NHL Free Agency: Ranking the Top 10 Moves So Far

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2014

NHL Free Agency: Ranking the Top 10 Moves So Far

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    NHL free agency can be the land of opportunity. It can also be the river of despair.

    With general managers tantalized by the prospects of adding NHL-ready talent to fit their respective teams' needs, player agents can dictate term lengths and drive up prices. When all is said and done, winning bidders sometimes end up with an albatross instead of a trophy.

    But the game continues because free agency can yield great prizes. As just one example, think about when the Boston Bruins signed Zdeno Chara to a five-year deal in 2006. Nearly a decade later, he's Boston's captain, has a Stanley Cup ring to show for his efforts and is signed to a contract that will take him past his 41st birthday.

    Chara and Boston were a good fit. Here's a look at the top 10 signings of 2014 that have the potential to rival the Chara deal.

10. Jussi Jokinen, Florida Panthers

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Age: 31

    The Deal: four years, $16 million, $4 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    After joining the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2013 trade deadline, Jussi Jokinen blossomed into a reliable two-way forward on a team that boasts stars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Though he was eighth in average ice time among Pittsburgh forwards at 15 minutes a game, Jokinen was third in scoring on the team with 27 goals and finished out the year with a career-high plus-12.

     

    Risk Factors

    Jokinen has cracked the 50-point plateau just three times in his nine-year NHL career, peaking with 30 goals and 65 points with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2009-10. His career had sunk to the point where he was placed on waivers by the Hurricanes a week before he was traded to Pittsburgh for a conditional sixth- or seventh-round draft pick. Carolina retained $900,000 of Jokinen's $3 million salary hit when he was dealt.

    Jokinen's new deal is the richest of his career. If the Panthers get the player we saw in Pittsburgh last season as well as a Finnish mentor to young Aleksander Barkov, it's great value for their money.

9. Jonas Gustavsson, Detroit Red Wings

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Age: 29

    The Deal: one year, $1.85 million, $1.85 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    During a season where Detroit Red Wings starting goaltender Jimmy Howard was plagued with injuries, Jonas Gustavsson kept the team in playoff contention with a solid 16-5-4 record and .907 save percentage—his best of his NHL career.

    The Monster has been rewarded with a new deal that improves on the $1.5 million a season that he earned during his last two seasons in Detroit.

     

    Risk Factors

    Minimal. Circumstances seemed to favor Gustavsson in 2013-14, but the Red Wings haven't broken the bank to keep him around.

8. Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29

    The Deal: four years, $18 million, $4.5 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    With the 28th-ranked defense in 2013-14, the New York Islanders had to shore up their back end in hopes of climbing the standings ahead of their move to Brooklyn in 2015-16.

    Though Jaroslav Halak couldn't get the Washington Capitals into the playoffs after being acquired at the trade deadline, he remained one of the best free-agent goaltenders available this spring. Islanders general manager Garth Snow acquired Halak's rights from the Capitals for a fourth-round draft pick, then was able to sign Halak for four years on May 22. The move brings stability to the Islanders' crease after a long period of uncertainty.

     

    Risk Factors

    Despite stepping in to backstop the Montreal Canadiens to a surprise appearance in the Eastern Conference Final in 2010, Halak has had trouble establishing himself as a bona fide No. 1 goaltender. The Canadiens opted to stick with Carey Price when they traded him to the St. Louis Blues, where he shared the crease with Brian Elliott and played a backup role in most postseason games.

    For the Islanders, Halak is an upgrade at a reasonable price on an aging Evgeni Nabokov, who at 38 years old recently signed with the Tampa Bay Lighting for one year, but Halak's tenure likely won't be without ups and downs.

7. Dany Heatley, Anaheim Ducks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 33

    The Deal: one year, $1 million, $1 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    Dany Heatley's 50-goal seasons happened nearly a decade ago, but he's a pure goal scorer who just joined the best offensive team in the NHL in 2013-14, the Anaheim Ducks.

    As Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times says, "Heatley, 33, represents a low-cost gamble...a reclamation project in the truest sense of the term. As recently as 2010, he played for the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team that won the gold medal in Vancouver."

    By signing a short-term, bargain-basement contract, Heatley knows this could be his last opportunity to prove that he still belongs in the NHL.

     

    Risk Factors

    At $1 million, the risks to the Ducks are minimal. Ideally, Heatley's veteran offense will help replace the goals lost from the departed Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. If Heatley doesn't bounce back from his bleak years in Minnesota, he can easily be scratched or put on waivers, allowing roster flexibility for Anaheim.

6. David Legwand, Ottawa Senators

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 33

    The Deal: two years, $6 million, $3 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    Speaking of the glory days of the Ottawa Senators, David Legwand has been brought into Canada's capital to fill the void left by the departure of Jason Spezza.

    Chosen second overall by the Nashville Predators back in 1998, the steady Legwand didn't ascend to superstardom but is well-versed in playing dependable two-way hockey. With his cap hit dropping from $4.5 million to $3 million on his new deal, Legwand will provide good value and a solid anchor to the Senators' crop of young forwards, where his only fellow thirty-something will be tough guy Chris Neil.

     

    Risk Factors

    Limited. As with all aging players, we may see Legwand lose a step or get bitten by the injury bug. But as Adam Proteau of The Hockey News points out, free-agent contracts aren't always a burden to the team that signs them. Legwand has a modified no-trade clause as part of his new deal, but like last season, he could once again find himself a valuable target at the trade deadline.

5. Ales Hemsky, Dallas Stars

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    Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    The Deal: three years, $12 million, $4 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    When the Ottawa Senators gave up a third-round and fifth-round draft pick to bring in Ales Hemsky at the trade deadline, they uncovered magical chemistry between Hemsky and center Jason Spezza. After scoring just 26 points in 55 games with the Edmonton Oilers in 2013-14, Hemsky posted 17 points in the last 20 games of the season after joining the Senators.

    Spezza also thrived, picking up 19 of his 66 points for the season in his 18 games after Hemsky's arrival.

    When Spezza was dealt to the Dallas Stars to add second-line depth behind Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, Hemsky tagged along. He signed for $1 million per season less than his previous deal with Edmonton.

     

    Risk Factors

    Hemsky never quite lived up to his potential with the Oilers. He showed great skill but was perpetually slowed by injuries, playing more than 75 games in just one of his nine full seasons in Edmonton.

    A fresh start in a good situation should boost Hemsky's output. His momentum could suffer if he keeps getting hurt.

4. Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    The Deal: six years, $34.8 million, $5.8 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    As they played in the Stanley Cup Final, the New York Rangers looked like the clear winners of the trade-deadline deal that brought Martin St. Louis to Broadway and sent New York captain Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    After season's end, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman did an impressive job of consolidating his assets. He re-signed next-generation leader Callahan to a reasonable deal, then used his new addition as bait to attract two of the Rangers' most tantalizing free agents—defenseman Anton Stralman and hulking forward Brian Boyle.

     

    Risk Factors

    Callahan's contract has a long-term and high-dollar value, but it's not disproportionate to the player's profile. After the Rangers were unable to ink him to a long-term deal, Callahan should provide veteran leadership to a young Tampa Bay team that's looking to track into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.

3. Paul Stastny, St. Louis Blues

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 28

    The Deal: four years, $28 million, $7 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    As a team that is close to breaking through to the NHL's elite, the St. Louis Blues wanted to add scoring after being limited to 11 goals in six games in their first-round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. Paul Stastny was the top forward available on the open market. He also spent time in St. Louis as a youth when his father, Peter, played for the Blues in the mid-1990s.

    Stastny's new contract is only a small increase from his expiring deal. He made $6.6 million a year with the Colorado Avalanche over the last five seasons.

     

    Risk Factors

    Paul Stastny is a six-time 20-goal scorer but has averaged over a point a game just once in his career, back in 2007-08.

    Stastny was a runner-up for the Calder Trophy in 2006-07 and is a two-time Olympian with Team USA. In his new surroundings, he should have a chance to realize his full potential as he enters the prime of his NHL career.

2. Marian Gaborik, Los Angeles Kings

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Age: 32

    The Deal: seven years, $34.125 million, $4.875 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    Not many trade-deadline acquisitions work out as well as Marian Gaborik did for the Los Angeles Kings. The oft-injured sniper found his footing immediately in L.A., posting 16 points in his first 19 regular-season games with the offensively challenged Kings. With 22 playoff points, Gaborik was fourth in postseason scoring and added a threatening component to Los Angeles' top line as the team captured its second Stanley Cup.

    Basking in the Kings' success, general manager Dean Lombardi locked down Gaborik for the next seven years at a cap hit that's $2.625 million a year less than his previous contract.

     

    Risk Factors

    Did I mention that Gaborik gets injured a lot? Gaborik's only full season in his entire NHL career was in 2011-12 with the New York Rangers. A seven-year deal for a 32-year-old will almost certainly include some time with the player on the sidelines, but a reasonable cap hit of under $5 million makes the risk manageable.

    The Kings will take what they can get right now and worry about the future down the road, when the salary cap will likely be much higher.

1. Christian Ehrhoff, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 32

    The Deal: one year, $4 million, $4 million cap hit

     

    Why It's a Great Deal

    The Pittsburgh Penguins lost two key defensemen to the Washington Capitals in free agency when Matt Niskanen signed at a cap hit of $5.75 million a season for seven years and Brooks Orpik added a cap hit of $5.5 million for five years.

    New Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made out like a bandit when he shored up his blue line with Christian Ehrhoff on a one-year, $4 million deal.

    Ehrhoff's skills were not in question when the Buffalo Sabres bought out his 10-year, $40 million contract. Even his cap hit was reasonable at $4 million a season, but the issue was term. Ehrhoff's deal was signed before the lockout and would be subject to cap-recapture penalties if he retired before 2021, when he'd be 38.

     

    Risk Factors

    Ehrhoff's minus-27 last season put him in the bottom 10 players in the league but was almost certainly influenced by his environment with the Buffalo Sabres. As a solid power-play point man with a good first pass earlier in his career, Ehrhoff should add a positive, dynamic element to the Penguins back end.

     

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com. Contract information courtesy of CapGeek.com.