The 2011 NHL offseason featured a record-breaking level of free agent spending as traditionally small-market clubs tried desperately to increase their payroll to meet the new salary cap floor.
For a relatively weak free agent class, the contracts awarded were simply staggering—unproven and injury-prone players signed long term deals; notoriously unreliable players were paid more than established all-stars.
There is no question many NHL teams overpaid for talent during the 2011 free agent frenzy. However, some clubs were savvy enough to negotiate excellent deals with talented players capable of living up to the contract they were signing. As a minor aside, only unrestricted free agents (UFAs) will be considered—RFAs are NOT included in this list.
Which teams made the best deals? Which players will live up to the contracts they signed? Read on to find out.
As always, comments are welcome and appreciated.
The Deal: 1 year, $3.3 million
This signing may go down as one of the best deals made this offseason. Jagr's performance at the 2011 IIHF World Championships was a clear statement to the rest of the hockey world: Jagr can still play the game at the highest level. He won't be the Jagr of old, the offensive juggernaut who won Art Ross trophies left and right, but he will be a reliable secondary scoring option and power play threat.
The Flyers needed to find a cost-effective way to replace Ville Leino's production—Jagr can be exactly that. Expecting Jagr to produce 50 or so points over the course of the season for just over three million dollars is very reasonable and makes him a very good value signing.
With players like Leino ($27 million over 6 years) and Fleischmann ($18 million over 4 years) receiving much larger contracts despite relatively similar production expectations, this deal looks excellent.
The Deal: 6 years, $27 million
Brooks Laich is the Capitals' Mr. Everything.
Offensively, he's a solid 50-to-60-point-per-season player. Defensively, he's a stalwart who can shut down the opposition's top line night in and night out. As far as the intangibles go, Laich has it covered—he wins face-offs, blocks shots, forces turnovers, throws his body around and more.
Perhaps the best part of Laich is his durability. Over the past four seasons, he's missed a combined four games, with all four coming during the 2009-2010 campaign. Unlike many other players signed this offseason, Laich is a fairly proven commodity—he's a hard-working, versatile two-way forward with a nice offensive skill set.
The price tag may seem a bit high for a second or third line player, but when the complete package Laich brings to the table is considered, the salary becomes much more reasonable. All Laich has to do to "earn" his contract next season is continue to be the Capitals' Mr. Everything—score 50 or 60 points, register an above-average plus/minus and continue to do the little things well.
The Deal: 10 years, $40 million
Christian Ehrhoff has quietly established himself as a legitimate top-20 defenseman in the NHL. In each of the last three seasons, he's managed to score at least 42 points while playing at least 77 games. He's consistently been able to log big minutes and play well in key situations for the Canucks.
Ehrhoff's style of play is one that is conducive to a longer NHL career. He doesn't tend to play too physically or block too many shots. He tends to use his superior hockey sense and vision to anticipate the play, then use his great skating ability to put himself in position to make the appropriate defensive play.
Offensively, Ehrhoff owns an above-average shot from the point, excellent passing ability and natural playmaking skills. He is extremely effective when quarterbacking a powerplay, increasing his value to the Sabres tremendously.
All told, Ehrhoff is a solid acquisition. He's a consistent offensive threat, a solid positional defender and quite a bit more. His style of play is one that tends to result in a longer playing career, making it much more likely he'll be able to remain effective through his mid-30's. Finally, his cap hit of just $4 million is quite reasonable given his anticipated production (45-55 points, plus-20, 24:00 minutes per game).
The Deal: 9 years, $51 million
Many around the NHL questioned this signing when it was first announced, but looking back it seems the Flyers organization was able to negotiate an excellent deal.
Ilya Bryzgalov has quietly emerged as a bona-fide top-10 netminder in the NHL over the past two seasons. He has put up stellar numbers and been the finalist for the Vezina trophy, all while carrying a very weak Phoenix Coyotes team to the playoffs for back-to-back seasons.
Looking only at the numbers, its almost impossible to consider this an overpayment. Bryzgalov's statistics over the past two seasons are near identical to those posted by Henrik Lundqvist, who owns a whopping $6.875M cap hit—nearly 25% larger than Bryzgalov's:
Lundqvist: 141 GP, 0.922 SV%, 2.331 GAA, 15 SOs.
Bryzgalov: 137 GP, 0,921 SV%, 2.387 GAA, 15 SOs.
For Bryzgalov to "earn" his contract, all he needs to do is continue to play at his current level. His performance over the past two seasons places him squarely in the realm of a top-10 netminder—the numbers above speak for themselves. If he can continue that level of play in a major hockey market like Philadelphia, he'll have earned every cent of the contract he signed.
The Deal: 9 years, $60 million
Perhaps the best part of this deal is that it just might salvage another 5 years, $37.5 million dollar deal—the one belonging to sublimely talented but woefully underperforming winger Marian Gaborik.
There is little question that Brad Richards is one of the best centers in the NHL today—he's been a point-per-game or better player in each of his last two seasons while playing in Dallas. That trend should continue in New York, where he'll have more talent around him and a familiar face in coach John Tortorella.
The price tag for Richards may be slightly on the higher end, especially as he enters his mid-to-late 30's, but as with Ehrhoff, his style of play is one that should allow him to remain productive. Richards doesn't play a big or physical game, preferring to use his exceptional skating and playmaking ability to create space and offensive opportunities.
Above all, Richards is an intelligent playmaker. He reads and anticipates the play as well as anyone in the game, and he owns a tremendous amount of veteran savvy, both of which should enable him to continue to "earn" his salary over the course of its nine-year term. If Richards can find some chemistry with Gaborik and help him re-discover his scoring touch, he'll have been worth every penny of his contract and more.
The Deal: 1 year, $1.5 million
Like Bryzgalov, Tomas Vokoun is a bona-fide top-10 netminder in the NHL. Unlike Bryzgalov, Vokoun isn't being paid like one—he's being paid like a high-quality back-up.
For Vokoun to earn his contract, he simply needs to continue to play the way he did in Florida. Over the past three seasons, Vokoun has posted a stellar 2.52 GAA and 0.924 save percentage to go along with 19 shutouts. If he is able to continue that level of production, he'll have earned his contract by the end of November.
This was, quite simply, the best value-signing made this off-season. A proven, top-10 netminder for less than a quality back-up is an absolute steal for the Capitals.
However, none of Vokoun's regular-season statistics will matter if he can't help the team get the playoff monkey off their collective backs. Unfortunately, Vokoun's own playoff track record is shoddy, especially considering the level of talent his Nashville teams possessed.
Again, this was a brilliant move by GM George McPhee. But it won't really matter if Vokoun doesn't learn how to win in the post-season.