For those NHL players who don’t step willingly into retirement, there eventually comes a day when UFA stands for unwanted free agent rather than unrestricted free agent.
As July ends and August begins, we’re now closer to the start of NHL training camps than we are the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For unsigned UFAs, that’s an added layer of anxiety. What if nobody wants me and I’ve played my last NHL game?
Take a browse through capgeek.com and you’ll see half the NHL teams are already at the 23-man NHL roster limit. Another nine teams are at 22 players. And that doesn’t even include the several dozen or so non-roster rookie prospects who will surely make big-league rosters in October.
So not a lot of roster openings remain.
Then take a look at the list of remaining UFAs and you’ll see more than 200 names. Many players on that list are fringe prospects who haven’t made the NHL and probably never will. But there are a good chunk of names who spent significant time in the NHL last season. In fact, here’s a depth chart of three complete teams made up of players who either spent the bulk of 2013-14 in the NHL, or formerly were NHL regulars.
TEAM NO. 31
TEAM NO. 32
TEAM NO. 33
We could probably put together a 34th team made up of fringe UFAs with some NHL experience, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
So why aren’t these guys signed? At this point, it’s more about roster numbers than it is salary cap issues. Yes, four teams are currently at the $69 million salary cap (or beyond) and another four teams are within $1.6 million of the cap. But 22 teams out there have $2.7 million or more to spend and most of the names above could be had for that or less.
There will be some additional UFA personnel fits on NHL rosters in the coming weeks, but probably not a lot.
Pittsburgh has the fewest players under contract (19), but Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling are RFAs and will be signed shortly. And the Penguins are probably hoping for one or two non-roster players to make the team out of camp. Defensemen Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin are the most likely.
Calgary is at 20 players, but RFA Lance Bouma will be signed soon. And bank on two of Sven Baertschi, Max Reinhart or Tyler Wotherspoon filling the two remaining holes.
Dallas is also at 20 players, but RFAs Cody Eakin and Brenden Dillon bump it to 22. The Stars hope prospects Jamie Oleksiak and Brett Ritchie earn a promotion.
Boston is at 21 players, but add two more when RFAs Reilly Smith and Torey Krug sign. Subtract one when Marc Savard comes off the roster and on long-term IR, but prospects Ryan Spooner, Jared Knight and Alex Khokhlachev are close to making it.
New Jersey is also at 21 players, but that doesn’t include bluechip prospects Stefan Matteau, Reid Boucher and Damon Severson, all of whom are in the cusp of making it.
Carolina is at 21 players and has a bit of room for a free agent or two as prospect Brock McGinn looks to be the only one close to making the team.
Edmonton is at 21 players, but RFA Justin Schultz will soon make it 22 with top pick Leon Draisaitl a high hope to make the team as an 18-year-old.
Winnipeg is at 22 players and prospects Josh Morrissey and Scott Kosmachuk could be penciled into the opening night roster.
Philadelphia is at 22 players, which will be reduced to 21 when Chris Pronger returns to long-term IR. Prospect Scott Laughton is a good bet to be added to the roster.
The other 21 NHL teams are at the 23-man max if you include RFAs and incoming shoo-in rookies. So you see, not a lot of room on NHL rosters.
Every season there’s a turnover of more than 100 players in the NHL. Just like there were more than 100 rookies who used up their Calder eligibility last season, there will be 100-plus more in 2014-15. So it stands to reason the outflow has to match the inflow.
The saving grace for unsigned UFAs is there are always injuries and plenty of them through training camp and the pre-season. Some of the above names will receive 11th-hour contracts. But many others will officially become the other kind of UFA.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN