NHL Free Agents 2017: The All-Risk Team
There has yet to be a press conference by an NHL team announcing a big free-agent signing in which: a) Player and management didn't say they were "excited" and "thrilled" for the future; b) That each party was the preferred future partner of the other; and c) A lot of smiles all around for pictures with a shiny new jersey with the player's last name newly stitched on the back.
They are always happy times for the parties involved. But the NHL's rich history is otherwise littered with horrible free-agent signings in which "regret" finished as the most apt word of description.
Not to single one player out, but let's go back to 2002 and revisit the New York Rangers' signing of New Jersey Devils center Bobby Holik to a five-year, $45 million contract. Holik, whose career high for points to that moment was 65, was a solid two-way player who benefited also from playing with future Hall of Famers around him such as Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer.
In his first season with the Rangers, Holik played 64 games, scoring 16 goals and 35 points. The Stanley Cup-winning team in 2003 was...the New Jersey Devils. After one more season with the Rangers, the rest of Holik's contract was bought out by the Rangers. He finished out his career in Atlanta and back in New Jersey.
The 2017 class of unrestricted free agents will be tougher on which to make a big mistake. That's because free agency in the NHL, with the salary cap's inception in 2005, allows only so much money to be wasted by owners looking for a quick fix.
Most free agents today are really old guys clearly at the end of the line or tweener types of guys whom you just aren't quite sure about with their long-term potential. There is less room, therefore, for the kinds of Holik-style mistakes as in the past.
Still, there is no doubt plenty of money will be tossed around by owners when the market opens to NHL free agency on Saturday.
Some no doubt will get what proved to be bargain buys. Others will be stuck with lemons.
The following slideshow attempts to flash a warning sign at the potential lemons.
Left Wing: Patrick Marleau
Why it's a risk: If we were just talking about a one-year deal for a guy who will be 38 by the start of the coming season, we wouldn't be too worried here.
But CSN California reported the other day that Patrick Marleau is seeking at least a three-year deal on his next contract. The Sharks' all-time leading scorer, with 508 goals and 1,082 points, is coming off a 27-goal season. He still has very good speed and is considered a true rink rat.
But a three-year deal for a guy who will be 38 in September? At least three years? Time can catch up real quick in this sport. Anything beyond two years seems too risky, even for a player of Marleau's caliber.
The Colorado Avalanche gave longtime star Jarome Iginla a three-year contract in 2014, when nobody else in the league would give him more than two. That third year wound up a real dud, with Iginla relegated to short minutes on the bottom two lines before eventually being pawned off on Los Angeles.
This has all the earmarks of potentially the same outcome.
Center: Martin Hanzal
Why it's a risk: Martin Hanzal, coming off a disappointing showing as a rental player with Minnesota, had a cap hit of $3.1 million on his last contract.
It would seem crazy to give much more than that to a guy whose career high in points is 40 and has played on mostly losing teams in his career. But this is the NHL. A five-year, $25 million deal is the prediction here that he will receive from some team.
Hanzal does have some strong attributes. He's big (6'5"), excellent at faceoffs and plays a pretty rugged game around the net. But anything more than a three-year deal has "RED FLAGS!" written all over it. Yet, someone is bound to overpay, because big, experienced centers still get NHL general managers excited.
Right Wing: Alexander Radulov
Why it's a risk: For all the hoopla given Alexander Radulov's first season back in the NHL after several years in the KHL, let's take a closer look at what he did.
Keep in mind: We're big fans of what Radulov did with the Montreal Canadiens. He played great over several long stretches and breathed some fresh air into a Habs dressing room that has been too corporate, too stodgy over the years.
He had 18 goals and 54 points in 76 games. Good, even very good? Yes. Great? No.
Yet, the consensus seems to be that Radulov deserves a good-sized raise over the $5.75 million he made in his year with Montreal—and over a long term.
Whoever gets him gets a player with elite offensive skill. The rest of the ice? While Radulov did have an outstanding 58.5 Corsi For percentage with Montreal, he only took defensive-zone starts 30.5 percent of the time, according to Hockey Reference. He needs to be surrounded with good defensive players; otherwise he can be exposed quickly on a mediocre-to-bad team.
Radulov will be 31 on Wednesday. If anyone signed him for, say, three years at $18 million, we'd say that's a great signing. But if, as we think, he gets five to seven years at $6 million to $7 million or more?
Defense: Kevin Shattenkirk
Why it's a risk: Kevin Shattenkirk has been one of the NHL's better offensive defensemen of the past several years. He has reliably put up 40-50 points since breaking in with the Colorado Avalanche in 2010-11 and has played on winning teams his whole career. He is a smart person who has been well-regarded by teammates, comes to play every night and is accountable in the dressing room, win or lose.
So why shouldn't he get a huge, long-term deal on Sunday? Well, he probably will. But it will be a gamble.
First off, Shattenkirk isn't very fast. Defensively, he can be exposed in transition. He was a combined minus-25 in his final two seasons in St. Louis before going to Washington and, well, not exactly being the missing piece to a Stanley Cup the Caps had anticipated.
But now he's on the open market, a defenseman with proven offensive numbers and good leadership qualities. He's probably going to get, minimum, a five-year deal from someone, probably in the neighborhood of $30 million to $40 million.
Maybe it'll work out for the team that goes down the Shattenkirk path. Then again...
Goalie: Brian Elliott
Why it's a risk: The Calgary Flames bought stock in Brian Elliott in 2016, trading the No. 35 overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft (Jordan Kyrou) and a conditional third-round pick in 2018 to St. Louis for him. Their reward? A decent regular season and an awful playoff showing.
Now, Mike Smith is the newly acquired No. 1 goalie with the Flames, and Elliott is seeking new digs as a UFA. The Winnipeg Jets are reportedly very interested.
Elliott has the reputation of "Put a real good defense in front of him, and he'll do fine. But anything less than that in front of him, and he's just mediocre or worse."
The numbers do seem to back up that contention. On his Blues teams that had very good D-men, his save percentages were among the best in the league. On lesser teams, such as Colorado, Ottawa and Calgary, his numbers compute to mostly just average.
Elliott works very hard at his craft, and he could prove to be a steal of the 2017 free-agent class when all is said and done. But the fact is, he's 32 and the trends seem to indicate: Be careful in expecting too much from him.