Five off-season free agent signings who haven’t panned out

Off-season spending is guaranteed to produce results, and when it comes to these five players who signed on with new teams over the summer, their respective franchises are still waiting for the investment to pay off.
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It was only two summers ago that the Montreal Canadiens attempted to bolster their blueline with the signing of Karl Alzner.

On July 1, 2017, the Canadiens announced the signing of the defensive-minded blueliner to a five-year pact that paid him upwards of $4.6-million per season. The belief was that Alzner could help repair some of the defensive woes that plagued Montreal, that he could bring the same shutdown-type game that he provided the Washington Capitals previously. But the results simply weren’t there, and his ice team steadily declined as the season wore on, from 20:35 in the front half of the campaign to 19:36 over the back half.

Alzner’s use in Montreal continued to decline as this season began, too. Once a third defenseman, he had been relegated to the press box by the time the 2018-19 campaign rolled around. And used sparingly by coach Claude Julien through the first quarter of the current season, the decision was finally made on Monday to waive the veteran rearguard, which will almost assuredly result in Alzner finding his way to the AHL in the coming days.

However, signings such as Alzner’s happen every season to varying degrees. In fact, even though he finds himself on waivers today, he was hardly the worst signing made ahead of the 2017-18 campaign. Remember Vadim Shipachyov? You might not, if only because the KHL import came and went faster than you can say his name. He lasted only a moment with the Vegas Golden Knights before he terminated his deal and headed home.

And while it’s far too early to call the majority of this summer’s signings busts, there are certainly several that haven’t gone according to plan through the early part of the 2018-19 campaign. So, with that in mind, here are five free agent contracts penned this off-season that haven’t panned out:

James Neal, Calgary Flames
It’s the most obvious starting place for a list of summer signings gone awry.

The 31-year-old winger was brought in by the Flames on a five-year, $28.75-million contract to help bolster the top-six, and while Neal has, in a literal sense, contributed to Calgary’s success this season, he hasn’t produced at even close to the rate that was expected. In 24 games, he has three goals and five points. He’s on pace for 10 goals and 17 points. That would be less than half of his respective career lows in each category. And put another way, Neal’s output would be four more goals, but five fewer points than off-season buyout Troy Brouwer scored last season.

More concerning than Neal’s production, though, has been his usage. Because though it could just be an offensive dry spell, Neal’s lack of offense has resulted in steadily declining ice time as the season has worn on. He began the campaign averaging nearly 16 minutes per outing through to Oct. 27. In the 13 games since, though, his ice time has dipped below 15 minutes per game with seasonal lows of 10:55, 9:08 and 8:03. Oof.

Cam Ward, Chicago Blackhawks
From the outset, the Blackhawks bringing in Ward on a one-year, $3-million deal seemed misguided. Sure, he has a Stanley Cup to his name, but the statistical company the veteran goaltender was keeping across the past three seasons was worrisome. Among the 46 netminders to have played the equivalent of a full 82-game season across the three campaigns prior to 2018-19, Ward ranked 41st with a .907 save percentage. And the issues dated back much further than that. In fact, across 640 games in Carolina post-Stanley Cup victory, Ward’s .910 SP was fourth-worst among all netminders to play at least 300 games in the post-lockout era.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Ward has struggled. Starting first in place of the injury Corey Crawford, Ward managed a mere. 885 SP in six games. And in the four outings Ward has played since Crawford’s return to full-time duty, he has a .902 SP. Altogether, that makes for an .892 SP in 10 appearances. That ranks 34th among the 40 goalies to have seen action in 10 games this season.

Jack Johnson, Pittsburgh Penguins
On a base statistical level, Johnson has been able to produce rather well in the first season of his five-year, $16.25-million deal. His one goal and six points actually puts him into a tie for third in scoring among Penguins rearguards, and were Johnson to keep this pace up all season, his four goals and 23 points would tie for his third-best total in the past six seasons. That’s all right.

But it’s not Johnson’s offensive contributions that are concerning. Rather, it’s his own-zone play. Among every-game defensemen, Johnson has the second-worst Corsi percentage, worst shots percentage and third-worst scoring chance percentage among all Penguins blueliners at five-a-side. Even more concerning is the fact Johnson has the third-worst goals for percentage (34.3 percent) at 5-on-5 of any Pittsburgh skater and fifth-worst (38.6) at all strengths. That’s not good enough from the Penguins’ only major off-season signing, and it’s indicative of the reason why Pittsburgh is only barely outside the bottom third of the league in goals-against per game.

Riley Nash, Columbus Blue Jackets
A 15-goal, 41-point career year in Boston opened up doors in free agency and led to a three-year, $8.25-million contract with the Blue Jackets and the opportunity to take the next step in his career as a late-blooming, point-producing forward. Instead of continuing on as a consistent middle-six scorer, though, Nash has struggled to get his feet under him in Columbus and the results have been disappointing, to say the least. Through 22 games, he has just two assists in 22 games and it appears as though he’s starting to fall out of favor with coach John Tortorella. Since Oct. 30, Nash has skated 10 or fewer minutes seven times in 12 games, and his highest ice time over that span is a mere 13:30.

One unfortunate thing about Nash’s performance is that he’s having next to no luck to go along with his limited minutes. A career 10 percent shooter coming into this season, Nash hasn’t been able to muster a tally on his 16 shots on goal, and the limited ice time isn’t providing him with much in the way of prime scoring chances. If this doesn’t turn around, the next two-plus seasons of this contract might feel like a lifetime for Nash and the Blue Jackets.

Jan Kovar, New York Islanders
If Canadiens fans want to take solace in Alzner’s trip to the waiver wire, all they need to do is take one look at Kovar, who falls into the category of cautionary tales of KHL transfers alongside Shipachyov. Inked to a one-year, $2-million pact as a top talent coming out of the Russian league — he had scored 50 goals and 150 points across his past three campaigns — Kovar’s performance in the pre-season was such that an Islanders team that was thought to be bereft of anything that even resembled forward depth decided they were better off without him.

In that sense, there technically can’t be a worse signing on this list. Kovar was inked to his one-year deal and didn’t play so much as a shift for the Islanders. Heck, he hasn’t even skated with their minor-league affiliate. Instead, the 28-year-old has found his way into the North American game for the first time by landing with the Boston Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence, where he has four goals and 10 points in 12 games.

At this rate, Kovar has a better chance of scoring a goal against the Islanders than he does contributing anything to the team that signed him in the summer.

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