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NHL unrestricted free agency is a 'different ballgame' this time around

NHL general managers know nothing about unrestricted free agency is free. They understand most of the time they're going to overpay, in years and term, to get the player they want.

This year is not expected to be any different in that regard. But everything else is, thanks to a drop in the salary cap, compliance buyouts and a new interview period that gives teams and players time to talk before the market opens at noon Friday.

"I think it's a completely different ballgame this time around," Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. "I think there's a general caution. There may be a rush on a few guys, but I just think this is the first time the cap has gone down so I think we're in new territory."

New territory because no one knows exactly what to expect once deals can officially be signed. There's some level of trepidation on the part of the men who typically are known for being steadfast with their movements.

"We're all sort of walking through it and how to best position ourselves to attract the free agents," Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney said. "We went eight years with a set routine and now when you add the lateness of the Stanley Cup final to the whirlwind of the draft last week to hitting the free-agent period immediately thereafter, there's a lot happening right now."

One of the biggest complicating factors has to do with players no one knew for certain would be on the market.

As Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill prepared for July 5 and the canvas, he and his colleagues around the league altered course as the likes of Vincent Lecavalier and Danny Briere were available thanks to compliance buyouts.

"It kind of put a hold on the free-agent period as far as who you're looking at as a team," Nill said. "These guys are all high-end players, and we were all prepared for who was going to be the free agents to kind of chase, then all of a sudden we had five or six names kind of come out of the sky and kind of the process started a little bit earlier."

When Lecavalier chose the Philadelphia Flyers over the Stars, Detroit Red Wings and almost a dozen other potential suitors, it was back to normal. There was no other choice.

"It changed the dynamics of things," Nill said. "But now it's kind of happened and over with and everybody kind of moves on. Now you're back to your original plan, depending on whether you got these guys or not."

Every team's original plan is based on a lower salary cap and the consensus that it will go back up for the 2014-15 season. It's set at US$64.3 million for now, down from $70.2 million during the first year of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Because of the salary cap dropping, the new CBA cuts down on the advantage of being a high-revenue, big-market team.

"We're no different than any other team," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis said. "We have to operate within that same framework, and that 6 million bucks coming off the table makes (moves) a lot more difficult than most people would expect."

After using a compliance buyout on centre Mikhail Grabovski, the Maple Leafs have roughly $24 million under the salary cap, second to only the New York Islanders. They're certainly much more likely to use the bulk of that money, even though some of it will go to new deals on restricted free agents.

But for teams like Toronto that have the budget to spend to the cap, it shouldn't be difficult given the players available. Centres Mike Ribeiro, Stephen Weiss and Tyler Bozak; wingers Nathan Horton, Jarome Iginla and David Clarkson; defencemen Andrew Ference and Ryan Whitney and goaltenders Tim Thomas and Evgeni Nabokov are among those expected to sign sooner rather than later.

Realignment, including better odds of making the playoffs in the Western Conference than the East, adds another wrinkle. For some small- or middle-market teams, it's a complication.

"We're really at a point where we're really stretching our payroll as far as we can based on our business, based on our revenues," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said. "For us, it's more about the realignment than it is about where the cap is because I think probably in the next year to two, the cap's just going to start to grow and grow and grow again because the league has done so well and the revenues will continue to grow."

Most around hockey expect the salary cap to reach back into the $70-million range soon, but Chiarelli pointed out that nothing's "set in stone." The same can be said for the new interview period that began late Tuesday night.

Teams and players had permission to speak starting then but not negotiate terms of contracts. That was made clear in a memo deputy commissioner Bill Daly sent to all 30 teams Thursday afternoon.

In the midst of that interview period, general managers weren't quite sure what to make of it. Nill wondered if it might "muddy the waters" between teams and free agents.

"Guys are talking to more teams, there's more scenarios," Nill said. "There might be a player that thought, 'Boy, I was going to go to this team,' and all of a sudden he gets calls from 10 other teams and the dynamics change and now he's like, 'Boy, I don't know what I'm going to do for sure.'"

More information-gathering on players always helps, but 48 hours doesn't seem like enough time to gauge a player's market value and what's a good fit.

"I think what it does is it makes people make decisions," San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson said. "For example, if you have a pending UFA and teams are going to be gathering knowledge and the player is going to be gathering knowledge, it brings it to a head."

The whole confluence of events comes to a head Friday. Maloney figured there would be a flurry of deals at 12:01 p.m., but that was the end of his predictions.

"How it goes after that, I can't tell you. I'm really not sure," he said. "We're in a new working environment, and we'll have to see how it plays out."

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