Does Free Agency Build Championship Teams?

The reviews are in – this year’s free agency period gets…a yawn.  The free agent crop was thin going into this offseason, and player movement has slowed to a crawl now that the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter sweepstakes is over.  But how much does this free agency period even matter?

The 2012 offseason is (potentially) the last one under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was established in 2005.  Since 2005, the NHL has watched seven different Stanley Cup Champions come to the forefront under the limitations of a salary cap.  These champions are from all over the United States (sorry Canada), and have been built in a variety of ways.  So before fans get up in arms about how little their teams are doing during free agency this year, take a look at how previous champions have built their teams under the current, soon-to-expire CBA.

Note: Players listed in decreasing order of playoff scoring.

2006 Carolina Hurricanes

Free Agency (6) (5 from prior offseason):

C. Stillman (’05), M. Cullen (’04), R. Whitney (’05), F. Kaberle (’04), C. LaRose (’03), O. Tverdovsky (’05)

Draft (6):

E. Staal (’03), A. Ladd (’04), N. Wallin (’00), C. Ward (’02), E. Cole (’98), J. Vasicek (’98)

Trade (13):

R. Brind’Amour (Phi, ’00), J. Williams (Phi, ’04), M. Recchi (Pit, ’06), D. Weight (StL, ’06), B. Hedican (Fla, ’02), A. Ward (Det, ’01), M. Commodore (Cal, ’05), G. Wesley (Tor, ’03), C. Adams (Ana, ’05), K. Adams (Fla, ’02), M. Gerber (Ana, ’04), A. Babchuk (Chi, ’06), A. Hutchinson (Nas, ’05)

The Carolina Hurricanes were the first team to win the Cup out of the lockout.  This is a tricky case to analyze since the preceding offseason lasted over a full season lockout as well.  While this team was built largely through trades, it is important to note that five of their free agents were signed in the extended offseason prior to their Cup winning season.  Four of those five finished in the top 10 playoff scorers for the Hurricanes.  General Manager Jim Rutherford did a fantastic job acquiring the pieces necessary to turn his roster into a winner immediately via free agency.  Cory Stillman turned out to be especially important, finishing 2nd in points (26), plus/minus (+12), and game-winning goals (3).

 ’04 and ’05 Free Agency Impact: High

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2007 Anaheim Ducks

Free Agency (10) (2 from prior offseason):

T. Selanne (’05), A. McDonald (’00), S. Niedermayer (’05), D. Penner (’04), C. Kunitz (’03), K. Huskins (’05), R. Carter (’06), J. DiPenta (’05), R. Shannon (’05), S. Thornton (’06)

Draft (4):

R. Getzlaf (’03), C. Perry (’03), I. Bryzgalov (’00), D. Miller (’03)

Trade (11):

C. Pronger (Edm, ’06), T. Moen (Chi, ’05), S. Pahlsson (Bos, ’00), R. Niedermayer (Cal, ’03), F. Beauchemin (Cls, ’05), R. Jackman (Fla, ’07), S. O’Donnell (Phx, ’06), B. May (Col, ’07), J. S. Giguere (Cal, ’00), J. Motzko (Cls, ’07), G. Parros (Col, ’06)

Waivers (1):

T. Marchant (Cls, ’05)

The Ducks made big splashes in free agency out of the lockout by signing Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, but were still a year away (perhaps a Chris Pronger away) from winning the Cup at that time.  They did very little in free agency during the offseason prior to their Cup win, signing only Ryan Carter and Shawn Thornton as role players.  The finalizations to this roster came largely through trades, as Pronger and O’Donnell were acquired in 2006 and played big roles for the defense during their championship run.

 ’06 Free Agency Impact: Low

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2008 Detroit Red Wings

Free Agency (9) (3 from prior offseason):

B. Rafalski (’07), M. Samuelsson (’05), D. Drake (’07), D. Cleary (’05), D. McCarthy (’08), B. Lebda (’04), A. Lilja (’05), D. Hasek (’06), C. Osgood (’05)

Draft (10):

H. Zetterberg (’99), P. Datsyuk (’98), J. Franzen (’04), N. Kronwall (’00), J. Hudler (’02), N. Lidstrom (’89), T. Holmstrom (’94), V. Filppula (’02), D. Helm (’05), D. Meech (’02)

Trade (4):

B. Stuart (LA, ’08), K. Draper (Wpg, ’93), K. Maltby (Edm, ’96), C. Chelios (Chi, ’99)

While the Red Wings added a big time defenseman in Brian Rafalski during the free agency prior to their championship, this team was built mostly through the draft.  Eight of Detroit’s Top 10 scorers in the playoffs were Red Wings’ draftees (Zetterberg through Filppula).  Detroit’s General Manager, Ken Holland, gets unending praise for his work (especially in drafts) year in and year out.  This roster is exactly why he deserves it.

 ’07 Free Agency Impact: Moderate-Low

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Sidney Crosby (Andy from Pittsburgh/Wikimedia)

2009 Pittsburgh Penguins

Free Agency (6) (3 from prior offseason):

R. Fedotenko (’08), S. Gonchar (’05), M. Eaton (’06), M. Cooke (’08), M. Satan (’08), P. Sykora (’07),

Draft (10):

E. Malkin (’04), S. Crosby (’05), M. Talbot (’02), K. Letang (’05), T. Kennedy (’04), J. Staal (’06), R. Scuderi (’98), B. Orpik (’00), A. Goligoski (’04), M. Fleury (’03)

Trade (7):

B. Guerin (NYI, ’09), C. Kunitz (Ana, ’09), P. Boucher (Dal, ’08), H. Gill (Tor, ’08), P. Dupuis (Atl, ’08), M. Garon (Edm, ’09), M. Zigomanis (Phx, ’08)

Waivers (1):

C. Adams (Chi, ’09)

In contrast to the Red Wings, who built their team through smart drafting no matter how the season ended, the Penguins built their core through a slew of high draft picks earned from awful finishes.  GM Ray Shero added role players (Fedotenko, Cooke, Satan) in the free agency period prior to the Cup win, but this team was largely built on high draft picks and deadline day deals in 2008 and 2009.  Fedotenko did finish 4th on the team in playoff scoring, but all that required was 14 points in 24 games while skating next to Evgeni Malkin and his 36 points in 24 games.

 ’08 Free Agency Impact: Moderate-Low

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2010 Chicago Blackhawks

Free Agency (8) (3 from prior offseason):

M. Hossa (’09), T. Kopecky (’09), B. Sopel (’07), B. Campbell (’08), J. Madden (’09), J. Hendry (’06), C. Huet (’06), A. Niemi (’08)

Draft (9):

J. Toews (’06), P. Kane (’07), D. Keith (’02), D. Byfuglien (’03), D. Bolland (’04), B. Seabrook (’03), T. Brouwer (’04), N. Hjalmarsson (’05), A. Burish (’02)

Trade (6):

P. Sharp (Phi, ’05), K. Versteeg (Bos, ’07), A. Ladd (Car, ’08), B. Eager (Phi, ’07), N. Boynton (Ana, ’10), C. Fraser (Phi, ’04)

The Blackhawks largely followed the Pittsburgh model (sorry Brian Burke), and drafted their way towards a championship after some dismal years.  Five of their top 6 scorers in the postseason were draftees, only interrupted by Patrick Sharp who had been acquired five years beforehand.  Though the Blackhawks made a big splash in free agency by signing Marian Hossa before their championship run, Hossa finished 7th in scoring on the team with 15 points (12 being assists) in 22 games.  Undoubtedly, Hossa played a solid role on this team along with 2009 signees Tomas Kopecky and John Madden, but the draft is what put Chicago back on the map.

 ’09 Free Agency Impact: Moderate-Low

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Gregory Campbell with Stanley Cup

(Icon SMI)

2011 Boston Bruins

Free Agency (5) (0 from prior offseason):

M. Ryder (’08), Z. Chara (’06), S. Thornton (’07), T. Thomas (’02), M. Savard (’06)

Draft (5):

D. Krecji (’04), P. Bergeron (’03), B. Marchand (’06), M. Lucic (’06), T. Seguin (’10)

Trade (12):

N. Horton (Fla, ’10), M. Recchi (TB, ’09), C. Kelly (Ott, ’11), R. Peverly (Atl, ’11), D. Seidenberg (Fla, ’10), T. Kaberle (Tor, ’11), A. Ference (Cal, ’07), J. Boychuk (Col, ’08), D. Paille (Buf, ’09), G. Campbell (Fla, ’10), A. McQuaid (Cls, ’07), T. Rask (Tor, ’06)

How much did the Bruins care about free agency in the year before they won the Cup?  Oh, that’s right, they didn’t.  While Boston made their big splashes in free agency a few years ago to build this roster, none of them panned out immediately for team success.  Instead, the Bruins built a small but strong core through the draft, added a little extra via free agency (just a Norris winning defenseman and a Conn Smythe winning goalie), and then composed the bulk of their team through trades looking for the right pieces.  Free agency certainly helped the Bruins in a big way with Chara and Thomas, but they had to wait quite a while to reap those rewards.

’10 Free Agency Impact: None

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(Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE)

2012 Los Angeles Kings

Free Agency (3) (1 from prior offseason):

W. Mitchell (’10), R. Scuderi (’09), S. Gagne (’11)

Draft (12):

D. Brown (’03), A. Kopitar (’05), D. Doughty (’08), T. Lewis (’06), D. King (’07), A. Martinez (’07), V. Voynov (’08), J. Nolan (’09), K. Clifford (’09), A. Loktionov (’08), J. Quick (’05), J. Bernier (’06)

Trade (8):

M. Richards (Phi, ’11), J. Williams (Car, ’09), J. Carter (Cls, ’12), D. Penner (Edm, ’11), M. Greene (Edm, ’08), J. Stoll (Edm, ’08), C. Fraser (Edm, ’11), B. Richardson (Col, ’08),

Finally, there are the current Stanley Cup Champions.  Only three players on this roster were signed as free agents.  While Gagne only played in four playoff games, Mitchell and Scuderi played heavy minutes and provided valuable experience to a young defensive team.  They played their roles well, but there is no question this team was built mainly through the draft and with a few key trades.

’11 Free Agency Impact: None

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It all averages out to this:

Stanley Cup Champions

Free Agency (6.71) (2.43 from prior offseason)

Draft (8)

Trade (8.71)

Waivers (.29)

Prior Year Free Agency Impact: Low

Moreover, aside from the Hurricanes double offseason preceding 2006, only two “big name” free agents won the Cup in the season they signed – Brian Rafalski in ’08 and Marian Hossa in ’10.

So back to the original question, does free agency build championship teams?  No, it does not appear so, or at least not right away.  While free agency certainly plays a part in how general managers finalize their rosters, the trend suggests that this free agency period will say very little about who wins the Stanley Cup in 2013.  So while a player like Shane Doan may help a team get over the top, odds are the next championship team is already in place to win the Cup, or they are just a trade away (Rick Nash? Bobby Ryan? Roberto Luongo?).

Anyways, you can’t win the Stanley Cup in July, right?

[Huge thanks to www.hockey-reference.com for having all of the player information available to gather.]

Meesh Shanmugam
Meesh is an attorney and one of the Pittsburgh Penguins Contributing Writers for The Hockey Writers. He also writes for ThePensNation.com. You can contact him on twitter @HockeyMeesh or e-mail HockeyMeesh@gmail.com
Meesh Shanmugam

One Comment

  1. Yet more proof that Burke is an incompetent blow hard. Leafs model my ass

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