July 08, 2011
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Congratulations on your team having signed a free agent that everyone else in the league was clamoring for.
The prize is yours and yours alone, and you may think the cost, though high, will ultimately be worth it.
After all, this kind of player is exactly what you've needed to get over the hump that so many teams stumble over year after agonizing year. The New York Rangers got their long-sought No. 1 center in Brad Richards(notes). The Philadelphia Flyers got their franchise goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov(notes). The Buffalo Sabres got their… well they got Ville Leino(notes).
But the interesting thing — and the sad truth for fans of those teams — is that it's unlikely those players will be the magical cure to all the problems that have held their new teams back these last however-many years.
Simply put, free agents with big names and bigger price tags may cause a clamor every July 1, but the large majority don't make their team appreciably more convincing suitors for the Stanley Cup. At least, not in the near-term.
I spent a lot of time trying to think of the kind of splashy free-agent signings we see every year who actually take their team from middle-of-the-pack, one-and-done playoff teams to legitimate contenders and there are astonishingly few candidates who were able to do it by themselves.
The first and most obvious and/or recent one is Zdeno Chara(notes), who got a lot of money for a lot of years from the Boston Bruins … and still waited for five seasons worth of reinforcements to arrive before he won a Cup.
Another somewhat recent contender (as pointed out by @FlyerNation) is Danny Briere(notes). After all, the Flyers signed him, then went to an Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup Final in three years. However, there's little evidence that Briere, despite his paycheck, has been anything more than a second-line center and not a catalyst. Certainly, his teams, while lucky in the playoffs, have often been painfully incomplete. He was also helped tremendously, as most teams are, by the addition-by-trade of Chris Pronger(notes).
The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of the Ducks' acquisition of Scott Niedermayer(notes). He was the premier hot free agent, if only because teams thought to be on his radar (Calgary, Vancouver, Anaheim and New Jersey, if memory serves) got to spend the entire lockout thinking about how great their lives would be. Upon his joining the Ducks, they promptly went to a Western Conference Final and won a Stanley Cup Final the next year, though, again, with the addition-by-trade of Chris Pronger. But then again, that Ducks team also went to the Stanley Cup Finals two seasons prior to that, so they were already contenders in the loosest sense of the term.
(Apropos of nothing: A seven-game Stanley Cup Final loss, a Conference Final loss and a Stanley Cup in four seasons, across two decidedly different versions of the NHL? Those Ducks teams were really excellent if you think about it.)
The biggest and perhaps only free agent signing in recent memory that actually turned a team into a Stanley Cup winner in no time flat? As reader Jeff Burton says, that was Brett Hull, signed by the Dallas Stars in summer of 1998.
While they went to the conference finals the year before (and finished with 109 points!), they were decidedly better with Hull in the lineup, as they won the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup, and Hull popped in 32 in just 60 regular season games.
And along the same lines, Brian Rafalski(notes) was a highly-paid free agent signed by the Detroit Red Wings the summer before they won the Stanley Cup in 2008. But, as with the Stars, it's unlikely that anyone would have exactly considered the Red Wings of the late 2000s to have been anything less than an extraordinary team.
Essentially, the point is that unless you're the Red Wings or pre-salary cap Dallas Stars, signing the big-ticket guys for premium bucks — and for a lot of years — typically doesn't work out any time soon. It might address a specific problem, even a team's biggest one, but like a bad wallpaper job, pushing down that bubble causes more to pop up elsewhere.
Philadelphia had to trade an Olympian and a former 40-goal center who was strong defensively to squeeze Bryzgalov in. The Rangers still have to sign Brandon Dubinsky(notes) and Ryan Callahan(notes) (both will be due good-sized raises over the combined $3.15 million cap hit they caused last year) and flesh out a terribly underwhelming defensive corps.
Buffalo remains, well, the team that's drastically overpaying for Ville Leino.
And none of them are in the same stratosphere as the teams most sane people think will have a legitimate claim for the Stanley Cup next season.
If history has shown us anything in the last few years, it's that if you really want to make the Stanley Cup Final and give yourself a shot at the greatest trophy in sports, you should probably just trade for Chris Pronger.
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