Art imitates life. Imitates art. Whatever. There’s an odd parallel between what we see every summer on the NHL free agent market and what you can find at, say, a fantasy football auction.
I play in a fairly hardcore league, a keeper outfit in which teams manage a $200 salary cap and player “contracts” top out at three years. Half a decade in, we have a recurring problem at our annual auction: cascading classes of free agents at a premium position who wind up vastly overpaid. In our scoring system, quarterbacks are gold. In year one when all 32 were available, a top signalcaller like Drew Brees cost $50-$60, maybe a quarter of one’s budget. Now, only 10 or so hit free agency per season, and their price is grossly inflated. Brees costs you $100, or half your budget, and a mediocre guy like Eli Manning goes for $60. The low-supply, high-demand system drives prices up significantly.
Which brings us to David Clarkson. The seven-year, $36.75-million contract he signed last summer was bad before the ink dried, but it wasn’t totally Toronto’s fault for paying him that much. In an era when most elite players sign extensions long before becoming unrestricted free agents, there’s a low supply of quality UFAs. It took $5.25 million per season simply to land Clarkson, and some other team would’ve paid him about the same had Toronto not.
Just as I know I’ll drop an obscene amount of my budget on a quarterback this summer, I know we’ll see a new class of Clarksons and Stephen Weisses on the NHL market, especially with the cap rising. Here are five UFAs I expect will be vastly overpaid. I’m not saying they stink – only that they’ll earn more than they should.
1. Paul Stastny
Weiss was a 30-year-old pivot with a career high of 61 points coming off an injury shortened campaign, and Detroit still decided to pay him $4.9 million per season. Stastny, a 28-year-old pivot, has topped the 70-point mark three times, is relatively healthy and lit it up with 10 points in seven playoff games this spring. After a subpar 2012-13, it seemed preposterous that he’d match the $6.6-million average annual value of his expiring deal. A year later, he could find $7 million on the open market. Enough teams are desperate at his position that we should see a bidding war. He’s a No. 2 center about to earn No. 1 money. Stastny is solid, but he’s not that good.
2. Thomas Vanek
A team desperate for scoring will forget about Vanek deflating as Montreal went deeper into the playoffs. Since debuting in 2005-06, Vanek is the NHL’s 21st-leading scorer. Guys who put points up like he does are rare finds in free agency. Vanek clears $7 million again, easy, and the right bidding war could net him a silly number like $8 million. It’s ridiculous, I know, but remember Clarkson.
3. Ryan Miller
The Blues surrendered Chris Stewart, Jaroslav Halak, William Carrier, a 2015 first-rounder and a conditional pick just to rent Miller and Steve Ott for a couple months. When Buffalo dealt Halak shortly thereafter, he fetched, drumroll, Michal Neuvirth and Rostislav Klesla. Compare the two goalies’ trade value, now let it soak in that Halak will earn $4.5 million per season after the New York Islanders inked him. What does that tell you about Miller’s free agent value? He’s looking at $6 million-plus. If you don’t buy that reasoning, a Western Conference exec told me a month ago he’d shell out $6 million for Miller. And that’s a high floor for goaltender who couldn’t make a big save in St. Louis’ disappointing playoff run.
4. Matt Niskanen
Niskanen just had a career year. A major raise on his $2.3-million cap hit is imminent and deserved. This is a handy player, a highly useful addition to someone’s top four, well-rounded and just 28. But he exploded for 10 goals and 46 points in his seventh NHL season when his previous bests were six goals and 35 points. The latter totals are a realistic expectation. If he leaves the high-octane Penguins attack, the points won’t pile up as easily. But because he’ll have such a long line of suitors, someone will pay dearly for his career year, in term and price.
5. Ryan Callahan
Callahan is the type of player any team would love to have, a former captain, a heart-and-soul guy who hits and scores. He’s not a mountain of a man at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, however. I wonder how much pounding his body can take before he starts aging early. He already missed time with a broken thumb and MCL sprain this season. He’s likely to earn a long-term contract paying him $5 million or more per season. It could prove a risky proposition.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin