A couple of years ago, I was doing research for a piece on Daniel Briere. As part of that, I spoke to one of Briere's biggest boosters, Dave Farrish, who was an assistant under Randy Carlyle in Anaheim. Farrish coached the Philadelphia Flyers sniper at AHL Springfield in 1997-98, a season in which Briere scored 92 points in 68 games.
Briere struggled when he first got to Philadelphia and we talked about why.
"Someone should do a study on how players do after signing a big free-agent contract," Farrish said. "You feel so much pressure to live up that contract ... There's also no guarantee you'll fit in to a new city, a new system, with new teammates. It can be hard."
That conversation came just before the 2010 Stanley Cup final. One year earlier, I remember talking to then-Chicago Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon about signing defenceman Brian Campbell to that famous eight-year, $57-million US contract.
"I told Brian that he has to forget about the money," Tallon said. "The contract is done now.
"That can't be changed. He has to play the way he did before we signed him ... that's why we were interested."
History proves that's easier said then done. Then, there's the reverse issue: Does someone lose motivation after signing a contract that takes care of their grandchildren?
Farrish's comments reminded me about Tallon's words and I always meant to follow up, to do the research, but never got around to it. This year, watching Ilya Bryzgalov, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino treading water in their new cities, it was time.
Methodology: From 2006-11, I found the five players who signed the largest contracts in unrestricted free agency (I looked them up on my own, so if there is an omission, it's my mistake and mine only). Anyone who avoided freedom by inking deals well before July 1 (Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tim Thomas) was eliminated because you really don't go through the same anxieties as someone who waits until the last minute. Restricted free agents who signed huge contracts (Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter) didn't count because the chances of movement are nowhere comparable to UFAs.
There were 32 players studied because, in both 2006 (Marc Savard, Pavel Kubina) and 2011 (Ville Leino, Brooks Laich), there was a tie for fifth-highest windfall. Here are the findings:
A FORWARD'S SCORING PACE WILL DROP IN YEAR ONE
If you believe jumping into unrestricted free agency is a huge waste of money, here's some ammunition for your argument. Of our 32 specimens, 18 were forwards. Going strictly by points per game, 17 of them scored at a lower rate than the year before (in most cases with a different team). The only one who beat the downward trend? You'll never believe it (Answer in a few paragraphs).
Some of the drops are negligible (Savard). Others are more pronounced (Ilya Kovalchuk, Leino). There's one case where this methodology is a total failure: Marian Gaborik. Boy, you really forget what a dynamic scorer he could be. Gaborik played just 17 games his final season in Minnesota, recording 23 points -- on pace for 111. Year One in New York saw him get 86, which actually is the highest point total of his career. He slowed last season, but could score 40 goals this year.
Two of the more successful free-agent signings of the past five years -- Savard and Marian Hossa -- never scored as many points with their new teams as they did prior to joining (Savard missed by one in his first season as a Bruin). But the Boston centre finished third in assists twice and sixth once in his first three seasons before Matt Cooke essentially ended his career.
Hossa, meanwhile, played an important role in 2010, helping end the NHL's longest Stanley Cup drought. And he's on pace to have the third-highest point total of his career in 2011-12.
Which brings us to:
SOME GUYS DO RECOVER FROM THAT FIRST YEAR, BUT...
They're in the minority.
If you're Buffalo, you're praying Leino rediscovers the magic, just like Patrik Elias and, to some degree, Kovalchuk. Elias's productivity dropped in each of the first two seasons of his seven-year, $42-million US deal. He recovered to become a point-per-game player in Year Three and is doing it again as a 35-year-old.
Following the 2010 contract saga, Kovalchuk had the worst season of his NHL career. Even as a rookie, he had a better points-per-game average than last year.
While he may never post the dynamic numbers of his Atlanta era, he's at least a point-per-game player this time around.
But the list of players who aren't scoring like they did before free agency is longer. That includes those who stayed (Tomas Plekanec, Patrick Marleau) and those who moved (Mike Cammalleri, Martin Havlat, Chris Drury, Ryan Smyth and Jason Arnott). Some of their numbers decreased every season. One of the few who avoided that negative trend? Ryan Malone. It's just too bad he can't stay healthy.
Even Briere, who had a ridiculous 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs (30 points in 23 games) and has 29 goals in four Philly post-seasons, doesn't produce at the same pace that he did during his final two years in Buffalo. But he remains an important piece on a legit contender.
It will be interesting to see how Brad Richards fits into this. Richards is on pace for 57 points with the New York Rangers, which would be the lowest full-season total of his NHL existence. However, he's been a good five-on-five player for the first-place Rangers. On the New York roster, only Ryan Callahan faces stiffer competition and does a better job against it.
By the way, the only forward to increase his points-per-game output the first season after free agency? Scott Gomez. (It wasn't by much, but he did it).
What do teams generally overpay for? Offence. And the numbers show you should be prepared for less. Better hope your free-agent forward can impact the game in other ways.
THE BIGGEST SUCCESSES ARE ON THE BLUE-LINE
I can't remember who said this, but I've heard a couple of team officials say they believe a forward's production will decrease as he ages but defencemen can get better.
The biggest free-agent grand slam over the past five years was one, and three others play major roles on top-notch Stanley Cup contenders. Boston just signed Zdeno Chara to his second contract with the organization. All he's done is captain the Bruins to a Stanley Cup, win a Norris Trophy and never put up less than 43 points in a season.
At 36, in the fifth year of a six-year contract, Kimmo Timonen remains a rock on the Philadelphia blue-line. He plays very well against the opposition's best and remains a 40-point threat. Meanwhile, Dan Hamhuis improved the Vancouver blue-line and, while he'll never be Paul Coffey, is putting up points at a better pace than his final four seasons in Nashville. (Never realized how good a player Hamhuis is. I just don't see the Predators enough).
Then there's Brooks Orpik in Pittsburgh. Orpik doesn't carry quite as big a load as the previous three, but is a top-pairing penalty killer on the NHL's fifth-best unit and was an impactful part of the 2009 Stanley Cup squad. While some teams would be scared to give him a six-year deal with a cap hit of $3.75 million US, Orpik is earning it. (As a small bonus, he's reached the 20-point plateau twice. He'd never done it beforehand). Pittsburgh's done a good job with its defensive corps considering three of its four best came through unrestricted free agency.
History's shown that even Ed Jovanovski's five-year deal with the Phoenix Coyotes was reasonable.
THERE ARE SOME UGLY DEFENSIVE MISTAKES
Again, if you're Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula or GM Darcy Regier, you're looking at Christian Ehrhoff's worst production in four years and saying, "This is a blip, right?"
Not if you're judging by Campbell, Jay Bouwmeester or Wade Redden. Campbell's first season in Chicago actually was the second-best offensive year of his career, but the next two saw significant dropoff. He is now a rejuvenated Florida Panther. Bouwmeester averaged 42 points during his last four Florida seasons, but gets just 28 per year with the Calgary Flames. We all know what happened to Redden. Don't know if it's because Chara, Timonen, Hamhuis and Orpik are better defensive players, but those four performed at a much higher level.
And Ehrhoff doesn't have much in common with those four. (The only defensive stalwart in this study who looks like a problem is Anton Volchenkov. With four years and $17 million US still owed, his body might not make it. But, boy does he compete).
Because I'm optimistic by nature, let's give Sabres fans some hope. In 2006, Toronto signed Pavel Kubina for four years and $20 million US. The first was probably the worst of his career. Not since his rookie season had he been so offensively inept and he wasn't much better on the other end.
But Kubina was competitive and did care. While he never became a fan favourite, he tried to earn that contract. His next three seasons (the last in Atlanta) were the best offensively of his career.
We'll see if Ehrhoff can match that.
GOALIES DON'T REALLY GO THIS ROUTE
There are 21 making at least $3 million US. Bryzgalov of the Flyers, who is tops on that list, is one of only four who made their fortune in free agency.
Teams go out of their way to make certain their No. 1 netminders don't even get close. Many sign months in advance of their UFA dates (Pekka Rinne's done that twice) and some (Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury) with freedom light-years away.
Dwayne Roloson of the Tampa Bay Lightning is on his third contract since turning 36. At 42, he looks like he's hit the wall, but gave his teams pretty good value until now. It's not really a fair comparison.
The other three are Bryzgalov, Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet. Huet was 33 when Chicago signed him, a total mistake that finishes after this season.
Huet was a decent goalie, but unprepared to handle the pressures of such a contract. He also didn't possess Bryzgalov's pedigree.
Khabibulin sure did. He was the defending Stanley Cup champion (although the lockout eliminated the following season). He was 32 (one year older than Bryzgalov) upon signing what was the largest post-lockout UFA goaltending deal until Philadelphia beat it last summer.
And he was never the same. There were flashes -- like the beginning of this season with Edmonton -- but the Bulin Wall certainly had cracks in its foundation.
It's dangerous to draw any conclusions to Bryzgalov with such a small sample size. And he isn't even four months into his Flyers career. But it does strike me as interesting that most of these No. 1 goalies don't get anywhere near the market. And Phoenix certainly tried hard to keep him.
Bryzgalov could've signed there, but chose a bigger payday. I don't have a problem with that; people are entitled to seek out their best deal. But there's a trend here, a mostly negative one for both players and teams.
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