Every NHL Team's Best Free-Agent Signing of the Cap Era

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2021

Every NHL Team's Best Free-Agent Signing of the Cap Era

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Another year. Another shot at redemption.

    Though an NHL franchise's long-term fate can be harpooned by a bad free-agent signing, it's no less true that those fortunes can turn positive with one fortuitous transaction.

    So while the B/R hockey writing types went all-in on the dark side of post-salary cap acquisitions last week, we're flipping the page this week to celebrate where the league's general managers got it right the most.

    In 2020, that meant Tyler Toffoli in Montreal, Cam Talbot in Minnesota and Tyson Barrie in Edmonton. 

    Historically, the best deals have meant different things in different cities.

    Some yielded Stanley Cups. Some brought prolonged prosperity. And others helped a climb toward respectability. But regardless of the definition, all brought some measure of happiness to a fanbase.

    Take a look at what we came up with and share a thought or two of your own in the comments.

Nos. 1-7: Ducks, Coyotes, Bruins, Sabres, Flames, Hurricanes, Blackhawks

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    Mark Avery/Associated Press

    Anaheim Ducks: Scott Niedermayer (2005)

    Throwing a truckload of money at a 30-plus defenseman isn't always a recipe for success, but it could hardly have worked better for the Ducks when it came to their acquisition of Niedermayer on a four-year deal worth $27 million. He registered his career-best in points (69) and helped the team to its first title in his five-year stay.


    Arizona Coyotes: Mike Smith (2011)

    There isn't a storied history of success when it comes to the Coyotes and their UFA acumen. But getting Smith on a two-year, $4 million pact in 2011 led to the team's first appearance in the Western final after he played 67 games and registered a .930 save percentage. And he's still going today with the Edmonton Oilers.


    Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara (2006)

    The hulking Slovakian was deep into an effective NHL career having played for the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators, but he became a star after getting $37.5 million from the Bruins over five years. He was a Norris Trophy winner by 2009 and led Boston to a Stanley Cup win in 2011.


    Buffalo Sabres: Jaroslav Spacek (2006)

    Like the Coyotes, the Sabres haven't lit it up in free agency. But Spacek was a good player at a good price whom they got in 2006 after he'd helped the Edmonton Oilers to a Western Conference playoff title. With the Sabres, his point total went up each year and peaked at 45 in 2008-09. 


    Calgary Flames: Jiri Hudler (2012)

    The Czech-born winger found Alberta's southern capital city to his liking after getting a four-year deal worth $16 million. He established career-bests in goals (31) and points (76) in 78 games and helped the Flames return to the brink of a Cup. He also brought home the Lady Byng Trophy.


    Carolina Hurricanes: Ray Whitney (2005)

    The Alberta native was a steadily effective NHL player before arriving in Carolina, where he got a two-year, $3 million deal in 2005. Within a year, he was hoisting a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes and his two best point-scoring years, 77 and 83, came during his time in Raleigh.


    Chicago Blackhawks: Marian Hossa (2009)

    Hossa got to the brink of NHL championship status in 2007 and 2008, jumping from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings and losing in the Cup final each year. He skipped town for Chicago soon after, getting 12 years and $63.3 million and three Stanley Cups for his trouble.

Nos. 8-12: Avalanche, Blue Jackets, Stars, Red Wings, Oilers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Colorado Avalanche: Andrew Brunette (2005)

    A solid contributor on the wing, Brunette had spent six years in the league with a pair of teams before arriving to the Avalanche in 2005 on a two-year deal paying just $800,000 per season. He instantly clicked with Joe Sakic and put up 83 points, a career best, in the second year of the contract.


    Columbus Blue Jackets: Kristian Huselius (2008)

    It's not always a marquee destination for high-end free agents, but the Blue Jackets landed Huselius, a Swedish winger who'd spent parts of four seasons with the Florida Panthers and a couple more with the Calgary Flames. Year 2 in Columbus saw Huselius score 63 points before injuries ended his run in the 2011-12 season. 


    Dallas Stars: Joe Pavelski (2019)

    The Stars brought the then-nearly 35-year-old to Dallas following more than 950 games with the San Jose Sharks. He got three years and $21 million before netting 14 goals in 67 regular-season games, then 13 more in 27 playoff games as the team advanced to a Cup final before losing to Tampa Bay.


    Detroit Red Wings: Brian Rafalski (2007)

    The Michigan-born defenseman had spent seven years with the New Jersey Devils before signing a $30 million deal that covered five years with the Red Wings. He won a Cup the following spring with Detroit and was a consistent point scorer for the team in his final four NHL seasons.


    Edmonton Oilers: Dustin Penner (2007)

    In the aftermath of the Anaheim Ducks' swiping of defenseman Chris Pronger in 2006, the Oilers clapped back with an offer sheet in August 2007 that provided a five-year, $21.25 million deal for Penner, then a 24-year-old. He scored 40 goals across years one and two before busting out for 32 in his third season.

Nos. 13-17: Panthers, Kings, Wild, Canadiens, Predators

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Florida Panthers: Jozef Stumpel (2005)

    After multiple spells with both the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings from 1991-92 through 2003-04, Stumpel returned from the lockout with a two-year deal worth $3.25 million from the Florida Panthers. He scored 15 and 23 goals in his first two seasons in metropolitan Miami and finished his career there in 2007-08.


    Los Angeles Kings: Willie Mitchell (2010)

    Mitchell may not be the first name you think of when recalling the Kings' run of two titles in three seasons, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a factor. He played shutdown minutes on the blue line on a deal that initially paid $7 million for two seasons, then stayed for another two on a similar deal signed in 2012.


    Minnesota Wild: Niklas Backstrom (2006)

    Chalk this one up to prudent international scouting. The Wild discovered the rangy Finn in his home country and signed him as an undrafted free agent to a one-year deal worth just $750,000. He was a Vezina Trophy contender within three years and started 40 or more games each season through 2012-13.


    Montreal Canadiens: Brian Gionta (2009)

    You could make a case for Tyler Toffoli based on an unlikely run to the Cup final before a loss to Tampa Bay earlier this summer, but the body work of work mandates it for Gionta, a smallish winger who got five years and $25 million and served as the team's captain for four seasons before heading to Buffalo. 


    Nashville Predators: Paul Kariya (2005)

    The speedy winger had one season of 50 goals and two more in the 40s during his time with the Anaheim Ducks, but while his time in Nashville wasn't quite as prolific, it was still quite respectable. He got two years and $9 million in 2005 and ultimately played 82 games both seasons while scoring 55 goals.

Nos. 18-22: Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Senators, Flyers

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    New Jersey Devils: Dougie Hamilton (2021)

    He hasn't even pulled on the sweater yet. But we're feeling optimistic about the vibe in New Jersey that prompted the brass to shell out $63 million over seven years for Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton. He's 6'6", 229 pounds and in the prime of his career at 28 years old. Time for a Devils renaissance.


    New York Islanders: Matt Moulson (2009)

    Parts of two seasons yielded 29 games played for Moulson with the Los Angeles Kings, but he quickly climbed the relevance ladder when the Islanders snatched him on a one-year deal worth $575,000 and saw him put in 30, 31 and 36 goals across the subsequent three seasons. He never again got more than 15.


    New York Rangers: Artemi Panarin (2019)

    Big money doesn't always mean big production, but it surely did when it came to Panarin, who took seven years and $81.5 million to make the jump from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He had 95 points in just 69 games in his first season with the Rangers before getting recognized as a Hart Trophy finalist.


    Ottawa Senators: Clarke MacArthur (2013)

    It's hard to imagine the Senators knew quite how well this one would work out at the outset. They lured MacArthur, a rugged winger, from the Toronto Maple Leafs on a two-year deal worth $6.5 million. A 24-goal, 55-point season in 2013-14 ultimately led to a five-year, $23.25 million extension.


    Philadelphia Flyers: Daniel Briere (2007)

    Necessity may be the mother of invention, but the frustration of missing the playoffs is often a trigger for investment. The Flyers were on the outs in 2006-07, prompting an eight-year, $52 million offer to the Quebec-born center on the opening day of free agency. He scored 124 goals in six years before a buyout.

Nos. 23-27: Penguins, Sharks, Kraken, Blues, Lightning

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Pittsburgh Penguins: Sergei Gonchar (2005)

    The Russian defenseman had already had a prosperous NHL run with the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins before the Penguins brought him in for five years and $25 million in 2005. He led all blueliners in assists in 2006-07 and had 50 or more points in four of five seasons with Pittsburgh, including a Cup.


    San Jose Sharks: Antti Niemi (2010)

    The Finnish goalie played in 22 games for the Chicago Blackhawks on the way to a Stanley Cup in 2010, then bolted for the Sharks on a one-year, $2 million deal just a couple of months later. He played 60 games and had a .920 save percentage in that initial season in San Jose and was a workhorse for five seasons.


    Seattle Kraken: Philipp Grubauer (2021)

    Again, he's not played a game with his new team. But you've got to admire the moxie that Seattle GM Ron Francis showed in making a run at Grubauer, the starting goaltender in Colorado. It's a foundational play by Francis, who laid $35.4 million over six years to guarantee the Kraken will be in games.


    St. Louis Blues: Brian Elliott (2011)

    Elliott was a veteran goalie whose career was teetering when the Blues offered him a year at $600,000 after he played 55 games with Ottawa and Colorado in 2010-11. He rewarded St. Louis with a 1.56 goals-against average and .940 save percentage, winning the Jennings Trophy and earning a pair of extensions.


    Tampa Bay Lightning: Kevin Shattenkirk (2019)

    We'll stay recent when it comes to a player who helped kick off the Lightning's two-year run as champs. Shattenkirk was bought out of a $26.6 million deal by the New York Rangers, allowing the Lightning to get him for a year at $1.75 million. He got a Cup, then a three-year, $11.7 million deal in Anaheim. 

Nos. 28-32: Maple Leafs, Canucks, Golden Knights, Capitals, Jets

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    Toronto Maple Leafs: John Tavares (2018)

    If the current group of Maple Leafs eventually finds its legs and works its way to a Stanley Cup, they'll look back at the signing of local hero and longtime fan Tavares to a seven-year deal worth $77 million. He scored 92 goals in the first three years of the deal before a scary head injury in the 2020-21 playoffs.


    Vancouver Canucks: Dan Hamhuis (2010)

    The Canucks were in the market for a high-level defenseman after the 2009-10 season, and they made a splash on the first day of free agency with a six-year, $27 million deal for Hamhuis, who'd played six seasons with the Nashville Predators. Success in year one saw Vancouver reach the Cup final.


    Vegas Golden Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury (2019)

    The expansion-draft acquisition of the former Cup champ and his subsequent extension as a UFA were bellwether moments in the Golden Knights' brief NHL stint. And with the impact of most of their big free-agent signings still yet to be determined, we're bending the rules slightly to salute the greatest player in franchise history.


    Washington Capitals: Matt Niskanen (2014)

    The Minnesota-born defenseman went from one Eastern Conference power to another when he jumped from the Penguins to the Capitals after agreeing to a seven-year, $40.25 million deal in 2014. He was a consistent plus performer and won a Cup in 2018 before a trade to Philadelphia and his sudden retirement.


    Winnipeg Jets: Nik Antropov (2009)

    We simply had to include a player who'd suited up for the Jets when they were still the Atlanta Thrashers. Antropov had played more than 500 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers before the Thrashers got him for four years and $16.25 million. He scored 40 across two seasons with Atlanta.