made that the Oilers overpaid for defensemen Mark Fayne (four years, $14.5 million) and Nikita Nikitin (two years, $9 million), but that's the price of doing business when top free agents Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman and Dan Boyle won't consider Edmonton at any price.

But there's no question the moves have made the Oilers a better team, which is the bottom line that's more important than the bottom line.

The same argument can be made about the New York Islanders, who just like the Oilers, have one trip to the playoffs in an 82-game season since 2005-06. After being rebuffed by Boyle, whom the Islanders acquired before the start of free agency, the Islanders gave Mikhail Grabovski four years and $20 million, and Nikolai Kulemin four years and $16.75 million.

That's almost $37 million for two players who combined for 22 goals last season. On the surface, that's too much money for too little production. But with the Islanders unable to draw elite free agents and having gobs of cap space, they are acceptable signings that, again, make the team better.

Offseason transactions, teams that missed 2014 playoffs
Teams Notable Moves
Washington Signed Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik
Phoenix Acquired Sam Gagner
Nashville Signed Olli Jokinen, acquired James Neal
New Jersey Signed Michael Cammalleri, Marty Havlat
Ottawa Signed Milan Michalek
Winnipeg Signed Mathieu Perreault
Toronto Signed Leo Komarov, Stephan Robidas
Carolina Signed Jiri Tlusty, Jay McClement
Vancouver Signed Ryan Miller, Radiim Vrbata acquired Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa
N.Y. Islanders Signed Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Jaroslav Halak
Calgary Signed Deryk Engelland, Jonas Hiller, Mason Raymond
Florida Signed Dave Bolland, Willie Mitchell, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton
Edmonton Signed Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne, Benoit Pouliot
Buffalo Signed Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Andrej Meszaros

NHL.com

Throwing money at lesser free agents isn't the only way subpar teams can get better; there's also the trade route, something the Dallas Stars have used to their advantage two straight summers.

Before 2013-14, the Stars had missed the playoffs in five straight seasons. Then they acquired Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins and found themselves in the postseason for the first time since the end of the Mike Modano era. General manager Jim Nill made a similar move Tuesday, acquiring Jason Spezza to play as the team's No. 2 center behind Seguin next season.

The New York Rangers, desperate for a No. 1 center, overpaid for Richards in 2011, then bought him out in 2014, a mistake a team loaded with cash can make without it hurting them all that much. None of that is an option for the Stars, who made reasonable trades to get stronger down the middle and transform themselves into a playoff contender almost overnight.

That's the path being taken by the Nashville Predators, who not only have a hard time signing quality UFAs but had to match a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet from the Flyers signed by restricted free agent Shea Weber in 2012 in order to keep their No. 1 defenseman.

In 2013, the Predators' big free-agent signings were Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom, and it turns out overpaying for bottom-six forwards didn't vault the Predators into the playoffs.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This summer, general manager David Poile added offense by trading for James Neal, one of the league's top goal scorers the past three seasons. Then he signed Olli Jokinen on the second day of free agency to a one-year, $2.5 million deal.

Not every gigantic contract paid to a mediocre free agent by a small-market or non-contending team is a stroke of genius. There's no justifying Dave Bolland getting five years and $27.5 million from the moribund Florida Panthers or Deryk Engelland getting three years and $8.9 million from the Calgary Flames.

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But those contracts are far more understandable than the Tampa Bay Lightning, a rising team with a terrific young corps, giving Ryan Callahan a six-year, $34.8 million deal.

The Oilers and Islanders overpaid, but they overpaid for talent.

The Stars and Predators used the trade route to make themselves better.

The Flames overpaid for a face-puncher and did not make themselves better.

The Carolina Hurricanes signed virtually nobody and did not make themselves better.

It's easy to say the contracts of Pouliot, Fayne, Grabovski and Kulemin are bad, but consider the alternatives.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

All statistics via NHL.com, Extra Skater.

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