By Jonathan Willis
Nov 20, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Lessons learned from the nightmare free-agent class of 2016 and the price still being paid
In terms of mismanagement by hockey executives, the NHL hasn’t had many recent days worse than July 1, 2016.
The latest reminder came from the New York Islanders after winger Andrew Ladd cleared waivers on Friday. GM Lou Lamoriello, who did not sign the Ladd contract, explained that the team had maximized the amount of time it could leave him in the AHL on a conditioning stint (for a knee injury) and that although Ladd was cleared to play, he simply wasn’t ready for major-league action.
“It’s (the minor-league assignment) open-ended,” he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball as to what can and will not be. All we can do is make decisions for today and tomorrow.”
Ladd, who turns 34 in December, is not quite at the halfway mark of the seven-year contract he signed in 2016. His no-trade clause opens up a bit next year, becoming a 15-team no-trade list, but the nature of his contract should make that irrelevant. Age, injury and declining production have made him a poor return for his $5.5-million annual cap hit, and because of his contract structure, a buyout would remove just six percent of his cap hit, leaving his team stuck with the remaining 94 percent.
The amazing thing is that the Ladd contract is not exceptional. He is but one member of a UFA class in 2016 characterized by age, injury, declining performance and above all overpayment.
The names are infamous: Ladd. Milan Lucic. Kyle Okposo. Loui Eriksson. Frans Nielsen. David Backes. Troy Brouwer. Matt Martin. Dale Weise. David Schlemko. James Reimer. Eleven players signed for four years or longer whose contracts have all since become liabilities to the teams that signed them.
Peter Chiarelli was general manager of the Oilers when they signed Lucic to a seven-year buyout-proof contract with an average annual value of $6 million. He was asked about the risk the signing carried, and his answer both acknowledged the issue and failed to explain why the team was willing to wander into the box canyon the contract represented.
“He’s 28, he (has) very limited injuries, if anything,” Chiarelli said. “And yes, the way he plays, it’s a little more difficult to play that way into your 30s. I’ve seen him grow physically and mentally as a young man, I know what care he takes of his body, I know what his wife—she’s very into nutrition, as Milan has become into nutrition. He was always one of the best-conditioned athletes on the Bruins, so that stuff mitigates the risks.
“But there’s risks, yeah, there’s risks.”
Lucic fell from 47 even-strength points with the Kings to 25 in his first year with the Oilers. That dwindled to 16 in his third year with the team. Edmonton would still be suffering under the weight of that contract if Calgary hadn’t had its own lesser salary-cap headache, 2018 signing James Neal, to clear out.
Lucic, goalless in 22 games this season and signed through 2023, is now the Flames’ problem. His full no-move clause will prevent Calgary from doing what the Isles are doing with Ladd and might be an irritant when the Seattle expansion draft rolls around in 2021. His signing bonuses, which are guaranteed even in the event of a buyout, will make terminating the deal extremely difficult.
The strange thing is that the Flames already had their own brush with the 2016 class, having signed Brouwer to a four-year deal that same summer, and pursued the buyout option in that case. Brouwer fell from 18 goals and 39 points in his platform year to 13 goals and 25 points in his inaugural campaign as a Flame. He scored just six goals in his second season in Calgary and was dismissed in the summer of 2018, a month after Calgary signed Neal and began the cycle anew.
“I don’t think there’s one particular reason these things happen,” GM Brad Treliving explained in 2018. “Sometimes the fit’s not right. You do a lot of work to find that right fit but sometimes it just doesn’t materialize. Ultimately, it didn’t work. But Troy’s a pro and we wish him the best.”
Brouwer was a minor headache by comparison to Lucic, yet his case illustrates that a contract need not be ridiculously expensive to cost a team.
Weise got $9.4-million from the Flyers over four years and gave them 34 points in total before being dealt to Montreal last season and finding his way to the AHL. David Schlemko, who went the other way in the deal, got $8.4-million from the Sharks, was good enough the first year to get claimed in expansion, and then played just 55 more games after a trade to the Habs before being bought out by Philadelphia.
Martin in Toronto and Reimer in Florida are different examples of the same problem.
Martin was signed explicitly as a checker, getting a four-year, $10-million contract after a career-best 19-point season. His first year in Toronto he averaged nine minutes per game; the second year eight. Lamoriello, who signed him as Leafs GM, traded for him as Islanders GM, and although he’s been pricey, he has at least been a regular for the Isles.
)Reimer was a stronger bet, a career platoon goalie who got a five-year, $17-million deal. He was great value in Year 1, decent value in Year 2, brutal in Year 3 and traded to Carolina for a cheaper buyout option (Scott Darling) before the start of what so far has been an unremarkable fourth season. If he’d been signed to a four-year deal, it’s doubtful anyone would be looking back on this as much of a mistake, and for a Panthers team trying to navigate the Luongo years, it at least had the virtue of originality.
Although most of these long-term contracts to lesser players worked out badly, the most regrettable deals were given to players at the top end of the free-agent class, skaters like Eriksson, who like Lucic was signed away from the Bruins by an ex-Boston executive.
At times during the press conference announcing the move, Benning sounded like his old boss Chiarelli. Asked about the wisdom of a six-year term, he cited his first-hand knowledge of the player and the player’s fitness level. But when pushed on the subject, he also had another answer.
“We feel like he’s going to be a good player through the term of the contract,” Benning said. “He’s a smart player. He sees the ice, he reads the play. Sometimes with players, if their skating falls off a bit and they’re not smart they can’t figure it out, but we feel like he’s a real smart player.
“His hockey sense is excellent. He’s versatile. He can play left wing, he can play right wing, he kills penalties. There were just so many things to like about Loui that we think it’s a good fit for our group.”
It’s an argument that could also have made about Detroit’s white elephant, the then-32-year-old Nielsen. The Red Wings had a hole to fill down the middle after losing the legendary Pavel Datsyuk to the KHL.
“What we like about him is, we’ve always wanted our best players to play a 200-foot game, and he plays a 200-foot game,” then-GM Ken Holland told The Hockey News. “He can play on the power play. He can play penalty killing. He’s going to backcheck. He’s good defensively. He appears to be a guy who gets 20/50—20 goals and 50 points. You’re always hoping people do a little bit better, but if you look at the NHL Guide and Record book, that’s where he fits.”
Both teams took some basic precautions to cover themselves, front-loading the six-year deals they signed and having no-move clauses convert to modified no-trade clauses in the latter years of those contracts. Ultimately they didn’t do enough: both players have two years left and $8-million in real money owed after this season. With half that money in signing bonuses in both cases, those deals are going to be sticky.
Betting on hockey sense and versatility can be a good decision, but as these cases demonstrate, it generally isn’t enough to make a six-year offer to a player in his early 30s a good idea. Even a five-year offer can be tricky, which is one reason why the Blues didn’t try harder to sign 32-year-old captain Backes, who signed in Boston that summer.
“David’s a great player. He’s been a great Blue. I wish him nothing but the best,” Armstrong said, as quoted by Fluto Shinzawa for The Boston Globe. “But when you project out long term, it was problematic for me, personally, to project out that far with players. There’s analytical data that shows where players play at their peak. We wanted to stay within a window. We were ready to stretch that window, but only to a certain level.”
Backes himself addressed that concern in the same Globe article, explaining that he was “32, not 52.”
There isn’t much else a 32-year-old signing a five-year contract can say, and in fairness to Backes, enough general managers shared his viewpoint to sign him and other similar players to long-term deals. Armstrong, in St. Louis, was right to be skeptical. It could not have been easy to part with a player who had been with the organization since the 2003 draft and had played 727 games.
We haven’t yet touched on Okposo, regarded by many as the best available player in the 2016 class. His contract matched Lucic’s in terms of total length and dollars, going seven years and carrying a $6-million cap hit. Unlike Lucic, he wasn’t able to command a no-move clause for the full term, and the final year of his contract includes no signing bonuses, making a summer 2022 buyout viable.
(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
)Okposo, more than any other player on this list, is important as a reminder of the way injuries can take a toll over the course of a long-term contract, especially as players accumulate mileage. He has been remarkably and admirably open about the devastating impact of a concussion suffered in practice, one which wasn’t initially diagnosed because the hit that caused it was so unmemorable.
Concussions are particularly terrifying for their life-changing potential, but a bad knee, a bad back or even a difficult personal situation can be just as damaging to player’s ability to contribute to his hockey team. There might not be a single player on this list who can’t point to one or more of these as factors in their failure to perform at the expected level.
What injuries don’t explain are the managerial decisions. When we talk about aging curves, we aren’t just talking about players getting older, we’re also talking about the accumulated damage that years of playing high-level hockey does to a body. It’s not enough to shrug one’s shoulders and mumble about injuries when considering these moves from a managerial perspective.
None of the managers were foolish enough to blurt out the infamous “I’m not worried about six or seven right now. I’m worried about one,” line that Dave Nonis used in ridiculing concerns about the term on David Clarkson’s buyout-proof contract. Nevertheless, they walked down the same path, signing older players to the same sort of long-term, signing-bonus-laden deal that proved to be such a cap headache for the Maple Leafs.
Media coverage differed from city to city, too, sometimes taking a longer-term perspective and other times getting lost in the glamour of a big free agent signing. The two products of the NHL’s 1970 expansion, the Canucks and Sabres, each landed one of the top forwards from the 2016 UFA class. In Vancouver, Benning was repeatedly pushed about the wisdom of his signing. The tone was very different in Buffalo.
The first question Sabres GM Tim Murray faced in his July 1 availability was framed around Buffalo landing Okposo in the aftermath of missing out on top target Steven Stamkos, who re-signed with the Lightning two days before the start of free agency. The second imagined how well he’d fit next to franchise cornerstone Jack Eichel. The third gave the game away.
“What is the significance of this deal for you?” asked the reporter. “A guy many peg as the best free agent available chose the Sabres and was talking about (how) he thinks he can win a Cup here and so forth. What does that mean to you?”
“It means a lot. It means that what I have felt, since I got here, that we could be a destination for good players. I think this shows that we are,” Murray responded.
“He’s a helluva player. He’s a goalscorer. He’s got a power forward’s body and he’s a goal scorer. He’s put up very good numbers. His goals and points per 60, to the analytics crowd, have been very good. It’s exciting to get a player of his caliber who had a choice of, I won’t say 30 teams, but certainly a lot of teams, to come here.”
It’s hard to blame the GM for taking the gift-wrapped opportunity to talk about how attractive playing for the Sabres is to free agents. Yet the premise of the question hinges on the notion that being the winning bidder for a free agent is somehow an affirmation of team and market, rather than a sign that in all probability Team X was simply willing to pay as much or more for Player Y than every other franchise in the league.
In the summer of 2016, the winners weren’t the teams signing the big free agents. The winners were the teams looking at a bunch of age-30-ish players and deciding that buyout-protected six- and seven-year contracts were insanity. It’s also probably not a coincidence that in the aftermath of perhaps the single-worst UFA year in the salary cap era we saw teams begin to invest more money in restricted free agents, paying for players in their prime years of production.
It’s a lesson that the league should remember for a long time, if only because it’s going to take years more for the clock to finally run out on these nightmare contracts.