That question is asked by every club, perhaps a sort of “buyer’s remorse.” In the case of the Predators, they have managed to receive an overall positive ROI (Return On Investment). Allow me to give you my take on the better ones:
Before I do that, let’s agree that judgment cannot fairly be given to current free agents on the roster. The book is still open on Carter Hutton, Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, Victor Bartley and Anton Volchenkov.
There have been some real bargains. For example, the Predators received solid play over the years from third and fourth-line forward types like Vernon Fiddler and Jerred Smithson.
Fiddler joined the team first, as a free agent out of Roanoke in the ECHL in 2002. Jerred Smithson signed two years later, but didn’t play immediately, thanks to the lockout which cost the 2004-05 season. I’m sure you will recall his goal in the Anaheim series, helping the Predators to their first-ever playoff series win.
Another in that category would be Marcel Goc, a centerman who joined the team as a 26-year-old in the summer of 2009. Goc was strong defensively and could be counted upon to make the smart play.
On a short-term basis, the Predators did well with Winger Andreas Johansson, signed at the age of 29 in 2002 from the New York Rangers. He played 103 games in two seasons with the Predators, scoring 32 goals, including 20 in just 56 games in 2002-03, his second (and final) 20-goal season in the NHL. He contributed to the Predators’ first playoff team in 2004, which was his last NHL season.
Officially, Yanic Perreault was given a professional tryout at training camp with the Predators coming out of the lockout in the fall of 2005. The last Predator to use an all-wood stick, he was dominant on faceoffs and managed 22 goals and 57 points that season.
One of the better signings had to be that of winger Vladimir (“The Slovakian Tank”) Orszagh. He was a key component on the “Vowel Line” with winger Marty Erat and center Denis Arkhipov for three seasons. He joined the team as a 24-year-old, set free by the New York Islanders in 2001. Unfortunately, his career effectively ended with a knee injury and surgery following the World Championships with Slovakia after the Predators’ first playoff appearance.
Maybe the best role player of the bunch is still playing in the NHL. Joel Ward was 28, and had played 11 NHL games, when he signed on with Nashville in 2008. Undrafted after four years of junior hockey, he then played collegiately at the University of Prince Edward island for four seasons.
His three regular seasons in Nashville produced 40 goals and 98 points. He led the Predators with seven goals and 13 points in the playoffs of 2011 against Anaheim and Vancouver. That represented great timing on his part. His contract in Nashville was up, and it earned him a huge free-agent deal with the Washington Capitals, where he now is playing his fourth season.
Stay-at-home, shot-blocking defensemen have also been part of the free agent haul for Nashville.
While he played three seasons with Milwaukee after leaving the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Greg Zanon then put in three seasons with the Predators. Some of that time he spent as Ryan Suter’s partner (Dan Hamhuis was paired with Shea Weber in 2006-07) on the 110-point team that season. Zanon was a plus-20 in four seasons before he signed with the Minnesota Wild in 2009.
Defenseman Francis Bouillon had two stints with Nashville: 4 games in 2002-03 on a waiver claim from Montreal, where he returned later that season.
“The Cube” returned as a 34-year old free agent in 2009 and played another three seasons here. A physically tough defender, he was the stay-at-home partner for Kevin Klein. Bouillon’s absence was notable when he was concussed in Chicago and missed 38 games in 2011.
Each of those were all solid, if not at times integral role players picked up in free agency. Now, let’s move up to the impact players:
Among the early impact free agents was one of the first, and the first team captain, Tom Fitzgerald. He had put in time with the Islanders and Florida Panthers before he signed with the Predators in that summer of 1998. His importance truly cannot be measured in his stats: four seasons, 42 goals and 88 points. He was the leader the expansion Predators needed. Fitzgerald taught the youngsters how to act as professionals and led the team to the cusp of a playoff berth. That was quite an accomplishment for a team stocked with players that the other 26 teams didn’t want!
The team picked up three key offensive performers to help fill out the rosters of the two best teams to this point in club history: the 106-point team of 2005-06 and the 110-point club the following year.
The first of them was available because of a new rule, which allowed teams to “walk away” from an arbitration ruling: J.P. Dumont. He was 28 in the summer of 2006, and had played a season with Chicago and another five with Buffalo, where he had tallied 20 or more goals four times.
Dumont had two more 20-goal seasons with the Predators, and played on a line with Steve Sullivan. In his second season with Nashville, he posted his career-best season (29 goals and 72 points). Dumont’s effectiveness was reduced after absorbing a brutal hit to the chin from Vancouver’s Alexander Burrows on December 8, 2009. He still ended with 93 goals and 267 points in his five seasons here.
Also in 2006, Jason Arnott, 32 years old and a veteran with time in Edmonton, New Jersey and Dallas, arrived in Nashville. He had scored the overtime Stanley Cup winning goal for New Jersey in 2000 against Dallas. He came to the Preds after three full seasons with the Stars, totaling 76 goals.
Arnott, who would become the second free agent to serve as captain of the team (along with Tom Fitzgerald), stayed closeto those Dallas numbers: 107 goals and 229 points. He established the club record with a 33-goal season in 2008-09.
The top of the list, though, belongs to someone who played just two seasons here: Paul Kariya. His was a special case. After 10 NHL seasons, nine of them spent with Anaheim, where he had a 50-goal season, two 40-goal seasons, plus three 30-goal seasons, he sought out Nashville after the lockout ended in 2005.
Paul Kariya gave the Predators immediate credibility, becoming the first to average over a point per game (85 his first year). He added another 76 points the following season, which proved to be his last in Middle Tennessee. With the sale of the team after 2007, David Poile was unable to offer him another contract, so off to St. Louis he went, for his final three NHL seasons.