From John Ferguson Jr. to Cliff Fletcher (part II) to Brian Burke to Dave Nonis, the annual free agent frenzy has been nothing short of a recurring nightmare for Maple Leaf general managers (recent) past and present.
Each and every July 1st signing has brought with it excitement and all too large expectations only to fizzle into one pricey disappointment after another. Now helming another rebuild in Calgary, Burke often described the day in disastrous terms for the NHL's management community, decrying the slew of exorbitant contracts with "unrealistic values and unrealistic term…that bite you right in the butt at some point".
Value, all too important under the confines of a cap system and best found in homegrown products, is never harder to find than on July 1st – a day that sees the contracts get larger and sillier with each passing year.
It began in earnest for the Leafs shortly after the outset of the cap era in the summer of 2006.
John Ferguson Jr., fighting for a job that would soon run its course, plugged two holes on the Toronto defence that July with a pair of expensive free agent additions. Formerly a member of Tampa's Cup winning squad in 2004, Pavel Kubina was inked for four years and $20 million and Hal Gill, once a towering defender in Boston but far less effective under the free-flowing rules of the league post-lockout, raked in more than $6 million for three years.
Both were overpaid from the outset – especially in the case of Kubina, one of many to struggle under the weight of an onerous contract – and both were eventually traded.
Jason Blake came next.
Scoring more frequently as an Islander in 2006 than at any other point in a 13-year career, Blake – age 33 – signed with the Leafs for five years and $20 million in the last significant move of the Ferguson Jr. era. Blake, predictably, could not live up to the expectations of such a large contract, never coming close to 40 goals again; he was dealt to Anaheim alongside Vesa Toskala for J.S. Giguere in 2010.
Mostly forgotten now, but of considerable damage to the organization during a brief 10-month tenure, Fletcher continued the free agent plight in 2008. Maybe even more stunning now than it was then, Fletcher handed former Avalanche defender Jeff Finger, he of 94 games of NHL experience, four years and $14 million. Finger played 62 forgettable games in a Leaf uniform, was eventually buried in the minors, never to be heard from again.
Joining Finger in the free agent trot that day was Niklas Hagman, a Finnish winger who scored 27 goals the year prior in Dallas. Hagman also cashed in under Fletcher, lured for four years at a bloated $12 million. Though he scored 42 goals in two seasons with the Leafs, Hagman was consistently inconsistent, soon to be dealt to Calgary in the famed Dion Phaneuf trade.
Still months from pulling the trigger on the noisiest (and most controversial) move of his busy Toronto tenure – the hotly debated Phil Kessel trade – Burke sought a big and ultimately failed splash in his first summer as the Leafs front man.
It was all about truculence then and truculence he got.
There were the four years and $4 million pitched to former Rangers heavyweight, Colton Orr; five long years and $22.5 million to Mike Komisarek; three years at just over $11 million for Francois Beauchemin.
Orr lingered as a mostly unused tough guy for Ron Wilson before being briefly banished to the minors (he eventually returned to the NHL). Komisarek, a step or two slow for the speedier new game, tumbled quickly under the burden of a deal he could never live up to and was bought out by the organization last summer. Beauchemin eventually found his game, but not in Toronto. He returned to the Ducks in the Jake Gardiner-Joffrey Lupul swap, finishing fourth in the 2013 Norris Trophy voting.
Still trying to fill various holes through free agency, Burke added the veteran grinder Colby Armstrong from Pittsburgh the following summer (three years, $9 million). Armstrong never found much health as a Leaf though and preceded fellow free agent signee, Komisarek, on the buyout line.
Tim Connolly recorded just 42 points in his final go-around in Buffalo, but still landed $9 million for two years in the summer of 2011. Connolly never hit the desired mark of No. 1 centre for the Leafs (he had 36 points in 70 games), was demoted to the Marlies after a year and is now out of the NHL.
And then last summer there was David Clarkson, the first signee of Nonis as Leafs GM.
In perhaps the worst deal of the aforementioned bunch, Clarkson landed in his hometown for seven years and more than $36 million on July 1st, 2013. Year 1 was an all-out nightmare and while there's every chance of a bounce-back of some kind in Year 2, his talents are unlikely to ever match the value of an incredibly burdensome contract.
Clarkson was just the latest in a line of July 1st blunders.
The fundamental flaw in continually swinging big in free agency is the lacking value the process ensures – players are almost always overvalued on Day 1 of the contract. As demonstrated yet again by the L.A. Kings earlier this summer, team building (and sustained success) is best accomplished through successful draft and development, not pricey spending on a mistake-laden day.
And so while impending UFA's like Paul Statsny may appear to solve long-standing needs, Nonis (and Brendan Shanahan) would be wise to approach with caution.
The answer, especially in Toronto, is almost never found on July 1st.
||4 years, $20M
||3 years, $6.25M
||5 years, $20M
||4 years, $14M
||4 years, $12M
||4 years, $4M
||5 years, $22.5M
||3 years, $11.4M
||3 years, $9M
||2 years, $9M
||7 years, $36.75M