Architect Daniel Burnham is often credited with saying, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood." If there is any hockey team that can understand that sentiment, it's the one that resides in the city that is most synonymous with Burnham's fingerprints.
The Chicago Blackhawks have made more than their share of free agent signings in recent years, a process that has helped to lift them from also-rans to owners of a Stanley Cup championship and the likelihood of contending for more in the future. Of course, free agency, for both teams and players alike can be a massive gamble, and if the Hawks used some expensive names, most notably Marian Hossa, to reach the pinnacle 12 months ago, there were certainly some less expensive names, like center John Madden, that helped get them there.
Likewise, Chicago general manager Stan Bowman is just as familiar with the other side of that coin, as some clunky contracts, like that of defenseman Brian Campbell, have proven more albatross than antidote, with some deals holding cap implications devastating enough to hamper a franchise for years.
This is hardly just a story for the Second City. GMs across the League have been balancing talent and its value against available cap space since the free agent signing period opened on July 1. Of course, it is too soon to say which teams have made the best and worst moves of the 2011 offseason, particularly with many rosters yet to be filled out and several players still available. There will be hits, there will be misses, and most front offices might be wise to take a look back in their history books to remember that not all expensive contracts pay off, and not all important signings are expensive.
In case they've forgotten, here are some of the notable hits and misses in free agency since the NHL instituted its current economic system in 2005.
Antti Niemi, San Jose -- When Chicago broke its 49-year Cup drought, Niemi, a little-known 26-year-old rookie from Finland was between the pipes. Niemi's strong performance that postseason earned him a $2.75 million arbitration award that summer, but with the Hawks up against the cap, Chicago opted to let Niemi walk. San Jose, the team Niemi stymied in a four-game sweep in the Western Conference Finals, swooped in to sign him to a one-year, $2 million deal. The result? Niemi made Sharks GM Doug Wilson look brilliant by posting a 35-18-6 record and putting together a 2.38 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, though the Sharks were again eliminated in the Western Finals. The Sharks locked up Niemi in the middle of the 2010-11 season with a four-year, $15.2 million contract.
2010: Sean Bergenheim, Tampa Bay -- Steve Yzerman made several savvy moves in his first season as GM, but one that flew under the radar was the one-year, $700,000 deal that brought Bergenheim to the Lightning. Bergenheim's regular-season numbers, 14 goals and 15 assists, gave him a career-high 29 points. In the postseason, however, Bergenheim came alive with 9 goals in 16 games, fourth among all playoff scorers. He played a pivotal role as the Bolts advanced to the conference finals for the first time in seven years.
2010: Dan Hamhuis, Vancouver -- Before there was Christian Ehrhoff, there was Dan Hamhuis. A highly sought-after defenseman a year ago, Hamhuis' rights were traded twice before he hit unrestricted free agency -- and when he did, the Canucks stabilized their blue line by signing him to a six-year, $27 million deal. Hamhuis' annual $4.5 million cap hit is relatively manageable for a top-four defenseman, and his plus-29 rating this past season was ninth-best in the League.
2009: John Madden, Chicago -- Madden's defensive abilities made him a perfect fit in New Jersey, where he won two Stanley Cups. When he came to the Blackhawks on a one-year, $2.75 million contract in the summer of 2009, his attention to defense and work ethic set a strong example for young players like Jonathan Toews. In addition, his championship experience brought a crucial element to Chicago's locker room as the Hawks won their first Cup in almost five decades.
2009: Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Vancouver -- It was never going to be easy for another team to find the cap space for both Sedin twins, and that may have given Canucks GM Mike Gillis the leverage he needed when he signed the pair to identical five-year, $30.5 million contracts. The $6.1 million cap hit is hefty, but so are the two Art Ross trophies, one Hart Trophy and one Ted Lindsay Award the Sedins have collected between them since signing their new deals -- not to mention the franchise's first trip to the Final in 17 years.
2009 - Marian Hossa, Chicago -- The 12-year, $63.3 million deal Hossa signed on the first day of free agency in 2009 turned heads, both because he would be jumping to the Hawks from the rival Detroit Red Wings and because he had played hopscotch from Pittsburgh to Detroit a year earlier -- leaving one Stanley Cup Final participant for another and winding up on the short side in the championship round both times. With the Hawks he's scored 108 points in 122 regular-season games -- but the biggest impact is that both he and the Blackhawks finally got their date with Stanley last June.
2009: Mikael Samuelsson, Vancouver -- Samuelsson won a Cup in 2008 with Detroit, but with a supporting cast the likes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, it was hard for Samuelsson to make his mark. The Swede scored 20 goals just once with the Wings, but after signing a three-year, $7.5 million deal with the Canucks, he potted 30 in his first season in Vancouver. After a 53-point debut campaign with the Canucks, Samuelsson stayed on par in 2010-11 with a 50-point output.
2009: Matt Moulson, New York Islanders -- Moulson had a grand total of 10 points in 29 games over two seasons with the Los Angeles Kings before New York picked him up for just $575,000. Moulson responded by scoring 30 goals in his first full NHL season, earning him a one-year deal for $2.45 million the next offseason. In 2010-11, Moulson upped the ante even more with 31 goals and 22 assists, netting him a three-year extension worth $9.4 million from the Isles.
2007: Brian Rafalski, Detroit -- Like Madden, his former teammate, Rafalski was a solid contributor on a pair of Cup-winning teams in New Jersey. When the Michigan native hit the free-agent market, his hometown Red Wings gave the defenseman a five-year, $30 million contract. In the four years he played at the Joe, he averaged 51 points a season from the blue line while recording an average plus/minus of plus-19.5. That Stanley Cup he won in his first season with Detroit wasn't bad, either. Rafalski recently opted to retire and forgo the final season of his contract.
2006: Zdeno Chara, Boston -- When Chara came to Boston, the Bruins were coming off their third early spring in the previous six seasons. Chara was named captain before ever taking the ice with the Bruins, and he's worn the "C" for all five of his seasons in Boston -- culminating this spring with the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 39 years. Chara has had 40 or more points in seventh straight seasons and is coming off a career-best plus-33 rating. Boston rewarded him last October with a seven-year extension worth $45.5 million.
2005: Teemu Selanne, Anaheim -- When Selanne returned to the Ducks for the 2005-06 season, the move felt more like a career-ending homecoming than a savvy free-agent signing. In his one season with Colorado, the Finnish sniper struggled with just 32 points in 78 games. But the one-year, $1 million deal he signed to come back to Anaheim paid tremendous dividends, as Selanne scored 40 goals and added 50 assists. A year later, the Ducks raised his salary to $3.75 million, Selanne raised his output to 48 goals and 46 assists and Anaheim raised its first Stanley Cup. He's coming off an 80-point season, and the Ducks are hoping he'll return in 2011-12.
2005: Sergei Gonchar, Pittsburgh -- The Penguins made a big investment in their rebuilding process when they signed Gonchar to a five-year, $25 million deal. He proved a perfect addition to a franchise that was grooming young Russian superstar Evgeni Malkin -- and Gonchar's performance on the ice wasn't bad either. In four of his five seasons in Pittsburgh he tallied at least 50 points with a career-high tying 67 in 2006-07. Gonchar was a key to the Pens' 2009 Stanley Cup title.
2005: Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim -- No defenseman stood to cash in more in the new NHL than Niedermayer, one of the fastest defensemen in NHL history, when he went across the country to play with his brother Rob on a four-year $27 million contract with the Mighty Ducks. He reportedly turned down a League-maximum salary offer to stay with the New Jersey Devils, with whom he had spent his entire career and won three Stanley Cups. But blood was thicker than money for the future Hall of Famer, who captained the Ducks to a Stanley Cup title in his second season in California, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the process.
2010: Marty Turco, Chicago -- When the Blackhawks let Niemi walk following their championship season in 2010, they assumed that Turco, who had spent his entire career in Dallas before becoming a free agent, could fill the void. Turco's $1.3 million salary wasn't enormous, but for the cap-strapped Blackhawks every dollar counted. He wound up losing the starting job to rookie Corey Crawford while putting together a 3.02 GAA and .897 save percentage.
2009: Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary -- Bouwmeester was expected to be the big fish among free-agent defenseman in 2009, so the Flames chose to head off the masses at the pass, acquiring his negotiating rights from Florida and signing him to a big-money, five-year deal. In two seasons with Calgary, Bouwmeester has just 53 points in 164 games to go along with his minus-6 rating.
Brian Campbell, Chicago -- When the Blackhawks began their renaissance three years ago, signing Campbell was the first big free-agent splash. The mobile defenseman had topped 40 points in each of the previous three seasons and was arguably the most sought-after free agent on the market. His first season in Chicago saw him tally 52 points and his second saw a championship, but his output dropped to 27 points this past season, which made his $7.1 million cap hit an enormous cross to bear. The Hawks got out from under the rest of the deal by sending Campbell to Florida and former GM Dale Tallon -- the man who signed him to the big deal in Chicago.
2008: Ron Hainsey, Atlanta -- The Thrashers thought Hainsey would give them a solid offensive defenseman when they signed him to a five-year deal. In three seasons with the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise he has 84 points and a cumulative minus-19 rating. He also has an annual $4.5 million cap hit.
2008: Cristobal Huet, Chicago -- After an impressive postseason with Washington, the Blackhawks signed Huet to a four-year pact worth $22.5 million. The deal seemed an odd choice considering the Hawks already had Nikolai Khabibulin under contract for another year for big bucks. When Chicago won the Cup a year later, it would be Antti Niemi rather than Huet in the crease. The Hawks eventually got out from Huet's contract by loaning him to HC Fribourg-Gotteron SA of the Swiss National League.
2008: Wade Redden, New York Rangers -- Redden may be the unfortunate poster child for bad cap deals after signing a six-year, $39 million contract with the Blueshirts. After two middling seasons in New York, it was clear Redden's 40 total points and combined plus-3 rating weren't making his $6.5 million cap hit easier to swallow. To get his contract off the books, the Rangers sent Redden to the Connecticut Whale of the AHL this past season.
2008: Jeff Finger, Toronto -- While Finger's contract may not have the same bite as Redden's, the $14 million he's getting over four years hasn't provided the payback the Maple Leafs anticipated. Finger was a cumulative minus-18 in two seasons with Toronto. In 2010-11, he toiled on the Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.
2007: Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, New York Rangers -- The Rangers thought they had solved their problems in the middle for the next few years when they signed Drury and Gomez on the same day in 2007. They hadn't -- and the two big-money deals made the salary cap more like a noose on Broadway. Gomez's $51.5 million, seven-year contract ate up $7.36 million a year in cap space until Montreal was kind enough to take it off New York's hands in 2009. Drury's cap hit of $7.05 million per season was just as problematic. He was bought out of the final year of his deal earlier this week and will test free agency.
2007: Ryan Smyth, Colorado -- Smyth was a dependable scorer coming off a career-best 81-point season when the Avs gave him $31.25 million over five seasons. But his numbers dipped considerably in Colorado, as did his plus/minus rating. After two seasons, he was sent to Los Angeles, then was dealt again to the team he started his career with, Edmonton, this past week.
2007: Dainius Zubrus, New Jersey -- The Devils have never been a team known for offense. But in the new NHL, New Jersey has made several attempts to add scoring while maintaining its defensive identity. One of those attempts has been Zubrus, who was coming off a 60-point season when the Devils gave him $20.4 million over six years. Zubrus has reached 40 points just once in the Garden State. This past season he was a minus-11.
2007: Sheldon Souray, Edmonton -- Souray's dynamic offensive presence in his final season on the Montreal blue line must have obscured the Oilers from the minus-28 he recorded that season. The Oilers gave Souray $27 million over five years, and in exchange he's given them two of three seasons cut short by injury, a cumulative minus-25 rating and a season spent with the AHL's Hershey Bears in 2010-11 after he requested a trade from the Oilers, who could find no takers for his $5.4 million cap hit. They bought him out before the start of free agency this summer.
The Jury's Still Out
Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey -- No contract has been more dramatic than the 15-year deal the Devils gave to Kovalchuk, which resulted in a salary cap circumvention investigation and changes to the CBA. Kovy's $6.66 million annual cap hit is manageable for a perennial 40-goal scorer, but his 31-goal output in first full season in New Jersey was his lowest since his rookie year. The contract's biggest impact -- whether it hampers the Devils' attempts to sign Zach Parise long-term -- is yet to be seen.
2010: Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis -- After a stellar postseason with the Canadiens in 2010, Montreal sold high on the Slovak netminder and dealt his rights to the Blues, who gave him a four-year $15 million deal. His first season in St. Louis was a mixed bag as he went 27-21-7 with a 2.48 GAA for an injury-riddled team that missed the playoffs.
2009: Marian Gaborik, New York Rangers -- Gaborik is one of the NHL's most dynamic scorers when he's healthy, but can the Rangers afford to wager $7.5 million a year on someone who hasn't played 80 games since 2003? He was electric in his first season with New York, racking up 42 goals and 86 points, but those numbers dropped to 22 and 48 last season, which saw him miss 22 games with injuries.
Reach David Kalan at firstname.lastname@example.org