After Evgeni Nabokov left for the big bucks in the KHL and potential big-ticket players such as Patrick Marleau re-signed before July 1, last summer’s free agent group seemed like it would begin and end with the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Sure, there were some impact defenseman here and there such as Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis, but for the most part it looked like the season of Kovalchuk.
Of course, you’re probably aware that the Kovalchuk investment has gone more than a little sour. He’s been a bust from an individual standpoint (only 5 goals and 11 points in 26 games with a pitiful -17 rating) while the New Jersey Devils are experiencing a nightmare season as the second worst team in the NHL.
As sports fans, we dream of our teams making splashy signings to reach a whole other level. The fact of the matter is, though, that big free agent acquisitions tend to flame out more often than they succeed. Maybe it’s the change of environment or the increased pressure that comes with those gigantic paychecks, but free agency is just a another type of personnel gambling along with similarly unstable endeavors such as making trades and drafting.
So when we look back to see which teams made the shrewdest moves, it turns out that under-the-radar signings yielded some of the best results. TSN’s Jamie Bell discusses some of the best deals in free agency, which all seem to the similar trait of being less ballyhooed moves. I thought I’d focus on a few of those moves here in this post.
Contract: one-year, $1.7 million cap hit
While Jokinen has just two goals in 25 games so far at the steep price of $3 million per season, Tanguay has been the Flames most consistent forward thus far with 23 points in 28 games, trailing only Jarome Iginla for the team lead. What makes the production all the more valuable is that it comes at the $1.7 million price tag attached to him this year. Compared to the $6.9 million that the San Jose Sharks are paying Patrick Marleau (a player they paid a premium for before the free agent market opened) to post similar numbers (22 points in 26 games) it appears that the Flames got themselves quite the steal.
Our take: Honestly, I thought the Tampa Bay Lightning would reap big rewards for signing Tanguay to a bargain deal for the 2009-10 season. Instead, such a result took an extra season to come to fruition as the playmaking forward is doing well during his second run with the Calgary Flames.
Contract: one-year, $1.1 million cap hit.
After sending a third and fourth round draft to the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline to acquire Clarke MacArthur, the Atlanta Thrashers decided that $2.4 million was too high a price to pay to retain him. They chose to walk away from an arbitrator’s decision on his salary, making him an unrestricted free agent. Burke happily swooped in and signed the Alberta native to a one-year, $1.1 million contract and has been reaping the rewards ever since.
Heading in to action Wednesday night, MacArthur leads the Maple Leafs in scoring with 21 points in 26 games and is second only to Kessel in goals. He’s been the club’s most consistent forward so far and has injected a nice mixture of skill and grit playing alongside the likes of Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.
Our take: While Tanguay’s nice season has been better than expected yet reasonably foreseeable, I didn’t see MacArthur’s resurgence coming. It seems like his offense has been coming in uneven patches, but at $1.1 million, you cannot complain with 21 points in 26 games.
Other mentions: Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres by the Vancouver Canucks, Colby Armstrong with the Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres’ signing of Jordan Leopold.
Our take: Malhotra’s price tag ($2.5 million) seems a bit steep for a faceoff specialist, although he is bringing a little offense and some solid D to Vancouver. Torres was a big bust in Buffalo but has sporadically sparked the Canucks’ scoring. Armstrong is also a bit pricey ($3 million) but sometimes helps Toronto win games in ways that don’t always show up on the box score.
At least at this point in the season, the big names aren’t producing big results while subtle moves are providing great value. Maybe it’s depressing to consider the fact that the splashy moves can be big mistakes, but it also gives you reason to believe.
Next summer we might just ask this question without a trace of sarcasm: who’s going to sign the next … Clarke MacArthur?