While we might have ideas about which of this summer’s free agent signings were reasonable and which will eventually look like overpays, nothing is absolutely certain until those players finally take the ice for the 2016-17 season. A year later we can begin to determine which of last year’s free agent signings have worked out best.
It’s important to realize free agency, in practice, typically rewards players for past performances and not for what the player is likely going to contribute during the term of their new contract. Under the current CBA, most players do not reach unrestricted free agency until their late 20’s, after eight NHL seasons. Even players who make their NHL debuts immediately after being drafted are already 26 or 27 before accruing eight seasons in the league. At that age, most players are near the tail end of their prime or already beginning to enter the decline phase of their career. But with every team in the league usually willing to spend in free agency, bidding wars often break out and drive up the prices for those players available on the open market.
While every team looks for bargains in free agency, the reality is they are content to actually get their money’s worth as opposed to paying too much for too little. The following list comprises some – not all – of the best free agent deals signed last summer; the bargains as well as the deals where teams realized full value for their investments in year one. Granted, this is only after one year so some of the players on this list in the midst of multiyear contracts might not look so good down the road.
- Paul Martin – San Jose (four years, $4.85MM AAV) – Martin might have been considered among the riskiest signings last summer. Already 34-years-old, it didn’t seem prudent giving the veteran blue liner a four-year deal. But Martin was everything the Sharks hoped for and needed in 2015-16. He may have only tallied 20 points in 78 games but he finished 3rd on the Sharks averaging 20:44 in ice time per game and was a steadying influence in San Jose’s top-four. His $4.85MM cap charge ranks 47th in the NHL among defensemen suggesting he’s being paid as a top-pair defender but with 79 blue liners set to account for $4MM annually against the cap, Martin’s charge isn’t out of line. This deal might not look so rosy as Martin ages but at least for season one its among the best signed in the summer of 2015.
- Lee Stempniak – New Jersey (one year, $850K) – Stempniak is widely considered the steal of free agency last year. He went to camp with the Devils earning a job and a one-year deal worth just $850K. For their investment, New Jersey got 41 points in 63 games and subsequently flipped the veteran forward to Boston at the trade deadline for second (2017) and fourth-round (2016) picks. Yes, he benefited from receiving top-line minutes in New Jersey which may have partially inflated his offensive numbers, but he still did rank in the top-100 in Pts/60 averaging 1.76 at five-on-five. Stempniak was able to parlay his quality performance into a two-year deal with Carolina with a $2.5MM AAV.
- Justin Williams – Washingtom (two years, $3.25MM AAV) – Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, was imported in large part due to his track record as a proven and clutch playoff performer. Even though the Capitals bowed out in the second-round of the postseason, Williams still showed a penchant for coming up big when it mattered most. In games five and six of their second-round playoff series and with Washington on the verge of being oustered, Williams tallied two goals and three points. He wasn’t too shabby in the regular season either. Not only did he bring his usually stellar possession game – 53.1 CF% – but he also netted 22 goals and 52 points in 82 games. That’s excellent production for the 160th ranked salary cap hit among forwards.
- Matt Cullen – Pittsburgh (one year, $800K) – Cullen went the same route as Stempniak, going unsigned through the summer and eventually accepting a PTO with Pittsburgh. After making the roster out of camp, Cullen signed an $800K deal and rewarded the Penguins with terrific production in the team’s bottom-six. Cullen averaged 1.65 Pts/60 at even-strength, finishing with 16 goals and 32 points. Cullen played a key role in the Penguins Cup championship run, averaging the eight-most ice time among forwards and tallying four goals.
Feel free to chime in on the comments section if you feel we’ve omitted someone from this list. It wasn’t intended to necessarily be a full, comprehensive list but we wanted to point out some of 2015’s best signings.