Looking back at the defining UFA moments of NHL’s salary-cap era

John Tavares call into Prime Time Sports to talk about joining the Toronto Maple Leafs and how hard a decision it was to leave the New York Islanders.

From the absence of small-town parades to not having a big party at Parliament Hill, there’s a lot that’s going to feel different about Canada’s 153rd birthday.

For hockey fans, it will be very odd to experience a July 1 where you can actually pay full attention to what the people you can actually have around you are saying. Normally, you’d be doing a lot of empty head-nodding while wondering what’s acceptable protocol for how often you can pull out your phone to find out what the latest ‘whaaaat?!’ signing is on the first day of NHL free agency.

In the absence of all the zeroes we normally see on this day, we figured there was value in looking back at some of the defining UFA moments of the salary-cap era. This list isn’t just about highlighting monster deals; it’s about identifying some intriguing, often ill-fated storylines that stuck with us over the years. Some of these contracts you’ll instantly recall, some are worthy of re-examination and some stand as prime examples of how sideways things can go in the NHL’s silly season.

To offer a little structure on a July 1 day that, historically, can get a little unruly, we’ll squeeze things into a few categories.

Jaw-droppers

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: Five years, $37.5 million in 2006
This is less about how shocking it was at the time than the fact this deal has basically taken the title as best free-agent signing ever. Chara has 14 seasons as a Bruin under his belt, won the 2009 Norris, was a finalist four other times and was wearing the ‘C’ the night Boston ended a 40-year Cup drought. All that from a guy who was 29 years old when he inked the UFA pact to go to Massachusetts. Put all that against the backdrop of Ottawa opting to prioritize defenceman Wade Redden over Chara and this is an all-time UFA tale.

John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs: Seven years, $77 million in 2018
COVID-19 has shaped our lives such that everything that happened before March feels like it was from a different lifetime. As such, it’s kind of hard to believe it was only two years ago Tavares ended a week-long “woo me” exercise by choosing his hometown team. A stud, prime-position player with first-overall pedigree leaving the only franchise he’s known at the height of his powers? Unprecedented.

Brad Richards, New York Rangers: Nine years, $60 million in 2011
Before GMs were asking tech-savvy young interns how to make splashy video presentations for Tavares, Richards had them scrambling for ways to make their best pitch. He has said that it ultimately came down to a decision between the Rangers and Los Angeles Kings. Richards chose the Blueshirts and was bought out during an amnesty period three years later. The Kings had won two Cups in three years by that point.

Brad Richards during his time in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Franchise-altering moments

Daniel Briere and Chris Drury depart Buffalo
I can’t recall any team’s positive run ending with an off-ice thud the way Buffalo’s did when co-captains Briere and Drury left in the summer of 2007. Only the Detroit Red Wings won more games than the electrifying Sabres in the two seasons following the lockout-lost year in 2004-05. Then Briere signed for eight years and $52 million with Philadelphia and Drury signed a five-year, $37-million deal with the Rangers. While those contracts aged poorly, it doesn’t change how devastating this was in the moment for Western New York. The bookend to this might have been Buffalo’s wild spending in 2011, when — with the Pegula family having recently taken over the team — they threw a combined $67 million at Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff. Suffice it to say, that was not money well spent. The good news, though, is… ugh.

Money bags Minnesota
In terms of sheer staggering numbers, nothing matches the Fourth of July in 2012 when the Wild doled out a combined $196 million and 26 years’ worth of contracts to bring two Mid-West American boys — Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — “home.” This was the last summer before a new CBA capped term at eight years for an in-house guy and seven if you were poaching him. The numbers are nutty, but I’ll defend this move for the sheer audacity of it. It was a Cup-or-bust play that, sadly for the Wild, didn’t go the way they dreamed.

Montreal goes mini
In the span of two days in 2009, the Canadiens completely altered the look of their top-six forward crew by adding three small guys in Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri and Scott Gomez (we’re cheating here because Gomez was landed in a trade the day before July 1). To balance it out, the Canadiens inked six-foot-two tough guy Travis Moen and six-foot-seven defenceman Hal Gill. And Jaroslav Spacek, too. That’s quite an off-season for the person who stitches the sweaters.

Former Sabres co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere during their time together in Buffalo. (David Duprey/AP)

Pedigree plays

The Kings add blue-line grit
In consecutive summers, Los Angeles added defence-first guys Rob Scuderi (four years, $13.6 million in 2009) and Willie Mitchell (two years, $7 million in 2010). They weren’t the flashiest signings, but Drew Doughty was the only Kings defenceman who averaged more ice time per game than Scuderi and Mitchell during the club’s 2012 Cup triumph.

One and done
Just weeks after losing to the Detroit Red Wings as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, Marian Hossa left heaps of money on the table to chase a championship by joining Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in Detroit on a one-year, $7.5-million deal the Wings squeezed under the cap. The move came within one game of working, as Detroit lost Game 7 of the 2009 final on home ice to Hossa’s old Pittsburgh buddies. After that, Hossa decided he’d just go ahead and sign a $63-million deal with Chicago and win three Cups there.

Doomed from the start

Sean of a short era
After watching him work his weird, establishment-challenging magic with the Rangers, the Dallas Stars doled out $15.5 million to Sean Avery over four years. Twenty-three games into the next season, Avery was suspended for crude comments made about actress Elisha Cuthbert, who was in a relationship with then-Calgary defenceman Dion Phaneuf. Avery did succeed in galvanizing the team, because there was top-to-bottom agreement in Dallas he should never skate for the organization again. Apparently the Rangers had remorse over the original breakup, because they swung a trade to get Avery back in Manhattan.

Mike Komisarek during his Maple Leafs tenure. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Switching sides
It’s hard to remember now what a big deal it was when Mike Komisarek jumped teams in hockey’s classic rivalry, moving from Montreal to Toronto in 2009. Leaf fans largely knew Komisarek as the big, tough defenceman who played on the Habs’ top pair with Andrei Markov. Canadiens supporters — especially the small band who were on board with the early days of analytics — knew Komisarek’s reputation as a great guy and teammate overshadowed the fact he wasn’t an especially talented player. He signed a five-year, $21-million deal that was wiped out with an amnesty buyout in 2013. You could argue Montreal was on the other side of this equation in 2017, when they signed already-slowing Karl Alzner to a five-year, $23-million pact.

Are they saying ‘Loooo’ or ‘Booo?’
Before the Sedins’ final year, Vancouver signed Loui Eriksson to play with his fellow Swedes. Had they got him on a sweetheart deal after concussions marred his time in Boston, the marriage might have made some sense. But $6 million for six years was a head-scratcher for a team that was clearly — at least from the outside perspective — about to embark on a serious transition. Eriksson has scored 38 goals in 245 games for Vancouver.

This could surely be the longest category, but we’ll spare Sergei Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers for now and let everybody get back to the holiday.

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