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The Perils Of Free Agency

Every summer teams feel a lot of pressure to sign free agents.  There is a limited class of players available each year and few of the players available are clear gamebreakers.  While it can be worth a lot to sign an all star player, they usually are not available.  Some of the most heavily pursued free agents usually wind up to be younger free agents who are still in their 20s and have reached unrestricted free agency for the first time.  If a player in this group is coming off of a solid season, they usually get pursued by a lot of teams.  These players do not have to have ever been proven to be all stars.  They merely have to be the best of the younger UFA players.

Last season two such players were David Clarkson and Stephen Weiss.  Neither had ever been all stars, but as some of the best younger ufas they were pursued and given some lengthy lucrative contracts.  Clarkson is signed with Toronto until 2020 with a $5.25 million salary cap hit.  Weiss is signed with Detroit until 2018 with a $4.9 million salary cap hit.  These are numbers neither is worth.

So far this season Clarkson has three goals and eight points.  Weiss has two goals and four points.  Both have much lower numbers than would have been expected.  However neither was expected to be dominant NHL all stars either.  As we look forward into the future, both of these players look like buyout candidates. 

The problem with building through free agency is that you have to spend a lot of money and offer multi=year contracts to get the biggest prizes.  If the biggest prizes are not all star players, they are almost certainly not going to be worth it.  There is no guarantee that players will fail the way Clarkson and Weiss have so far this season, but it is unlikely that they can live up to their new contracts.  This doesn't mean that you cannot sign a free agent to a good deal.  You must avoid the most heavily pursued player and find a diamond in the rough.  Chasing the younger UFAs who are not all stars and signing them to all star level contracts is a bad idea.

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Comments

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Weiss isn’t getting bought out. If he absolutely blows after coming back from this surgery ....MAYBE. But that is a cap hit for a looooong time since he can’t be a compliance buyout candidate. Same with Clarkson. You could tell Weiss had some serious stride issues right off the bat. Not the same skater as he was in Florida. He can be a #2 center on this Wings team. Especially next year’s when the kids are in and the Cleary/Sammy/Bert types are gone.

Only one way to find out. Soon we shall.

Clarkson on the other hand, he’s been injured a bit too but hasn’t seen much PP time. He CAN produce. I think he’s being used incorrectly. Again, time will tell.

I think Weiss will be fine. Maybe not this year but next year for sure. Clarkson needs to get past the “I have a big contract and need to produce” which is making him grip the stick too hard. Weiss needs to get healthy and also put away the “omg I have to score since I have this contract!!!” bit.

Just my opinion.

Posted by borq646 from South Lyon, MI on 01/25/14 at 09:22 PM ET

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It is my understanding the compliance buyouts, of which each team was allotted two after the new CBA was signed, are only for players signed prior to September 15, 2012.

Posted by mc keeper on 01/25/14 at 10:24 PM ET

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Yep, any player signed after the new CBA kicked in cannot be bought out with a compliance buyout. If you were to buy out Weiss with a normal buyout you’d carry a cap hit which is below:

2014-15: $2,108,333
2015-16: $608,333
2016-17: $608,333
2017-18: $2,608,333
2018-19: $1,708,333
2019-20: $1,708,333
2020-21: $1,708,333
2021-22: $1,708,333

Posted by borq646 from South Lyon, MI on 01/25/14 at 10:27 PM ET

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Isn’t this just cherry-picking two expensive, failed-to-date signings and concluding from that that there’s a “problem” with free agency?

Posted by captaineclectic on 01/25/14 at 10:49 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

I am using two examples to show that giving large longterm contracts to players who have never proven themselves to be all stars because they are seen as the best of the 20 something ufas is a very poor move.  That is not a problem with free agency.  It is a problem with the strategy some teams have used with free agents.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 01/26/14 at 12:09 AM ET

bigdee89's avatar

I am using two examples to show that giving large longterm contracts to players who have never proven themselves to be all stars because they are seen as the best of the 20 something ufas is a very poor move.

I think both players have been thrown into completely new systems so some patience is needed.  Yes they were paid on potential but so are all players now.

Posted by bigdee89 from The Great White North Eh? on 01/26/14 at 01:51 AM ET

DrewBehr's avatar

a.) Who says that giving long-term deals to players who aren’t “all stars” is a bad thing? In many cases, role players can be just as important to sign long-term.

b.) Weiss had definitely proven himself to be worth $5/mil a year.

c.) If you’re going to go this route, guys like Ville Leino may be a better example.

Posted by DrewBehr from The Mitten on 01/26/14 at 01:51 AM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

Ville Leino is a good example.  Problem is he isn’t an example from this year.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 01/26/14 at 02:03 AM ET

DrewBehr's avatar

True, but it proves your point of signing un-proven players to large contracts better than your argument: Judging players based on their first year of their deals, with one of those players being on injured reserve most of the season.

You must avoid the most heavily pursued player and find a diamond in the rough.

Spoken like a true amateur blogger.

Posted by DrewBehr from The Mitten on 01/26/14 at 02:24 AM ET

Alan's avatar

I think both players have been thrown into completely new systems so some patience is needed.  Yes they were paid on potential but so are all players now.

Posted by bigdee89 on 01/26/14 at 01:51 AM ET

Not to mention that one of those players has been injured a huge chunk of games this season.

Weiss has not been a good signing *to date*, but he didn’t really look like his former self (as noted above, his stride is a good example).

Their stats might not be good this year (for Weiss, it’s pretty much a wash this season). Next season could either prove the point trying to be made here, or it could prove that hot air was produced. Seeing as how I’m not a fortune teller or a psychic friend, I can’t predict the future.

Posted by Alan from Atlanta on 01/26/14 at 02:47 AM ET

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These players can not be bought out.  The amnesty buyouts were for contracts signed before the CBA was signed, not after. 

These contracts are brutal though, i agree with that

Posted by tbassett on 01/26/14 at 07:03 AM ET

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Why not add the Valterri Filppula signing to the discussion?  He was another non-all-star who got a lot of money in a shallow pool, right?

The obvious answer is that he’s been really, really good. in Tampa.  You didn’t mention Mike Ribeiro, because while he’s arguably underachieved in Phoenix he’s productive enough that the contract isn’t ugly.  And it’s too early to say whether the Nathan Horton signing looks good for Columbus or not—he’s only got 7 points in 11 games, but Columbus is winning.

When there’s 5 similar contracts handed out in free agency, by new teams, to guys about the same age, who’re good players but sub-all-stars, and the results are

Home-run (Filppula)
Single (Ribeiro)
Two strike outs (Clarkson, Weiss)
And one ball in play but leaning fair (Horton)

then you don’t conclude “It’s better not to swing.”

Posted by captaineclectic on 01/26/14 at 10:25 AM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

You have awfully low standards if you can consider Filppula a “home run”.  He is a player who has been worth his money so far.  Even he has a very good chance of being a poor contract in a couple years when the decline phase of his career is underway.

Of the five players you list, I predict that at least four have contracts that they will not live up to.  In that case you are better off without them.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 01/26/14 at 10:44 AM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

I think your standards for All-Star level pay need to be updated for accuracy. Slightly north of $5M isn’t a realistic all-star figure for an unrestricted free agent anymore.

Among the top 30 scorers in the NHL, Chris Kunitz is the only UFA to have signed a deal that pays less than $5.8M AAV when you factor in the new contract rules which would have made Marian Hossa’s current deal illegal.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 01/26/14 at 11:05 AM ET

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These players can not be bought out.  The amnesty buyouts were for contracts signed before the CBA was signed, not after.

There are still regular buyouts every off-season.

Posted by Garth on 01/26/14 at 11:12 AM ET

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There are still regular buyouts every off-season.

These buyouts going forward would still count against the cap though, correct ?
That was the point of my original post, not a lot of cap benefit if Clarkson or Weiss, for example, are bought out.

Posted by mc keeper on 01/26/14 at 12:46 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

Among the top 30 scorers in the NHL, Chris Kunitz is the only UFA to have signed a deal that pays less than $5.8M AAV when you factor in the new contract rules which would have made Marian Hossa’s current deal illegal.

This comparison shows how poor the contracts are for these UFAs.  You try to justify their average salary by comparing them to the top 30 scorers in the NHL.  This is a group none of them belong in.  None have ever been members of this group.  As they age, they will get further away from being members of this group.  That is a big part of the problem.  They are going to be paid like this well into their 30s and for the most part they haven’t been worth it in their first season, when they should still be at their best.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 01/26/14 at 02:31 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

Try a reread there, partner.

I’m arguing they’re paid BELOW those standards where you said they’re paid like all-stars.  They’re not.  They’re being paid as complimentary pieces.  When your choices are to draft them or to pay them in free agency then yes, drafting them is the better choice.  Sadly, it’s not really a choice.

You picked two contracts which players aren’t living up to and called them all-star level contracts when they are not. All-stars are paid more than Stephen Weiss and David Clarkson
You’re ignoring good, similar contracts like Ribeiro and Filppula in your argument because they don’t fit. Interestingly, Ribeiro and Filppula probably aren’t all-stars either if there’s an actual ASG (although Filppula would have a decent shot) When you change the fit to define “complimentary 2nd-tier player to a team, then all you’re left with to argue about the Weiss and Clarkson contracts is that they’re two players who aren’t earning the money they got.

This happens with drafted players too. Eric Staal never hit UFA and he’s not worth up to the $8.25M AAV he was given. There’s a decent question whether Rick Nash is worth the $7.8M AAV he was given when still a member of the Blue Jackets (and not yet a UFA).

Further, you argue that “building” through free agency is problematic, leaving the term building horribly defined. The Hawks “built” through free agency to roughly the same level as the Leafs and one team is among the best while the other is… well not.

If your argument is that you shouldn’t overpay players, then we have agreement.

If your argument is that Stephen Weiss and David Clarkson are paid like or to be All-Stars, you’re not arguing from a foundation which is supported by comparison to players who best fit that category.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 01/26/14 at 02:43 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

These players are getting paid like all stars when we look at the total contract value.  The average might be lower than some other all star players, but the total length makes up for it. 

The problem is none of these players have ever been all stars.  About half are being complementary second tier players in the first year of their long term deal.  As complementary second tier players they are usually overpaid.  By the end of their deal it will be much worse than that.  Probably none will be able to be worth their deal.

This is simple supply and demand.  There is demand for free agents.  There is limited supply.  The price of the best younger ufas gets inflated beyond their actual value as a result.  If you must sign a free agent, you are very unlikely to get value form this group.  You might be able to get it if you find another less heavily pursued player whop doesn’t have such an unreasonable demand.

About half the players in this group are failing badly this season.  That in and of itself is a strong reason to be wary.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 01/26/14 at 04:35 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

These players are getting paid like all stars when we look at the total contract value.  The average might be lower than some other all star players, but the total length makes up for it.

That’s not true at all. The vast majority of guys on the larger contracts are on contracts just as long as or longer than 5 years.

By the end of their deal it will be much worse than that.

Eh, by the end of their deals, the cap should be anywhere between $15-20M higher. I don’t see these deals as being that big a deal compared to cap space taken.

About half the players in this group are failing badly this season.

It’s what, a five-person group? You’ve got two players. That’s 40%

 

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 01/26/14 at 04:47 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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