Sunday, July 3, 2011

The stupidity of Free Agent Madness

There was a time when July 1 brought about some tremendous hockey talent onto the marketplace. This was particularly the case when the NHL dropped the minimum age for free agents from 31 to 27. It meant stars in their prime could shop themselves around. Who can forget Marian Hossa shop himself around several summers trying to land on a Stanley Cup team before he settled in Chicago.

But those days are long gone. General Managers lock in their stars at young ages with 10 year or more contracts. Instead the free agent markets has the occasional top talent - usually because their team can't afford to resign them and didn't trade them away first. Over the past five years the quality of the free agents has diminished considerably. But the size of the contracts have not. In the first day of free agency $270 million in contracts were handed out. Another $85 million was spent on day 2. Most of the money is going to journeymen, players drafted high but never reaching their potential, players with a history of injuries and some players at the end of their careers trying to hang on for another season. Though picking up Robyn Regehr from Calgary was a smart move and only possible because the owner's willingness to spend.

So why do teams throw around this kind of money?

There are a few different scenarios. One is the new deep-pocketed owner that wants to let everyone know he is a "player." That was Tampa Bay in 2008 when Oren Koules and Len Barry bought the team and decided to go after every free agent with no plan or vision. I remember before the dust had settled the Lightning had about 6 lines worth of forwards but nothing on defense or net. This season it's Terry Pegula the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres. So far they have signed Ville Leino, That was only 6 years but the Christian Ehrhoff deal the Sabres signed was 10 years. Will this push Buffalo back into a playoff spot? Well maybe. Leino isn't really much of an upgrade over Tim Connolly but their defense is much improved and with Ryan Miller in net they will compete.

Then there are the teams frantically signing players to get to the salary minimum floor of $48.3 million. That happens to exceed the maximum salary cap in 2005 by almost $10 million. The consensus would be that the Panthers overspent on their contracts, but they did make their team stronger with the signings of Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Ed Jovanovski, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc and Jose Theodore. They also traded for Kris Versteeg. GM Dale Tallon is attempting to recreate the Blackhawk rebuild which was created by loading up on draft picks. The Panthers have done that but they need to be careful that the free agent signings don't create a salary squeeze when their good young talent is eligible for some hefty raises. Will they make the playoffs? Hard to say because large turnover in players are a real crapshoot.

There is the GM of a contending team that also attempts a total remake of his lineup. That would be this season's Philadelphia Flyers. Let's start with trading away Jeff Carter and Mike Richards and signing Ilya Bryzgalov for a long term deal. The Jaromir Jagr signing seems like an acceptable risk, although that it's noteworthy that the Penguins wouldn't go beyond $2 million and the Red Wings wouldn't go beyond $2.5 million. The Flyers paid $3.3 million. Max Talbot will be the kind of energy player that Philadelphia fans like. Will the Flyers be better. Well if they get better goaltending then for sure.

Another group of teams are those who believe they are a player or two away from a Stanley Cup and looking for that one or two players that can fit under their salary cap and will put them over the edge. That would be the Washington Capitals who signed role players like Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Tomas Vokoun, Chris Bourque and Roman Hamrlik to provide depth and strengthen themselves in a few areas.

The smart teams weren't very active. These signings can throw your salary scale out of whack. If you sign a 15-goal scorer for $4 million then what are you going to pay your young developing players that reach the 20-goal mark? The dumbest signing has to be Brad Richards. You would think that Glen Sather would learn from his experience of signing Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Wade Redden but I guess not. At 31 and with some serious concussions behind him, Richards may have only 2 to 3 good years left in him. Ranger fans relish seeing Marian Gaborik and Richards on a line together but that line might be in a doctors' waiting room.

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