With the first month of the campaign coming to an end Tuesday, we took the opportunity to sing the praises of the top 10 unrestricted free agent signings who have been dynamite in the early going. Topping the list was the Florida Panthers’ Evgenii Dadonov, who has looked every bit the first-liner he was projected to be when he was brought back over from the KHL.
But Dadonov wasn’t the only one whose UFA signing we praised. Alexander Radulov’s deal with the Dallas Stars has been great thus far, as has Justin Williams’ with the Carolina Hurricanes. Anders Nilsson has been a standout for the Vancouver Canucks in his handful of starts, while teammate Thomas Vanek’s one-year deal is working out for all involved. There were also two college signings worth mentioning in Will Butcher and Alexander Kerfoot, inked by the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche, respectively.
For every signing that has worked out, however, there’s one that hasn’t quite gone according to plan, and that’s what we’re looking at today. These are the lowlights from signing season, or at least the deals that haven’t worked out through the opening month. Some of these players will undoubtedly turn the corner as the season wears on, while others will continue to be head-scratchers as fans and management alike wait for years to tick off deals.
Here are 10 UFA signings that haven’t paid off through the first month of the season:
10. Sam Gagner, Vancouver Canucks
Signing Gagner to a deal wasn’t the worst idea for the Canucks. He was coming off of a resurgent 18-goal, 50-point campaign and had helped bolster the Blue Jackets’ bottom-six and power play during his one year in Columbus. The issue, however, is that the Canucks paid big to bring in Gagner. On his three-year deal, he’s set to earn $3.15-million annually and, should the Sedins retire after this campaign, it would make him the third-highest paid forward on the roster. So, how is he producing for a player paid at the top end of the salary structure? Gagner ranks 10th in goals (one), 11th in assists (three) and 10th in points (four) among Canucks skaters and has the seventh-highest ice time of all forwards. Vancouver is going to be looking for more as the season goes on.
9. Dan Girardi, Tampa Bay Lightning
It was a deal that was questioned nearly from the moment it was announced. Girardi, bought out by the New York Rangers two years into his six-year, $33-million contract, was inked to a two-year pact by the Lightning that pays $3 million annually. But the deal hasn’t really done much to bolster the Tampa Bay blueline. The Bolts have the 12th-most shots against per game and Girardi, 33, has been on the ice for quite a few of those. In fact, only nine defensemen have faced a higher rate of shots against when playing at 5-on-5 than Girardi.
8. Jussi Jokinen, Edmonton Oilers
Looking to bring some additional offensive punch to the bottom-six ahead of the season, the Oilers went out and picked up Jokinen, who had been bought out by the Panthers. Getting the 34-year-old winger on the cheap — he has a one-year, $1.1-million deal — hasn’t really paid dividends for the Oilers, though. In nine games, he has just one point, an assist, and is averaging little more than 12 minutes of ice time per outing. Things have gone so sideways for Jokinen in Edmonton, in fact, that there’s talk he’s already on the trade block. Chances are the Oilers are going to have a tough time finding any suitors.
7. Brian Elliott, Philadelphia Flyers
Don’t go confusing Elliott’s 5-2-1 record with outstanding play. In reality, it has almost seemed as though the Flyers have found a way to pile up the wins in spite of the way Elliott is playing. After his first eight games, the 32-year-old has only managed a .884 save percentage to go along with a 3.23 goals-against average. He also ranks 19th out of 28 goalies to play at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5 with a .919 SP. The good news for the Flyers is that Michal Neuvirth has been great so far. He has a .934 SP at five-a-side and is boasting a .925 SP at all strengths. There could be more starts split as the season wears on.
6. Dmitry Kulikov, Winnipeg Jets
There was a lot of confusion when Kulikov, 27, signed a three-year, $13-million deal with the Jets, primarily because it was a sizeable deal given the season he was coming off of in Buffalo. The thought was Kulikov could come in and act as a No. 4 or 5 defender and move up the depth chart as an injury replacement when necessary. Turns out he’s been more like a No. 6. Through nine games, he’s averaged 15:48 per outing, which is second-lowest of all Jets defensemen to suit up this season.
This deal could look much better, say, next season, when Toby Enstrom is out of the picture in Winnipeg and there are potentially more minutes for Kulikov, but for the time being it’s a lot of cap space allocated to a defender who’s skating on the third pairing.
5. Chad Johnson, Buffalo Sabres
In an attempt to give Robin Lehner some rest and a backup the Sabres could rely on, Buffalo went out and scooped up Johnson, 31, from the free agent pool. It wasn’t cheap, either, at one year for $2.5 million. Given Johnson had, for a brief time, taken the reins and played well for the Calgary Flames, though, the Sabres deemed it a price worth paying. Well, that hasn’t been the case thus far. Of the 59 goaltenders to appear in at least three games this season, Johnson ranks 52nd with a .879 SP and 53rd with a 4.07 GAA. That certainly hasn’t helped Buffalo climb out of the NHL’s basement.
4. Steve Mason, Winnipeg Jets
There are two ways to look at this for the Jets. The positive outlook is that Mason was brought in to push Connor Hellebuyck and, if that was the plan, then it’s been executed to perfection. Hellebuyck has played tremendously through his first eight games. The other outlook, though, is far more bleak, and it’s that the Jets are paying $4.1 million this season and next for a backup goaltender. In four games, Mason, 29, has struggled mightily. He has an 0-3-1 record, .872 SP and bloated 4.84 GAA, and despite being paid nearly double Hellebuyck’s wage, Mason finds himself stapled to the bench.
There’s still time for him to turn it around and form a solid 1-2 punch with Hellebuyck, but, until he does so, that’s an awfully big salary to stomach for a second-string netminder.
3. Martin Hanzal, Dallas Stars
Hanzal, 30, was one of the most sought-after centers at the trade deadline last season and, when the Wild paid up to land him, the belief was Minnesota had made themselves solid enough down the middle to be true Stanley Cup contenders. Hanzal was only OK in the State of Hockey, though, but he still performed well enough to earn a three-year, $14.25-million deal from Dallas this past summer. The Stars may be regretting that about now.
Not only has he found himself in Ken Hitchcock’s doghouse, but it’s hard to blame the Stars coach for putting Hanzal there. In 11 games, Hanzal has one goal and zero assists. He’s currently on the shelf with a lower-body injury.
2. Antti Niemi, Pittsburgh Penguins
With Marc-Andre Fleury off to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the Penguins’ plan was to bring aboard a veteran netminder who could shoulder the load as Pittsburgh’s backup netminder. And of all the options the Penguins had available to them, they went with Antti Niemi. Fact of the matter is the price was right: Niemi, 34, was inked for less than $1 million and was believed to have the requisite experience to make for a serviceable backup.
Turns out that looking for a backup netminder in the bargain bin wasn’t the greatest idea. Niemi posted a .797 SP and 7.50 GAA in three appearances for Pittsburgh before hitting the waiver wire and landing with the Panthers. (His lone apearance in Florida wasn’t any better, as he allowed two goals on 18 shots in 28 minutes of action.)
1. Vadim Shipachyov, Vegas Golden Knights
Luring the 30-year-old over from the KHL after his career year seemed like a coup for the expansion Golden Knights. He was a highly sought-after scorer and one who some believed could be primed to take on a top-line role in Vegas right out of the gate. Instead, he was demoted to the minors ahead of opening night thanks in part to the numbers game, got a three-game look from coach Gerard Gallant, barely played, was demoted once again, failed to report, has since been suspended and it’s looking like he could be headed for contract termination and a trip back to Russia any day now.
Now, it’d be one thing if that was the case and he was inked to a one-year deal with a minuscule cap hit, but the Golden Knights believed in him enough to ink him to a two-year, $9-million deal. Thankfully for Vegas, it won’t completely blow up in their faces. The mutual contract termination that is reported to be in the offing will take the cap hit off the books.
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