I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “let the buyer beware” at some point in your life. Or perhaps that should be “caveat emptor,” since using a ten-dollar word (or phrase) would probably be more appropriate given today’s subject.
A lot of the time that NHL GMs make big-ticket buys on the UFA market, the best they can hope for is to not have that contract turn into an albatross around the franchise’s neck. Ask pretty much anyone who signed a contract of any substance in the summer of 2016. Big names that year included Milan Lucic (Edmonton), Kyle Okposo (Buffalo), Andrew Ladd (New York Islanders), David Backes (Boston), Loui Eriksson (Vancouver) and Frans Nielsen (Detroit). Yikes.
But these big-dollar boys buck that bogey-bond trend. Here are five high-dollar UFA contracts in recent memory that paid off well for both team and player alike. (Or at least didn’t hurt either party.)
Note: We're only focusing on players with at least a two-season completed sample here.
Artemi Panarin – New York Rangers (2019)
After playing two years each with the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets, superstar left winger Artemi Panarin hit the unrestricted market in the summer of 2019. And this may come as a shock, but Panarin didn’t exactly have to wait around to find a fit that summer. The slick Russian immediately inked a seven-year, $81.5-million pact with the New York Rangers. It was – and still is – the second-highest active AAV in the NHL. Only Connor McDavid, who Panarin beat to the 2016 Calder Trophy, pulls down a higher annual value. And like McDavid, Panarin protected himself against both lockout and buyout (yeah, right!) by taking most of his cash in signing bonuses; Panarin’s annual base salary is a measly $1 million.
Though the Rangers have yet to experience the kind of team success they’d want for a proper ROI, it hasn’t been for Panarin's lack of trying. Since 2019-20, Panarin ranks third in points per game, behind only McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He has 153 points in 111 games as a Ranger. Panarin was also an integral part of Ryan Strome’s breakout. The duo played nearly 1200 cumulative minutes together at 5-on-5. Strome played to a 70-point pace in that time, after previously sitting at 38 points per 82 games in his six NHL seasons before Panarin took Broadway.
Panarin turns 30 early next season but has shown no signs of slowing down. With five years left on his contract, it's unlikely to become an albatross.
Alexander Radulov – Dallas Stars (2017)
When Russian right winger Alexander Radulov (re)departed for the KHL, following a tumultuous 17-game stint (regular season and playoffs) with the Nashville Predators in 2012, it seemed like he may have been done entirely with the North American game.
But in the summer of 2016, the mercurial Russian returned to sign a one-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens, worth $5.75 million. Even though the contract presented some risk for Montreal, it feels like a stretch to put it on this list since it was just one year long. Radulov performed well during his one season in Montreal, amassing 54 points in 76 games and then leading the Habs in playoff scoring with seven points in six games.
With his first full NHL season since 2007-08 under his belt, Radulov signed a five-year deal worth $6.25 million annually with the Dallas Stars on July 3, 2017.
Radulov has been a valuable offensive contributor over the length of his deal in Dallas. The recently turned 35-year-old has 190 points in 223 games as a Star, with one season left on his contract. He also had eight goals and 18 points in 27 playoff games in 2020, as Dallas got to within two wins of their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
It hasn’t all been positive during Radulov’s four-year term to date. His production waned during the 2019-20 regular season, with a full-season career-low of 34 points in 60 games. He also played only 11 games in 2020-21 but was effective when he got on the ice, netting four goals and 12 points in that time.
Still, almost everyone on Dallas struggled to produce in 2019-20, and Radulov hasn’t even come close to being a negative-value asset four years through the five-year deal. Dallas used a protection slot on him, something no big-ticket UFA dud can say.
Joe Pavelski – Dallas Stars (2019)
After 13 seasons in San Jose – the final four of which he spent as captain – Joe Pavelski moved on to Dallas in the summer of 2019. He signed a three-year, $21-million contract with the Stars on the first day of free agency that year.
The early returns were a bit concerning for the then-35-year-old. Pavelski managed just 14 goals and 31 points in 67 games during the regular season. That mark of 0.46 points per game was the worst of his 14-year career at the time.
But like many of his Dallas teammates, Pavelski came alive in the Edmonton bubble tournament, putting up 19 points and a team-leading 13 goals in 27 playoff games.
He was even better during the 2020-21 season, leading the team in goals (25) and points (51) and finishing seventh in Selke Trophy voting. At 5-on-5, Pavelski was among the NHL’s elite in most chance-suppression figures, meaning he could’ve finished even higher.
Pavelski also helped shepherd along sublime rookie Jason Robertson. They played 359 5-on-5 minutes together in 2020-21. Though Robertson’s numbers by no means collapse apart from Pavelski, the latter’s veteran calm certainly helped. Of the 33 5-on-5 points Robertson had, 18 came with Pavelski on the ice.
Paul Stastny – St. Louis Blues (2014)
The son of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, Paul Stastny hit the UFA market for the first time in 2014, a few months before his 29th birthday. At the time, Stastny had 458 points in 538 career games, all of which he’d played for the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him 44th overall in 2005. He signed a four-year, $28-million deal with the St. Louis Blues on July 1, 2014. That AAV of $7 million tied him with eight others for the 19th highest cap hit in the NHL in 2014-15.
Though he didn’t produce like fellow $7-million men Jason Spezza and the Sedin twins, Stastny was nowhere near the disaster that was Alexander Semin. In total, the Quebec City-born center played three-and-a-half seasons in St. Louis, putting up 56 goals and 175 points in 267 games in the Show-Me State. He also had 13 points in 20 games in the 2016 playoffs, helping the Blues get to within two games of the Cup final that year.
Overall, the contract wasn’t some fantastic value proposition for the Blues, but it wasn’t an anchor either. And they managed to get a 2018 first-rounder from Winnipeg for Stastny at the 2018 trade deadline. With that pick (and a third-rounder), they traded up to grab Dominik Bokk. Bokk, in turn, was used to help acquire Justin Faulk from Carolina. So the Stastny signing was a net-positive.
James van Riemsdyk – Philadelphia Flyers (2018)
Philadelphia used the second overall pick in the 2007 draft to pluck James van Riemsdyk from the U.S. NTDP. That selection worked well enough, with ‘JVR’ putting up 99 points in 196 games during his initial stint with the Flyers.
On June 23, 2012 – a little under a year after signing a six-year extension with Philly the season before his ELC expired – van Riemsdyk was shipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Luke Schenn.
That trade didn’t work out so well for the Broad St. crew, with van Riemsdyk finding his offensive stride in Blue and White, and Schenn never realizing his ‘human eraser’ potential on the Flyers’ blueline.
But on July 1, 2018, van Riemsdyk would hit the unrestricted market for the first time in his career, and signed a five-year, $35-million pact to return to the City of Brotherly Love.
Through the first three years of the deal, JVR has 63 goals and 131 points in 188 games. And van Riemsdyk rarely hurts his team. Only 14 forwards give away fewer pucks per hour than van Riemsdyk at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons (min. 2000 minutes). He’s also rarely in the box, taking just 20 minor penalties since returning to Philly.
Fun fact: Though JVR has played only half his NHL seasons (and fewer than half his games) in Philly, he’s never signed a contract with any other team.