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NHL's new collective bargaining agreement doesn't curtail free-agent frenzy

TORONTO - For more than four months, NHL owners and players squabbled over a new collective bargaining agreement. Among a variety of issues, contract limits and the salary cap played a role in a lockout that cut the season to 48 games.

The lockout felt like a distant memory Friday. In the first six hours of free agency teams spent over US$350 million signing players, showing that new restraints didn't impede general managers from doing their annual shopping.

"I guess when you consider the fact that there's really $180 million taken out of the system with every team losing $6 million in cap space, you'd think it'd slow down," Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. "But everybody has needs, everybody has a certain amount of cap space. And I think everybody probably tried to address their needs today in the best way they could."

The Columbus Blue Jackets filled a need with the richest deal of the day, signing right-winger Nathan Horton for seven years and $37.1 million. The Toronto Maple Leafs did the same by signing power-forward David Clarkson for seven years and $36.75 million.

Under the new CBA, seven years is the longest deal a player can get when leaving his current team. Eight years is the max for a team to re-sign its own player, and the Flyers took advantage of that by extending captain Claude Giroux, who would've been a restricted free agent in a year.

Day One of free agency this year looked like it could be a slower one than usual, judging by a shallow group of available players made weaker when teams like the Anaheim Ducks signed stars like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf to long-term deals. With the salary cap going down to $64.3 million from $70.2 million, prudence seemed to be in order.

But compliance buyouts changed the picture, leading to more salary-cap space and over 50 signings in the first six hours of free agency.

"I didn't really expect for the money to be thrown around quite the way that it was before," said forward Matt Hendricks, who signed for four years and $7.4 million with the Nashville Predators. "But I guess when you look at it and you see all these buyouts, all of a sudden all this money becomes available again."

Almost every team that bought out a player put that salary-cap room to use. The Flyers bought out goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and signed Ray Emery and centre Vincent Lecavalier, while the Lightning took the space they got from buying out Lecavalier and spent it on centre Valtteri Filppula.

It turned out to be the richest opening day of NHL free agency since 2009, when teams spent $384 million.

"There was a lot of money spent," said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who got defenceman Mike Komisarek and backup goaltender Anton Khudobin for a total of $1.5 million. "I didn't sit up last night trying to add up how much was going to be spent, but there was a lot."

Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis was surprised at the length of the contracts some of his colleagues handed out. The new CBA prevented deals like the 13-year variety Ryan Suter and Zach Parise got from the Minnesota Wild last year, but it didn't keep the New Jersey Devils from giving left wing Ryan Clowe five years or the Edmonton Oilers from giving 34-year-old defenceman Andrew Ference four.

"That's those teams and their operations. They do things for the reasons they think are right," Gillis said. "Not being in the middle of it—and we've been in the middle of a lot of things on free-agent day the last five years—not being in the centre of it this year, and trying to go after guys who were key players, it was interesting to sit back and watch these deals come in and evaluate them."

A few contracts looked like slight overpayments, but general managers understand that comes with the territory in this market.

"I thought the contracts were not completely out of line this year," Oilers GM Craig MacTavish said. "Everybody feels now, in spite of the fact it's inflationary when you get into this market, you're not giving up any assets on your own team to get these players, so that's why everybody approaches this so aggressively."

Some teams stayed out of the fray to avoid Friday's flurry, like St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong, who said he wanted to be "very aggressive, not foolish." Some teams tried to be aggressive, like the Winnipeg Jets, but it turned out to be a player's market.

"We had some good conversations, which led to some actions on some players as the day progressed," Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "But decisions are made, players are free agents, and they get to make their decisions on their opportunities."

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