Unleashing the NHL Free-Agency Money
July 1 has traditionally been a day full of questions for hockey fans. Questions like: “Wait, he got how much?” And: “For how many years?” And: “Are you joking right now?” And: “Has everyone in this league lost their damn minds?”
Welcome to NHL free agency, which officially begins today at noon ET. In honor of the occasion, here are 10 more important questions to consider as we count down to the opening of the vaults.
1. How much did Thomas Vanek cost himself?
When Vanek signs a deal, which he’ll likely do early on today, he’ll be joining his fourth team in the last calendar year. He started the 2013-14 season with the Buffalo Sabres, and finished it with the Montreal Canadiens.
In between came a four-month stint with the Islanders, who gave up a hefty package to pry him out of Buffalo. They reportedly offered the pending free agent a seven-year, $50 million deal to stay in New York, but were turned down and eventually had to recoup some of their losses by sending Vanek to Montreal. The star winger went on to post a disappointing playoff run that had some questioning his work ethic and suggesting he’d torpedoed his value.
This week, we’ll find out just how much Vanek cost himself. While it’s hard to imagine he’ll get anything approaching the Islanders’ offer, he’s still in line for a big payday. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported yesterday that up to 10 teams had made contact with the Vanek camp. One of those teams is Minnesota, which has been widely assumed to be Vanek’s preferred destination all along. (He was a member of the Gophers squad that won a national championship in 2003.) The Wild reportedly don’t want to offer a long-term deal, but Vanek may be willing to take fewer years for the right fit.
Of course, that could all go out the window if somebody decides to break the bank on a player who, it should be remembered, has been one of the highest-scoring wingers in hockey in recent years. He almost certainly won’t get Islanders money, but somebody somewhere will be ready to pay up.
2. Where does Ryan Miller land?
The last time we had a Ryan Miller Watch, it was in an attempt to figure out which team would make a midseason trade for him. That team ended up being the Blues, which pulled off a blockbuster with the Sabres to bring in the former Vezina winner as what they hoped would be the final piece of a Stanley Cup puzzle.
We know how that turned out — after a strong start in St. Louis, Miller struggled down the stretch and the Blues coughed up the division title before going out in the first round against Chicago. That wasn’t all Miller’s fault, of course, but it was enough to convince the Blues to move on.
That leaves Miller as the top name available in today’s goaltending market. But that market is suddenly a very tight one, with few teams actually in need of a starter right now. And that has left Miller with far fewer options than you might have expected, considering how much demand there was for his services just a few months ago.
One possibility that makes a lot of sense is Vancouver, and Miller has reportedly been visiting with the Canucks this week. If that deal doesn’t happen, it’s hard to find too many fits elsewhere around the league. The Sharks, Wild, or even the Penguins could be looking to shake things up in goal. The Flames could use help, and the Hurricanes could, too, if they find a taker for Cam Ward (which they won’t). But all those scenarios come with question marks. And don’t forget that Jonas Hiller, another good goaltender with a strong résumé as a starter, is also available.
The betting here is that Miller works out something with the Canucks, but if those talks fall apart, he could be in for a long week.
3. What does Paul Stastny want to do?
The 28-year-old Avalanche star is probably the best center available. He’s a strong two-way player, and he’s young enough to warrant a long-term commitment, which means he may well end up landing the biggest overall deal of the free-agency season.
But his best offer isn’t going to come from Colorado, which could leave him with a tough choice to make. The Avalanche are reported to want the center back, but at less than his recent $6.6 million salary. He’d almost certainly get more than that on the open market, so this could end up being a situation where a player has to choose between taking a hometown discount to stay in a situation he likes and moving on in search of the biggest possible payday.
If he chooses the latter option, a team like the Blues could be a good fit. St. Louis needs help down the middle and has plenty of cap space to work with.
4. What about the trade market?
Draft weekend is typically the busiest period of the summer for GMs looking to swing deals. This year featured a few star players being moved, including Ryan Kesler and James Neal, but we left Philadelphia with several big names still being shopped.
Perhaps the biggest is Jason Spezza, the longtime Senator who may or may not have asked for a deal out of Ottawa. Semantics aside, it’s clear that a trade is in everyone’s best interests, especially given Spezza’s status as a free agent in 2015 and the Senators’ reluctance to spend much money these days. The team has been talking to St. Louis about a potential deal and has also been linked to the Stars and Blackhawks, among others.
But that may be on hold until we see how free agency plays out. After all, why give up assets to acquire a player when you can get a similar guy for nothing but cash and cap hit? That sort of thinking could leave Spezza and the Senators as a plan B of sorts for several teams. Of course, only one of those teams will land Stastny, and the drop-off to the next best centers available is steep, meaning the Sens could still be in a decent position to deal from once all the smoke clears.
5. Which buyout victims will land on their feet?
Well, “victim” probably isn’t the right word for some of these guys. In some cases, “lottery winner” might work better. That’s because players who are bought out still get two-thirds of their remaining contract paid out, while also getting to sign a new deal in free agency. In almost every case, the bought-out player comes out ahead.
That scenario is a sure thing for some guys, such as ex-Sabre Christian Ehrhoff. He was a somewhat surprising buyout by the Sabres, and could be the most sought-after defenseman on the market. Former Ranger Brad Richards is also likely to draw strong interest, and while he won’t land the sort of long-term deal he got in New York a few years ago, someone will be willing to pay for an experienced top-six center.
Other players, like Tampa Bay’s Ryan Malone and Buffalo’s Ville Leino, will have a tougher time finding work. And then there’s the case of Mike Ribeiro, who basically just got the Uncle Phil treatment in Arizona. He’s got plenty of skill, but could have a tough time convincing teams he’s ready to behave himself.
6. Will anyone offer-sheet a restricted free agent?
Probably not. In theory, RFAs are free to sign offer sheets with other teams, at which point their old teams can choose to either match the offer or let the player leave and receive draft pick compensation. But in practice, it almost never happens, in part because the team almost always chooses to match.
So as much fun as it would be to see somebody drop a massive offer on Montreal’s P.K. Subban, it’s unlikely. The same goes for Ryan Johansen of Columbus, even though his relationship with the Blue Jackets seems to be rapidly falling apart.
RFA offer sheets are great fun, largely because they inevitably cause the entire hockey world to lose its collective mind. You should be rooting for one to happen. Just don’t get your hopes up.
7. What’s the deal with Dave Bolland?
If you’re lucky enough to cheer for one of the other 29 teams, you may be wondering how Maple Leafs third-line center Dave Bolland suddenly became one of the hottest free agents on the market despite being five years removed from his only 40-plus-point season and continuing to rehab from a significant injury. You’re not alone.
Here’s the short version: Bolland is a useful third-line center who doesn’t score a ton but can help his team win in a variety of other ways. He won two Stanley Cups in Chicago, including in 2013 when he scored the winning goal. He came to Toronto in a trade for draft picks last summer and played well for 14 games before getting hurt. When he returned from the injury, he was not very good, and by then the Leafs’ season had already gone off the rails.
In between, the Leafs spent most of the season telling anyone who would listen that Bolland’s injury was the reason the team was struggling. Not surprisingly, Bolland and his agent seem to have been listening, and now they’re asking for big bucks. And from all appearances, the Maple Leafs are more than willing to pay up. (Although in fairness, they’re trying to bargain the price from ludicrous all the way down to merely ridiculous.)
The Leafs opened free agency last year by signing the league’s worst contract, and now they seem determined to follow that up with a summer sequel. Their only hope may be that some other team comes along today with an even worse offer and bails them out. And everyone else will be scratching their heads, trying to figure out how any of this makes sense.
8. Who are the other players to watch?
Among guys we haven’t mentioned yet, keep an eye on defensemen Matt Niskanen and Dan Boyle, as well as forwards Matt Moulson and Radim Vrbata. All four should draw plenty of attention and may be among the first players to sign big deals. Other useful players available today include David Legwand, Jussi Jokinen, and Nikolai Kulemin.
And then there are the veterans. Jarome Iginla will land somewhere, although it may not be back in Boston due to cap concerns. Other former stars who find themselves on the wrong side of 35 may find the market tougher. Players like Saku Koivu, Todd Bertuzzi, and Ray Whitney are facing uncertain NHL futures. All three guys are well past their primes in terms of what they can do on the ice, but each could offer the sort of veteran leadership many teams crave. They could end up having to wait until the initial wave of signings eats up most of the money before seeing if they can find a new home.
And then there’s Daniel Alfredsson. The 41-year-old hasn’t announced his intentions for next season, although reports have said he’s not interested in signing anywhere but Detroit. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see this turn into a Teemu Selanne–type situation where Alfredsson waits until later in the summer to decide whether he wants to come back.
9. Which teams have cap space?
Everyone has less than they were hoping for, thanks to the league’s decision to set this year’s cap at $69 million. (The expectation had been that it would be north of $70 million.) Some teams, like the Flyers, Hawks, and Bruins, are already basically capped out. They could still be active, since teams don’t have to get under the cap quite yet, but it will be tough.
For the most part, the rest of the league has lots of space to work with. Some of those numbers are deceptive because teams still need to set aside money to sign their own RFAs, but there’s money available, and some teams will have to spend a ton just to get close to the $51 million salary floor.
One team to keep an eye on: the Tampa Bay Lightning. They made a series of moves on Sunday night to shed cap space and now have about $9 million to spend. They’re clearly planning something, and we probably won’t have to wait long to find out what it is.
10. Will these people ever learn?
We’re still not sure how the other nine questions will work out, but we can go ahead and answer this one now: No, they won’t. Teams never do. Despite living to regret the majority of deals handed out in the opening days of free agency, you can always count on somebody, somewhere getting carried away.
Barring the appearance of a genuine superstar on the open market (and none of this year’s class qualifies), the smart move would appear to be to sit it out for a few days and then go bargain-hunting once the remaining players start to sweat. But the allure of hitting a home run on opening day is just too tempting for most teams. Besides, you have to imagine some of these GMs thinking that, if today’s deal ends up being a disaster, it will be some other guy’s problem soon enough.
If your team stays on the sideline today, consider yourself lucky. If not, you might as well enjoy the day while it lasts. After all, it’s always fun to go shopping, even if it’s for stuff you can’t afford. History tells us the bill will come due soon enough, and it will be bringing more questions with it.