Editor's Note: This is the first of two parts. The News examines how NHL players acquired via free agency and trades impact their new team.
This is the week expectations begin to soar around the NHL. The free agent market opens Sunday, and teams will add the superstars and role players they believe will vault them toward the Stanley Cup.
The league's swap meet has become a must-see event. It's even a national holiday in Canada. OK, so The True North has been celebrating its birth longer than pucks have been finding nets, but it's still the day when hockey fans would rather watch transaction wires than pyrotechnics.
It turns out there is significantly more disappointment than joy when players, teams and fans look back to the previous free agent frenzy.
The Buffalo News, in an effort to determine players' immediate impact on a new team, has analyzed the offensive output of all 251 skaters who have signed a multiyear contract with a new team since 2006-07.
From wallet-busting contracts – such as Zdeno Chara's $37.5 million deal with Boston in 2006, Marian Hossa's $63 million contact with Chicago in 2009 and Ville Leino's $27 million deal with Buffalo last summer – to pacts that don't even raise an eyebrow – Joe Motzko's two-year, undisclosed deal with Washington in 2007 and Clay Wilson's two-year, $1 million contract with Florida in 2010 – every player who signed his name with a new club for longer than one season was included.
(The only exceptions were Doug Weight in 2006 and Olli Jokinen and Joe Corvo in 2010. They played for a team, got traded during the season, then re-signed with their former organization.)
The results showed the thing likely to go up was the players' bank account balance. Their on-ice numbers – in terms of average points per game – went down.
Of the 251 signings, only 20.72 percent of the players increased their offensive production per game from the previous season. Meanwhile, 47.41 percent of the players had their numbers decrease with the new team, often dramatically. The production stayed the same for 31.87 percent of the players, with a range of 0.05 points per game equaling status quo.
>Trade deadline duds
The disappointment of failing to make an immediate impact didn't stop with contracts. The trade deadline gets the same amount of attention as July 1. Once again, the hype is greater than the hat tricks.
The Buffalo News has analyzed all 302 skaters who switched teams within three weeks of the trade deadline since 2005-06, either via trade or waivers. (There were 303 moves, including Pascal Dupuis' stormy February 2007, when he went from the Minnesota Wild to the New York Rangers to the Atlanta Thrashers in a matter of three weeks.)
From headline-creating deals — such as St. Louis sending Keith Tkachuk to the Atlanta Thrashers for Glen Metropolit and three draft picks in 2007, and Los Angeles acquiring Jeff Carter from Columbus for Jack Johnson and a first-round pick in February — to blips on the radar — San Jose sending Niko Dimitrakos to Philadelphia for a third-round pick in 2006 and Dallas claiming Brandon Segal off waivers in 2010 – every NHL transaction was included.
Players were able to raise their production after getting dealt just 36.63 percent of the time. With the playoffs looming, 39.27 percent of the newcomers' per-game numbers went down. The production stayed the same for 24.09 percent of the players who switched clubs.
So, despite the grandeur of multimillion-dollar contracts and the anticipation of seeing skaters in brand-new colors, the moves fail to work more than anything else.
"That doesn't surprise me at all that stats are down when guys get traded or sign somewhere else," Philadelphia forward Danny Briere, who has experienced both a deadline trade and a multiyear contract with a new team, said recently by phone.
"Not [surprised] at all," Buffalo Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said last weekend. "My experience is more often than not there is what I would term a burn-in period. You have to create some new chemistry, familiarity and fit. That goes both ways, not just for the player but for the coaching staff to the player and the player to the coaching staff."
Indeed, Regier and the Sabres have experienced more disappointments than successes in terms of immediate impact since the lockout. The Sabres are among the worst in terms of players' numbers dropping. They have failed to reach the NHL average in every category of trades and signings.
Of the seven trade deadline acquisitions since 2005, a whopping 71.43 percent have seen their numbers go down after arriving in Buffalo. Only Ottawa (75 percent) has been worse at bringing in productive players at crunch time. The Sabres' trade arrivals improved their numbers 28.57 percent of the time to rank 20th. No one managed to maintain the pace he set with his previous team.
Of the Sabres' six multiyear free agent signings during the study period, 66.67 percent had their per-game statistics tail off. That ranks tied for eighth worst in the NHL. Buffalo's newcomers had their points go down or stay the same in equal measure at 16.67 percent. The drop-off ranking was 18th while the maintain rate ranked 22nd of 31 teams. Atlanta and Winnipeg earned separate status because of the differences in ownership, fan base and overall hockey experience.
(To see how each team has fared and to view the complete analysis of the 303 trades and 251 signings, visit the Sabres Edge blog at blogs.buffalonews.com/sabres.)
>Adjusting to new teams
The drop in production can be traced to numerous on- and off-ice factors. Players in the final year of their contract often produce because they know it will benefit their bottom line. Ice time, chemistry with new linemates, performance pressure, special teams roles and coaching affect the players when they arrive at their new destination.
"It's trying to learn and fit in with new linemates, new systems, new coaches, new teammates," Briere said. "Every coach has their little tweaks here and there. What happens is it's not a big change, but you go on the ice and you're always thinking about, ‘All right, what am I supposed to do?' instead of playing and going after it and just letting yourself play because you know what you're supposed to do."So at the beginning, making sure that you're on the same page with everybody holds you back a little bit."
Briere had a season to remember in Buffalo in 2006-07. In 97 regular-season and playoff appearance, he averaged 1.13 points per game. He parlayed that into an eight-year, $52 million deal with Philadelphia.
Though he had 40 goals and 48 assists in 96 games during his opening season with the Flyers, his production still dropped 0.22 points per game.
"My first year with Philadelphia after I signed here was trying to get organized off the ice," Briere said. "Even if you don't have a family to adapt to make the move, get a new house, get a new apartment, get settled down, you have so many little things that you need to care of away from the ice. Almost the first full year I was running around trying to get this done and get that done, so that's a big adjustment."
The off-ice activities that come with adapting to a new city can't be overlooked.
"You have to think about a guy who's single and just maybe with a girlfriend going to a guy that has a family with young kids at school," said Craig Rivet, who switched teams three times following the lockout. "It's much different from one situation to another. Me personally, I had a couple of kids. It's about being settled. It's about being in the right spot where everyone's happy. If your wife and kids are happy, then you're happy. That's basically how it goes."
Rivet is one of the 36.63 percent to improve his numbers following a trade-deadline deal. He averaged 0.30 points per game with Montreal in 2006-07 but bumped it to 0.46 after being sent to San Jose.
"I was extremely excited to go to San Jose and have a different opportunity," Rivet said. "They had a great team also, and when I got there they embraced me really well.
"Teams want to give you confidence right off the hop, show you that they're happy to have you, and they put you in different situations to see how you're going to react. I think that's what happened in San Jose. They kind of knew what they were getting out of me as a defenseman, but at the same time I got to play in all the different situations . . . and things worked out real well."
The best deadline move since 2005-06 is Colorado's acquisition of Peter Mueller in 2010.
He added an astounding 1.02 points per game to his production. He had four goals and 17 points in 54 games with Phoenix (0.31 points per game) and surged with nine goals and 20 points in 15 games for the Avalanche (1.33 points per game).
Ottawa's trade for Tyler Arnason in 2006 featured the largest production drop among skaters who played all year. After recording 13 goals and 41 points in 60 games for Chicago (0.68 points per game), Arnason failed to score and had only four assists in 19 games with the Senators (0.21 points per game).
The best free agent signing in terms of first-year production is Boston's three-year, $12 million deal for Michael Ryder. The forward averaged 0.42 points per game in 74 outings with Montreal in 2007-08. The following year, Ryder put up 0.78 points per game in 85 contests with the Bruins.
Michal Handzus had the worst drop for a team willing to dish out a multiyear deal. He had eight points in eight games with Chicago in 2006-07, and Los Angeles gave him a four-year, $16 million deal following the season with the hope he could recover and return to form. Instead, he had just seven goals and 21 points in 82 games, a drop of 0.74 points per outing.
As the study indicates, Handzus is hardly alone in struggling to adapt. Players tend to leave their production behind when they go somewhere new in February, March and especially July. It's something to remember when fans start calling for the Cup this weekend.
Coming Wednesday: Why do new Sabres fail to bring their previous production to Buffalo?