Grit meant gold in NHL free agency

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After a 2018 NHL Draft that emphasized speed and skill, sometimes while ignoring size concerns, GMs clearly asked “Where’s the beef?” in free agency.

Gritty, hard-nosed, “old-school” players really raked it in. While it’s tough not to feel happy for guys setting themselves up for life (especially since they might feel aches and pains decades after their playing days), it’s also difficult to avoid criticizing franchises for placing premiums on traits that aren’t necessarily proven to bring a whole lot of on-ice value.

With all the beef getting grilled up on the Fourth of July, it seems like a most sensible time to look over some of the moments when teams paid too much for “elbow grease.”

Check out all the free agent moves here.

One of the winners of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs

After scoring as many goals in the postseason (seven) as he generated ruing the regular season, you’d expect Devante Smith-Pelly to get one of those “shrug, you’re clutch, we’ll overpay you”-type deals. Instead, he re-signed with the Capitals for a very reasonable one-year, $1 million deal.

The fluky contract ended up going to Ryan Reaves, who landed a whopping two-year, $5.5M deal. If you want my gut reaction, Hockey Abstract’s Rob Vollman posted the GIF that captured it, but consider that Reaves: a) seemed to have one foot out of the NHL, b) ultimately only ended up with two goals and six shots on goal in his 10 playoff appearances, and c) also cost the Penguins a first-rounder heading into last season.

Even as someone who’s happy for Reaves’ revitalization on a human level, it’s jarring to see all the assets locked up in the limited enforcer. Especially since the Golden Knights otherwise avoided risky deals in letting James Neal and David Perron walk.

Pouring scrappy salt in wounds

Heading into John Tavares‘ decision time, the Islanders showed promise by tweaking their front office and executing a seemingly pitch-perfect draft. Then they poured ice water on that optimism by following the loss of Tavares with some head-scratching moves.

The Islanders really alleviated some of the Maple Leafs’ smaller cap concerns by not requiring salary retention in the Matt Martin trade, but at least Martin was/is beloved by Islanders fans. Maybe acquiring Martin soothed wounds for a mere moment.

Still, it wasn’t a shrewd move, and savvy Islanders fans likely viewed it as another rough moment.

The worry was that the Islanders would experience some of the bad moments of Lou Lamoriello as GM, and that was cemented by a lousy Leo Komarov contract. A $3M cap hit was already questionable for a depth forward, but giving the 31-year-old a four-year term is outright painful.

Considering all the dead money already tied up in marginal players, including redundant ones such as $3.5M for multiple years of Cal Clutterbuckget ready to dominate the hits category, Islanders – a grim outlook only got bleaker thanks to the league’s tendency to overrate “sandpaper.”

[More on the Islanders’ penchant for piling up depth players here.]

More strange decisions

  • The Vancouver Canucks earn a special demerit here because, at least with the Golden Knights in particular and the Islanders if Mathew Barzal works some miracles, some of these other teams at least have some playoff aspirations. Maybe that “good in the room” guy can do [insert subjective intangible things] to help them make the playoffs?

(Honestly, I’m not high on the Islanders’ chances this season, and they might be better off hitting the draft lottery, anyway.)

You’d have to be hitting the Kool-Aid pretty hard to believe that Vancouver is going to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so their big spending on small-time, gritty players is especially baffling.

Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel both bring some things to the table, yet neither scrappy forward should be expected to turn a cellar dweller into a contender. Giving them matching four-year, $12M contracts might be in step with handing a bad deal to Komarov, but it feels just as much like burning money.

By the time the Canucks are climbing the ranks more rapidly, Beagle and Roussel are likely to be considered burden contracts. Father Time can be especially cruel to bottom-of-the-order guys, so Roussel (28) and Beagle (already 32) are vulnerable to aging poorly. Even if they remained as they are, these deals are questionable. Not good.

  • Mike Babcock apparently isn’t the only person in the NHL who’s way-too-in-love with Roman Polak. The Stars seem infatuated with two conflicting types of moves: 1) landing stars via lopsided trades in their favor and 2) wasting money on immobile defensemen. Giving Polak $1.3M was a case of number two.
  • At least the Stars and other teams limited their risks with one-year deals. Personally, I wonder about the viability of Zac Rinaldo (to Nashville), Luke Schenn (Ducks), and injury-prone Eric Fehr (Wild), but the minimum term makes those decisions far easier to digest.

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Again, kudos to these “lunchpail guys” for maximizing their value in the open market. This sport undoubtedly takes a huge toll on their bodies and minds, and as Reaves showed with some pretty goals, they all have some hockey talent. You don’t really see someone enjoy a reasonably lengthy NHL career without bringing anything to the table.

That said, such modes of thought could really open up advantages for GMs who take a different approach than their traditional counterparts.

In other words, the winners here aren’t just the rugged players, their agents, and their accountants.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.