For hockey fans, July 1st and the commencement of free agency is almost a holiday.
However, the grass won’t be greener on the other side this month, with free agency paused as we await the re-start of the 2019-20 NHL season.
July 1st hasn’t been exactly celebratory for San Jose Sharks fans anyway — the Sharks haven’t been the biggest spenders on outside unrestricted free agents over the years. The largest UFA contract they’ve ever doled out is Paul Martin’s four-year, $19.4 million dollar pact on July 1, 2015.
Of course, they’ve almost caught the big fish, mostly recently as runner-ups in the John Tavares sweepstakes two years ago.
Free agency or not, it’s a good time to look back at the top-five UFA signings in San Jose history. We’re focused on NHL signings, so sorry Joonas Donskoi (European UFA) and Jeff Odgers (undrafted UFA).
I’m also placing an emphasis on the free agent’s performance during the duration of his first contract with the team.
Case in point…
5) Tony Granato
The Sharks took a one-year, $1.5 million dollar gamble on the 32-year-old Granato on August 15, 1996.
Just six months earlier, it was assumed that Granato’s career was over after a head collision against the boards resulted in bleeding on his brain, and eventually, brain surgery.
Instead of retirement, Granato potted 25 goals, good for third on San Jose. He was also a commissioner’s selection to the All-Star Game and won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.” He’s the only Shark to ever win the Masterton Trophy and the only San Jose UFA signing to play in an All-Star Game.
“A lot of athletes probably would not have come back,” Wayne Gretzky said of Granato, after facing off against his former Los Angeles Kings teammate in the All-Star Game. “Tony works as hard as anyone I’ve ever played with and he loves the game as much anyone I’ve ever played with.” (McKeon, Ross. “MVP honor makes Recchi awe-struck.” The San Francisco Examiner. January 19, 1997.)
Granato completed his career in San Jose, retiring in 2000-01.
4) Mike Grier
“I’ve been trying to get Mike on my team for 10 years,” Ron Wilson said of Grier. “Guys like Mike are glue to a team.”
The San Jose head coach got his wish on July 3, 2006, when the 31-year-old winger agreed to a three-year, $5.3 million dollar contract with the Sharks.
Grier was a top penalty killer, regularly pacing all San Jose forwards in SH TOI (Short-handed Time on Ice). His 691:48 on the PK from 2006-09 was over 300 minutes more than any other Sharks forward (Patrick Rissmiller trails with 336:46).
He also ranked fifth among all San Jose forwards in TOI/GP (Time on Ice Per Game Played) in each of his first two seasons in teal, an impressive feat for a squad that won 100 games in that span. Grier was no fourth-liner riding the coattails of a superior squad.
After 2008-09, Grier left the Bay Area for Buffalo, finishing his career with the Sabres.
3) Antti Niemi
Antero Niittymäki was supposed to be the heir apparent.
On the first day of free agency in 2010, the Sharks targeted Niittymäki to take Evgeni Nabokov’s mantle as their starting netminder, inking the Finn to a two-year, $4 million dollar pact.
But then, the reigning Stanley Cup-winning goaltender fell in their laps.
Interestingly, it was Doug Wilson’s machinations that might have pried Antti Niemi loose. After inking Niittymäki, the San Jose GM offer sheeted Chicago Blackhawks restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson to the tune of a four-year, $14 million dollar deal. Chicago matched, but they suddenly had a lot less salary cap space for fellow RFA Niemi.
Niemi agreed to a one-year, $2 million dollar contract with San Jose on September 2, 2010 after Chicago walked away from Niemi’s arbitration award.
“My job is to put the best team on the ice we can here in San Jose and operate within the rules like we did. To connect the two [moves], I’ll leave that up to other people to speculate or make comments,” Wilson said. “When a player like this comes available and he wants to come to your team, especially on a contract that we feel fits our salary structure and you don’t have to give up anything to get him, you just have to make it happen.”
Niittymäki, to his credit, didn’t back down. He started 19 of the Sharks’ first 34 games, outplaying Niemi.
But after December 21st, Niittymäki wouldn’t win another regular season game for San Jose. A persistent groin injury hampered him — and might have changed the course of team history:
Niemi finished eighth in Vezina Trophy voting and 10th in Goals Saved Above Average (11.67), leading the Sharks to the Western Conference Finals. In March, he signed a four-year extension with San Jose. Meanwhile, Niittymäki underwent hip surgery and played out the last year of his contract in the minor leagues, before retiring in Finland.
2) Scott Thornton
At 334 games, no Sharks UFA acquisition has ended up playing more games in teal than Thornton.
It took just one playoff series for the front office to commit four years and $6 million dollars to the ex-Dallas Stars forward on July 1, 2000.
“We identified we needed this kind of player,” Wilson acknowledged after Dallas knocked San Jose out in the 2000 playoffs. “When Owen (Nolan) and Mush (Bryan Marchment) went down in the series, it showed what we were lacking. If we had him, we might have won the series.” (McKeon, Ross. “Sharks score Stars forward.” The San Francisco Examiner. July 2, 2000.)
The 29-year-old defied expectations by notching 45 goals in his first two seasons in San Jose, despite averaging just 13:42 a game. Remarkably, the gritty winger paced the 2001-02 Sharks with 20 Even Strength Goals, outscoring the likes of Teemu Selanne, Owen Nolan, and Patrick Marleau in this key category.
Sherry Ross’s Hockey Scouting Report declared in 2001, “Thornton matches up against just about any forward in the league when it comes to winning puck battles.”
After his initial four-year commitment, Thornton re-upped in San Jose for one more campaign, before closing out his career in Los Angeles.
1) Gary Suter
Wilson was outfoxing other general managers well before he became the Sharks GM in 2003.
Just days before the opening of free agency on July 1, 1998, Wilson, San Jose’s then-pro development director, “quietly engineered” the trade of a ninth-round draft pick to the Blackhawks for the impending UFA Suter’s exclusive negotiating rights. (Chapin, Dwight. “Sharks snag Suter in nick of time.” San Francisco Examiner. July 2, 1998.)
“It was a head start, because a whole different thing happens when eight or nine teams are bidding for a player,” Wilson explained.
“I never heard of somebody being traded three days in the middle of summer,” the 34-year-old defenseman acknowledged. “That sent a message to me how serious the Sharks were.”
“The league did tell me in the future they’re not going to allow this,” Sharks GM Dean Lombardi noted.
I digress, but this will be relevant once again after this season:
With no early period to commence contract talks for five to seven days before free agency starts, GMs can't get their ducks in a row in advance. We're set to return to the era of frenzied Day-1 bidding wars.
— The Hockey News (@TheHockeyNews) July 14, 2020
Anyway, Suter holds the distinction of being San Jose’s first honest-to-goodness July 1st signing, agreeing to a three-year, $10.5 million dollar pact on July 1, 1998. He’s also the first high-profile UFA ever inked by the Sharks.
In his debut campaign, however, Suter suited up for only one contest because of a season-ending triceps injury. Generously, he allowed San Jose to re-structure his deal, adding another year on top of the original agreement at no extra cost.
Suter rebounded by leading all Sharks defenders in icetime in 1999-00. He could be counted on for over 20 minutes a night and was also the squad’s most-used blueliner on the power play over the course of his contract.
Even in the last year of his amended deal, the 37-year-old was still a world-class defenseman, earning a silver medal with the United States in the 2002 Olympics. Suter retired after 2001-02.
All trading card images courtesy Trading Card Database.
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