Every year, the first few days of July are an absolute frenzy in the NHL. It's the time for most teams to build and hopefully improve their rosters for the upcoming season.
But for some general managers, the anticipation of July 1, the day when players with expiring contracts officially become free agents, gets the best of them and they end up overpaying for certain players and making deals that don't make much sense.
This year, there were many examples of that as the salary cap was raised to $64.3 million. But for all the cash being thrown around carelessly by some GM's, there were also some smart moves and bargain signings made during the first three days of free agency.
Let's take a look at the five best and the five worst free agent signings and trades made so far this July, starting with the worst deals.
The Deal: Six years/$27 million ($4.5 million annual cap hit)
The Sabres are taking a big gamble on Leino, signing him to a six-year deal. After all, he’s only played two legitimate NHL seasons, and only one of those seasons has been decent.
Leino’s 53 points in 2010-2011 was very respectable, but it’s worth noting that he played on a line with Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell. Because of this, he consistently received favourable match-ups, playing with forwards that were usually more skilled than the opposition.
He also failed to live up to his monster 2010 playoff performance of 21 points in 19 games in the 2011 postseason. This time around, he only managed a disappointing five points in 11 games.
In short, $4.5 million for one year is probably too much for a player who has never scored 20 goals in a season and is averaging less than 0.5 points per game in 149 career NHL games. Add the risk of having his contract for six years, and it’s a pretty bad signing.
The Deal: Four years/$11 million ($2.75 annual cap hit)
Panthers GM Dale Tallon needed to spend some serious cash on free agents just to get his team to the mandatory salary cap floor of $48.3 million. Unfortunately for the small handful of Panthers fans out there, he didn’t spend it very wisely.
For example, the Panthers will now pay Sean Bergenheim $11 million over the next four years because of a hot 16-game stretch in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Sure, the 11 points in those 16 games made for a nice story, but it’s hardly worth giving a guy $2.75 million for four straight years.
Bergenheim has never once reached the 30-point mark in a season. He was even put on waivers by the dreadful New York Islanders, of all teams, before the start of last season.
Basically, Dale Tallon is hoping Bergenheim can continue his nice little scoring streak from the playoffs for another four years because that’s the only way he’ll get fair value for this contract.
The Deal: Four years/$14 million ($3.5 million)
There’s only one thing worse than handing out $11 million over four years to a guy whose career best for points in a season is 29: handing out $14 million over four years to a guy whose career best for points in a season is 34.
That’s exactly what Dale Tallon gave to Scottie Upshall.
After being drafted sixth overall in 2002, Upshall’s career has to be considered a disappointment so far. So how does that warrant a contract that will pay him $3.5 million a season until 2015?
The answer is simple. It doesn’t.
At least Bergenheim has a strong playoff performance on his resume. Upshall doesn’t even have that going for him.
The Deal: Six years/$33 million ($5.5 million annual cap hit)
Normally, it would be hard to criticize the signing of a guy who notched 51 points as a defenseman this past season.
But anyone who follows hockey knows that James Wisniewski is not an All-Star calibre defenseman. He has been traded four times in the past two years, and none of the teams that traded him got very much in return.
His offensive output is nice, but his positional play without the puck, particularly in his own zone, isn’t great by NHL standards. At best, Wisniewski is a complimentary defenseman. Unfortunately, the Columbus Blue Jackets are paying him like he’s one of the best in the league.
His $5.5 million annual salary is now the 12th highest in the entire NHL among defensemen, and the Blue Jackets will be paying him that salary for the next six years.
So why did the Blue Jackets do this?
Maybe they felt pressure to get Wisniewski signed quickly because they gave up a draft pick for his negotiating rights and didn’t have much leverage. Or maybe they just got caught up in the 51 points that Wisniewski put up last season and forgot that he’s James Wisniewski and not Shea Weber or Duncan Keith.
Regardless, the Blue Jackets signed him to a contract worth way too much money and now they must live with it.
The Deal: Colorado trades a first-round draft pick in 2012 and a conditional second-round draft pick to Washington for the rights to Semyon Varlamov. They then sign him to a contract: Three years/$8.5 million ($2.83 annual cap hit)
This trade is easily the worst deal by any team so far during the free agency period. Instead of trading for his contract rights, if the Avalanche had simply signed Varlamov to an offer sheet for $2.83 million per season, they would have only had to give up a second-round pick as compensation to Washington.
Instead, they traded away a first-round pick and a second-round pick. Clearly, the entire Avalanche front office was out to lunch when they made this trade. Varlamov had been relegated to the back-up goalie with the Capitals behind Michal Neuvirth and there had been reports that his negotiations were not going well with the team.
So why would Colorado give up a first-round pick that will likely be in the top 10 of next year’s draft for him? It’s absurd to think there’s a legitimate chance that the Washington Capitals could hold the number one pick in the 2012 NHL Draft thanks to Semyon Varlamov.
What’s even worse for Colorado is the fact that Tomas Vokoun, who reportedly wanted to play for Colorado, ended up signing for $1.25 million less than Varlamov only two days later with, of all teams, Washington.
So not only did the Avalanche trade away an unnecessary first-round draft pick for Varlamov, if they had just waited a couple of days, they could have signed a better goalie for much less money without giving up any draft picks at all.
What a horrible move by the Colorado Avalanche!
But enough with the bad deals. Let's now take a look at the five best deals of the 2011 free agency period.
The Deal: Two years/$5.75 million ($2.875 annual cap hit)
The Red Wings have earned a reputation for drafting well and signing free agents for below market value, and Ian White is their latest example of the latter.
Despite White being traded three times in the past 18 months, he is a top-four defenseman on just about every NHL team. In 2009-2010, he put up a very solid 38 points while still being strong in his own zone.
Considering how much some of the other bigger name defensemen got paid during this free agency period, any cap hit under $3 million for an unrestricted free agent like Ian White should be considered a bargain.
The Deal: One year/$2 million
The Canucks accomplished three things with this deal. First, they got an important piece of their blue line to stay with the club and not retire or test the free agent market. Then they convinced him to only sign a one-year deal, which won’t handcuff the team if the 36-year-old has more injury problems in the future. Finally, they managed to sign Salo for considerably less than what he could have received on the open market.
Despite his age and his history of injury problems, Sami Salo is still one of the better defensemen in the NHL today. He is responsible in his own zone, he’s fairly big, he moves the puck well and his slap shot is a rocket that often comes in handy on the power play.
Signing Salo for just $2 million is a steal by NHL standards, so Canucks GM Mike Gillis should be extremely happy with this deal.
The Deal: One year/$2 million
Brunette, a 37-year-old veteran, received the same deal as Salo. However, he decided to hit the open market and signed with a brand new team. This makes the Blackhawks signing him for just $2 million even more remarkable.
Brunette has been incredibly consistent throughout his career and, unlike Salo, has been almost completely injury free. He put up 46 points last season, and 61 points the year before that, so his statistics probably could have landed him a bigger contract somewhere else.
Chicago definitely got a bargain with this player.
The Deal: Two years/$7 million ($3.5 million annual cap hit)
This two-time All-Star game participant and two-time Canadian Olympian is still only 31 years old and has lots of gas left in the tank.
Gagne has been slowed slightly by injuries over the last two years, but back-to-back 40 point seasons while playing only 58 and 63 games respectively is still very solid.
One might think a player of Gagne’s reputation could fetch a lot more in this year's free agent market, so the Kings should be happy with the modest two-year deal they signed him to.
If Gagne can stay healthy, don’t be surprised to see him put up similar numbers to his 34-goal campaign in 2008-2009, especially if he plays on L.A.’s top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Then his contract would be an even bigger bargain for the Kings.
The Deal: One year/$1.5 million
You may have seen this coming if you read my analysis of the worst deal on this list closely.
The Capitals managed to get a first and second-round draft pick in return for an under-performing Semyon Varlamov and then they signed one of the top 15 goaltenders in the NHL for just $1.5 million. Considering there are unproven starters and even back-up goaltenders making more than $1.5 million annually, this deal is an absolute steal.
Vokoun recorded a 2.55 goals-against average in each of the last two seasons on a bad Florida team and also combined for 13 shutouts in those seasons. He also posted a 1.78 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage at the 2010 Olympics.
The reason the Capitals were able to sign Vokoun for so cheap may be because he was asking for too much money on July 1 and July 2, and therefore, many teams passed on him in favour of other goalies. But regardless of how the price tag became so low for a goalie of Vokoun’s talent, Capitals GM George McPhee has to be ecstatic with how things turned out.
Of course, there are still several players who haven't been signed to contracts yet and there is bound to be more trades. But for now, these are the best and worst deals of the 2011 NHL free agency period. Let me know what you think and what your list of the best and worst deals would look like.