One NHL executive described this year’s crop of free agents as “a bunch of guys who’d be waiting a week for an offer any other year.” That said, he admitted there will be plenty of action when the market opens for business on Wednesday ... and that his team would likely be involved in the bidding.
Despite a lack of available game-changing players there is value to be found, as well as pitfalls to be avoided. The trick will be distinguishing the former from the latter. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the 2014 market and some of the best and worst signings of last summer.
How’s this for solid asset management? The Coyotes pick Dubnyk off the scrap heap in Montreal and sign him to a near-minimum deal. After half a year of solid back-up work, they flipped him to the Wild for a third-round pick they used on USHL winger Brendan Warren. Not a bad return on investment. Of course, that deal worked out pretty well for Minnesota, too. Given a chance to start for the Wild, Dubnyk went 28-9-3 down the stretch with a 1.78 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage. That earned him a finalist nod for the Vezina Trophy and a fourth-place finish in the race for the Hart.
Stralman will never win the Norris Trophy—his own coach, Jon Cooper, says so—but the Lightning wouldn’t have reached the Stanley Cup Final without him. It’s no sizzle, all steak with the 28-year-old Swede, who just now is entering the prime of his career. He combined with countryman Victor Hedman to form one of the most effective pairings in the league, one that dominated possession to the tune of nearly 60%.
For awhile there it looked like Richards was exactly as washed up as he appeared to be when the Rangers bought him out. By the midway point of the season, though, he started looking not only comfortable with a new system in Chicago but quicker than he had in years. By the time the playoffs rolled around the wily veteran had asserted himself as a key contributor, chipping in 14 points to help the Hawks win their third Cup in six years.
The knock on Vrbata was that he never performed as well for other teams as he did for the Coyotes. The 34-year-old erased that stigma this season, setting new career highs in assists (32), points (63) and shots (267) while helping Vancouver’s power play improve to ninth from 23rd in 2013–14. He didn’t always skate on the top line, but when he did his cycle-and-shoot style seemed to mesh nicely with the Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Though dogged by allegations in a sex assault case, Ribeiro got his personal demons under control and focused on playing the game during what might have been a last-chance stop in Nashville. He excelled in a first line role, contributing 62 points to help the Preds find their offensive mojo under new coach Peter Laviolette. That success priced him out of an extension, but he delivered great value (and kept his nose clean) while he was in town.
Turns out his disastrous season in Detroit wasn’t an aberration after all. Legwand legs are gone, and after coach Paul MacLean was fired so were his opportunities to contribute in Ottawa. He ended up with just nine goals and 27 points and was included as a salary dump in a draft-day trade with the Sabres.
• Ryan Miller, Vancouver Canucks (three years, $18 million)
There’s still time to rebound, but a deal that seemed odd at the time looks even worse now. The goalie’s injury-plagued season could charitably be described as mediocre (29-15-1, 2.53 goals-against average, .911 save percentage) and his signing led to the forced sale of the younger, and arguably superior, Eddie Lack.
It’s not the salary that doomed this deal (although it doesn't look good considering what the ’Coyotes gave Dubnyk). It was the performance. Lindback was supposed to push Kari Lehtonen for playing time in the Dallas net. Instead he quickly lost the faith of the coaching staff, posting a .873 save percentage and a 3.71 goals-against average while going 2–8 for the Stars. That forced Lehtonen into a heavier workload than expected, a situation that led to the team’s late-season meltdown.
• Ales Hemsky, Dallas Stars (three years, $12 million)
He started the season with a 21-game goal-scoring drought and finished with just two goals in his final 26 games—not exactly the expected return on investment from a player who was being paid to shore up the second line. There’s not a lot of will or variety in his game. He’s too easy to knock off the puck and nine times out of 10 he simply tries to beat a defender with speed along the right boards. At this point he’s not just taking up cap space, he’s also keeping a younger player from making the roster.
• Olli Jokinen, Nashville Predators (one year, $2.5 million)
Four goals. Ten points. Three teams. That pretty much sums up the exciting final year of Jokinen’s NHL career.
• The NHL’s worst forward of 2014–15 has lost his job with the Sabres. And a whole lot of money in the process.
• The tiny hamlet of Zehner, Saskatchewan, not only produced a pair of brothers who are on the verge of making it in the NHL, but also gave us one of the greatest comedy villains of all-time.
• The 2015 NHL draft wasn’t simply the deepest in recent memory, but also the most racially diverse. It really was a great day for hockey.
• If you’re not familiar with the career of Angela Ruggiero, here’s an excellent piece explaining why the Team USA legend deserves her spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
• Hot college free agent Mike Reilly explains why he went Wild.