By Alexander Monaghan
We touched upon this concept in our Part I but it bears repeating: improving your team via free agency continues to become a trend of the past.
Today, we will take a look at 10 players who improved their fantasy hockey game after leaving their previous organizations via free agency. Most of these players are less than what you would call “impact players” but moreover hold a team together with their glue. The days of stockpiling your roster with top free agents has past with the majority of available players filling a need rather than generating scoring on their own or carrying a team for that matter.
Here are 10 players, in no particular order, who helped their new teams either contend or stay competitive after signing a free agent pact.
Clarke MacArthur, Right Wing, Toronto Maple Leafs
Back in July of 2010, the Atlanta Thrashers decided to walk away from Clarke MacArthur and his $2.4 million arbitration award. At that point, MacArthur looked like a cookie-cutter, third-line winger, capable of potting around 20 goals. With such a lofty price tag, the Thrashers passed on retaining the 25-year-old but Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke was more-than-savvy enough to throw the winger a bone.
MacArthur returned the favor by scoring 21 goals and finishing with 62 points on the season, completing one of the most unlikely success stories of the 2010-2011 NHL season. His effort earned a substantial raise from the $1.1 million contract signed last season into a two-year $6.5 million extension. It doesn’t usually happen that 25-year-olds become free agents, so consider MacArthur the exception, not the rule in these circumstances. In reality, he will have a hard time repeating such numbers this season and next, but he should still carry value regardless. Think of him as this season’s Lee Stempniak.
Alex Tanguay, Left Wing, Calgary Flames
When Alex Tanguay, and Olli Jokinen for that matter, signed on to play for the Calgary Flames again most pundits joked. A reuniting of Tanguay and Jarome Iginla seemed less-than-interesting as the two barely displayed chemistry in their first tour. Tanguay looked much better on the wing while the Flames likely wished he could pivot their franchise player.
Fast forward a year and Tanguay was probably one of the better value picks of a year ago. Not only did he succeed but he posted 22 goals and 69 points — more assists than Nicklas Backstrom or Mikko Koivu. Similarly to MacArthur, Tanguay earned an extension from his one-year, $1.7 million deal to earn $3.5 million annually for five years. There is no reason to believe Tanguay can’t be the left wing version of Craig Conroy, gelling with Iginla through the twilight of their careers. Signing Tanguay as a free agent proved to be a shrewd move by then GM Darryl Sutter, and an expensive decision by current GM Jay Feaster.
Tim Jackman, Right Wing, Calgary Flames
Tim Jackman represents a name you most likely a name you did not expect to see on this list.
In his fifth NHL organization, Jackman looked like a tweener — someone good enough to step into an NHL role, but most likely to not play regular minutes. If a prospect could prove themselves capable of a similar role. Jackman probably found the bench, or the pressbox, or the dreaded bus rides of the American Hockey League.
Instead, Jackman proved he could play at the NHL level and posted career high numbers with 10 goals and 23 points with 86 PIM. Known mostly as a fighter, Jackman solidified his game to the point that he was considered a legitimate third liner who could use his brain and his knuckles. In the rugged Western Conference, Jackman should have no problem bringing toughness to the lineup, however, he now brings more at a heavily discounted price tag. As far as fantasy hockey owners should be concerned, his slightly uptick in production does not replace his decrease in fighting/PIM; good real-life player who is not-so-hot in fake hockey terms.
Ray Whitney, Left Wing, Phoenix Coyotes
Whitney may not have improved as much as he failed to regress. In his inaugural season as a Phoenix Coyote, Whitney fell one point short of his previous season but actually gained seven PPP. He failed to score 20 goals for the first time since the 2005-2006 campaign, but when you consider he went widely undrafted last season he represents a bargain.
At 39-years-old Whitney likely won’t have any more 70-80 points seasons left in the tank but the potential to add 35-40 assists is valuable in any real life and fantasy hockey team. The Coyotes knew this last season when they signed him to fill the void Matthew Lombardi left when he signed with the Nashville Predators. Expect more of the same this year from Whitney as he approaches what could be his final NHL season.
Toni Lydman, Defenseman, Anaheim Ducks
Lydman, similar to Whitney, did not necessarily improve as much as not regress. Playing on the top defensive pairing, Lydman paired with fantasy-stalwart Lubomir Visnovsky, often playing behind Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. This improvement in linemates gave Lydman a career-high plus-32 rating — one short of leading the League.
His offensive prowess will never known you away but he does represent a solid, two-way defender. At $3 million a season his contract seems reasonable; especially with a player like Adam Pardy of the Dallas Stars set-to-earn $2 million this year. Lydman is a perfect responsible partner for the rover in Visnovsky and should be considered in depth leagues. Nevertheless, his lack of counting stats, and therefore lack of “impact” further prove our point that free agent signings are more of a glue than a game changer.
His main value came in the +/- category, which can be tricky from year to year. Just ask Jeff Schultz owners last year.
Sean Bergenheim, Left Wing, Tampa Bay Lightning
Bergenheim almost posted career highs last year but nevertheless proved invaluable during last year’s postseason. His 14 goals fell one short of his 2008-2009 showing but 29 points and 182 shots on goal represented personal bests. More importantly, Bergenheim provided two-way play on the third line with the capability of playing on a higher line. This play was exactly what the Tampa Bay Lightning expected from him when they signed him to a one-year pact worth $700K.
After signing a four-year deal with the Florida Panthers at a much more inflated price tag, Bergenheim will be underrated no longer. In fact, he probably regresses back to his Islander days while playing for a weaker team. The absolute best Dale Tallon and company could expect is filling a third-line role once more — a task they likely could have completed in-house if they did not need to hit the salary cap floor. Regardless, Bergenheim can enjoy drinks with umbrellas for four more seasons while counting his opportunistic $2.75 million annual salary.
Dan Hamhuis, Defenseman, Vancouver Canucks
As probably the most desirable free agent defenseman, Hamhuis did not disappoint in his first year with the Vancouver Canucks. Signed to be an ironman on the blue line, the 28-year-old actually played a career-low 62 games but was clearly on pace to shatter his goal totals as well as compete with Zdeno Chara for the plus/minus crown.
Overall, he finished the season with a plus-29, seven PPP — his personal best for three seasons — and a consensus that he was a top defender, or a top pairing defender. His presence, along with the re-emergence of Kevin Bieksa gave the Canucks a legitimate shutdown pair, filling a need that Sami Salo and even Bieksa were too unreliable to fill in the past. Like Lydman, he provided the stability that a contending team like the Canucks so eagerly craved. They likely overpaid, but it was money well spent as they went on to win the President’s Trophy.
With Christian Ehrhoff jettisoned to Buffalo, the Canucks can be glad they reinvented their top pairing last season, opposed to scrambling to do so this year. Again, another cog to the machine, but a vital one.
Christopher Higgins, Left Wing, Florida Panthers
If you missed my feature on Christopher Higgins from back in May, please give it a read.
For those unfamiliar with the enigma that is Higgins, we can wrap it up in a nutshell: former 14th overall pick, three-time 20-goal scorer that the Florida Panthers took a flier on. He scored 13 goals last season but seemed to really turn it on while playing with Ryan Kesler. He filled a void on the lowly Panthers and a gaping hole that Mason Raymond left open with his similar, disappearing act.
A reclamation project like Higgins rarely shapes up but the 27-year-old seems to have found a home with his fifth team in three years. Rarely are younger, former first round free agents available at such a cheap price tag. He could be a Dan Cleary type over the years, and certainly a bargain at the time.
Brett Clark, Defenseman, Tampa Bay Lightning
At age 33, the Tampa Bay Lighting took a chance on Clark. After losing Kurtis Foster to the Edmonton Oilers via free agency, they needed another offensively charged defenseman to fill their gaps.
Over the previous three years Clark actually regressed offensively, adjusting his game into more of a shot blocker. He failed to stay healthy, was not overly physical and seemed to have lost that scoring touch as his ice time dwindled down in Colorado. Under coach Guy Boucher, however, Clark would find everything he missed over the previous seasons. He scored nine goals and finished with 31 points playing in the scaled down Southeast Division. His physical play was notably better while he continued to provide another wall in front of the team’s starting goalie of the night. Clark provided a contender with a perfect second pairing defender — something they clearly craved.
His improved play can likely be attributed to the defensive mastermind that is Boucher, with most of his value tied to the system. Regardless, he could be a solid fantasy hockey option in much deeper leagues this season.
Joe Corvo, Defenseman, Carolina Hurricanes
If you put Joe Corvo on the Carolina Hurricanes in five years, he probably sleepwalks to another 10-goal, 40-point season. Three of his four seasons with the Canes, Corvo proved himself more-than-capable of playing his coach’s system.
After re-signing with the Canes, following a move to trade deadline move to Washington, we all saw another successful season coming. While we are not sure what his new home with the Boston Bruins brings, Corvo, if healthy, has been one of the more reliable offensive defensemen for a number of years now. In real life he could frustrate fans due to defensive zone coverage or simply missing the net a bit too much but Corvo continues to be one of those guys who picks up counting stats effortlessly.
Corvo, or Erik Cole, or Ray Whitney, or Cory Stillman would always work in Carolina if Eric Staal still remains captain. Pretty easy concept.
To reiterate, the above listed free agents made an impact for their team last season and on most fantasy hockey rosters. We hope by studying these cases, you can project how some 2011 unrestricted free agents will perform this season. Not surprisingly, most of these teams stayed competitive all season. In cases like the Vancouver and Tampa Bay players, these free agent signings actually helped propel their teams father in the postseason.
Look out for Part III and possibly Part IV coming up over the next few days.
We hope you enjoyed our latest as much as we enjoyed writing it. If there are glaring omissions let your voice be heard in the comments. Regardless, make sure to take all of the advice in and continue to check our renowned starting goalies section, which is updated all day until game time and follow us on Twitter @DailyFaceoff