No single day gets hockey fans as hyped up as July 1, the single-biggest signing day in the NHL.
It's a day of excitement and anticipation, but it can also be, for the unlucky ones, a day of frustration. It's a chance for weaker teams to fix their roster situation after a long few months off and for the top teams to find the missing piece or two for a Stanley Cup run. Since 2005, the salary cap has made managing rosters more challenging because you can't just throw big contracts at anyone you want...except, that's exactly what many teams have done anyway.
Given how long we've had to see the salary cap-era unfold, let's take a look at the best unrestricted free agent signings by all teams in the salary cap era:
Anaheim Ducks – Scott Niedermayer ($6.75 million per/three years in 2005-06)
Niedermayer was one of the first salary cap signings and easily one of the best. The Ducks won the Cup two years into his tenure and he had his best offensive seasons with 63 and 69 points in his first two campaigns in Anaheim. His chemistry with Chris Pronger made them one of the best defensive pairings in NHL history.
Arizona Coyotes – Mike Smith ($2 million per/two years in 2011-12)
Smith was one of the most impactful goalie signings of the 2010s, leading the Coyotes to their first Western Conference final appearance in 2012. Still a capable goaltender today at 37, Smith later signed a six-year deal that expired following this past season.
Boston Bruins – Zdeno Chara ($7.5 million per/five years in 2006-07)
Considered one of the greatest free agent signings ever, Chara won a Norris Trophy in 2009 and has helped Boston to three Cup final appearances in the past decade, winning it all in 2011.
Buffalo Sabres – Jaroslav Spacek ($3.33 million per/three years in 2006-07)
Spacek bounced around the league for a few years before inking with Buffalo in 2006, but he found his calling as one of Buffalo's best defenders for a couple of seasons. While he was mainly a third-pairing option in the year he signed the deal, Spacek moved up in the lineup and finished with 98 points in 205 games before signing with the Montreal Canadiens in 2009.
Calgary Flames – Jiri Hudler ($4 million per, 4 years in 2012-13)
Hudler's career may have come to an unceremonious end, but Hudler was one of Calgary's best players during his tenure with the team. In 2014-15, his 31 goals and 76 points put him eighth in league scoring and he took home the Lady Byng Trophy that same season. He finished his 248-game stint with Calgary with 192 points.
Carolina Hurricanes – Ray Whitney ($1.5 million per/two years in 2005-06)
You could always count on Whitney to be a solid offensive contributor, but his best years came in Carolina, recording his two highest point totals – 83 and 77 – in Raleigh. He was important in helping Carolina win the Cup in 2006.
Chicago Blackhawks – Marian Hossa ($5.28 million per/12 years in 2009-10)
Hossa was one of Chicago's reliable goal-scorers during the Hawks' mini-dynasty in the early 2010s, winning three Stanley Cups. Despite not playing since 2017 due to health reasons, Hossa's contract runs until 2020-21, though Arizona holds his rights.
Colorado Avalanche – Jan Hejda ($3.25 million per/four years in 2011-12)
Hejda didn't have much offensive flair, but he was a top-four defenseman for his four-year run in Denver and was crucial to the Avalanche's penalty kill. He was important in getting Colorado to the playoffs in 2014.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Kristian Huselius ($4.75 million per/four years in 2008-09)
The Blue Jackets have had a tough time attracting high-end talent, but Huselius had 56 and 63 points in his first two years with the club, respectively, and was on pace for a fantastic 2010-11 season before injuries limited him to 39 games.
Dallas Stars – Alexander Radulov ($6.25 million per/five years in 2017-18)
A polarizing figure for most of his career, Radulov has had back-to-back 72-point campaigns, the best outputs of his career. Radulov has emerged as one of the team's top forwards and a full campaign could see him inch closer to 80 points.
Detroit Red Wings – Brian Rafalski ($6 million per/five years in 2007-08)
The Red Wings may not have won the Cup without Rafalski's help in 2008, which came after he moved over from the New Jersey Devils to be an important two-way force in Motor City. He had a career-high 59 points in 2008-09 and never had less than 42 in a season before his retirement in 2011.
Edmonton Oilers – Andrew Ference ($3.25 million per/four years in 2013-14)
Ference's time in Edmonton ended with injury problems, but when healthy, he was a solid defender on a team that is still seeking depth at the position.
Florida Panthers – Jozef Stumpel ($1.63 million per/two years in 2005-06)
This will change if they end up signing Artemi Panarin or Sergei Bobrovsky, but Stumpel was quite underrated during his time in Florida. He finished with 52 and 57 points in his first two seasons in Florida before a tough 52-game run in 2007-08 that saw him register just 20 points. Fun fact: He still plays today, skating with HK 96 Nitra in the third Slovakian league at the age of 46.
Los Angeles Kings – Willie Mitchell ($3.5 million per/two years in 2010-11)
Mitchell didn't get enough credit for his play in Los Angeles, where he won the Cup in 2012 and 2014. A steady shutdown defender, injuries were an issue but his physical play made him a fan favorite.
Minnesota Wild – Niklas Backstrom ($750,00 per/one year in 2006-07)
The Wild looked like geniuses when they plucked Backstrom out of the Finnish Liiga. He quickly became a starting goalie as an undrafted 28-year-old rookie in 2006-07 and was the team's leading man until the 2013-14 season, finishing as a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2008-09.
Montreal Canadiens – Brian Gionta ($5 million per/five years in 2009-10)
Gionta never hit the 50-point mark in his five years with Montreal, but he spent four years as captain and was good for 40 points when healthy. He had 46 in his first two years and was important in the team's fantastic playoff run in 2010, scoring nine goals and 15 points.
Nashville Predators – Paul Kariya ($4.5 million per/two years in 2005-06)
Scoring has been an issue for the Predators for most of the team's tenure, but it definitely wasn't a problem for Kariya. The 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee had 85 and 76 points in his two years with Nashville – still the best two outputs in franchise history – before finishing his career in St. Louis.
New Jersey Devils – Andy Greene ($850,000 per year/two years in 2005-06)
Greene was signed out of college in 2006 as an undrafted free agent and despite a rocky first few years in New Jersey, Greene has become one of the team's most important players in the post-lockout era. He's been a mainstay in the team's top four for the past decade and has served as the team's captain since 2015-16.
New York Islanders – Robin Lehner ($1.5 million per year/one year in 2018-19)
Most people completely overlooked this signing, and few pundits predicted much out of the Islanders this season. But he had the best season of his career, winning the Masterton and William Jennings trophies and coming just short of the Vezina. Will the Islanders keep him around next season?
New York Rangers – Marian Gaborik ($7.5 million per/five years in 2009-10)
It's sad to see injuries derail an otherwise great career, but Gaborik was magnificent in the Big Apple. He scored 40 goals twice and a career-high 86 points in his first season with the team in 2009-10. He isn't medically cleared to play these days, but the Ottawa Senators hold his rights.
Ottawa Senators – Sergei Gonchar ($5.5 million per/three years in 2010-11)
At 36 at the time of his signing, Gonchar's best days were far behind him, but he still managed to play 23 minutes a night while acting as a mentor for some young kid named Erik Karlsson.
Philadelphia Flyers – Daniel Briere ($6.5 million per/eight years in 2007-08)
Former GM Paul Holmgren made one of the biggest splashes in the free agent market when he signed Briere in 2007 on the heels of his 95-point season with Buffalo the season prior. While he never hit that mark again, Briere had 283 points in 364 games with the Flyers and another 72 points in 68 playoff games.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Sergei Gonchar ($5 million per/five years in 2005-06)
Gee, sound familiar? Gonchar played the best hockey of his big-league career in Pittsburgh, leading defensemen with 54 assists in 2006-07 and finishing with at least 50 points in four of his five seasons (he played just 25 regular season games in 2008-09 before winning the Cup). At $5 million for a top defenseman, that's not too shabby.
San Jose Sharks – Antti Niemi ($2 million per/one year in 2010-11)
The Sharks snagged Niemi on a very cap-friendly deal after he had led Chicago to a Cup in 2010 and was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2012-13. He had some help with good defense in front of him and then had a solid few years in California.
St. Louis Blues – Brian Elliott ($600,000 per/one year in 2011-12)
Elliott's career was dwindling before he signed a minuscule contract with the Blues in 2011. Elliott went on to win 23 of 38 games that season, taking home the William Jennings Trophy. Injuries have been a problem for years, but he had at least 23 wins in three of his five seasons with the Blues.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Anton Stralman ($4.5 million per/five years in 2014-15)
Stralman was a key member of Tampa Bay's defensive core, pairing up nicely with Victor Hedman. He'll become a free agent this summer and his future destination is still unknown.
Toronto Maple Leafs – John Tavares ($11 million per/seven years in 2018-19)
The best signing of 2018, Tavares joined the team he grew up cheering for and despite an early playoff exit, his season can be viewed as a success. He finished with a career-high 47-goal, 88-point season, though the Leafs are now having to get a little creative to stay under the salary cap.
Vancouver Canucks – Dan Hamhuis ($4.5 million per/six years in 2010)
Hamhuis was one of the best defenders on the market in 2010 and the Canucks were definitely pleased with his services. The 2014 Olympic champion played big minutes as one of Vancouver's most stable defensemen.
Vegas Golden Knights – Paul Stastny ($6.5 million per/three years in 2018-19)
Stastny only played 50 games this past season but had an impressive 42 points. Vegas might be forced to move his contract due to salary issues but Stastny, 33, still looks to have a handful of good years left in him.
Washington Capitals – Matt Niskanen ($5.75 million per/seven years in 2014-15)
Niskanen had a down season with the Caps this year and was ultimately traded to Philadelphia in the off-season, but he was an important veteran presence and won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Still, he was good for most of his tenure in Washington.
Winnipeg Jets – Mathieu Perrault ($3 million per/three years in 2014-15)
His production has trailed off over the past two seasons, but the Jets got great value out of him at $3 million per season on his first deal with the team. Perrault added extra scoring depth and has had 41 or more points in his first three seasons with the club.
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