A few of last year’s free agent signings defied the odds and actually turned into either steals for their team or at least, proved to be a solid value. A lesson taught in physics is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same can possibly be said for free agent signings, evidently, as for every signing that worked out there was one that didn’t. Here’s a quick rundown on a few of 2015’s free agent busts.
- Andrej Sekera – Edmonton (six years, $5.5MM AAV) – Sekera was pursued and ultimately signed by the Oilers, a team with plenty of offensive firepower but one in desperate need of defensive help. The hope was Sekera could fill a role on the club’s top pair while providing experience and stability to a defense corps short on both. While Sekera wasn’t terrible – he did net 30 points for the Oilers – he had no positive effect on the team’s possession numbers and while they did cut their GAA from 3.45 in 2014-15 to 3.0 this past season, Edmonton still ranked just 27th in goals allowed overall. It might be unfair to pin the blame on Sekera alone but his cap hit is tied for 24th highest among defensemen, suggesting he is compensated at the level of a #1 blue liner. The Oilers are paying for a top-pair defender but Sekera performed more at the level of a #4.
- Zbynek Michalek – Arizona (two years, $3.2MM AAV) – Michalek had several good seasons over two stints in the desert and after hitting free agency following a 2015 deadline deal from the Coyotes to St. Louis, Arizona elected to bring the veteran back for another tour of duty. Like Sekera, Michalek was expected to add experience and leadership to a blue line that was populated primarily by younger players. Unlike Sekera, however, Michalek wasn’t expected to be a top pair defender. Unfortunately, Michalek had a down year, one not good enough even for a bottom pair defender. He placed among the absolute worst defensemen in the NHL in CF% (Corsi For %). His 43.9% CF% was 3.7% lower than the team average, indicating he was a significant drag on his teammates while he was on the ice. Even if a $3.2MM AAV isn’t a cap killer, it isn’t good business for a budget team like the Coyotes to pay that price for poor production.
- Antoine Vermette – Arizona (two years, $3.75MM AAV) – Not singling the Coyotes out but it’s signings like this one and the Michalek contract that likely played a role in Arizona’s offseason organizational changes. At first, re-signing Vermette after a brief stint with Chicago where the veteran pivot won the Stanley Cup, made a lot of sense. He’d had a couple of productive seasons in the desert prior to the trade and on a two-year deal, the consistent 40-point production seemed well worth the investment. However, Vermette’s play nosedived last season resulting in the team buying out the final year of his contract. On the surface, Vermette’s 38 points in 76 games falls in line with his past level of production. However, his even strength scoring rate dropped to a career low 1.04 Pts/60; a figure that ranked 315th in the NHL among forwards. Vermette also struggled in the puck possession department finishing with a CF% of just 46.3%. Vermette still can be a useful NHL player but it made sense for the Coyotes to move on from that expensive contract.
- Alexander Semin – Montreal (one year, $1.1MM) – Semin has always been a divisive figure between the traditional hockey folks and the analytically minded. Traditionalists saw Semin as a supremely talented but unmotivated player who rarely played to his potential while stat guys based his value on the terrific possession and scoring rates. Regardless, after Carolina bought him out of that ill-advised, five-year, $35MM deal last summer, nearly everyone agreed Montreal’s signing of Semin to a cheap, one-year contract was a smart move. At the least the Canadiens would get middling production for low cost. At best Semin would play up to his 40-goal ability and the Canadiens would have the steal of the summer. Semin would only make it two months into the season, scoring one goal and four points in 15 games, before Montreal decided they’d seen enough. On December 10th, both sides agreed to mutually terminate the agreement and Semin returned to Russia to finish out the year. Granted, the actual financial investment was limited, but the Canadiens desperately needed a quality scorer on the wing and counted on Semin to provide that. In hindsight, Montreal would have been better off looking elsewhere for offense.