Montreal Canadiens' Thomas Vanek (20) of Austria, and teammate Francis Bouillon, left, celebrate a goal by David Desharnais during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
Photograph by: Duane Burleson, Ottawa Citizen
When free agency opened last July 5, NHL teams wasted little time in spending $412 million on new contracts.
Yes, $412 million. In one day. So, before we look at where Thomas Vanek, Paul Stastny, Matt Niskanen, Ryan Miller and the rest of the 2014 NHL free agent class will end up come Canada Day, here are a few fun ideas about what $400 million can get you these days.
That’s enough cash to buy the Republic of Palau in the Pacific Ocean, along with a few other islands. You could grab a fleet of 20 new 12-seat Bombardier Challenger jets or build your own 100-kilometre stretch of four-lane highway.
Of course, there are also 400 million ways to potentially save the world, as well. But can that kind of money save NHL franchises? The recent history says no.
For those with short memories, the early returns on last summer’s big investments hasn’t been so good. David Clarkson scored five goals and 11 points in 60 games after signing his seven-year, $36.75 million contract with Toronto and the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs yet again. Nathan Horton had only four goals and 18 points in his 35-game, injury-shortened season after pocketing his seven year, $37.1 million deal with Columbus. Ryan Clowe? Seven goals. Stephen Weiss? Two goals each.
There were some success stories from last summer — Jaromir Jagr led New Jersey in scoring after signing a one-year, $5.5 million deal and Clarke MacArthur established himself as a fan favourite in Ottawa after being given a two-year, $6.5 million contract – but there should be some alarm bells ringing, particularly for teams considering offering players lucrative long-term deals.
Year after year, teams acknowledge their multi-million mistakes by buying out players who didn’t come close to living up to their potential. On Friday, the New York Rangers gave up on Brad Richards. Three years ago, the Rangers won (or did they lose?) the bidding war for Richards, signing him to a nine-year, $60 million deal. Only three years later, they’re giving him more than $20 million to skate away.
This time around, the unrestricted free agent group is a tad short on star power, but with the salary cap expected to rise to somewhere in the $70-71 million range from the 2013-14 ceiling of $64.3 million, the marquee free agents and their agents recognize there could be a bidding war for their services. Starting next Wednesday, teams can begin the sales pitch for pending unrestricted free agents. In a new rule this year, are also allowed to talk openly about the type of contracts they’re willing to offer. In previous years, only vague conversations about a possible contract were permitted.
So, on to the list of high profile forwards. When the regular season ended, it appeared a slam dunk that Vanek would end up with Minnesota. Vanek, who played university hockey in Minnesota, has long been a Wild target, but there’s no question that his uninspired playoff performance with Montreal will cause the Wild — and others — to reconsider.
In contrast, Marian Gaborik’s stock has risen as Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup. It’s possible that Gaborik, who scored 14 goals and 22 points in the 26 playoff games, could stay in a Kings uniform. After the Stanley Cup parade and celebrations were completed this week, the Kings began negotiations with Gaborik’s agent. Ryan Callahan, who went to Tampa from the New York Rangers in the Martin St. Louis trade, would be a bonus to any team, but considering that his lofty contract demands prompted his trade away from the Big Apple (he reportedly asked for a six-year, $39 million deal) he will be an expensive, long-term signing.
The other major factor which will play a significant role in where players sign will be the outcome of trades at or before the NHL entry draft.
“I can’t remember when there have been so many big names in the marketplace,” new Canucks general manager Jim Benning said earlier this week. “There are more options.” Eyes will be trained on Vancouver, now that Ryan Kesler’s future there is all but over. Depending on the return for Kesler, Benning could have more salary cap room to make a big free agent signing. Meanwhile, Senators general manager Bryan Murray is sorting through contract offers for Jason Spezza (hello, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks) and rumblings about Joe Thornton being dealt away from San Jose won’t go away (Keep in mind that Thornton owns a no movement clause). After being bought out by the Rangers, Richards also enters the UFA market.
With those four centres in play, it puts a twist on where the unrestricted free agents end up. Should St. Louis trade for Spezza, there will be no need for the Blues to chase Colorado centre Paul Stastny. Stastny could eventually land in Toronto, but only if the Maple Leafs opt not to sign existing centre Dave Bolland to a long-term, Clarkson-type contract. Just the same, Stastny’s timing is impeccable. While Colorado says it wants to keep Stastny, the Avalanche organization talked this week about the need to maintain “structure” in its contract situation and the team is also in the midst of a difficult negotiation to re-sign restricted free agent Ryan O’Reilly. Stastny has leverage. With so few star free agent centres available (the class also includes Winnipeg’s Olli Jokinen, Mikhail Grabovski of Washington and Derek Roy of St. Louis), he will become the centre of attention if and when Thornton, Kesler and Spezza are traded.
Ryan Callahan, who went to Tampa from the Rangers in the Martin St. Louis trade, would be a bonus to any team, but considering that his lofty contract demands prompted his trade away from the Big Apple (he reportedly asked for a six-year, $39 million deal) he will be an expensive, long-term signing.
The defence class is headed by several veterans, including former Canadian Olympian Dan Boyle. The New York Islanders, however, acquired Boyle’s rights from San Jose last week, hoping to sign him to an extension before the official start of free agency. Boyle still has the ability to run a power play and there’s speculation Toronto could now acquire Boyle from the Islanders in advance of free agency, hoping to sell him on the city.
Whether he signs in New York, Toronto or elsewhere, Boyle will be looking at a contract for at least two seasons. Meanwhile, a pair of Pittsburgh products – the offensive-minded Matt Niskanen and the defensive-oriented Brooks Orpik – also figure to find new homes on Canada Day.
The free agent goaltending situation could also be effected by trades next week. If, for instance, the San Jose Sharks trade goaltender Antii Niemi, it could open the door for Ryan Miller to move to California. Miller represents the biggest catch among netminders, but by failing to lead St. Louis out of the first round of the playoffs, he may have lost some of his potential value on the open market.
Future Hall of Fame netminder Martin Brodeur could also be on the move. It was once thought that Brodeur was a New Jersey Devil lifer. Then again, people in Ottawa thought that about Daniel Alfredsson before last summer, too. Tim Thomas, Ray Emery and Darcy Kuemper are also available. So, too, are the J(h)onas Brothers: Jonas Hiller, Jonas Gustavsson and Jhonas Enroth.
Add it all up and there is plenty of choice at every position. Yet considering the history of free agency, all the names should carry a buyer beware tag.
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