It’s a July 1 unlike any in recent memory. No free-agency frenzy, no bidding wars, no outlandish contracts, no dramatic signings…no signings at all, in fact.
Such is the plight of the NHL pressing pause on the 2019-20 season during COVID-19, with the hope of returning to action at. Some. Point. Soon. Maybe.
In the meantime, everything else has been pushed back. The playoffs. The Stanley Cup. The draft. (Who won the lottery anyway?) The awards.
And, of course, free agency. So, with no avalanche of franchise-altering signings to report on, let’s take a look back at the 10 biggest UFA deals consummated on July 1 in the past 10 years.
2019: Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers (seven years, $81.5 million)
‘The Bread Man’ was a smash hit on Broadway in the first year of his deal, driving the Rangers’ offense and setting a career high in points (95) in just 69 games. Panarin tied for third in NHL scoring and ranked in the top 15 in goals (32), despite the lack of a high-end supporting cast. At 28, he still has plenty of productive years ahead of him. Splashy UFA signings don’t always work out, but the Rangers landed one of the most dangerous wingers in the game. Money well spent.
2018: John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs (seven years, $77 million)
Two years of leadership by example, not to mention a 40-goal, point-per-game pace. Everyone knew what the Leafs were getting in Tavares, and he’s delivered in his typical stoic, scoring manner. The big challenge, of course, is making some headway in the playoffs. Stay tuned.
2017: Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars (five years, $31.25 million)
It wasn’t the flashiest years for UFAs in 2017, with Radulov’s $6-million-plus-per-season deal coming in as the biggest contract. About halfway through the pact, Radulov has scored at a 25-goal pace, and he had back-to-back 72-point seasons before slowing down with 34 points in 60 games this year. He’ll be 34 years old whenever the puck drops next, so 20-25 goals and 50-60 points is probably his ceiling going forward. But he’s still a dangerous sniper, especially when he’s riding shotgun with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.
2016: (tie) Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers (seven years, $42 million) / Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres (seven years, $42 million)
Two teams desperate to turn around their respective franchise fortunes paid too much for two power forwards who were starting to slow down just as the game was starting to speed up. Lucic and Okposo are gamers, for sure, but at this point they’re depth forwards who are being paid like first-liners.
2015: Ryan O’Reilly, Buffalo Sabres (seven years, $52.5 million)
Give the Sabres credit, they saw a good one in O’Reilly and signed him to a long-term deal. Unfortunately, Buffalo struggled so badly that O’Reilly started to lose his love of the game and ultimately left town. Things turned out OK for him in St. Louis, while the Sabres are still trying to find their way out of hockey purgatory.
2014: Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals (seven years, $40.95 million)
Leadership, in-your-face defense and some offense, too. Niskanen left Pittsburgh just as the Penguins were about to win consecutive Cups, but the top-pairing defender got his chance to hoist Stanley with Washington in 2018. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Philadelphia was rising up in Niskanen’s first year with the Flyers.
2013: Nathan Horton, Columbus Blue Jackets (seven years, $37.1 million)
A debilitating back injury limited Horton to five goals in 35 games in 2013-14, and that was the last we saw of him in the NHL. A tough pill to swallow for both the player and the team. Ironically, the second-biggest UFA deal in 2013 was David Clarkson’s seven-year, $36.75-million pact with Toronto. Like Horton, Clarkson was eventually forced out of the game due to injuries, although not before he endured two difficult seasons with the Leafs – and then parts of two seasons with Columbus after he was traded for, you guessed it, Horton in a salary cap-inspired move.
2012: Jason Garrison, Florida Panthers (six years, $27.6 million)
The hard-shooting defenseman picked a good time to score a career-high 16 goals with Florida in 2011-12, as it set him up for a UFA payday. He bounced from Vancouver to Tampa Bay to Vegas to Edmonton over the next seven seasons, never coming close to his ’11-12 goal output. At least he went to the Cup final with the Lightning in 2015.
2011: James Wisniewski, Columbus Blue Jackets (six years, $33 million)
Like Garrison, Wisniewski had the best offensive season of his career just as he was entering free agency, and the Blue Jackets paid the price. He spent four seasons in Columbus but between injuries and the franchise’s struggles, it was hardly a high point.
2010: Dan Hamhuis, Vancouver Canucks (six years, $27 million)
The big fish in 2010 was Ilya Kovalchuk, but he waited nearly three weeks after July 1 before signing a 17-year, $102-million deal with the Devils. He lasted three years in New Jersey – including a berth in the 2011 Stanley Cup final – before heading back to Russia and playing five seasons in the KHL. Meanwhile, Hamhuis delivered high-end defense and low-profile leadership for the Canucks.