The 10 Best Free Agent Signings So Far

I don't know how I became a "top 10" article kind of writer, but, well, here we are.  Before doing the obvious follow up to my previous article, a few words about a signing that I wasn't entirely sure where to quantify, and yet, is too big to ignore.

You will not read the name "Brad Richards" on the list below.  I cannot help but think that this signing bears all the hallmarks of a move made by another New York sports team, one far more dear to my heart.  I am a New York Mets fan.  Yes, I know.  It's my own little cross to bear.  Anyway, in the summer winter of 1992, in the midst of a weak free agent market, the Mets took a big swing at the big prize on the market: Bobby Bonilla.  They landed him with a massive (at the time) 5 year, $25 million deal.  Bonilla had a fine history as a complimentary player on a really good Pittsburgh Pirates team, and the Mets made the mistake of paying him like a mega-star, even though there was ample evidence to suggest that he wasn't even one of the 10 best players in the National League. Bonilla, of course, went down as one of the most infamous free agent signings in baseball history...but here's the thing: if you look at his numbers as a Met, they weren't that different than what he'd been doing in Pittsburgh, save for somewhat surprising increase in games lost to injury.  The Mets got about 80 to 85% of what they should have expected from Bonilla.  The mistake was on their end, in expecting him to be something he wasn't, and paying him according to what they wanted him to be, and not what he really was: a good, but not great, player without a real position. 

That sort of thing often happens when you pursue the best player in a bad market: he gets made into something he's not.  Throw in a bigger-than-expected hike in the salary cap, and I would have been far more surprised if Brad Richards had been paid what he was fairly worth.  The Stars went out of their way to protect him, giving him the best teammates all season, and ensuring that he faced mediocre competition and had very favorable zone starts.  There's nothing wrong with that, per se; every team wants to put their star players in a position to succeed, but the year before, Richards faced far tougher ice time, and was just about as productive (2.57 even strength points/60 mins in 2009-10, vs. 2.51 in 2010-11).  At his age, that could mean he's starting his decline. 

Far more disconcertingly, Richards is now 31 and missed 10 games with a concussion last year and wasn't quite 100% when he returned.  He missed 26 games in 2008-9.  All told, a once-durable player has played less than 75 games in 3 of the last 4 seasons.  And for all the fuss over Richards, he's made just one All-Star game.  True, that's not always a rock-solid indicator of a player's level, but it's certainly worth mention.  9 years and $60 million is just  too much risk for my liking.  I suspect the Rangers are going to be paying for an awful lot of downside, and only a year or two more of his prime, such as it is. 

Below the fold, some signings that made more sense.

10. Daniel Carcillo, Chicago, 1 year, $775,000.  I am not under the illusion that Carcillo is a very good hockey player, but he's a damn sight better than he looked last season.  He remains (and will probably always remain) a penalty-taking machine, but his shooting percentage took a surprising dip from 11.4% to 7.1%, and he had a hard time staying on the ice.  What's more, he was saddled with absolutely dreadful linemates.  No one should ever be forced to play on a line with Jody Shelley...even if they do look like the guy sitting outside your daughter's junior high school in a windowless van.  Carcillo should be a fourth liner who can provide some scoring punch, as well as some toughness. 

9. Curtis Glencross, Calgary, 4 years, $10.2 million.  Glencross has steadily improved over the last couple years, peaking with 24 goals last year.  Better, he did it without the sort of soft ice time that got some other guys overpaid.  And his power play production was surprisingly mediocre for someone who was producing so much offensively.  One red flag: his shooting percentage was an unsustainably high 16.1 last year, but hopefully some increased power play production will make up for it. 

8. Chris Higgins, Vancouver, 2 years, $3.8 million.  Higgins faced some tough ice time and produced, and at 28, is right in his prime.  He also eats up shorthanded ice time, a must on a team with so many talented offensive players. 

7. Andrew Brunette, Chicago, 1 year, $2 million.  Guys like Brunette are constantly undervalued in the free agent market.  He's an older guy who's about as flashy as a paper bag, and who consistently plays on bad teams, and yet all he does is score points.  Brunette is an ultra-accurate shooter, who contributes on the power play (a very nice 4.25 points/60 minutes).  He's like a homeless man's Dave Andreychuk.  That's a perfectly good investment. 

6. Simon Gagne, Los Angeles, 2 years, $7 million.  I thought for sure Gagne would get overpaid, but he's been injured a lot the last few years, and had a lousy season for Tampa Bay, improbably justifying the Gagne for Andrej Meszaros deal that looked absolutely indefensible at the time from Philly's point of view.  But he scored 34 goals 2 years ago, and at 31, is still young enough to have a bounceback.  At just 2 years and $7 million, I think there's a lot of upside without a whole lot of risk; if Gagne is indeed done (and he may be), the damage is minimal. 

5. Jussi Jokinen, Carolina, 3 years, $9 million.  Jokinen had 19 goals last year (in 70 games) and 30 the year before.  At the age of 28, he looks like a good bet to be a 20-25 goal scorer on a regular basis, with another 30 goal season not at all out of the question.  He stays out of the box, and is deadly in the shootout, which has value for a fringe playoff team like Carolina.  All told, I think the Hurricanes locked up his prime fairly cheaply.

4. Steve Sullivan, Pittsburgh, 1 year, $1.5 million.  This is pretty cut-and-dry.  If Sullivan is healthy, the Penguins probably get 50-60 points from him, and, more importantly, add depth to a forward corps that has long been too reliant on the prodigious talents of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  If he's not, the Penguins are still better off with 41 games of Sullivan and 41 games of stiffs like Craig Adams and has-beens like Alexei Kovalev than they were last season.

3. Alexei Ponikarovsky, Carolina, 1 year, $1.5 million.  Ponikarovsky is the anti-Ville Leino of this free agent market.  He had a lousy year in Los Angeles, despite looking like one of the better pickups of last offseason.  The Kings stuck him with crummy linemates, sent him out against some of the opposition's best players, and to top it off, his shooting percentage dropped by more than 50% over last year.   Ponikarovsky does a great job of the #1 job for a forward: putting the puck on net.  Fine, he's not a first line forward, big whoop; it's not like he's getting 6 years and $27 million, like Leino, who isn't a first line forward either.  I look for a huge bounceback from him.

2. Anton Babchuk, Calgary, 2 years, $5 million.  Yes, Babchuk had laughably soft ice time: 61.9% offensive zone start and the weakest competition of any Flames blueliner.  Be that as it may, In a market when puck moving defensemen were getting overpaid left and right, I can't see how a 27 year old puck mover with a +18 and 1.07 even strength points per 60 minutes on a lousy team only gets 2 years and $5 million.

1. Tomas Vokoun to Washington, 1 year, $1.5 million.  This wasn't just the best free agent signing of the year, this might be one of the best free agent signings in history.  There are a dozen GMs who should be fired for letting something like this happen, with Dale Tallon occupying spots 1, 4, 5, 8, and 10 on that list.  How does the best goaltender on the market, a goaltender clearly one of the 10 best in the league, and maybe one of the top 5, end up playing for slave wages when Ilya Bryzgalov is among the most overpaid people on the planet?  I can't imagine any contest in which I'd take Bryzgalov or Semyon Varlamov over Vokoun except a Russian spelling bee.  The Caps didn't actually need a goaltender, but Vokoun absolutely makes them better, and for a bargain basement price.

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