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NHL Free Agency: Which expensive gamble has best chance to pay off?

There is always risk in NHL free agency. But will these teams get the reward?

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Will a move to the New York Islanders pay off for Nikolai Kulemin?

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For one day in July the NHL's 30 general managers hand out obscene amounts of cash to free agents in the hope that they will provide the missing ingredient to their team to get them closer to a playoff spot, or perhaps even a championship. 

Even though teams usually come away disappointed with what they do in free agency, some teams probably did help themselves this summer.

Other teams decided to throw a lot of money at some surprising players for reasons that only they can come up with. Again, many of them will fail in their quest. But which ones might have a chance to actually catch lightning in a bottle and get some kind of a return on their investment?

Let's take a look at some of the more, let's call them, interesting free agent signings.

1. Nikolai Kulemin, New York Islanders: four years, $16.75 million

Will it be worth it: It's more likely than you might think

The New York Islanders ended up being a pretty busy team in free agency.

They signed Cory Conacher to a one-year, low-risk, high-reward contract that comes out to $600,000. It's a smart gamble on a talented player that probably deserves another shot to be a contributor. 

They also invested heavily in former Toronto Maple Leafs teammates Mikhail Grabovski (four years, $20 million) and Nikolai Kulemin (four years, $16.75 million). Grabovski is a very good, two-way player and is probably making exactly what he should be making (or very close to it). But Kulemin is a bit of an odd one on the surface. Like a lot of things in Toronto over the past couple of years, Kulemin's struggles seemed to begin right around the time Randy Carlyle came strolling into town and taking up residence behind the bench. He's scored just 23 goals over the past three seasons (just for some perspective: 72 players scored at least that many goals this past season alone) and the Islanders seem to be banking on him rebounding in a new environment.

And you know what? They may not be wrong. 

Under Carlyle (and Grabovski seemed to fall into this same situation before the Maple Leafs used a compliance buyout on him last summer) Kulemin was forced into more of a defensive, checking line role and was almost never put into any sort of an offensive situation where he could use his skill. 

Just take a look at how his usage (quality of competition, quality of teammates and offensive zone start percentage) changed throughout his career and from coach-to-coach. 

Year Coach QoC QoT O-Zone Starts Goals Per Game
2008-09 Ron Wilson 0.367 1.018 52.4 0.21
2009-10 Ron Wilson 0.297 0.865 50.4 0.21
2010-11 Ron Wilson 0.464 6.900 51.0 0.37
2011-12 Ron Wilson/Randy Carlyle 0.892 3.274 53.3 0.10
2012-13 Randy Carlyle 2.087 -1.062 35.5 0.15
2013-14 Randy Carlyle 0.979 -1.194 34.9 0.13

 

His opponents became better, his teammates became worse, and he was always starting directly in front of his own net. That is a tough role to be stuck in if you're an offensive player, and it was made worse by the fact that Toronto is actually a pretty deep team on the wings. 

The 2010-11 season is still a bit of a fluke for Kulemin, but if he gets into a situation where he's not thrown to the wolves every shift there is no reason why he can not return to being a 15-20 goal scorer. The Islanders definitely have some talent up front and if they allow Kulemin to be a part of it and put him into offensive situations, this contract may not turn out to be as weird as it seemed the day it was signed.

 

2) Benoit Pouliot, Edmonton Oilers: five years, $20 million 

Will it be worth it: With a little luck

The Edmonton Oilers will be the sixth different team for Benoit Pouliot since the start of the 2009-10 season, and in each of the past three offseasons he signed one-year contracts for just a little over $1 million with Boston, Tampa Bay and the New York Rangers. And for each team he would go on to became a very good depth player and give them all a very productive third line.  

This summer he finally found a team that was willing to commit to him long-term as the Oilers gave him a five-year contract worth $4 million per season. His point production says he's a third-line player, but Pouliot has consistently been one of the better possession players in the NHL, posting a 54 percent Corsi percentage over the past three seasons That's not only very good and the type of player every winning team needs, it's good enough for 47th in the NHL among forwards that have played at least 1,500 minutes. It's the type of performance you might expect from a top-six player. If Pouliot can arrive in Edmonton and keep driving possession and maybe get a little bit of luck, it's not out of the question for him to perform at a second-line level for the Oilers, and if he does, that contract doesn't look that bad. 

3) Deryk Engelland, Calgary Flames: three years, $8.7 million

Will it be worth it: No. Never. 

Of all the big-money deals that were handed out on the first day of free agency, an $8.7 million deal over three years doesn't seem that outrageous.  

But when it's going to a guy that has been, at best, a third-pairing defenseman in the NHL and even had to spend some time playing at forward last season, it is an absurd amount of money and is a top contender for most bizarre contract of the offseason.

Engelland is a physical player, and he is a willing fighter if it gets to that point, but there really isn't any other aspect of the game that he excels and he is probably more suited to be seventh-defenseman on a good team. He plays hard and gets everything he possibly can out of the talent that he does have, but he just isn't a player that warrants a multi-year, multi-million dollar investment. 

Honestly, this contract seems like it was nothing more than an attempt to get the Flames to the salary floor. They had to pay somebody, but surely they could have found a better use for nearly $3 million in cap space over the next three years

Calgary has little chance of ever being happy with this deal.  

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