Free agency is a very important aspect of the NHL. The best NHL free agent signings, typically of players with high skill, retain the ability to drastically improve a given team in an instant.
In some cases, free agent signings don’t live up to expectations, as players can be heavily overpaid for the services and skills they bring to the table (insert Toronto Maple Leafs joke here).
Yet in other cases, a team’s decision to sign a given player can significantly improve a team. These players tend to be excellent fits on their new teams, experience rejuvenated production, or are signed to bargain deals, most commonly for a lower yearly salary than one would expect.
It’s safe to say free agency is always an exciting time in hockey, with big name players looking for new, often surprising homes. That being said, let’s take a look at the best NHL free agent signings in history to date.
Best NHL Free Agent Signings #1: Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins)
In the off-season of 2006, the Boston Bruins made the decision the sign 6 foot 9 defender Zdeno Chara. It was a decision which has brought immeasurable benefits for the Bruins.
Fresh off of a successful three year stint with the Ottawa Senators in which he posted 35 goals and 103 points over 228 games, Chara agreed to a five year contract worth $37.5 million dollars. It was a decision which strengthened an offensively challenged Bruins blue-line, whose top scoring defenseman the year previous was Paul Mara with 18 points.
Since signing with the Bruins, Chara has led the team offensively, defensively and also in the dressing room. Now the captain of the Bruins, Chara won the Norris Trophy in 2008-09 and has been named an All-Star on multiple occasions. As the tallest player in league history, Chara provides a unique, intimidating presence on the blue-line. Not only can he contribute offensively, but year after year is considered one of the best defenders in the NHL.
His most significant contribution, leading the Bruins to a Stanley Cup Championship in 2011, making this one of the best NHL free agent signings.
Money well spent.
Best NHL Free Agent Signings #2: Adam Graves (New York Rangers)
Prior to the 1991-92 NHL season, the Rangers made one the best free agency signings in their storied history. A relative unknown at the time, Adam Graves went on to become one of the most productive players in New York Rangers history.
Although having won the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1989-90 season, Graves’ career had been comprised of parts of broken seasons. In 78 games with the Detroit Red Wings over three seasons, followed by two seasons with the Oilers, Graves had yet to emerge as a star player.
Everything changed when Graves signed with the Rangers. Although he was being paid a lackluster 450k per year at the time, Graves exploded, producing star caliber numbers. In his first season, Graves scored 26 goals and 59 points. His play only improved per year, scoring 52 goals in the 1993-94 season and 280 in his Rangers career. Graves was also known for his physical play, totaling 100 PIM or more in four of his ten seasons in New York.
A two-time All-Star, Graves won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for leadership and humanitarian contribution in 1993-94, as well as the Bill Masterson Trophy for qualities of perseverance and sportsmanship in 2000-01.
All in all, for the salary he was paid, especially early on, the Rangers’ signing of Adam Graves is one of the best in NHL history given Graves’ ability to produce year after year.
Best NHL Free Agent Signings #3: Ed Belfour (Dallas Stars)
In 1997, the Dallas Stars made a free agent signing which altered the teams identity from pretender to contender. The addition of undrafted Ed Belfour provided instant stability in the crease, creating the foundation for a Stars team that would be competitive for many years to come.
In his previous eight NHL seasons, Ed Belfour played relatively average hockey. In seven season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Belfour’s Save Percentage never eclipsed .907%, while his GAA averaged in the mid 2.60’s. In his last few seasons in the windy city, Ed saw his playing time decrease, eventually playing one season with the San Jose Sharks.
Like Graves and Chara, after Belfour signed with his new club via free agency, he became a completely different goaltender. In his first season in the Dallas, Ed had by far one of the best seasons of his career. A sparkling 1.88 GAA, a .916% save percentage and 37 wins in 61 games played on the road to winning the President’s Trophy. His next season was even better, especially so in the playoffs where Ed’s GAA was 1.67 and his save percentage was .930%. Alongside these numbers and three playoff shutouts, the Dallas Stars won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
A 12 time All-Star, four of which with the Stars, Belfour captured a William Jennings Trophy for least goals allowed by goaltender(s) in a season in 1998-99. With 160 wins with the Stars in 307 games played, Ed Belfour gave the Stars a chance to win in every game which he played. A consistent, dominant force, Ed Belfour was an excellent free agent signing by the Stars.
Best NHL Free Agent Signings #4: Scott Niedermayer (Anaheim Mighty Ducks)
In the 2005-06 off-season, the then Anaheim Mighty Ducks made a huge splash in the free agent market. Defenseman Scott Niedermayer signed with the Ducks; a great player who had won everywhere he had played, and who brought a winning tradition to Anaheim.
After playing the majority of his career with the New Jersey Devils where he spent 12 seasons, Niedermayer signed a four year, 27 million dollar contract with the Ducks. The deal, with an average salary of 6.7 million per season, was a high, yet realistic price to pay for a future hall of fame defenseman. In his previous seasons with the Devils, Niedermayer had amounted 476 points in 892 games, a plus/minus of +172 and three Stanley Cup Championships. His ability to play a strong defensive game as well as contribute offensively made him without doubt one of the top defenseman in the NHL at the time.
Unlike the players we have looked at previously, Niedermayer didn’t enjoy a breakout year, as he had always been a great player. He had dominated the league for years, and it was no different following his arrival in California. In his first season with the Ducks, Niedermayer had a career year. At the age of 33, Scott scored 13 goals and 63 points in 2005-06. In his next season, he was somehow, even better, recording 15 goals and 69 points in leading the Ducks to a Stanley Cup Championship, the fourth of his career.
In his five year career with Anaheim, Niedermayer was a five time All-Star, a two time runner up for the Norris Trophy, and a winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy in the team’s Stanley Cup winning season as the MVP of the playoffs. Niedermayer remained the definitive leader of the Ducks until his retirement following the 2009-10. His intangible qualities, in particular his leadership, were his most valuable and priceless skills.
Inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013, two time gold medal Olympian Scott Niedermayer was well worth his hefty price tag.
Best NHL Free Agent Signings #5: Scott Stevens (New Jersey Devils)
Following the 1990-91 NHL season, the St. Louis Blues signed Brendan Shanahan from the New Jersey Devils. As a result, the Devils were entitled to compensation. Amazingly, the Blues originally offered the Devils Curtis Joseph, Rod Brind’Amour and two draft picks, but the Devils had their eyes set on Stevens, who was the Blues’ captain at the time. Following a long arbitration case, Scott Stevens’ rights were awarded to New Jersey. Stevens was at first hesitant to play in New Jersey, refusing to report to team training camp. Yet after his first season, Stevens made a deal with the Devils, and the rest is history.
As mentioned, Stevens captained the St. Louis Blues for one season and had already spent eight seasons with the Washington Capitals prior to his arrival in New Jersey. At the time, Stevens was, surprisingly, best known for his offense. Stevens had already registered four seasons of 60 + points, setting a career high in 1987-88 with 72. In his previous nine seasons, a total of 679 games, Stevens had accumulated 478 points, 103 of which were goals. Stevens was also a heavily penalized player in his past, spending 1778 minutes in the penalty box. Yet following his arrival, Stevens’ game changed dramatically.
After arriving in New Jersey, Stevens played his game with greater control, part of which resulted from playing on a Devils team based significantly on defensive play. Although Stevens had his best year offensively with the Devils in 1993-94 when he scored 18 goals and 78 points, Stevens adopted a greater focus on his defensive game. His offensive outputs dipped dramatically, yet he was a force defensively. Stevens became known as an elite, shutdown defender, who saw his plus/minus ratings rise as a result. In terms of his PIM, Stevens spent less time in the box yet remained a physical force, choosing his spots to make a big hit rather than looking for contact.
During his time with in New Jersey, Stevens led the Devils to three Stanley Cup Championships. An 11 time All-Star with the Devils, Stevens was top five in Norris Trophy voting five seasons, while winning the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Devils in 1999-00.
Known as one of the most dangerous open ice hitters in the NHL, Stevens was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.
This article was originally published in October, 2014.