Day 1 of NHL free agency was a wild ride, and to no surprise, teams opened their checkbooks to spend millions of dollars on players who will be under tremendous pressure to perform at a high level next season.
Ninety-six players were signed for a combined $543 million Tuesday, with the average annual salary being $2.8 million. That’s a ton of money, especially when you consider Stanley Cup champions are rarely built on July 1 during the salary cap era.
The Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings — who’ve won the last five Stanley Cup titles — have been pretty quiet in recent free agencies (the lone exception being Chicago’s Marian Hossa deal in 2009), opting to add depth/talent through trades and the draft.
Here’s a recap of the best and worst contracts signed on the first day of free agency.
Christian Ehrhoff: One year, $4 million with Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins watched Matt Niskanen, their top scoring defenseman, walk as an unrestricted free agent, but they replaced him with a better offensive player for six years and over $1 million per season less.
Ehrhoff will be a 40- to 55-point player in the Penguins’ lineup and should quarterback the power play and log 20 to 25 minutes against the opposing team’s best forwards. He also brings a wealth of playoff experience.
There’s a lot of incentive for Ehrhoff to have a tremendous season and set himself up for one last gigantic contract at 32 years old. Pittsburgh should get fantastic value from this deal.
Brad Richards: One year, $2 million with Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks added a former Stanley Cup champion with loads of playoff experience for just $2 million, while at the same time adding much-needed center depth to a roster that the Los Angeles Kings dominated down the middle for much of the Western Conference final.
Richards was bought out by the New York Rangers last month, but it was more of a financial/business decision rather than a hockey performance one. He tallied 51 points and scored 20 goals for the Rangers last season, and he should post similar or better numbers on a Blackhawks team that features some of the best offensive players in the league.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman deserves a lot of credit for addressing a huge need despite having limited salary cap space. It’s a low-risk signing that will allow top prospect Teuvo Teravainen additional time to develop into an everyday NHLer.
Anton Stralman: Five years, $22.5 million with Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning made a lot of moves over the last few days via trades and free agency, but signing Stralman will have the most profound impact on the team’s success.
General manager Steve Yzerman upgraded his blue line with a shut-down D-man who blocks shots, kills penalties, plays a physical style and defends opponents’ top lines for 18 to 23 minutes per game. He’s also a strong puck-possession player, and the Rangers averaged 11.2 percent more shots whenever Stralman was on the ice last season.
Signing the top defensive defenseman on the market for just $4.5 million per season and less than the max term (seven years) is a terrific move by the Lightning.
Brooks Orpik: Five years, $27.5 million with Washington Capitals
There’s not much to say about this deal other than it’s one of the worst of the salary cap era.
Orpik is a horrendous defensive player at this stage of his career, and his offensive skills are declining, but that didn’t stop the Capitals from paying him top-pairing money even though he’s a third-pairing guy. The blueliner is slow, won’t have a positive impact on special teams and was a horrible puck-possession player last season (46.2 corsi-for percentage).
Washington needed a top-four, shut-down defenseman to complement its surplus of offensive D-men, and failed to do so in a major way. The Capitals will pay Orpik over $5 million per season until he’s 39 years old. This contract has “future buyout” written all over it.
Benoit Pouliot: Five years, $20 million with Edmonton Oilers
This contract is a gigantic risk. Pouliot has never tallied more than 36 points in a season, takes a lot of penalties (many in the offensive zone) and his inconsistency is maddening. The winger has never had a contract longer than one year in his NHL career (he has played for five teams in five years), but that didn’t prevent the Oilers from signing him to this lengthy, expensive pact. The Oilers usually are forced to overpay to lure free agents, but the dollar figures in this deal are just insane.
The Oilers have been one of the worst run organizations since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, and this signing is one example of that. Edmonton still lacks a legitimate No. 1 defenseman, has two unproven goaltenders and needs addition center depth — and is headed for an eighth consecutive season in the draft lottery after a horrendous Day 1 of free agency.
Deryk Engelland: Three years, $8.7 million with Calgary Flames
Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke loves truculent players who can fight, and that got the best of him when he signed Engelland — a sixth or seventh defenseman — to a three-year deal worth $2.9 million per season.
Engelland must have thought his agent was joking when learning about this offer, because the annual salary is more than $2 million bigger than his 2013-14 figure.
Deryk Engelland cap hit by year: 08-09: 493K 09-10: 493K 10-11: 500K 11-12: 567K 12-13: 567K 13-14: 567K 14-15: 2.9 million—
Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) July 01, 2014
Engelland has never tallied more than 17 points in a single season, he won’t impact the power play and he lacks the mobility to excel defensively against most top-nine forwards. Sure, he does bring physicality, experience and a bit of leadership to a young team, but there’s no reason to grossly overpay for those attributes.
Calgary would have been better off not signing Engelland and putting a prospect in his place next season.