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Has free agent fun come to an end with all the stars re-signing before becoming UFAs?

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(Getty Images)

Looking at the roster of potential unrestricted free agents this summer, a veritable treasure trove of big names could be available. Except they won’t, because if recent history is any indicator, most of those players will sign extensions long before their rights come up.

Joe Thornton, Henrik Lundqvist and Dion Phaneuf are all technically eligible, but the chances of them hitting the open market are slim.

“There’s less people in the pool,” said Phoenix Coyotes assistant GM Brad Treliving. “You just know from now to July a significant amount of guys will re-sign with their own teams.”

Two members of that club are Henrik and Daniel Sedin. They got their new matching deals done Nov. 1, re-upping with the Canucks for four seasons at $28 million per twin. And were it not for the shakeup behind Vancouver’s bench this summer, when John Tortorella replaced Alain Vigneault, the pacts may have been consummated sooner. The coaching change meant new chemistry had to be formed between the twins and Tortorella and due diligence needed to be done in the form of games played.

“Both sides got an equal peek,” said J.P. Barry, the Sedins’ agent. “Most impact players are getting extensions in the summer. It seems the ones that drag on are publicized more.”

It’s not surprising to see the Sedins stay on the Left Coast. Not only have they had a tremendous amount of individual and team success there, but they’ve been big in the community, once donating $1.5 million to help build a children’s hospital in B.C. Plus, how many teams have the space to add two $7-million cap hits? As Treliving points out, this season’s artificially low salary cap, as set in the new collective bargaining agreement, has handcuffed a number of teams that would spend more if they were allowed to, but couldn’t this year. The new CBA-mandated term limits – seven years, or eight if a player is re-signing with his current team – also add a new wrinkle.

“It definitely affects the younger players,” Barry said. “It creates higher value for them, not lower. More term means lower cap hits.”

The pressure is coming from the top. Shea Weber, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin all got big money and big term on their current deals, effectively pulling them off the market for the next decade. While Minnesota managed to snag Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in the summer of 2012, both stars were coming from organizations (New Jersey and Nashville) that couldn’t afford to keep them at the time and with more stable owners joining the NHL, it’s less likely to happen again.

Even in Phoenix, where the Coyotes were once a ward of the league, the team is taking care of business when it comes to its present and future, re-signing young blueline star Oliver Ekman-Larsson to a six-year pact worth $33 million, coming off his entry-level deal.

“It comes down to the evaluation of the player,” Treliving said. “Having seen Oliver for three years, not only was he really important for us, but we believe he can be a special player in this league. There was no hesitation for us. It was a priority to sign him before the season ended.”

So teams couldn’t even pinch Ekman-Larsson with an offer sheet. He was off the market before his rookie deal even finished.

Bridge deals of one or two years have become popular lately, with Montreal’s P.K. Subban being the poster child when he signed a two-year, $5.8-million pact. He then went out and won the Norris Trophy, so now the Canadiens are going to pay dearly for his services again this summer.

“The bridge contract becomes a tool used before a team allocates those big contracts,” Barry said. “Teams are having to make decisions earlier because of the CBA.”

Notable pending restricted free agents besides Subban include Ryan O’Reilly and James Reimer. Will there be offer sheets tendered or will the players be back under contract with their original teams before we know it? In Barry’s opinion, the days of elite players in their 20s going to market are dwindling, but that doesn’t mean free agency is totally dead. “Way back when, we saw players 32 and older get good deals,’ he said. “We’ll see that again, as long as guys take care of themselves.”

Barry points to Mats Sundin’s final NHL contract as an example. It was a one-year deal with Vancouver in 2008-09 that came with a cap hit of $8.2 million. Signing bonuses also factor into those veteran contracts, which are short-term but have a high dollar amount.

So your team isn’t getting a sniff at Steven Stamkos or John Tavares any time soon, but could we interest you in a Daniel Alfredsson or perhaps a Jarome Iginla with a few miles left in the tank?

This feature originally appeared in the December 2 edition of The Hockey News magazine (stats in the third paragraph were updated). Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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