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Lessons From the NHL’s Surprisingly Sane Summer

Fiscal sanity ruled the hockey offseason.

With September here and training camp on the horizon, it’s time for an end-of-summer NHL tradition: looking back on the past few months and slapping a broad theme on them. Every year around this time, we pick through the summer’s headlines and arrive at a pithy title to summarize an entire offseason. Last year was the Summer of Analytics. The year before that was the Summer of LOL Maple Leafs. In 2012, it was the Summer of Lockout Preparation. (OK, technically that one was the Summer of Lockout Preparation Part III, Snider’s Revenge — but we all agreed that felt a little wordy.)

As for this year, it looks like it will go into the books as the Summer of … Fiscal Sanity?

Granted, that doesn’t have much of a ring to it. But looking back on the past few months, it’s hard to arrive at a different conclusion. After a decade of increasingly disastrous offseasons in the salary-cap era — filled with awful free-agency signings, panicked extensions, and other nonsensical spending sprees — this was the year when the league’s general managers got conservative.

Now, it would be wrong to treat this as a phenomenon that appeared without warning, as if all 30 NHL GMs bolted upright in bed one night with the realization that the game’s economics needed to change. But it would be just as wrong to act as if this summer’s market correction was somehow inevitable and predictable. Many of the contracts handed out to pending free agents during the regular season showed no indication that it was anything other than business as usual; remember, it was only April when Canucks fans were rationalizing the ridiculous deals given to bit players Derek Dorsett and Luca Sbisa under the logic that surely someone would have given them more on the open market. And in any other year, they’d have been right.

But by the end of June, even before the champagne had stopped flowing in Chicago, the league’s teams were busy tightening their belts.1 Let’s look back at how it all played out.


1.

At least in terms of players. Head coaches, not so much.

Montreal Canadiens v Boston BruinsJared Wickerham/Getty Images

RFAs on the Move

The first signs that the winds were changing came before free agency even opened, with the trading of two young stars who were about to hit restricted free agency.

For years, the reality of top young RFAs had been this: They didn’t move. Oh, they’d inspire all sorts of rumors. They’d posture, and their teams would posture right back. Occasionally, they’d pretend to be considering an offer sheet, and in rare cases, they might even hold out. But young RFAs almost never actually went anywhere, because young players are the most valuable asset in today’s league, and teams were ultimately willing to hold on to them at just about any cost.

That changed this year, as both Chicago’s Brandon Saad and Boston’s Dougie Hamilton were unexpectedly traded in the days around the entry draft. Both are already very good players, and both could have superstar-potential ceilings. And yet both were dealt, at least partly due to fears of an incoming offer sheet. Those kinds of threats have rarely scared teams in the past — every single one has been matched since 2007 — but this year it was enough to spook two teams into moving on from future stars.

The two deals were received very differently; the Hawks were generally seen as having made the best of a bad situation, while the Bruins were widely criticized for getting too little in return. But both pointed to the possibility that the ground was shifting in advance of free agency. When the markets opened, that seemed to be confirmed.

The Free-Agent Frenzy That Wasn’t

Brian Burke used to say that NHL GMs made more mistakes on trade deadline day than in the rest of the year combined. But over the past decade, the undisputed title for the league’s dumbest 24 hours had clearly shifted to July 1, when the league calendar rolls over, free agency opens, and teams with newfound cap space throw those dollars at anyone with a pulse. Agents salivate, fans cringe, and sportswriters get ready to write their annual roundup of all the worst deals.

But this year, those biting roundups were left scrambling for ammo. There were questionable signings, sure, like the ones handed out to Andrej Sekera and Mike Green. But in a league that was accustomed to pointing and laughing at albatross contracts given out to guys like Wade Redden, Scott Gomez, and David Clarkson, maxing out at “questionable” seemed like a win.

The sun set on July 1 without any obvious disasters being inked,2 and as the first day of free agency stretched into the first week and beyond, that pattern continued. Matt Beleskey, who’d been shaping up as this year’s Clarkson, settled for a downright reasonable deal from the Bruins. Nobody fell into the trap of paying a massive character tax for proven playoff performers like Justin Williams or Joel Ward. And plenty of veterans struggled to find deals at all; useful players like Christian Ehrhoff and Matt Cullen had to wait until August to find a team, while guys like Cody Franson and Brad Boyes are still unsigned.

Arbitration: No Longer Just a Decoy


2.

Oh, some of the deals will eventually turn out to be awful in hindsight. But in previous years, there were always a few that were obvious debacles from the moment they were signed. Not this time.

When it comes to restricted free agency, the NHL allows both players and teams to opt for arbitration. Most years, about two dozen cases are filed. Then, one by one, they disappear from the docket, as settlements are reached before hearings could take place. The arbitrator’s ruling almost never came into play.

There were various reasons for that. For one, the hearing process can be brutal, as players are forced to sit and watch as their own team tears them to pieces. Neither side seems to put much trust in the arbitrators to get it right. And, probably most importantly of all, there’s some basic human psychology at play; negotiations don’t really get serious until there’s a deadline, and dropping an arbitration hearing onto the calendar was an easy way to create one.

Add it all up, and the arbitration hearing had seemed like a dying breed, with no more than two cases going to a hearing in each year since 2010. But this year, we got eight — and three of those ended with an actual ruling. With teams suddenly pinching every penny, going through a hearing and taking your chances on the arbitrator’s whim apparently seemed better than the alternative.

Extensions: Crazy Money (Instead of Insane Money)

It’s not like nobody in the NHL got paid this summer. As usual, the biggest winners were star players about to enter the final year of their contract. Part of the reason why unrestricted free agency is such a mess is that the best players almost never get there, as teams have long ago learned to lock up their stars at almost any price.

This year was no different. Mark Giordano and Braden Holtby got big deals. Jakub Voracek got an even bigger one. And Vladimir Tarasenko set a new standard for young players, going straight from an entry-level deal to a $60 million windfall.

Those deals were big, but again, they still seemed mostly reasonable. Tarasenko’s deal certainly carried some sticker shock, but the contract made sense. The deals to older players carried some risk but stayed within the ballpark of what most had expected. Not every big signing made sense — Ryan Kesler’s extension is a disaster waiting to happen, but that one ended up feeling like the exception that proved the rule.

And while those deals made headlines, the bigger news were the ones that (so far) haven’t gotten made. Both Steven Stamkos and Anze Kopitar are in line for extensions that should approach last year’s record-breaking Toews/Kane territory, and neither has seen much progress. The same goes for other stars, such as Dustin Byfuglien, Eric Staal, and Andrew Ladd. Part of that is just standard operating procedure; these deals are complicated agreements that take time to hammer out. But teams also seem surprisingly willing to go into the season without an extension in place, despite years of conventional wisdom that says you just don’t let a franchise player get close to free agency.

Colorado Avalanche v Los Angeles KingsMichael Bernstein/NHLI

So What’s Going On?

If NHL teams really are getting more conservative with their money, the obvious question is why.

The issue is the salary cap. After years of rising steadily, growth has slowed down recently, thanks largely to the stumbling Canadian dollar. This year’s cap went from $69 million to just $71.4 million, the smallest increase in terms of both percentage and real dollars in six years.3 There had been fears the increase could have been even smaller, and at this point there’s no indication we’ll go back to the years of big annual jumps anytime soon. For years, teams (and fans) could justify aggressive contracts by pointing to a rising cap and hoping that inflation would clean up their mess for them; that’s not the case anymore, at least in the short term.


3.

Not counting the big drop in 2013 after the new CBA drove the players’ percentage of revenue from 57 percent down to 50 percent.

Beyond that, it’s possible teams seem like they’re getting smarter because they actually are. Last year’s wave of analytics hirings (which have continued this summer) hasn’t exactly remade the sport’s landscape, but it’s given certain teams some extra brainpower to take into negotiation scenarios. The analytics world was never shy about criticizing signings it thought were irresponsible; now, some of those same fans who used to rant and rave online are in a position to make their case directly to a GM before pen gets put to paper.

Finally, it’s possible that what we’re actually seeing isn’t so much a market correction as a reorganization. Years ago, virtually every player followed a standard progression: entry-level deal, bridge deal, usually one more RFA deal, and then either unrestricted free agency or an extension to avoid it. The dollars got bigger as you went, and the big jackpot didn’t come until the last one. But today, players like Tarasenko are skipping the bridge deal completely and signing big, long-term contracts while they’re still just entering their prime. That actually makes sense — why give the biggest contracts to the guys who are already in decline? — but it leaves less money on the table for the older guys who used to be able to count on it. That would explain why we’re not seeing the sort of terrible UFA deals we used to; that money is getting set aside for the younger guys.

All of that leaves open the possibility that teams are really just acting differently, not necessarily more intelligently. After all, even a dumb mega-contract handed to a 23-year-old is unlikely to go bad as quickly as one given to a guy a decade older. Maybe some of today’s deals will turn out to be every bit as ill-advised as those of previous years — they’ll just take longer to reveal themselves.

That’s a comforting thought if you’re the sort of fan who enjoys watching GMs screw up — or the sort of sportswriter who likes to pump out bad-deal hot takes. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that something bigger really is happening here. For a league that was never short on financial madness, a summer lacking many obvious gaffes feels important. Fiscal sanity isn’t quite fiscal smarts, but it’s a step in the right direction. Now we wait and see if it was something real or just a summer fling.