The National Football League officially opened the 2017-18 league year yesterday at 4:00pm ET, and the annual onslaught of massive free agent signings has been ongoing ever since, keeping our friends over at Pro Football Rumors pretty busy. The NHL has a similar ritual, as flurry of free agent activity is common each and every July 1st, when a new hockey season officially begins. Last summer, a handful of huge contracts were handed out on July 1st. With the season winding down, how have those players performed in their first seasons? (Hint: mostly really bad)
Signed: Seven-year, $42MM deal with the Edmonton Oilers
2016-17 stats: 66 games, 14 goals, 22 assists, 36 points, -7 rating, 134 shots, 17:13 ATOI
Of all six players who received the biggest contracts on July 1st, Lucic is the only one on a team that appears to be a lock for the postseason in 2016-17. Now, that may say more about the effectiveness of hastily giving out money to the best players on the market, but Lucic at least deserves some credit. His offensive production doesn’t quite match up with his $6MM yearly price tag, but Lucic has added the same degree of grit and toughness that made him a fan favorite and Stanley Cup champion with the Boston Bruins. Lucic is always a physical threat on the ice and can make plays through his ability to crash the net and win battles along the boards. He’s never been able to score much more than 60 points per season, with just one 30-goal campaign in his career, but he earns his money through protecting the talented players on the ice while also having the ability to skate alongside them. Lucic is also spending an abnormal amount of time not in the penalty box, with just 41 penalty minutes as opposed to a career average closer to one hundred. Lucic is spending more time on the ice, most recently with his new line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, than he is in the box, and as long as that continues, this contract will pay off for the Edmonton Oilers.
Signed: Seven-year, $42MM deal with the Buffalo Sabres
2016-17 stats: 63 games, 19 goals, 24 assists, 43 points, -6 rating, 151 shots, 19:04 ATOI
Okposo may have been named an All-Star in his first season in Buffalo, but the Sabres were likely expecting more from their major 2016 investment. The Sabres were likely expecting more from the 2016-17 season overall, but Okposo’s lack of production doesn’t help the matter. As it stands, Okposo is on pace to have his worst scoring season since 2012-13 unless he picks up the pace over Buffalo’s final 15 games. At $6MM a year for six more seasons to come, the Sabres can only hope that Okposo hasn’t already begun his decline at just 28 years old. Okposo has looked good alongside Ryan O’Reilly for stretches this season, but there hasn’t been enough consistency. He is still a safer asset than many of the other older players on this list, but we’ll have to wait until next year to know for sure whether this was a bad call by Buffalo.
Signed: Seven-year, $38.5MM deal with the New York Islanders
2016-17 stats: 62 games, 19 goals, 6 assists, 25 points, -11 rating, 112 shots, 15:56 ATOI
The Islanders have made an impressive comeback from a dismal beginning to 2016-17, but even if they find a way into the playoffs, that won’t be enough to make them feel good about the deal they gave Ladd this summer. At just 31 years old, no one could have predicted that the veteran winger would fall off a cliff this quickly. After scoring 46 or more points in each of the past six seasons, Ladd will be lucky to reach 3o this year. His $5.5MM cap hit over six more seasons could be yet another big mistake by a team with a long history of issues with long-term contracts. John Tavares and the Islanders can only hope that 2016-17 was a fluke and that they’ll get the real Ladd next season, but don’t count on it.
Signed: Six-year, $36MM deal with the Vancouver Canucks
2016-17 stats: 65 games, 11 goals, 13 assists, 24 points, -9 rating, 132 shots, 18:41 ATOI
From bad to worse, we move from Ladd to Eriksson, who may be the worst signing of the summer at this point in time. After a stellar 63-point season with the Bruins in 2015-16, Eriksson signed a long-term deal worth $6MM annually in Vancouver, and the Canucks brass expected that his addition would keep the championship window opened a bit longer. Instead, the team has faltered and appears headed toward a rebuild. One of the main factors to this collapse has been an utter lack of production out of Eriksson. The Swedish winger supposed to put up huge numbers alongside Daniel and Henrik Sedin, but with a month to go, he has been off the top line for a while now has has less than half the points as he did at this time last year. Whether it is a poor fit or simply poor play, this signing could end up being a long-term headache for the Canucks if Eriksson can’t turn it around in 2017-18.
Signed: Six-year, $31.5MM deal with the Detroit Red Wings
2016-17 stats: 62 games, 13 goals, 17 assists, 30 points, -17 rating, 125 shots, 17:09 ATOI
Though the streak of failures was over? Not yet. Nielsen left the Islanders this summer, like Okposo, to help keep the postseason hopes of the Detroit Red Wings alive, like Eriksson in Vancouver, and like Okposo and Eriksson he has struggled. Because of this, the Red Wings’ historic playoff streak is all but snapped and they are left scratching their heads with a roster full of veterans on long-term contracts who didn’t perform up to snuff in 2016-17. Nielsen may be the worst of the bunch, as his 30 points teeters on the edge of being the worst full season of his career. Beyond just the lack of production, Nielsen’s -17 rating is atrocious, especially compared with his numbers in New York, where he was considered a good two-way center. No one on the Red Wings has exceeded expectations this season – now that Thomas Vanek has been traded – but that’s no excuse for Nielsen. He finally got the big pay day he had always wanted, but if really wants to earn that yearly $5.25MM and stay in Detroit for the remaining five years, his play will need to pick up next season.
Signed: Five-year, $30MM deal with the Boston Bruins
2016-17 stats: 59 games, 13 goals, 18 assists, 31 points, even rating, 140 shots, 17:21 ATOI
Finally we get to Backes, who despite scoring less than Okposo and not much more than the other two, can count his first season in Boston as a success. Backes has taken his fair share of criticism in 2016-17, but at the end of the day he has always been a two-way threat more than an offensive threat and has done well in that role this season. Backes’ 31 points is well behind his 45 points in St. Louis last year and 58 the year before, but the 32-year-old has also been asked to move from his old first-line center role to a top-six winger role this season, on a team that hasn’t been great at scoring goals. Despite all that, Backes may still end up with about 40 points, as he has been playing his best hockey of the year of late, now a member of the team’s top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand since the Bruins’ coaching change. Like the role Lucic once played in Boston, Backes has provided a dominant physical presence wherever he has played in the lineup this season and has contributed some offense along the way. Might the Bruins regret this contract in year four or five? Possibly, but for now Backes is a good fit and will continue to be this season, postseason, and beyond.