NHL

Why Spending Big in Free Agency Isn't the Best Way to Win the Stanley Cup

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 28: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks holds the Stanley Cup Trophy during the Blackhawks Victory Parade and Rally on June 28, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Nicholas GossCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2013

The NHL is a business run by impatient people.

Owners want results, and they are rarely willing to wait long to see success from their teams on and off the ice. This is why many of these owners give their general managers millions of dollars to spend in free agency each summer with the hopes of finding the one player who will turn the franchise's fortunes around.

On July 5, the opening of free agency, teams spent a record amount of money on unrestricted free agents, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Unfortunately for the teams that wrote massive checks, the chances of these UFAs leading them to championship glory aren't very high.

Here's a look at many of the biggest free-agent contracts signed in the salary cap era (2005-present), only including players who switched teams:

YearPlayer(s)New TeamContractStanley Cups
2006Zdeno CharaBruins5 years, $37.5 millionOne
2007Scott GomezRangers7 years, $51.5 millionNone
2007Danny BriereFlyers8 years, $52 millionNone
2008Wade ReddenRangers6 years, $39 millionNone
2008Brian CampbellBlackhawks8 years, $56.8 millionOne
2009Marian HossaBlackhawks12 years, $62.8 millionTwo
2010Ilya KovalchukDevils15 years, $100 millionNone
2011Ilya BryzgalovFlyers9 years, $51 millionNone
2011Brad RichardsRangers9 years, $60 millionNone
2012Ryan Suter, Zach PariseWild13 years, $98 millionNone
2012Christian EhrhoffSabres10 years, $48 millionNone

As you can tell, spending big money for UFAs is not the best way to reach championship success. Only three of these players won a Stanley Cup with their new team. And in Campbell's case, his gigantic contract helped force Chicago to trade a significant portion of its 2010 championship roster over the next two years due to cap problems.

Signing new players to massive long-term deals as UFAs often hurts a team's cap flexibility in the near future, which is why these contracts are rarely worth the risk.

The best way to win the Stanley Cup in the cap era is through the draft.

The 2013 Stanley Cup finalists (Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks) are great examples. In Chicago's case, most of the team's core was constructed through the draft:

YearDraftPlayerPosition
2002Round 2Duncan KeithDefense
2003Round 1Brent SeabrookDefense
2003Round 2Corey CrawfordGoalie
2006Round 1Jonathan ToewsCenter
2007Round 1Patrick KaneRight Wing

Finding value after Round 1 is especially critical because that's where important depth players who won't cost teams much against the cap are found.

For example, an important part of the Blackhawks' championship roster in 2013 was built from drafting and developing role players taken after the first round, including Andrew Shaw (2011, Round 5), Marcus Kruger (2009, Round 5) and 2013 Calder Trophy finalist Brandon Saad (2011, Round 2).

The Bruins have also drafted several quality players past the first round, including four top-six forwards on the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final teams:

YearDraftPlayerPosition
2003Round 2Patrice BergeronCenter
2004Round 2David KrejciCenter
2006Round 2Milan LucicLeft Wing
2006Round 3Brad MarchandLeft Wing

Drafting young players, developing them well and surrounding the core with veteran leaders is the smartest strategy to build a consistent winner in today's NHL. This is why the Blackhawks, Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins are the only four teams to make multiple Cup Finals appearances in the cap era.

In fact, seven of the last nine Conn Smythe Trophy winners hoisted the award as a member of the team that drafted them.

Filling out a roster with inexpensive young players and rookies on entry-level deals is the best way to complement high-paid stars in a cap system. This method also helps general managers adequately replace veterans who leave via free agency.

The start of free agency is a time when NHL owners are able to use their millions of dollars to sign marquee players with the hopes of building a championship-caliber team. But after analyzing the impact that these free agents signed to mega deals have had on their new teams, it's clear that owners should close the checkbook and take the draft route to the Stanley Cup.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.

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