a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Sunday, 3 July 2011

07/04/11 47.0 The Best and Worst Free Agent Signings

Ville Leino

Every playoff year there is a forward who comes out of nowhere and manages to put up huge numbers. Oilers fans know all about it. Fernando Pisani scored 14 goals in 24 playoff games in 2006; this year Joel Ward surprised with 13 points in 12 playoff games and so did Sean Bergenheim with 9 goals in 16 games. These players tend to cash in on that success with bloated contracts, and this year is no exception. The man pictured above is one forward who had a fantastic playoff in 2009-10 with 21 points in 19 games, and his resulting contract is one of the worst signed so far this summer.

The Worst

Ville Leino: Has to top this list. Born the same year as Ales Hemsky, Leino has played only 149 regular season NHL games. He's a late bloomer if ever there was one, and is another undrafted gem uncovered by the Red Wings. In 2009-10 Leino had 7 points in 42 games for Detroit before being traded to Philadelphia where he scored 2 goals and 2 assists in 13 games. He started the playoffs in the press box and then set the world on fire after injuries got him into the lineup. He's coming off a career high 19-34-53 season for the Flyers, but that doesn't justify his 6 year, $27 million contract with Buffalo.

The deal pays Leino $4.5 million for 6 seasons, which is a bigger average hit than that of the aforementioned Hemsky. In fact, Leino now makes as much as Buffalo's Derek Roy, who has 383 points in 469 games and had 35 points in 35 games last year. Leino will have to put up more than his current total of 73 points in 149 games to come close to justifying this deal, and if there's one thing that we have learned about big free agent signings, it's that they tend to disappoint. This contract wouldn't be so terrible if it weren't for the term, which leaves Buffalo with very few options if it doesn't work out.

Semyon Varlamov: Word is that the Oilers were interested in Varlamov, but thankfully Steve Tambellini wasn't pounding Russian vodka drinks on July 1st. The oft-injuried goalie was acquired by Colorado for a 1st round pick next year and a 2nd rounder in either 2012 or 2013. He was then signed to a three year, $8.5 million deal.

In this case it's not so much the money that is bad, but what Colorado gave up to get Varlamov definitely is. This is a team that finished second last in the NHL this year, and shouldn't be throwing away draft picks any more than the Oilers should be. To say that Varlamov will be the goaltending solution for the Avalanche may be a bit of a stretch, considering that the Russian has played only 59 regular season games in his career, along with 19 in the playoffs. His numbers are solid, but it's a small sample size. If the Avs don't want to give up a top-ten pick to Washington next year, Varlamov is going to have to be very solid. J.S. Giguere is in the final years of his career, and isn't likely to backstop Colorado out of the basement.

Erik Cole: Montreal may have helped out their depth on the wing, but at what cost? Oilers fans are familiar with how mediocre Erik Cole was the one time he ventured out of Carolina. Cole is coming off a good year that saw him score 26 goals and 26 assists, but the winger will be 33 shortly after the season starts. At 4 years and $18 million, he'll carry a cap hit of $4.5 million until he's 36 years old. Cole will take home $6 million next year, and he'll make $4 million every year after that; meaning that there won't be much savings in actual dollars over the cap hit in the later years of the deal. This contract is completely untradeable, so it doesn't hurt that he also has a No Trade Clause.

$4.5 million per year is a lot of money for a guy who has averaged 0.55 points per game over the last three seasons. It's too much even if he does score 20-25 goals, which he is unlikely to do in all the years of this deal. Barring a massive season, the Canadiens can expect perhaps 80 goals from Cole over the course of this contract, which is $225,000 per goal.

Honorable Mention:

Joel Ward: Ward belongs in the Honorable Mention section of The Worst, because he is a good two-way player, and at 30 years old he should be able to play for a while. But he isn't good enough to be worth $3 million per year for 4 years. This blog suggested that the Oilers attempt to sign Ward, but once again they dodged a bullet with this contract, which is much too rich for a player of his type.

Think back to Fernando Pisani, whose $2.5 million per year contract over 4 years was an overpayment. Ward and Pisani are similarly defensively gifted and offensively challenged. After 18 goals in 80 games for Edmonton in 2006, Pisani scored 14 in 24 playoff games. Ward had 10 goals in 80 regular season games for Nashville last year and scored 7 in 12 games in the post season. Pisani has averaged 0.37 p/g in his career, while Ward's average is 0.41. The Capitals will likely regret this signing, no matter how good Ward is at his role.

Christian Erhoff: The contract is much too rich for Erhoff, thanks to a weak free agent class. However, the fact that it is so front-loaded means that it can be moved later on if need be because the cap hit and the money will match up - Erhoff's cap hit is only $4 million. It may be a circumvention of the CBA, but Erhoff can also retire after 7 years and only leave $3 million on the table. Also, the Sabres have some ability when it comes to buying out his contract after the first few seasons are over because of how much money is paid at the start of the contract.

The Best

Tomas Vokoun
 Tomas Vokoun: The Caps redeemed the Ward deal with the signing of Vokoun, who took a massive pay cut to go to a contender. The job of any GM is to get his team over the top, and George McPhee has made another step in that direction with this deal. Vokoun is a steal at $1.5 million for one year. Even though Vokoun is extremely unlikely to re-sign, McPhee won't mind if the Capitals win the Stanley Cup. One year with a Cup banner is better than none, and that policy is being embraced with this astute signing.

Eric Belanger: This is a homer pick (this is an Oilers blog after all), but it actually is a good signing. Belanger brings a lot of what the Oilers lack and if he ends up as a fourth line player he will be a very good one. $1.75 million is a manageble cap hit and the term of three years is not bad either. Maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars more would have been too much, and so would another year of term, but the Oilers look to have gotten this one right on the money.

Ian White
 Ian White: Was a good signing for Detroit because the Red Wings helped to address the loss of Brian Rafalski, while at the same time managing to get White to take less money per year than he made last year. White will make $2,875,000 per year over two years even though he made $3 million last year. He's nowhere near the point producer that Rafalski was, but his contract is also very light. The Wings also added Mike Commodore for just $1 million, and regardless of his recent struggles, Commodore can still play up to that tiny contract. Both of these players are a downgrade for the Wings from what they had, but they don't leave Detroit strapped for cash.


There are probably more good and bad signings that are noteworthy (and some that aren't now but will be later on), but these are just a sample. Generally the worst deals get signed during the free agent frenzy and usually there are more bad deals than good ones. This year seems to be no different, but time will most certainly tell.

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