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Is spending big on free agents worth it?

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The past several years of reckless spending by NHL teams vindicate Ron Francis, and now Don Waddell’s, decisions to stay on the sidelines on July 1.

NHL: New York Islanders at Detroit Red Wings Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes have traditionally stayed on the sidelines during the NHL’s free agent frenzy on July 1, and this year was no different, with goaltender Petr Mrazek representing the team’s only move on the opening day of free agency. Both former general manager Ron Francis and current GM Don Waddell have called July 1 variations of the “most dangerous” and “scariest” day in hockey.

Many Hurricanes fans lament the lack of action for a team that has missed the playoffs for nine consecutive years, and want to see some big deals to try and improve. Who’s right, though?

The goal of any offseason move is to make your team better, so have splashy signings improved clubs?

To find out, we’re going to visit the ghosts of July 1 past. We’ll take the three biggest deals signed in each of the past three offseasons, and give a brief overview of how those players did individually and if the signing team made a significant improvement. The results should give us a verdict on whether the Hurricanes or prudent or foolish to avoid big deals on July 1, so let’s dive in.

2017

Alexander Radulov, right wing, Dallas Stars- Coming off a successful first year back in the NHL with Montreal (18 goals, 54 points) after a few seasons across the pond, Dallas rewarded Radulov with the biggest deal of the 2017 signing period at five years at $6.25 million per season. The thought was Radulov would make a potent lineup even deadlier, possibly slotting in alongside the dynamic duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.

While Dallas missed the playoffs for the second year in a row last season, it was through no fault of Radulov. The Russian sniper was an instant fit, breaking out for a career-high 27 goals and 72 points.

Verdict: With Radulov at 31 years of age, this deal may not age well with four years left, but so far so good for Radulov and the stars.

Kevin Shattenkirk, defenseman, New York Rangers- After spending most of his career with St. Louis, Shattenkirk was the prize deadline acquisition for a Washington Capitals team with serious Stanley Cup aspirations. That did not work out, and after the Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round for the second year in a row, Shattenkirk went to free agency (funny how things work out). His hometown team gave him a four-year deal that will pay him $6.65 million a year.

Shattenkirk’s first year in New York was cut short by a knee injury, as he put up five goals, 23 points and a -14 in 46 games.

Verdict: While the puck-moving blueliner put up good numbers in a limited number of games, with the Rangers entering a “soft rebuild”, they probably wish they didn’t have so much money tied up in Shattenkirk. Buyers beware.

Karl Alzner, defenseman, Montreal Canadiens- Alzner also hit the market as part of Washington’s expected mass exodus last summer. The Canadiens were quick to snap up the shutdown defender for five years at $4.6 million per season.

The Canadiens missed the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and Alzner had 12 points and a minus seven.

Verdict: Add this to the list of curious Marc Bergevin decisions. Alzner gave Montreal another of something it had an abundance of, aging, slow defenders without much offensive pop, and this deal is not going to age well given the style he plays.

2016

Milan Lucic, left wing, Edmonton Oilers- Hitting the market after one season in Los Angeles following eight in Boston, the goal-scoring power forward inked a seven-year deal at $6 million per with the Oilers to serve as Connor McDavid’s wingman and protector.

Lucic had a solid first season with 23 goals and 50 points as the Oilers snapped a 10-year playoff drought, but last season had just 10 and 34 as Edmonton missed the playoffs. There have already been discussions about the Oilers trying to find a creative way to trade the 30-year-old, as his bonus-laden deal is pretty much buyout proof.

Verdict: This deal already looks like an anchor for the Oilers as they try to make the most of McDavid’s best years, and I think it’s going to age the opposite way of a fine wine.

Kyle Okposo, right wing, Buffalo Sabres- Following a successful run on John Tavares’ wing on the Isle, Okposo signed in Buffalo for seven years with an AAV of $6 million in Buffalo.

He’s had a couple injury-plagued years with the Sabres, putting up 19 goals and 45 points in 65 games in the first year and 15 and 44 in 76 last year. Buffalo, meanwhile, has continued to be a bottom feeder.

Verdict: The jury’s still out on this one. If he can find a way to stay healthy and consistent, Okposo could still end up being a good wingman for Jack Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt in Buffalo.

Andrew Ladd, left wing, New York Islanders- A familiar face for Canes fans, the Winnipeg Jets shipped their long-time captain to Chicago at the 2016 trade deadline, and he signed a seven-year deal at $5.5 million a year on July 1.

Ladd has not exactly earned his keep in New York, with 23 goals and 31 points his first year, and 12 and 29 last season.

Verdict: Oof. This one might end up being one expensive buyout if Ladd’s decline continues, which is entirely possible at 32. With John Tavares gone and the Islanders probably needing at least a soft rebuild, this one falls squarely into the anchor category.

2015

Andrej Sekera, defenseman, Edmonton Oilers- After the Canes grabbed a first rounder and Roland McKeown for Sekera from the Kings at the 2015 deadline, the Oilers snapped him up as the top blueliner on the market for six years and an AAV of $5.5 million.

Sekera had strong seasons his first two seasons in Edmonton, with six goals and 35 points the first year and eight and 35 the second. He was injured most of last year, playing just 36 games, which likely had a big impact on Edmonton missing the postseason after making it the year before.

Verdict: Sekera has been a key piece on Edmonton’s blueliner for the first three years of his deal, and while he may decline at the age of 32, so far this has been mostly worth it if a bit overpriced.

Michael Frolik, right wing, Calgary Flames- After a solid couple years in Winnipeg, Frolik cashed in with a five-year deal at $4.3 million per season with Calgary.

He had an ok season his first year in Calgary, with 15 goals and 32 points. The second year was the best, with Frolik putting up 17 goals and 44 points, and also the only year of his contract Calgary has reached the postseason. Last year, he had just 10 goals and 25 points in 70 games as Calgary missed the playoffs.

Verdict: Frolik is heading in the wrong direction, and the Flames probably won’t be sorry to see his contract expire in two years.

Paul Martin, defenseman, San Jose Sharks- After a successful run with Pittsburgh and New Jersey, the Sharks handed Martin a four-year deal at a shade under $5 million a year.

His first two years in San Jose were solid, but last year he spent most of the season in the minors after clearing waivers and was bought out of the last year of his deal.

Verdict: The fact that he was placed on waivers and bought out with a year left on his contract is pretty self-explanatory.

Final thoughts: Most dangerous day in hockey indeed. Of all these deals, I’d argue maybe one or two were worth it, and Sekera’s is probably the only one who improved his team’s fortunes significantly as a result. This list doesn’t even include some of the scarier deals, such as Matt Beleskey’s with the Bruins in 2015, Dave Bolland’s with Florida in 2014, or the 2013 offseason where NHL GMS lost their collective minds and handed out big money deals to Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, Stephen Weiss, Ryan Clowe and Mike Ribeiro that all ended up getting either bought out or moved around as dead money for injured players (seriously, that was nuts).

The Hurricanes didn’t miss out on anything by sitting out the big spending sprees. Doubtless they’ve had needs that weren’t filled in past offseasons, but the team likely would not have been improved by spending big in free agency. Indeed, the Canes likely would have been worse off with albatross contracts inhibiting their ability to extend players like Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, and in, coming years, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov.

When I asked about the Canes possibly adding players via free agency at exit interviews this year, Tom Dundon said that players that hit free agency usually do so for a reason. He’s got a point, with most of the players above being on the wrong side of 30 and on the downside of their careers. There are exceptions to the rule (signing a player of John Tavares’ caliber is a no-brainer), and sensible deals to be had (the Canes found one themselves by bringing back Justin Williams last summer), but for the most part Carolina’s inactivity on July 1 has been well-warranted. The team has needs, but is much better off turning to other avenues (trades, the draft) to fill them, and heeding the plethora of cautionary tales against spending big on free agents.