In every NHL off-season in recent memory, people have used the phrase “free-agent frenzy” to describe the monetary madness that takes place each July 1. However, this summer’s crop of talents-for-hire (starting July 5) is anything but a trigger for frenzy. The NHL’s 2013 unrestricted free agent class won’t cause GMs to raise their heads from their smartphones, let alone prod them into pushing wheelbarrows of money toward the free agents and their agents.
Worst free agent class ever? Unless you’re a member of it, the answer is yes.
Don’t believe me? Try this on for size: based on point production, the five best UFA forwards are Mike Ribeiro, Pascal Dupuis, Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder (average age: 35.6). The top UFA defensemen are Mark Streit, Ron Hainsey, Rob Scuderi, Andrew Ference and Marek Zidlicky. The best UFA goalies are Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Smith and Evgeni Nabokov. And that’s only if none of them sign extensions in June.
It’s no secret why this has come to be. Summer after summer, teams doled out multi-year contracts as if they were lollipops and now only older players, fringe contributors and the odd out-of-nowhere performer are the ones who need candy. That’s a function of the market, not the players.
In other years, this dearth of talent would’ve left GMs and owners holding the bag(s) of cash. But this off-season for the first time in league history, the salary cap upper limit is dropping, by 8.4 percent. Because it will lower from $70.2 million to $64.3 million in 2013-14, big spenders such as Philadelphia (whose payroll for next year is at $70.7 million), Vancouver ($64.4 million) and Chicago (with just $2.1 million in cap space) will have to tighten their belts. Even if there was a high caliber of free agents, teams cannot indulge their every urge as they did when the cap ceiling rose each year.
League-imposed restrictions (including limits on contract length) and long-term investments have conspired to curtail free agency, but that doesn’t mean rosters will remain static. Instead, GMs will have to look at other areas – compliance buyouts and trades – to alter their lineup. There are some marquee names (led by Ilya Bryzgalov, Daniel Briere and Brad Richards) who could be UFAs via amnesty buyout (each team is allowed up to two); depending on the level of interest in an amnestied NHLer, they could be a bargain and/or reclamation project, but we’re talking about players who were cut loose because their teams no longer wanted them. Again, free agency isn’t the panacea.
The tool that creates the majority of roster change is likely to be the trade market – particularly this year, because the drop in the cap ceiling will force teams to deal away talent they otherwise would’ve clutched tightly to. There is also a new wrinkle to come out of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement that will make it easier to execute trades: the ability to deal or acquire salary as part of any transaction. There are limitations on doing so (for instance: a team can retain no more than 50 percent of any contract), but for years now, league executives such as former Toronto GM Brian Burke have argued the ability to retain salary would go a long ways toward creating more trades. This year, more than any year, that will be the case.
So don’t get all giddy about July 5 this summer. There will be no savior your favorite team can acquire with a simple signed contract. Clubs have locked down most of their talent, but there will always be an appetite for change. From now on, it looks like that change will come via the swap shop.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.