Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Winnipeg Jets free agent signing. Please note that the entirety of the franchise was included in consideration, including the original Winnipeg Jets as well as the Atlanta Thrashers.
THE ALL-TIME BEST WINNIPEG JETS FREE AGENT SIGNING
2009 – Nik Antropov: Four years, $16 million
When it comes to Winnipeg Jets franchise’s top free agent pickup, it was relatively slim pickings. Of the group, however, it’s Nik Antropov that stands out as one who made one of the bigger impacts during his time with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets. While never a franchise player for the Jets, he was a consistent producer throughout the duration of his NHL career. Antropov ranks solidly among the Jets’ all-time highest scorers, placing 13th. He is sandwiched between Ray Ferraro and Patrik Stefan (at 14th and 12th respectively).
Antropov played two seasons as a Jet, while partaking in another two as a member of the Atlanta Thrashers. Additionally, Antropov was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and (very briefly) the New York Rangers. Over the course of his entire NHL career, he managed to put up a solid 465 points in 788 NHL games (0.59 points per game). While not mind blowing numbers, it is representative of a player who served the team well as a reliable scorer. In his four seasons with the Thrashers/Jets, Antropov scored 161 points in 261 games (0.62 points per game). His season totals were 67 in 76, 41 in 76, 35 in 69, and 18 in 40, while his career playoff output stands at four goals and eight points in 35 games (with 28 of those as a member of the Maple Leafs).
The Kazakhstan-born forward was drafted 10th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1998 NHL entry draft following a terrific year with Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk of RUS-2 (otherwise known as Vysshaya Liga or the Supreme League of the Russian Ice Hockey Championship). Originally projected for selection in the 2nd round, his 15 goal and 39 point output in 42 games saw his stock rise dramatically, landing him within the top ten. While his rookie season took place during the 2002-03 NHL campaign, he had previously been a member of the KHL‘s Moscow Dynamo, where he put up five goals and 14 points through 30 games played.
In addition to his NHL resume, Antropov has played a significant amount of time in the KHL over the course of his professional hockey career. Aside from his stint with Moscow Dynamo that preceded his being drafted into the NHL, Antropov played 36 games between the Kazan Ak-Bars and Yaroslavl Lokomotiv throughout the 2004-05 National Hockey League lockout, scoring six goals and 24 points over the course of the campaign.
During the following lockout year, the shortened 2012-13 season, Antropov partook in 26 contests as a member of Astana Barys, scoring three goals and 13 assists for 16 points over that period. Since parting ways with the Jets and the NHL at the end of the 48 game season, he returned to Astana Barys, putting up 47 points in 75 games over two seasons. He remains a member of the club to this day, but hinted a return to the NHL back in 2014-15.
On international ice, Antropov has represented Kazakhstan on a multitude of occasions. He participated in the 1998 World Junior Championships, scoring six assists in seven games. Antropov was then selected as a member of the team that played in the World Championships of the same year, putting up a single assists in three contests. He followed up those performances with another appearance at the World Juniors in 1999, with a strong three goals and eight points through six games.
At the 2008 Winter Olympic Games, Antropov played five games, with one goal to show for it. Antropov was one of just two NHL’ers on the squad, with the other being Colorado Avalanche netminder Vitali Kolesnik. His most recent international performance was at the 2014 World Championships. He scored an impressive five points through six games. Kazakhstan has never won a medal at an international tournament, but has taken home gold three times at the Asian Winter Games.
In December of 2007, shortly after scoring a hat trick as a member of the Maple Leafs, a campaign was started to submit Antropov’s name as a write-in candidate for the 2008 NHL All Star game (which, coincidentally, took place in Atlanta). Antropov’s son, Danil Antropov, is currently a member of the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League. Scouts have said they see him as a future draft pick in the 2019 entry draft. He was selected sixth overall in the OHL priority selection draft. In comparing himself to his father, he said “I score more than he did”.
In March of 2009, Antropov was acquired from the Leafs by the New York Rangers in exchange for a 2nd round draft pick, as well as an additional conditional draft selection. Antropov was set to become an unrestricted free agent at the time of the deal. He only played 18 contests with the Rangers, where he scored 13 points. At the time of the deal, then-Rangers general manager Glen Sather described Antropov as a “gifted goal scorer” and a “talented guy”. In seven playoff games with New York that year, Antropov put up three points in seven games.
In July of 2009, Antropov signed a deal with the Thrashers. The contract was worth $16.25 million over four years. Antropov brought in $3.5 million in the first year, with that number increasing to$4.75 million in the final season.
Many consider the signing of Antropov to have been a strategic signing. It was designed to make it easier to sign superstar and then-captain Ilya Kovalchuk. The two played together during the 2004-05 lockout in the KHL. Kovalchuk, the team’s biggest star and then-captain, wanted to see some improvement in the club before signing an extension. Signing a well-liked formner teammate certainly helped in that regard. According to then-general manager Don Waddell, Kovalchuk sent him text that read “good job” after having heard news of the signing.
The Thrashers, after making the playoffs in 2007-08, were desperate to make them again. The team had high expectations after winning their division (the Southeast). This was behind the eventual signing of Antropov, as well as the acquisition of Pavel Kubina. Extensions for Chris Thorburn and Ilya Kovalchuk were also signed.
The start to 2008-09 wasn’t a good one, as head coach Bob Hartley was fired after an 0-6 start; with Waddell, taking over temporarily. They finished just 14th in the conference that season. The pressure was on for big improvements going forward.
Despite a playoff berth in 2007-08, the Jets/Thrashers unfortunately, never managed one in Antropov’s time. His signing was part of a push for the playoffs that never quite happened. The Thrashers finished 10th and 12th in their conference during his first two seasons. The failure to secure a second franchise berth came as a massive disappointment. In Antropov’s first year, the Thrashers fired both head coach John Anderson and general manager Waddell. Assistant general manager Rick Dudley took over the general manager’s duties. Boston Bruins assistant coach Craig Ramsay was named head coach. At the trade deadline, Kovalchuk was traded to New Jersey. The Thrashers received Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, Niclas Bergfors and a 1st round pick. The team moved to Winnipeg, where they continued to struggle, not making the post-season in Antropov’s tenure.
Thed deal resulted in Antropov putting up some solid personal numbers. However he did not become the final piece of the puzzle the Thrashers thought they needed in order to make the post-season, even after relocation to Winnipeg.