Behind the scenes of NHL free agency: how deals get done

Mike Brophy
Sabres GM Tim Murray & Penguins GM Jim Rutherford (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The opening of free agency July 1 isn’t what it used to be, mainly because most of the league’s star players get signed to lucrative long-term extensions and never make it to market. If you look at the numbers – almost 100 players signed as free agents last July 1 – you might think all 30 teams’ front offices are a beehive of activity, and for some of them that may indeed be the case.

But a number of GMs insist that while July 1 is a big day on the hockey calendar, it’s not as frantic as some might expect. “Everyone has different needs, and you have to decide if free agency is the way to go or if you are you better off to make a trade,” said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill. “We’re all locking up players, deciding what the core of the team is. The core is six to eight players, and we are locking them up to four-to-eight-year contracts.”

How active a team is when the free agency officially opens depends on a number of things. If a team thinks it can win the Stanley Cup, it may fine-tune its roster with a few moves. Or it could be a significant makeover, as Rangers GM Glen Sather did after a Cup final loss in 2014. New York led all teams with eight signings (seven from different organizations) July 1. Three others – the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, and New York Islanders – signed six. Read more

Short supply of righty D-men will mean big bucks for Mike Green, Cody Franson

Matt Larkin
Mike Green (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

A tidal wave of inevitability followed Matt Niskanen into free agency last summer. It seemed the entire hockey universe knew he played over his head in 2013-14, when he obliterated career highs with 10 goals and 46 points. Niskanen did so at 27 in his seventh NHL season. Everything about the performance screamed outlier.

Yet none of the red flags mattered. Niskanen was going to get paid, enough to price him right out of Pittsburgh. After all, he was a right-shot, unrestricted free agent defenseman, which is hockey’s equivalent of a left-handed starting pitcher. The low supply and high demand drive up the market value. Niskanen cashed in with a seven-year deal paying him $5.75 million per. Not bad for a guy who’d eclipsed seven goals and 35 points once before.

In order to quantify the NHL’s thirst for righty D-men, we compiled the cap hits of every NHL defenseman’s contract active through the end of 2014-15. We excluded entry level deals but not players who lost time to injury (unless they were on Long Term Injured Reserve at the time), as what mattered was how each player was valued the day he signed his deal. We counted 138 left-shot defensemen and 88 right-shot defensemen, for 226 altogether on active rosters. Righties make up just 38.9 percent of rearguards, hence the high demand. Read more

2015 Draft Preview – Heavily armed Winnipeg Jets can shift focus to contending

Matt Larkin
Nikolaj Ehlers (Photo by Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images).

The Winnipeg Jets farm system led our 2015 Future Watch Rankings and boasted six of the league’s top 75 prospects. Anything extra GM Kevin Cheveldayoff nabs at the draft is gravy. It also will provide him with trade bait should his team ascend to Cup contention next year.

PICKS:
Round 1, picks 17 and 25
Round 2, pick 47
Round 3, pick 78
Round 4, pick 108
Round 6, pick 168
Round 7, picks 198 and 203

SHORT-TERM NEEDS:
Winnipeg has potential franchise players on the way, but there’s no guarantee those players are ready to be elite. The Jets are competitive now and could use immediate help, especially among their top six forwards. A true first-line center and/or sniper would do wonders.

LONG-TERM NEEDS:
The Jets are set for young blueliners and have some dynamic scoring forwards in the pipeline. They have outstanding goalie prospects, too. But the divide between the Western Conference’s haves and have-nots correlates with which teams have big, strong pivots and which don’t. Winnipeg needs a monster center. Mark Scheifele took a nice leap this year, but, as good as he is, he’s not physical enough to make defensemen shake in their boots.

CAP SITUATION:
All the Jets’ core players have at least a year left on their deals. Scheifele and blueliner Jacob Trouba have another season before restricted free agency. So there’s space for a significant splash, though it would make things messy a year from now when Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd hit free agency. Cheveldayoff must work hard to keep UFA Michael Frolik. Frolik has been a revelation in a checking role.

IN THE SYSTEM 2015-16:
Nikolaj Ehlers lit up the QMJHL in 2014-15. He’s sure to make the NHL and challenge for the Calder Trophy this fall. Puck-moving defenseman Josh Morrissey isn’t far off, but the Jets are deep enough at ‘D’ that they don’t have to rush him. They’re solid with a top four of Byfuglien, Trouba, Toby Enstrom and Tyler Myers.

DID YOU KNOW:
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg’s top goaltending prospect, won the inaugural Mike Richter Award in 2014 as the top NCAA Div. I netminder, posting a 1.79 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.

THN will be releasing its Team Reports from Draft Preview for each of the 30 NHL franchises in the week leading up to the NHL Draft. Read them in our “Draft” channel.

2015 Draft Preview – The Washington Capitals make investments

Jakub Vrana (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Capitals pulled off a pretty neat trick the past few years: mining the second half of the first round for talent and consistently hitting on it. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson and Marcus Johansson all qualify, and picking in that range can be tricky. Add in no-brainer lottery pick Alex Ovechkin plus Nicklas Backstrom and you’ve got a pretty good homegrown core already. All told, Washington has drafted quite well.

PICKS:
Round 1, pick 22
Round 3, pick 62
Round 4, pick 113
Round 5, pick 143
Round 6, pick 173

SHORT-TERM NEEDS:
The Caps are solid in all areas right now, but a two-way center who can also score wouldn’t hurt – someone in a Ryan Kesler mode. With Jakub Vrana in the pipeline, skill is taken care of in spades. Read more

2015 Draft Preview – Vancouver Canucks making up for lost time

Jake Virtanen (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

There’s a 10-year chasm of futility in the Vancouver Canucks draft record that explains why the development system has been a world of hurt in recent seasons. Between the selections of Alexander Edler and Jannik Hansen in 2004 and the choice of Bo Horvat ninth overall in 2013, the Canucks don’t have a single draft pick playing for them. Sure, Cody Hodgson yielded Zack Kassian, and Frank Corrado is still a good prospect, but that’s nowhere near good enough.

PICKS:
Round 1, pick 23
Round 4, pick 114
Round 5, picks 144, 149
Round 6, pick 174

SHORT-TERM NEEDS:
Secondary scoring has always been an issue in Vancouver. Sooner or later, the Sedin twins will start lagging. The issue will become more acute if Shawn Matthias, tied for third on the team with 18 goals, moves elsewhere as a UFA. Read more

2015 Draft Preview – It’s blue sky for the Toronto Maple Leafs

William Nylander (Getty Images)

It was a great indictment of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ drafting and developing when Brendan Shanahan fired the man who ran the hockey department, GM Dave Nonis, plus several key scouts two months before a pivotal draft. The scouting dismissals were on the advice of director of player personnel Mark Hunter, who has essentially been given the keys to the kingdom when it comes to picking and cultivating prospects. Hunter comes with an excellent track record of talent identification from his days with the London Knights, and the Leafs hired him to help find NHL-caliber players.

PICKS:
Round 1, picks 4, 24
Round 3, pick 65
Round 4, picks 95, 107
Round 5, pick 125
Round 6, pick 155
Round 7, pick 185

SHORT-TERM NEEDS:
The Leafs have lacked a true No. 1 center since Mats Sundin. Tyler Bozak has good chemistry with Phil Kessel, but their defensive acumen is so lacking that Toronto’s top line, which also included James van Riemsdyk, made up three of the NHL’s bottom five in plus-minus. Read more

2015 Draft Preview – Tampa Bay Lightning apprentice is now the master

Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, the NHL’s reigning GM of the year, was weaned by the Detroit Red Wings as a player and an executive, so it’s no surprise he puts such a strong emphasis on drafting and developing players. And it should come as no surprise he and the Lightning have had such positive results. Yzerman and his hockey department have restocked the Bolts’ system with a bountiful crop of young players. In the 2011 draft alone, the Lightning picked six players, and four of them – Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov and Ondrej Palat – have turned out to be bona fide NHL players.

PICKS:
Round 1, pick 28
Round 2, pick 44
Round 3, pick 64
Round 4, picks 118, 120
Round 5, pick 150
Round 6, picks 153, 180
Round 7, pick 208

SHORT-TERM NEEDS:
Injuries tested Tampa’s depth on defense and, after trading Radko Gudas, the Lightning lack a physical and punishing force on the back end.

Read more

2015 Draft Preview – Is it too early for San Jose Sharks to turn back?

Nikolay Goldobin.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Years of frustration have come crumbling in on the Sharks. Despite a top-four group of forwards that’s as good as any other team in the league, the Sharks fell apart in the second half and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003. It’s only the second time in the 17-year career of homegrown talent Patrick Marleau that he’s gone home in early April without playing any post-season games.

PICKS:
Round 1, pick 9
Round 2, pick 39
Round 4, pick 106
Round 5, picks 130, 142
Round 6, pick 160
Round 7, picks 190, 210

SHORT-TERM NEEDS:
San Jose needs a top-flight goalie in the worst way. Antti Niemi has had some good seasons and some very good seasons in his five years with the Sharks, but he never rose to the occasion in the playoffs, and the team is sure to let the 31-year-old Finn walk as a UFA. The Sharks also need depth among the D-corps.

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