Free agency is one the great oxymoronic phrases in all of sports. It’s only free because it doesn’t cost (unrestricted free agency anyway) the team anything to sign the player but the contract.
Ah, but there’s the rub. These contracts—especially for the “top players” on the market—are usually over-bloated, the product of bidding wars between organizations hungry to win and blinded from fiscal responsibility.
Many of these contracts are regretted, some in the very same season they go into effect. Many of those contracts eventually get bought out.
Look no further than the Columbus Blue Jackets history to see how fleeting free agency success can be.
I went back and counted 27 significant (so says me) signings of unrestricted free agents:
2002-Luke Richardson, Scott Lachance, Andrew Cassels
2003-Todd Marchant, Trevor Letwoski
2005-Adam Foote, Bryan Berard, Jan Hrdina
2006-Anders Eriksson, Ty Conklin, Anson Carter
2007-Jiri Novotny, Jan Hejda, Michael Peca
2008-Mike Commodore, Kristian Huselius
2009-Samuel Pahlsson, Mathieu Garon
2011-James Wisniewski (technically CBJ traded for his rights and re-signed), Mark Dekanich, Curtis Sanford, Aaron Johnson, Radek Martinek, Vinny Prospal
Looking through that list, how many could you say were unmitigated successes?
To me, Jan Hejda is far and away the best signing, followed by Ron Tugnutt. Vinny Prospal, Mathieu Garon, Michael Peca all worked out for the better.
Others like Mike Sillinger, Andrew Cassels, Trevor Letowski, Kristian Huselius and Adrian Aucoin provided the exact thing they were signed to do.
Many of those players were brought in to be players they were not (or could no longer be). That list is populated with names like Luke Richardson, Scott Lachance, Todd Marchant and Adam Foote, who despite his orchestrated departure from Columbus was still a very good player here.
Then there are the flat out disappointments such as Bryan Berard, Jan Hrdina, and Anson Carter.
But this is the nature of free agency. The fact is Columbus doesn’t have any tradition, literally no playoff wins, and (with few exceptions) a prognosis for a bright future.
The biggest “name” to sign as a free agent was James Wisniewski two years ago. Most of these players signed here because it was an opportunity for a bigger role, and more importantly, more money.
None of that, however, should diminish the news that on Friday Columbus signed Nathan Horton to a 7-year contract.
The third overall pick in the 2003 draft doesn’t come without some caution, just like all the players listed above. He will require shoulder surgery and miss training camp as well as part of the season. He also has a history of concussions.
There is a lot to like as well. Twice in the last three years—both with Boston—he’s played for the Stanley Cup, with his name engraved on it in 2011. He’s hit the 20-goal plateau six times in his nine years, and is a career +57.
He also has some size, which was sorely needed among the Blue Jackets’ cadre of forwards.
The reason this signing should be lauded, though, is what it says about the city of Columbus, and more importantly, the Blue Jackets’ organization.
Just 18 months ago, one former player couldn’t wait to get out of town, while the captain, seemingly a life-long Blue Jacket player, asked to be traded.
Since that time, things have changed for the better at Nationwide Arena.
John Davidson’s hiring brought legitimacy for the franchise; not only with the rest of the NHL, but with the fans, players and organization itself.
So many positive things have happened since last October that has only bolstered that thought; the hiring of Jarmo Kekalainen, the trade for Marian Gaborik, the 19-5-5 finish to the regular season & losing out on the playoffs by a tie-breaker, the development of Sergei Bobrovsky, his Vezina Award and contract extension.
Nathan Horton’s signing is the latest.
There were reports he wanted to play somewhere “quieter”, meaning away from teams with large fan bases and media following, which would play into Columbus’ hands.
Forget for a second the seven year contract, and also forget the $37.1M (reported) salary. Also disregard that this isn’t a particularly strong crop of free agents.
Instead, focus on a player considered one of the best two or three available choosing Columbus to play for the Blue Jackets when he could have gone anywhere.
Will Horton become another Jan Hejda, or he destined to be the next Anson Carter? We won’t know for a while.
We do know that Columbus overpaid for Horton, but it’s not the Blue Jackets’ fault. It’s like taking your car in for service to the dealership, or filling up the tank on a holiday weekend. You know it’s going to cost more than it should, but that’s the way it goes.