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The Riskiest Moves in 2014 NHL Free Agency So Far

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistJuly 5, 2014

The Riskiest Moves in 2014 NHL Free Agency So Far

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    In just one day on July 1, NHL general mangers handed out more than $500 million in new contracts to unrestricted free agents, according to Kevin Gibson of TSN research.

    Thanks to a new five-day window when teams could meet with potential free agents before the signing period began, the action on the first day easily eclipsed the $340 million worth of Day 1 deals that Gibson reports were handed out in 2012-13.

    By putting themselves on the open market and attracting the attention of multiple teams, players get the best chance of their career to maximize their earning power while also wielding some control over where they'd like to pay. Money's not the only motivator, but contracts signed on July 1 tend to go to highly-coveted players with options, who can bargain their way above the typical market rate.

    Even with the shorter term limits mandated by the new collective bargaining agreement, teams continue to lock players into medium- and long-range deals of anywhere from four to seven years. In the past, we've seen plenty of these situations turn sour long before the contract's end date. Depending on the investment, even shorter deals have the potential to turn into anchors in a hurry.

    Here are the six free agent signings that carry the highest degree of risk. The list is limited to one signing per team. 

6. Leo Komarov: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Previous Contract: One year with a cap hit of $850,000 with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012-13. One year with Moscow Dynamo of the KHL in 2013-14.

    New Contract: Four years with a cap hit of $2.95 million with the Toronto Maple Leafs

    What's the Risk? Leo Komarov's contract isn't a bank-breaker like most of the others you'll see on this list, but none of the other players featured here have played just 42 NHL games.

    Komarov was a KHL veteran with the Moscow Dynamo when he signed on with the Maple Leafs for the 2012-13 season. The NHL lockout meant that his North American career started with the Toronto Marlies—at a salary of $62,500—so after 14 games, he went back to Russia to rejoin the Dynamo until the lockout ended in January.

    Once he did become a member of the Leafs, Komarov's feisty style kept him locked in the team's bottom six. He averaged just under 14 minutes of ice time per game, earning nine points on the season. After going pointless in the playoffs, Komarov packed up and headed back to Russia again—presumably for more money and better quality playing time.

    Komarov had a solid 2013-14 season with the Dynamo and was a standout for Team Finland, who earned a surprise bronze medal at the Olympics. His physical style created time and space for his more offensive-minded teammates and made Leafs fans wonder why they'd let him go.

    General manager Dave Nonis clearly felt the same way, offering up significant money to ink Komarov to a long-term deal. The risk now, however, is whether or not the player and the team can put the past behind them. After a tough first year, they'll need to create a situation that will keep Komarov happy and maximize his potential, while also justifying the investment of nearly $3 million a season.

    That's big money if he remains limited to the same type of role that he played previously in Toronto.

    Risk Factor: 2.5 Stars

5. Jarome Iginla: Colorado Avalanche

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Age: 37

    Previous Contract: One year with a cap hit $1.8 million (plus bonuses) with the Boston Bruins

    New Contract: Three years with a cap hit of $5.33 million with the Colorado Avalanche

    What's the Risk? Can Iggy keep up with the speedy, young Avs? 

    37-year-old Jarome Iginla has been one of the most consistent scorers in the league for nearly his entire career. With the exception of the 2012-13 lockout year, he's posted 28 goals or more every season, dating back to the heart of the "dead puck" era in 1998-99. Iginla also brings great leadership, strong physical play and impressive durability, especially considering his playing style.

    But Iginla has lost a step with age: a fact that was exposed during his 2013 playoff run with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tyler Dellow of Sportsnet explains here that the Corsi numbers would indicate that Iginla's new situation in Colorado will look very different from his strong season in Boston last year.

    On a great possession team, you can find guys to, in effect, serve as Iginla’s legs. He doesn’t drive possession anymore, but the hands are still there. All of which makes Colorado a pretty curious landing spot for Iginla.

    They finished only five points behind Boston in 2013-14 but, unlike the Bruins, they aren’t a great possession team—they’re a bad one.

    Coach Patrick Roy and his group defied the expectations of the advanced stats community in 2012-13. They'll be buoyed next year by their taste of success, while still being anchored by great coaching and terrific goaltending. Add Iginla as a mentor and perhaps, a bridge between players and management and, if all goes according to plan, he'll use his nose for the net to score a few more goals over the next three seasons.

    If he can't keep up, it'll be the first major stumble for Colorado's new management team.

    Risk Factor: 3 Stars

4. Andrew MacDonald: Philadelphia Flyers

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    Previous Contract: Four years with a cap hit $550,000 with the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers

    New Contract: Six years with a cap hit of $5 million with the Philadelphia Flyers

    What's the Risk? The Philadelphia Flyers were uncharacteristically quiet this year on July 1. This was because they'd locked up their big-money free agent acquisition back in April.

    In 2013, the Flyers had good success when they acquired the rights to impending free-agent defenseman Mark Streit from the New York Islanders, then signed him to a deal before he reached the open market. In 2014, Philadelphia accelerated the process even more by acquiring the Islanders' next free-agent blueliner, Andrew MacDonald, at the trade deadline. Then, they signed him to a six-year contract extension as the playoffs began.

    MacDonald is nine years younger than Streit. He also has just four full years of NHL experience—a bargain-basement defenseman playing more than 20 minutes a game for the league minimum salary.

    After 19 games with the Flyers, management was happy enough with what they saw to offer MacDonald nearly 10 times what he'd been earning on Long Island. Now, the question now is: Is MacDonald an undiscovered gem, or will we see him wilt under the bright spotlight of the demanding fans in Philadelphia?

    Risk Factor: 3.5 Stars

3. Dave Bolland: Florida Panthers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 28

    Previous Contract: Five years with a cap hit of $3.375 million with the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs

    New Contract: Five years with a cap hit of $5.5 million with the Florida Panthers

    What's the Risk? Dave Bolland's a pesky checking center with two Stanley Cup rings and a cup-winning goal to his credit. He's scored 15 goals or more three times in his career. Now, however, he is five years removed from his best offensive season—47 points with the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2008-09.

    He's also coming off a serious ankle tendon injury that kept him out of action for 59 games in 2013-14.

    Before the trade deadline, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reported that Bolland was looking to cash in with the Leafs with a maximum-length contract in the range of $40 million. When Toronto management was unwilling to offer than kind of term, Bolland's old GM from Chicago, Dale Tallon, increased the value to $5.5 million a season to get Bolland signed for five years.

    With that, the pesky grinder is carrying a cap hit in the same range as two elite, young NHL captains: the New York Islanders' John Tavares and the Colorado Avalanche's Gabriel Landeskog. If Bolland can stay healthy, he'll provide leadership and two-way play to the Panthers, but it's not hard to wonder how his contributions can live up to his salary.

    Risk Factor: 4 Stars

2. Benoit Pouliot: Edmonton Oilers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27

    Previous Contract: One year with a cap hit of $1.3 million with the New York Rangers

    New Contract: Five years with a cap hit of $4 million with the Edmonton Oilers

    What's the Risk? Already on his fourth crack at unrestricted free agency at age 27, this time Benoit Pouliot cashed in. Thanks to a career-high 36 points in 2013-14 and an aggressive net-front approach during the New York Rangers' run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Edmonton Oilers handed Pouliot his first multiyear deal since his entry level contract expired back in 2008-09. He'll draw $20 million over the next five seasons.

    Originally, Pouliot was drafted fourth overall by the Minnesota Wild. Pouliot has plenty of talent, but he has built a reputation around the league for inconsistent play and has a tendency to take lazy penalties, particularly in the offensive zone. In the last four seasons, he shuffled from the Montreal Canadiens to the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Boston Bruins before taking a $500,000 pay cut to sign with the Rangers in 2013-14.

    Coach Alain Vigneault was able to turn Pouliot into an effective power-play presence, but his bad penalties continued to dog the Rangers throughout the playoffs.

    Best case scenario: Pouliot's playoff experience brings a steadying influence to the Oilers' talented but raw young core. Worst case? He keeps taking penalties and becomes a passenger as Edmonton's rebuild continues to stall.

    Risk Factor: 4.5 Stars

1. Brooks Orpik: Washington Capitals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 33

    Previous Contract: Six years with a cap hit $3.75 million with the Pittsburgh Penguins

    New Contract: Five years with a cap hit of $5.50 million with the Washington Capitals

    What's the Risk? Looking to make a significant upgrade to their blueline, the Washington Capitals raided their division rivals in Pittsburgh. New general manager Brian MacLellan handed out the biggest deal of the day to Matt Niskanen after one standout season, which could spell trouble down the road.

    A five-year term and $27.5 million for Brooks Orpik looks even more worrisome.

    Orpik's a rugged defensive defenseman with a Stanley Cup ring to his credit. However, he's never been the fleetest skater, and his mobility is already on the decline. A growing lack of footspeed as the years pass will definitely impede his effectiveness in his best role, as a shutdown player.

    Orpik has also battled a series of injuries in Penguins' last two playoff appearances, suggesting that his playing style is now causing his body to wear down over the course of a season. The Capitals' money will not have been well spent if the patten continues and Orpik can't compete down the stretch—just when his team needs him most.

    Risk Factor: 5 Stars

     

    Stats from NHL.com. Salary and contract information from CapGeek.com.

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