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Netcrashing: 'Who has been the NHL's best UFA signing?'

Jamie Bell, TSN.ca Staff

12/8/2010 3:10:31 PM

When the New Jersey Devils announced the initial signing of free agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract, it signified a sea change in the way that NHL general managers do business in the post-lockout world.

The subsequent rejection of the deal and Kovalchuk's struggles since signing an ameliorated 15-year contract have perhaps led GMs to re-evaluate how they do business going forward.

What's become apparent after more than a third of the season is that the big ticket free agent players have had difficulty living up to the expectations of their contracts, while less prominent signings have flourished.

While the merits of Kovalchuk's deal have been argued ad nauseum, the Devils - as they stand - are not getting the return on their investment. With only five goals and 11 points in 26 games and an abysmal minus-17, it seems $100 million doesn't get you what it used to. And he's not alone.

The Ottawa Senators invested $16.5 million of Eugene Melnyk's cash in defenceman Sergei Gonchar to quarterback the team's power play and mentor future defensive stud Erik Karlsson. With no points in his last eight games to go along with a minus-14 rating on the season, the Sens might be wondering if they would have been better served spending the money elsewhere. 

It hasn't been a banner season so far for virtually any unrestricted free agent who agreed to a contract in excess of $4 million per season, with the exception of Tomas Plekanec and Nicklas Lidstrom (But both those players re-signed with their old clubs and did so prior to the opening of unrestricted free agency on July 1).

The struggles of the so-called 'elite' free agents becomes even more apparent when it is put in direct contrast to those unheralded signings that raised a collective 'meh' when first announced.

While Toronto Maple Leafs President and general manager Brian Burke has been raked over the coals on numerous occasions for a trade that saw him send a pair of first round draft picks and a second rounder to the Boston Bruins for Phil Kessel, he should also be commended for a pair of shrewd moves he made this past off-season.

After sending a third and fourth round draft to the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline to acquire Clarke MacArthur, the Atlanta Thrashers decided that $2.4 million was too high a price to pay to retain him. They chose to walk away from an arbitrator's decision on his salary, making him an unrestricted free agent. Burke happily swooped in and signed the Alberta native to a one-year, $1.1 million contract and has been reaping the rewards ever since. 

Heading in to action Wednesday night, MacArthur leads the Maple Leafs in scoring with 21 points in 26 games and is second only to Kessel in goals. He's been the club's most consistent forward so far and has injected a nice mixture of skill and grit playing alongside the likes of Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.

MacArthur was not the only astute signing by Burke, as forward Colby Armstrong has also brought the pugnacity and truculence that the GM was searching for. A natural shift disturber, Armstrong has been invaluable to the Leafs with the intangibles that he brings to the ice every day. Case in point - the team is 7-2-1 with Armstrong in the lineup this season.  When he missed 16 games with a finger injury, the team went into a swoon, losing 13 games including a stretch of eight straight. While it's wishful thinking to attribute too much of the team's success to a player who is has never scored more than 40 points in a season, the Leafs are a better team with him in the lineup - disrupting opponents and creating space for his linemates. At this point, the $3 million that the team has invested in him this season appears to be money well spent.

The Maple Leafs aren't the only Canadian team enjoying the benefits of astute signings. The Vancouver Canucks have vaulted to the top of the Northwest Division thanks with a newly minted checking line featuring free agents Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres

Malhotra is one of the top face-off men in the league - his winning percentage of 62.5 heading in to action Wednesday trails only Washington's David Steckel.  He has also proven to have some surprising offensive pop with 12 points in 26 games and is on track to post the best numbers of his career.  Not bad for a guy earning $2.5 million this season.

Torres was deemed expendable after failing to light the lamp even once for the Sabres after being acquired at the trade deadline. He accepted a one-year, $1 million deal with the Canucks and it appears to be a wise decision as Torres has turned heads with his grit, determination and willingness to crash the net and mix it up.

Staying in Canada, Jeff Halpern is fulfilling a similar role to Torres and Malhotra in La Belle Province after agreeing to a miniscule one-year, $600,000 deal with the Habs. Canadiens fans and management have to be ecstatic with the results so far considering how low profile the deal was considered when it was announced. The Maryland native has given the Canadiens some much needed depth and leadership down the middle and has provided a surprising offensive burst.  With six goals and 15 points so far in 28 games, Halpern is on pace to match the top offensive season he has ever registered, a 46-point campaign with the Capitals in 2003-04.

Few signings this off-season were more scrutinized than the Calgary Flames dual inking of Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay.

While Jokinen has just two goals in 25 games so far at the steep price of $3 million per season, Tanguay has been the Flames most consistent forward thus far with 23 points in 28 games, trailing only Jarome Iginla for the team lead. What makes the production all the more valuable is that it comes at the $1.7 million price tag attached to him this year.  Compared to the $6.9 million that the San Jose Sharks are paying Patrick Marleau (a player they paid a premium for before the free agent market opened) to post similar numbers (22 points in 26 games) it appears that the Flames got themselves quite the steal.

And Canadian teams didn't corner the market on intelligent signings. The Buffalo Sabres were smart enough to get defenceman Jordan Leopold's John Hancock on a three-year, $9 million deal. Leopold has been better than expected, sitting top 10 in scoring by a defenceman with seven goals and 17 points in 28 games while helping hold the fort at the backend for a Sabres team that has been forced to deal with an injury to Ryan Miller and a sophomore slump by Tyler Myers.

All of the above mentioned contracts help highlight the impact of the Kovalchuk deal. With only 11 points so far this season on a contract that will see him earn $6.66 million, (The Number of the Beast by the way, a bad omen?) the Devils are paying him $606,060 per point. Those numbers favour New Jersey only when compared to say Derek Boogaard, who the New York Rangers are paying $812,500 per point (two points on the year at $1.625 a season). However when the Boogie Man isn't scoring (which is often), he has something else to offer the team.

So our question in this edition of Netcrashing is the following: 'Who has been the best unrestricted free agent signing this season in the NHL?'

Let your opinions be known in our Your Call feature below.