There are three major events on the NHL calendar that will demonstrate the skills of a general manager: the draft, free agency, and trade deadline.
Out of the three, free agency is arguably the most revealing. The draft and trade deadline are mostly confined by who is available and what you have to work with, so GMs can occasionally be put in a bad spot through no fault of their own. In free agency, that’s all gone. There’s around 100 UFAs available to choose from and a healthy amount of cap space (and if there isn’t, it’s usually indicative of previous bad free agency spending) to work with. What a GM values and how much they value it will be on full display.
So what are we defining as a bad UFA signing? It’s a bit open-ended and varies from player to player, but here are some general rules, and the candidates don’t necessarily have to hit them all:
- Term and/or salary not in line with the player’s actual performance.
- Contract was difficult to move, either through clauses or just the actual contract itself.
- Major oversights in assessing the player’s performance.
- Flawed rationale for signing the player.
Just some notes before we begin:
- Most of the players looked at were post-1988, when the Calgary Herald newspaper online archives begin. Accurate salary info is rarely available for players in the 1980s, so without accurate reporting of those numbers, it’s mostly guesswork and hard to assess the real quality of those signings.
- I tried my hardest to avoid recency bias and focusing on fresher UFA failures, but the choices made are more related to the various eras of NHL hockey and the Flames. From about the mid-90s to the 2004-05 lockout, the Flames were cash-strapped and had to battle with an expensive U.S. dollar, so major signings (and accordingly, signing gaffes) were rare. Ergo, fewer signings from that era are considered here.
- Not to say that closer signings aren’t given additional weighing. Teams of the 80s and 90s had more entry draft picks, a waivers draft, a supplemental draft, a larger talent pool (fewer teams means more, better players available), and also had Europe open up to them, so free agency wasn’t necessarily the premium way to get premium players.
- The introduction of the salary cap also increased the pressure to get things right. Without it, bad contracts would only affect the owners’ wallets and didn’t necessarily limit the team’s ability to spend within the rules. Signings under the salary cap are given heavier weighing because they actually do have a heavier weighing on the team.
Honourable (?) mentions
- Dean Evason, 1995: one season removed from a 44-point year, Evason was offered $430,000 (Calgary Herald) on a two-year deal to grab a starter spot with Joe Nieuwendyk holding out for cash. He split after a year, joining the Canadian National Team when his performances only got worse.
- Jeff Friesen, 2006: one of Darryl Sutter’s players in San Jose who was clearly impacted by losing an entire season to the lockout. Didn’t stop Sutter from giving him $1.3M for 12 points.
- Anders Ericksson, 2007: brought in for $1.5M AAV over two years after coming back from Europe to have an alright season with the Blue Jackets. Found himself in the AHL to start 2008-09.
- Jonas Hiller, 2015: signed for $4.5M AAV over two years on free agency day 2014. Played really well in his first season, imploded just like every other goalie the next season. Partially responsible for the Flames losing Paul Byron on waivers.
- Corey Potter (2013) and Nicklas Grossmann (2016): two guys brought in as veteran defencemen for camp and stayed on the cheap. Stayed on the roster for no real reason longer than anyone ever expected, pushing young players down a level.
- Matt Bartkowski, mid-2017 2x $650K: signed to fulfill expansion draft requirements, but then actually managed to get a job out of it. The expansion draft requirement excuse was legit, but then again, they couldn’t have found anyone else?
Kelly Kisio, 1993
Contract: Three years at $1.025M AAV, with an option on the third year.
Rationale: The Flames got bounced early from the playoffs every year since the Stanley Cup championship in 1989. With a bunch of talent up front, the Flames felt they could afford to splash some cash to shore up their bottom six. So they went after Kisio, a reliable centreman who scored just under a point per game throughout his entire NHL career. After being banished to the expansion San Jose Sharks, Kisio proved that he still had gas in the tank in his 30s by becoming a leader for the aimless club.
The good: Kisio had some alright-ish production for the Flames, scoring around a 0.6 PPG pace in 1993-94…
The bad: … when he wasn’t injured or healthy scratched, which was always, probably due to him being 34 at the time. Kisio only suited up for the Flames 63 times in one and a half seasons (1994-95 lockout), picking up 41 points during the ride. He was outplayed by the spectacularly named Wes Walz, who rose up and stole his job from the AHL. To add more fuel to the fire, Kisio was making more than Theo Fleury ($870,000) and Joe Nieuwendyk ($925,000) at the time, according to the Calgary Herald.
Exit strategy: The Flames didn’t pick up Kisio’s third year option, and he retired after. There was no bad blood between the two, as Kisio returned to become a scout with the organization, and later the GM and coach of the Calgary Hitmen.
Andrei Zyuzin, 2006
Contract: Two years at $1.4M AAV.
Rationale: Needing some complimentary pieces for a defence with Roman Hamrlik, Dion Phaneuf, and Robyn Regehr, the Flames brought in Zyuzin as a hard nosed up-and-comer. After he struggled to live up to the expectations of being the second overall pick in 1996, he seemed to find his footing with Minnesota. Given that the salary cap was $44M in 2006, Zyuzin’s contract was pretty significant, one of the Flames’ major moves in the 2006 offseason (Alex Tanguay was the big one).
The good: He was eventually flipped for Adrian Aucoin. Also had the hardest slapshot at the Flames skills competition.
The bad: Which is miraculous given that Zyuzin was regularly a healthy scratch for the Flames. He only played 49 games for the team, mostly as a 6/7 defenceman, only looking better the more his role was reduced. His apparent resurgence in Minnesota was a red herring, as he dipped back down to six points when he joined the Flames.
Exit strategy: Flipped to the rebuilding Blackhawks for Adrian Aucoin.
Olli Jokinen, 2010
Contract: Two years at $3M AAV with a NMC.
No, seriously: ?????????
Jokinen had already been traded away from the Flames earlier in 2010, mostly due to fan frustration and disappointing play. The man came over for a first round pick (thankfully spent on Brandon Gormley) and mostly clogged up cap space. The Flames had to play with a short bench at times due to his albatross contract that he rarely lived up to. Just as fans began to feel peace with his abscence in the lineup, Jokinen returned.
The real rationale is that he would come cheap-ish and would potentially lead the Flames back to the postseason!
The good: He actually did put up some numbers, including 54 points in 2010-11, and 61 in 2011-12. We also have this gif:
The bad: Jokinen’s warts in the defensive zone became more apparent as he got older. Unable to be anything else but sheltered on the top line, he kind of saw equally as many pucks go in his net as the opponent’s. Perhaps not his fault, but his continued presence in the lineup was indicative of the Flames’ desire to go for it rather than tear down a team clearly in need of a rebuild. He also had an NMC, which again is not his fault, but made him more impossible to move.
Exit strategy: Went to Winnipeg as a UFA. No one seemed to mind.
Dennis Wideman, 2012
Contract: Five years at $5.25M AAV with a NMC.
Rationale: A team that was a mere five points away from making the playoffs the year before needed another premier player to get them over the hump. Enter: the Widedog. At the cost of a fifth round pick, the Flames traded for his UFA exclusive negotiating rights period and promptly signed a contract. With Mark Giordano, Jay Bouwmeester, and a budding TJ Brodie, the Flames would have a formidable top four that would scare the pants off other Western Conference opponents.
The good: He scored 56 points that one time and had some solid production in his first two years. Also that time he pranked TSN on trade deadline day.
The bad: The Feaster regime failed to do their homework. Instead of adding a premium UFA to shore up the defence, they added a powerplay quarterback with some attitude issues. Age deteriorated his physical abilities quickly and he didn’t really give a hoot enough to make up for it. His offence was fine when it was on, but a running theme of lackadaisical defensive play over the term of the contract infuriated fans. I don’t like playing psychologist, but he seemed to know he was unmoveable his last two seasons and mailed it in until the expiry of his contract. The Widedog was also notorious for breaking rookie Sean Monahan’s ankle in practice and ruining linesman Don Henderson’s career, so there’s few good memories associated with him.
Exit strategy: The Flames traded for Michael Stone for the sole purpose of not playing Wideman, who didn’t seem to mind. He disappeared into the abyss after.
Deryk Engelland, 2014
Contract: Three years at $2,916,667 AAV.
Rationale: The Flames’ problems, according to Brian Burke, were that they weren’t mean or tough enough to win, so they signed Engelland, a mean and tough defenceman from Pittsburgh.
The good: Engelland was a fine third pairing defenceman in limited minutes. He could get mean and tough when needed and was an all-around good guy who tried his hardest.
The bad: Who also received an extra $7M on his contract for doing nothing particularly special. Again, fine third pairing guy, just not worth the money. The Flames paid Engelland nearly six times what the Penguins paid him on an annual basis, which was baffling for a then-32-year-old third pairing defenceman with zero offensive output who was also an occasional healthy scratch. The contract was so baffling and unexpected, Bob McKenzie had to clarify that the $2,196,667 figure was not the total salary, but the AAV. Fine player in limited situations, but an awful contract given the context.
Exit strategy: Was picked up in the Vegas expansion draft as a UFA, becoming de-facto captain of the Golden Knights. Ironically began playing like a $2M AAV guy after leaving Calgary, which is what his new contract costs.
Mason Raymond, 2014
Contract: Three years at $3.15M AAV and a modified no-trade clause.
Rationale: A rebuilding Flames team had a handy pair of wingers in Curtis Glencross and Jiri Hudler and a promising one in rookie Johnny Gaudreau, but not much else besides that. Raymond looked to be back on the upswing after a strong year in Toronto, erasing his final few painful years with the Canucks. Despite his tendency to be streaky, Raymond looked to be handy depth and a good contract for a team that needed to hit the cap floor.
The good: He scored a hat trick in his first game against the Oilers!
The bad: Things went rapidly downhill after that. He became less “streaky” and more “just plain bad” as the season went on. He couldn’t find a suitable spot on the roster, but did find residency in Bob Hartley’s doghouse. Things eventually deteriorated to the point where he was waived and assigned to the Stockton Heat.
Exit strategy: He was bought out before the 2016 UFA period, signifying the Flames would never make the mistake of overpaying an aging once-40-point winger again!
Troy Brouwer, 2016
Contract: Four years at $4.5M AAV and a modified no-trade clause.
Rationale: Well, Raymond didn’t work, and with Hudler circling the drain and being traded away, it was time for fresh blood on the right wing. With disappointment still lingering from the disastrous 2015-16 season, the Flames decided to take a crack at one of the consensus top UFA forwards. With playoff pedigree, including a strong 2016 playoff performance, size, special teams skill, veteran status, and durability (had only missed one game in the five seasons before), the team believed they had found their elusive #1 RW. Kinda helped that he built a house here, too.
The good: Possibly the best Flames player to wear #36 and we got a few good sayings out of him (Brouwerplay, Bryout). Also his first half season was alright.
The bad: The Flames (and to be fair, the rest of the NHL) were so mystified by Brouwer’s playoff performance that they forgot he was in his 30s and beginning to decline. The aging curve hit Brouwer extremely hard and all of the narratives surrounding him fell apart. He couldn’t reliably score 20 goals anymore, he couldn’t provide a boost to the powerplay, he couldn’t stay healthy, and he couldn’t be much of a physical presence. As one of the only right-shooting forwards on the roster, he was frequently thrust into situations way above his ability and only struggled more, further indicating how the Flames got it wrong.
Exit strategy: Bought out, arguably mercifully.