The first day of free agency in the NHL is dubbed a frenzy for good reason. In the first four hours following the start of the signing period at noon, 36 players had been inked to new deals, 27 of them taking their services to new teams. Just as quickly, teams seem to alter their image — for better or worse.
Free agency is almost always a bad value proposition for teams. You are bidding on a limited number of quality players — often past their peak performance age — in an extremely condensed time frame. Safe to say it’s not a set of circumstances conducive to wisdom and fiscal restraint.
But in the early stages of 2014 free agency, we did see a few smart deals handed out. Here’s a look at some of the best buys on Day 1.
Tampa Bay Lightning | D Anton Stralman | Five years, $22.5 million
Shortly after 33-year-old defenseman Brooks Orpik signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal with the Washington Capitals, the Bolts snatched up the former Rangers blue-liner for $5 million less. Stralman, six years Orpik’s junior, is coming off back-to-back seasons in which his team dominated puck possession while he was on the ice. At even strength, the Rangers saw 56.5 percent of shot attempts directed at the opponent’s net when Stralman was skating. In 2012-13, that figure (also known as Corsi For Percentage) sat at 57.3. Those figures ranked Stralman in the top seven among NHL defensemen the past two seasons.
The Lighting added defenseman Jason Garrison, he of the TNT-fueled slap shot, to a blue-line group led by up-and-coming star Victor Hedman. The Stralman signing makes a talented group both better and deeper — and for what seemed to be a very reasonable price.
Chicago Blackhawks | C Brad Richards | One year, $2 million
The Blackhawks were already pressing near the ceiling of the salary cap, but needed a center to bolster their second line — a position that usually carries a minimum price tag north of $3 million in free agency. Usually.
Instead, the rich will get richer with Richards. (Sorry, had to be done.) Chicago was able to capitalize on the New York Rangers own cap crunch, which required them to buy out Richards’s overly-rich contract from 2011. Add in their appeal as an annual Stanley Cup contender and the Blackhawks were able to bag a very valuable asset on the cheap. Richards put up 51 points in 2013-14, and he’ll likely spend his ice time skating with even more dangerous linemates in Chicago. In New York, Richards’s two most frequent linemates combined for 58 points last season. Potential Blackhawks partner Patrick Kane posted 69 by himself, averaging a point per game.
Pittsburgh Penguins | D Christian Ehrhoff | One year, $4 million
Like the Blackhawks with Richards, the Penguins benefited when the Buffalo Sabres bought out Ehrhoff just three years into a 10-year, $40 million pact signed in 2011. Though the Pens watched a pair of accomplished defensemen walk away to the rival Capitals in Orpik and puck-mover Matt Niskanen, they replaced the more valuable of the two (Niskanen) with another puck-mover at a lower price point. Ehrhoff has been a strong defenseman for a poor team in the Sabres. When he was off the ice at even strength in 2012-13 the Sabres endured 8.1 percent more shots than they produced, a sizable swing.
Again, it was only the sort of deal that a team like the Penguins (another regular Cup contender) could make. The Pens get a veteran blue-liner who can help ease the transition to younger defensemen like Olli Maata (Niskanen’s partner for much of 2013-14) and can chip in on the power play. Ehrhoff is making a safe bet on himself. Not only does he have $12 million coming to him over the next 14 years from the Sabres buyout, thus making the $4 million contract a minor luxury, but after a year skating with two of the NHL’s top point producers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, he’ll enter free agency again next year at age 32 with a chance for another big pay day. As Orpik proved Tuesday, teams are still more than willing to throw money at defensemen in their early 30s. Whether that’s a smart play for teams (like the Caps) … that’s left to be seen in the seasons ahead.