Ranking the NHL's 5 Worst Early Free-Agency Moves

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 14, 2020

Ranking the NHL's 5 Worst Early Free-Agency Moves

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The NHL free-agent market opened Friday. While the flattened salary cap and the absence of the interview period seem to have affected the market, a number of players signed with new clubs.

    In the past, the early days of free agency usually resulted in a blizzard of expensive, long-term contracts. The stagnant cap, however, means many teams have limited cap space to invest this year. That's resulted in frugal, sensible signings rather than bidding wars and overpaid free agents.

    Nevertheless, there were a handful of questionable moves, such as the Washington Capitals' signing of defenseman Justin Schultz and the Edmonton Oilers bringing back goaltender Mike Smith. While the contracts weren't onerous, the teams gave valuable salary-cap dollars to players whose best years are well behind them.

    Here's a look at the five worst early moves in 2020 free agency. Player performances and contract terms factored in to this ranking.

5. New York Rangers Sign D Jack Johnson

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The New York Rangers signed Jack Johnson to a one-year, $1.2 million contract. It wasn't a bad move in terms of length or dollars. What was puzzling was why the Rangers bothered with a defenseman who is well past his prime.

    Johnson, 33, was a skillful puck-mover earlier in his career with the Los Angeles Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets. However, his best seasons were behind him when the Pittsburgh Penguins signed him two years ago to a five-year, $16.3 million contract.

    Johnson struggled with the Penguins, tumbling down their depth chart. On Oct. 5, they placed him on unconditional waivers and bought out the final three years of his contract.

    The New York Post's Larry Brooks was puzzled by the Rangers' move, wondering where they envision Johnson in their defense corps. At best, he'll likely see third-pairing minutes. Failing that, he'll end up in the minors. Either way, the Rangers probably could've found a better defenseman for the same price.

4. Edmonton Oilers Sign G Mike Smith

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Goaltending was the Edmonton Oilers' Achilles' heel last season. General manager Ken Holland attempted to address that issue early in free agency but wound up bringing back Mike Smith on a one-year, $2 million contract with a no-trade clause.

    The tandem of Smith and Mikko Koskinen combined for 3.03 goals against per game last season, which ranked 15th overall. However, their 4.00 goals-against average was the postseason's worst.

    Smith, 38, finished the regular season with 19 wins, a 2.95 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. He played in just one playoff game, giving up five goals on 23 shots before getting pulled in the second period of a 6-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first game of their qualifying round series. His save percentage was a miserable .783, while his GAA was a bloated 11.31.

    Holland was unable to lure a proven starter such as Jacob Markstrom or Braden Holtby to Edmonton. As the market rapidly depleted of quality goalies, he opted to bring back Smith rather than try his luck in the trade market.

    With Smith aging and his play in decline, the best that can be said about this deal is the contract is affordable. It didn't improve the Oilers' main weakness.

3. Florida Panthers Sign D Radko Gudas

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Bill Zito's priority since taking over last month as the Florida Panthers' general manager was shoring up the club's porous defense corps. The signing of Radko Gudas to a three-year, $7.5 million contract isn't likely to bring significant improvement.

    The 30-year-old Gudas' $2.5 million annual average value isn't as bad as the $10 million per season former Panthers GM Dale Tallon invested in goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky or the $5.5 million he gave past-his-prime blueliner Anton Stralman. Nevertheless, this deal could become a cap headache for Florida without providing a notable boost to the defense.

    In his prime, the 6'0", 205-pound Gudas could be relied upon as an aggressive, if sometimes reckless, hard-hitting defenseman who drove opponents to distraction with his physical play. However, his performance has declined over the past couple of seasons.

    The Panthers are Gudas' third team in three seasons after he was traded from the Philadelphia Flyers to the Capitals in June 2019. If his play doesn't improve, they'll have overpaid for a slow, ineffective third-pairing defenseman. In a time when every dollar matters, Gudas' contract could become a problem.

2. Washington Capitals Sign D Justin Schultz

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Capitals were seeking a skilled puck-moving defenseman to pair with Dmitry Orlov on the right side of their second defense pairing. By signing Justin Schultz to a two-year, $8 million contract, they may have invested too much in someone incapable of generating offense from the blue line.

    Acquired by the Penguins from the Oilers on Feb. 27, 2016, Schultz helped his new club win the Stanley Cup. He enjoyed a career performance the following season, netting 51 points as Pittsburgh won its second straight Cup.

    Schultz's numbers declined to 27 points in 63 games the following season. A broken ankle suffered in October 2018 limited him to just 29 games in 2018-19. He struggled through injury and inconsistency last season with just 12 points in 46 contests.

    Given his age and injury history, the 30-year-old Schultz might not be capable of providing an additional measure of mobility and offense to the Capitals blue line as he once did with the Penguins. This could turn into a waste of precious salary-cap dollars, even if it's only a short-term investment.

1. Calgary Flames Sign D Chris Tanev

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Calgary Flames were in need of a right-side top-four defenseman after TJ Brodie departed via free agency to the Toronto Maple Leafs. They turned to former Vancouver Canucks blueliner Chris Tanev, signing him to a four-year, $18 million contract.

    Tanev, 30, spent 10 seasons with Vancouver before becoming an unrestricted free agent. He garnered recognition earlier in his career as a reliable, physical two-way defenseman.

    In recent years, however, Tanev's style of play led to injuries that frequently sidelined him. His performance suffered too.

    Coming off a five-year, $22.3 million contact, Tanev earned a modest raise from $4.45 million to $4.5 million. Given his age and injury history, however, this was a risky signing. Tanev's performance was in decline before he joined Calgary. It's unlikely to improve over the next four years.

       

    Salary info via Cap Friendly.