The summer free agent spending spree in the NHL has ebbed to bargain bin gazing.
While a few old faces still remain available, the majority of the high priced help has been spoken for.
Dallas greatly improved their chances of erasing the nightmare that was the 2016-17 season, signing forwards Martin Hanzal and Alexander Radulov, defenceman Marc Methot and goalie Ben Bishop. There is definitely cause for cautious optimism in Big D.
They also made a couple of other, less known signings, including former Edmonton Oilers forward Tyler Pitlick, who could be an unheralded guy who becomes a key cog down the line.
As much as we like the underdog signings who go on to do great things, there have been a number of high profile pucksters who also exceeded expectations in years past after moving to new clubs.
Here are 15 we think were the some of the best free agent signings ever.
15. Charlie Simmer – Los Angeles Kings 1977
Before he was a member of the famed “Triple Crown Line” in Los Angeles Kings with Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor, Charlie Simmer spent a lot of time in the California Golden Seals (later Cleveland Barons) minor league system. Drafted in the third round, 39th overall, by the awful Golden Seals in 1974, Simmer played a total of 80 games in the NHL between 1974-75 and 1976-77, recording 25 points. He signed with the Kings in the summer of 1977, and fared little better there in his first season, playing just three games and registering zero points. In 1978-79, he spent the first half of the season in the AHL, then got called up and played impressively, scoring 21 goals and 27 assists in just 38 games. The next year, he established himself as an elite scorer, firing 56 goals and adding 45 assists in an injury-shortened 64 game season. He duplicated the goal output the following season (1980-81) and added another four assists for 105 points in 65 games. He wouldn’t reach those lofty heights again, but finished his tenure in L.A. with 466 points in 384 contests.
14. Niklas Backstrom – Minnesota Wild 2006
Mining untapped talent in Europe has become de riguer in the NHL. Undrafted players and goaltenders are often overlooked until they’ve played a few seasons with their hometown club teams in their native countries. Finnish netminder Niklas Backstrom was one of those guys. After going undrafted in 1996, he joined HIFK Helsinki and then bounced around the SM-liiga until 2005-06 with Karpat. He was 32-10-9 that year, with a sterling .940 save percentage, 1.68 goals against and 10 shutouts. Minnesota Wild bird dogs no doubt sent a report in and on June 1, 2006, he signed a one-year deal with the Wild to back-up Manny Fernandez. He ended up assuming starter’s duties when Fernandez was injured and finished the season first in the NHL in goals against (1.97) and save percentage (.929) while posting five shutouts. Fernandez was dealt to Boston in 2007, leaving Backstrom as the no. 1. He would play all but four of his 413 career games with Minnesota, finishing with a 194-142-50 mark, 2.48 GAA, .915 save percentage and 28 shutouts.
13. Dan Hamhuis – Vancouver Canucks 2010
In the summer of 2010, there weren’t many more sought after players than Nashville defenceman Dan Hamhuis. The former first round pick (12th overall) was a durable and dependable rearguard who missed just nine games in six seasons, while scoring 161 points and posting a +3. On Canada Day, 2010, Hamhuis — whose rights were traded twice prior to free agency — inked a six-year, $27 million pack with the Canucks. Despite missing more games to injury in Vancouver, Hamhuis blossomed into a Norris candidate his first three seasons. He quarterbacked the powerplay, as well as being a great two-way force for Vancouver. If not for a devastating hip check by Boston’s Milan Lucic in game 1 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, he may have helped deliver a long awaited Stanley Cup. He completed his six season deal in Van City, scoring 142 points in 389 games along with a +78 rating.
12. Matt Moulson – New York Islanders 2009
For the first part of his adult hockey career, Matt Moulson was a forgotten man. The Toronto native spent four pretty good seasons at Ivy League Cornell, where he was drafted after his first season by the Pittsburgh Penguins (263rd overall, 2003). He never gained traction with the Pens and signed with Los Angeles in 2006. Moulson would spend the majority of the next three seasons after graduating from Cornell in 2006 with the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Manchester, getting in just 29 games with the big club. In the summer of 2009, all the noise surrounding the New York Islanders centered on no. 1 draft pick, John Tavares. Buried in their free agent signings was Moulson, who signed a one-year, two-way deal. It turned out to be a steal, as he would score 30 goals or more his first three seasons on Long Island and play in each and every game. In all, he scored 118 goals and added 105 assists in 304 games with the Islanders.
11. Brian Elliott – St. Louis Blues 2011
The Blues, throughout their 50-year history in the NHL, have rarely gotten consistent goaltending. Their only true stars have been Mike Liut (347 games), Curtis Joseph (280) and Grant Fuhr (249) games. What they lacked was a Martin Brodeur type (he did play but just briefly). However, they did get a great boost in Brian Elliott in the summer of 2011. Released by the Colorado Avalanche after the 2010-11 campaign, Elliott signed a cap-friendly one-year, $600,000 contract, ostensibly to back-up Jaroslav Halak. He would end up outplaying Halak that first season, leading the NHL in save percentage (.940) and goals against average (1.56). He also recorded an astounding nine shutouts in just 38 games. For five seasons, Elliott was a star in St. Louis, registering a 104-46-16 record in 181 games, along with a 2.01 GAA, .925 save percentage and franchise best 25 shutouts. His performance in net during the 2016 playoffs was also remarkable, as he went 9-9, along with a .921 save percentage and 2.44 GAA.
10. Joel Ward – San Jose Sharks 2015
As a lunch bucket type of player with decent hands, Joel Ward won’t win many popularity contests in the NHL. Undrafted out of junior hockey, where he played four seasons in Owen Sound, the Toronto native ended up playing another four seasons of Canadian college hockey before turning pro with the Houston Aeros, who were Minnesota’s farm team, in 2005-06. He bounced from the Wild, to Nashville (where he blossomed) and Washington before hitting unrestricted free agency in 2015. He was a workhorse for the Capitals and the San Jose Sharks required some good, gritty two-way play in their bottom six forwards if they were to make headway in the playoffs. They signed him to a three-year, $9.75 million contract in the summer of 2015 and he paid immediate dividends. That season, he scored 21 goals and 22 assists in 79 games, with 16:58 average ice time as a third line center. Ward was even bigger in the Sharks first foray to the Stanley Cup finals, tying career highs in goals (7) and assists (6) in 24 games.
9. Anton Stralman – Tampa Bay Lightning 2014
He took a while to percolate, but there aren’t many defenceman as integral to a team as Stralman is to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now, he has never been anyone’s idea of a top two defender, but ask countryman and teammate Victor Hedman who is most underrated and the name Anton Stralman will no doubt be first out of his mouth. He was an afterthought in Toronto, where he was drafted 216th overall in 2005 and played in 88 games before twice being dealt during the summer of 2009. His game picked up steam with the Rangers, where he was a shut-down presence during two long runs by the Blueshirts in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs. But, when he signed with the Bolts in 2014, his career has really taken off. His first season he logged a career high 39 points, as well as a stellar +22. Then, he was a workhorse as the Lightning made it all the way to the Stanley Cup playoffs, recording nine points in 26 games and a +1.
8. Curtis Joseph – Toronto Maple Leafs 1998
After greats Turk Broda and Johnny Bower retired, the Leafs didn’t have one outstanding puckstopper to rely on. That is, until Curtis Joseph arrived on the scene in 1998. The veteran netminder had already played six season in St. Louis and three in Edmonton before signing in Toronto in the summer of ’98. The Leafs were banking on the fact he was more than an everyday goalie, in that he played over 70 games his last two seasons in Edmonton. He didn’t disappoint, taking over from incumbent Felix Potvin and getting in over 60 games in three of his four seasons in blue and white. He was a Vezina finalist in two of those four campaigns too, finishing second in 1999 and third in 2000. His virtuoso performance for the Leafs was in the 2002 playoffs, when he stole a few games for Toronto, which made the Eastern Conference finals before losing to Carolina. He was 10-10, with three shutouts, a 2.30 GAA and .914 save percentage.
7. Marian Gaborik – New York Rangers 2009
Among all Slovaks who have suited up in the NHL, Marian Gaborik is probably one of the most clutch. The Trencin native doesn’t have a ton of playoff experience in his 16-year career, but in 84 games he has 32 goals (three game winners) and 26 assists. That wasn’t the total reason the Rangers signed him to a five-year, $37.5 million pact on July 1, 2009, but it would factor in. For three and a half seasons in the Big Apple Gaborik scored 114 goals in 255 games, along with 115 assists and a +30 rating. During the Rangers trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2012, he had a modest five goal, six assist output. However, one of those goals, a triple overtime winner against Washington in the second round, ended the longest playoff game in franchise history.
6. Jeremy Roenick – Philadelphia Flyers 2001
J.R. always brought the unique to any team he played for in his illustrious career. A great dancer on ice skates, Roenick wasn’t just a showman, though, scoring 513 goals and 1,216 points in 1,363 NHL games. A native of Boston, Roenick became a quick fan favorite in Chicago, where he seamlessly blended scoring prowess and the ability to kid around. One day after free agency opened in July of 2001, Roenick signed with the Flyers and the team reaped the rewards. A great two way forward, Roenick recorded 67 points in 75 games for the Flyers during the 2001-02 season, along with a stellar +32. And in a tough town like Philly, Roenick endeared himself to a rabid base. He was tough as nails, taking a puck to the face once that broke his jaw but returned sooner than expected. In his last season, he was pivotal to the Flyers playoff run, scoring 13 points in 18 games (they lost to eventual champion Tampa Bay in seven games of the Eastern Conference final).
5. Ed Belfour – Dallas Stars 1997
The Dallas Stars have one a single Stanley Cup in their 50-year history. They owe much of that fabled triumph in 1999 to Eddie “The Eagle” Belfour. In their pantheon of superstars, Belfour ranks right up there, too, despite having played just five seasons in a Stars uniform from the time he signed with them on July 2, 1997. Already a two-time Vezina Trophy winner before going to Big D, Belfour was actually coming off his worst performance ever, a 13-game nightmare with San Jose (.884 save percentage, 3.41 GAA). With Dallas, he quickly re-established his cred, going 37-12-10 in 1997-98 with a league low 1.88 GAA,.916 save percentage and nine shutouts. Belfour would play in 60 or more games all five seasons in Dallas, but the 1999 playoffs were his highwater mark. He went 16-7 and had a playoff best three shutouts, including a pivotal whitewash in game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals when he beat Buffalo and Dominik Hasek 2-0. He then stopped 53 of 54 shots as Dallas won the Cup in game six, on Brett Hull’s controversial triple OT goal.
4. Zdeno Chara – Boston Bruins 2006
With the exception of Ray Bourque in the 1980s and 1990s, the Bruins haven’t had as impactful a defenceman as Zdeno Chara since Bobby Orr wore the black and gold. The Ottawa Senators have to be kicking themselves to this day for passing on Chara in free agency in 2006, choosing instead to sign their other big ticket free agent rearguard, Wade Redden. The Big Z signed with Boston on July 1 (five years, $37.5 million) and was so highly thought of, he was given the “C.” His first season, the Bruins didn’t make the playoffs, and he was -21 with 43 points in 80 games. But, the giant defender turned it around in 07-08, with 51 points and a +14. By his third season, Chara was a Norris Trophy winner for the first time, with 50 points and a +23 during the 2008-09 campaign. It was his role, though, in the B’s big 2010-11 season that cemented his place among the greats in Beantown. Whether scoring or shutting down the opposition’s best players, the man with the wicked slapshot and ornery demeanor did it all. He contributed 44 points in 81 regular season games and then nine points in 24 playoff games (+16) as Boston ended a 39-year title drought.
3. Brett Hull – Detroit Red Wings 2001
By the start of the 2001-02 season, the Golden Brett was already 37. Yet, the prolific scorer and future Hall of Famer had quite a bit left in the tank. With just one Stanley Cup in his lengthy career, he was hungry for another before retirement, signing with the Red Wings for less term and money (two years, $9 million) than he was offered by Montreal and the New York Rangers. It proved to be a wise move for the aging sniper. That first season in Detroit (he played three total), Hull played in all 82 games, firing 30 of his career 741 goals and adding 33 assists. He would get his wish for another Cup ring too, amassing 10 goals and eight assists in 23 playoff contests. In those playoffs, he had a flare for big goals. Of note, he scored a hat trick, including the winner, as Detroit overcame a 2-0 series deficit to beat Vancouver in game 6 of the first round.
2. Scott Stevens – New Jersey Devils 1991
People often forget that before he was Scott the Destroyer in New Jersey, Stevens played eight seasons in Washington and one in St. Louis before signing with the Devils in 1991. The Kitchener, Ontario native was a feared hitter who also had great hands. Three times with the Capitals he had over 60 points and 200 penalty minutes in the same season. He’d toned his act down somewhat in New Jersey, but players coming down the ice with their head down paid a steep price. Along with Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer and a host of skilled forwards, Stevens captained what was one of the best teams of the 90s. He won three Stanley Cups with the Devils, recording 62 points in 153 playoff games, including a +33.
1. Scott Niedermayer – Anaheim Ducks 2005
One would have thought that after three Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold medal and a Norris Trophy, that Scott Niedermayer would have enjoyed his NHL golden years with a fat contract offered to him by the New Jersey Devils in the summer of 2005. The Devils offered five years at $7.8 million per season, the most allowable under the first salary cap. But, he took a four-year pact from Anaheim at $6.75 million per campaign, mostly because he wanted to win a Cup with his brother Rob. In 2005-06, Niedermayer was a First Team All-Star, scoring a career high 63 points in 82 games. But, he and his brother fell short in the playoffs that year. In 2006-07, Niedermayer ratcheted things up even more, surpassing his career high in points with 69 and garnering another First Team All-Star selection. He and his brother would get their wish in the 2007 playoffs, with Scott leading all scorers with 16 assists (18 points) to help the Ducks win their first and only title. He was also awarded the Conn Smythe for his efforts.