NHL Free Agents and the Illusion of Success

NHL Free Agents were scooped up throughout the day on the first of July and as the dust settled I kept asking myself, “so what.” We constantly here how good drafting leads to success and Stanley Cups. Chicago and Detroit are perfect examples of this. We also hear how trades especially at the deadline lead to Stanley Cups. Boston and most recently Los Angeles are perfect examples of this. Never do we hear about how a team won a Stanley Cup due to great free agent signings. Everyone was so busy with the flurry of players signing new contracts that no one stopped to ask whether or not free agents as a whole lead to success. In short the answer is no.

Same Question, Same Answer

Dave Bolland suffered a lacerated leg during the Maple Leafs loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

Dave Bolland signed a 5 year deal at a cap hit of $5.5 million.

A great article on SB Nation by Andi D. breaks down players by team across the NHL into acquisition categories.  Essentially it is a break down of how players originally were acquired by each team. I decided to gather my own data and look at all nine individual teams that have won the Stanley Cup since the 2005 lockout.  By doing this we could see what type of players led to the success of these teams. I broke down these players into four categories of how they were acquired; draft, trade, free agent, and other. The “other” category includes undrafted players and players claimed off of waivers. I used these categories to compile both games played and points compiled during each teams Stanley Cup run. This is where things got interesting. Typically teams are more dependent on their drafted players but some rely more so on traded players. What is striking about these statistics is that players acquired via free agency pale in comparison to these two groups.

We are focusing on how a player was most recently acquired by a team before winning the Stanley Cup. For instance, Zdeno Chara was a free agent when the Boston Bruins signed him in 2006. Dustin Penner signed with the Anaheim Ducks as an undrafted player putting him in the “other” category. Despite playing nearly his whole career in Detroit, Kris Draper was originally acquired via trade. Below is a chart on each Cup winning teams makeup since 2006. Goaltender statistics are not included.

Results

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • 2006 is the only year where free agents scored more points than drafted players.
  • Key drafted players- Eric Staal, Cam Ward.
  • Key traded players- Rod Brind’Amour, Justin Williams, Mark Recchi, Doug Weight, Bret Hedican.
  • Key free agent players- Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen.
Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • 2007 is the only year that undrafted/ waived players played more than any other category.
  • Key drafted players- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry.
  • Key traded players- Scott Niedermeyer, Chris Pronger, Samuel Pahlsson, Rob Niedermeyer, Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
  • Key free agent players- Teemu Selanne.
  • Key undrafted players- Dustin Penner, Andy McDonald.
Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • 2008 is the least amount of points by traded players and most amount of games played by free agents.
  • Key drafted players- Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom.
  • Key traded players- Kris Draper, Brad Stuart.
  • Key free agent players- Brian Rafalski, Mikael Samuelsson, Dallas Drake, Daniel Cleary, Chris Osgood.
Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • 2009 is the last time free agents scored over 40 points and the last time free agents led either traded or drafted players in points.
  • Key drafted players- Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Maxime Talbot, Marc-Andre Fleury.
  • Key traded players- Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz.
  • Key free agent players- Ruslan Fedotenko, Sergei Gonchar.
Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • 2010 is the last time free agents played over 100 games and the last time undrafted/ waived players played at all.
  • Key drafted players- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland, Brent Seabrook.
  • Key traded players- Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg.
  • Key free agent players- Marian Hossa.
  • Key undrafted players- Antti Niemi.
Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • 2011 is the last year traded players led drafted players in either statistical category.
  • Key drafted players- David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic.
  • Key traded players- Nathan Horton, Mark Recchi, Chris Kelly, Tomas Kaberle, Andrew Ference, Dennis Seidenberg, Rich Peverly.
  • Key free agent players- Zdeno Chara, Michael Ryder, Tim Thomas.
Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • 2012 is the least amount of games played and points compiled by free agents.
  • Key drafted players- Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick.
  • Key traded players- Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Dustin Penner.
  • Key free agent players- Rob Scuderi.
Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • Unlike 2010, the 2013 Blackhawks relied more on traded players than they did free agents.
  • Key drafted players- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Bryan Bickell, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford.
  • Key traded players- Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus, Michael Frolik.
  • Key free agent players- Marian Hossa.
Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

Andrew Wilson/The Hockey Writers

  • The 2014 Kings relied on each group almost identically as they did in 2012.
  • Key drafted players- Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Jonathan Quick.
  • Key traded players- Marian Gaborik Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams.
  • Key free agent players- Jake Muzzin.

Not Worth the Money

Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen signed a 7 year deal at a cap hit of $5.75 million.

To put it simply, free agents are not winning Stanley Cups. After the 2005 lockout, they did play a role in Carolina and Anaheim but part of that was because most NHL players realized the lockout was going to happen so they did not resign or extend existing contracts. This led to an abundance of players who were free agents which skews the data. Over time the amount of free agents decreased and the teams winning Stanley Cups had less free agents playing less games and contributing less points.

Andi D has a breakdown of the top 10 scorers from each Stanley Cup team since the 2005 lockout.  Four out of ten were UFAs in 2006 but since then no more than two have been UFAs. Since 2010 there has been a maximum of one UFA in the top ten in scoring, Marian Hossa twice and Michael Ryder once. Not only are free agents not contributing statistically but they rarely produce a top scorer.

Answers

What is the reason for this trend? Panic. GMs and management enter bidding wars to sign players that enter free agency losing sight of who the player is. In the eyes of the GMs 4th line players turn into 2nd line players, a 35 year old turns into a 28 year old, a player who has never scored more than 20 points in a season looks like a 50 point player. They begin to only see the good and not the bad in players during free agency which leads to the overrating and overpaying of players.

This doesn’t mean that all UFA signings are bad but it does mean that the chances of success are quite low. The only free agent the Kings signed in 2013 was Jeff Schultz and he only played because the team ran into injury problems. Since 2011, no Cup winning team has had more than four UFA players on their roster during the playoffs. At the end of the day if your team made a free agent signing it isn’t the end of the world but it definitely is nothing to start celebrating about.

Andrew Wilson
Andrew graduated from the University of Nevada with a Bachelor's Degree in Community Health Sciences. He played soccer while in college but always had a passion for hockey despite growing up in Nevada. You can find his own personal blog at http://thehockeyrant1.wordpress.com/ or follow him on Twitter: @TheHockeyRant
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