Saturday, August 23, 2008

Why You Can't Build Through Free Agency

In late June, I gave an All Star Team of players who were slated to be unrestricted free agents. Of the 23 players on the team, 20 have signed with teams in the NHL. Jaromir Jagr signed in the KHL and Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin seem likely to take sabbaticals for the first part of the season. Here is the team and who they signed with, along with their salary cap hits.

Forwards:
Sean Avery Dallas Stars $3.875 million
Pavol Demitra Vancouver Canucks $4 million
Sergei Fedorov Washington Capitals $4 million
Marian Hossa Detroit Red Wings $7.45 million
Kristian Huselius Columbus Blue Jackets $4.75 million
Jaromir Jagr left the NHL
Ryan Malone Tampa Bay Lightning $5.25 million
Markus Naslund New York Rangers $4 million
Brian Rolston New Jersey Devils $5.062 million
Joe Sakic unsigned
Cory Stillman Florida Panthers $3.533333 million
Mats Sundin unsigned
Radim Vrbata Tampa Bay Lightning $3 million
Jason Williams Atlanta Thrashers $2.2 million

Defence:
Brian Campbell Chicago Blackhawks $7.1 million
Adam Foote Colorado Avalanche $3 million
Brooks Orpik Pittsburgh Penguins $3.75 million
Wade Redden New York Rangers $6.5 million
Michal Rozsival New York Rangers $5 million
Mark Streit New York Islanders $4.1 million
Brad Stuart Detroit Red Wings $3.75 million

Goaltenders:
Cristobal Huet Chicago Blackhawks $5.625 million
Jose Theodore Washington Capitals $4.5 million

All told twenty players on this team signed for a salary cap hit of $90,445,333. Given that the salary cap this season is $56.7 million, no team could have this roster. They could have at most about half of it with the rest of their roster filled with cheap, near minimum wage players. Given that this team is not a serious Stanley Cup contender even with its $90 + payroll that would be a recipe for disaster.

You cannot build a team through free agency, in part, because it's too expensive. You need players on your roster who out produce their contracts and there are very few candidates to do that this season on this roster. You also cannot build a team through free agency because, for the most part, these are older players who are locked up in multi-year contracts that will keep them throughout the decline phase of their careers. Not only is it a poor strategy for that reason. It is an impossible strategy due to economics.

Comments:
1) Given the new lower free agency age its also now probably safe to say that a team can't win building through the draft/from within exclusively either.
 
I would argue that for the most part you don't build a team through free agency. Of course every team will have some free agents under this CBA (and some might be valued players), it is impossible not to if you want to keep a full roster of NHL calibre players, but any good team had their core develop internally (whether it was drafted or otherwise obtained).

The point is no average to bad team will suddenly become a good team by signing free agents. A possible exception might exist if the true superstars ever become free agents at a young age (Crosby, Ovechkin etc) but it looks like that is not going to happen.
 
Actually, the all free-agent team has a pretty good defense in front of a good starting keeper and a credible backup (at least, some of the time). A top line of Hossa-Naslund-Demitra (just a guess) isn't so hot; Rolston, Stillman, and your choice of Huselius or Malone is credible as far as second lines go. They don't look like missing the playoffs to me. Far worse squads have scraped their way in (the '06-07 Islanders should have been a lottery team, really).

The big trouble would be injuries. This is an old squad up front. My guess would be that this could be a 90-95 point team, but unless they got a favorable matchup against a weak three-seed (or a round-stealing performance from Huet), they'd be done in six games. Agreed that it's not enough bang for all those bucks. In general, I see your point - if the original team is letting the UFA walk, they're not expecting value for their money. One or two judicious signings can help an already good team, not transform a team from bad to good.
 
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