One Canada Day tradition will be missing this year.
Changes in the National Hockey League’s collective bargaining agreement and the lockout-shortened season have combined to push the date for free-agency signings back to July 5.
Under the new rules, teams will be permitted to talk to players and their agents as early as July 1, but no contracts can be signed until July 5. The change means fans north of the border won’t have to share the holiday with Darren Dreger, Bob McKenzie, Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean, and there will be a similar respite for U.S. hockey fans on the Fourth of July.
Of course, free agency could prove to be anticlimactic this summer.
The list of potential unrestricted free agents includes former MVPs Jaromir Jagr and José Theodore; former league scoring leader Jarome Iginla and former rookie-of-the-year winners Teemu Selanne, Daniel Alfredsson and Scott Gomez. But when it comes to being regarded as franchise players, they are all past their best-by date.
The list of available forwards includes proven talents like Washington’s Mike Ribeiro, who finished 12th in the NHL scoring race this season, and the Canadiens’ Michael Ryder, who has topped 30 goals on three occasions. Both players have indicated a preference for staying put, but they can count on more money and longer terms on the open market.
Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell each recorded nine goals and 14 assists for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, but Bickell will draw more attention because he has been lighting it up in the playoffs.
Dustin Penner has two Stanley Cup rings and was a hot commodity in 2007 when Edmonton signed him to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent. But Penner has scored only nine goals in 98 games over the past two seasons.
The pickings are particularly slim for teams that need help on defence. One player who would have been in demand is former Canadien Mark Streit, but the Philadelphia Flyers made a pre-emptive strike when they obtained his rights from the New York Islanders and signed him to a four-year, $21-million deal. That was a surprise because the Flyers were already more than $2 million over the salary cap and Streit will be 39 at the end of the deal.
Edmonton’s Ryan Whitney offers a stay-at-home type with some size, but he had a $4-million cap hit and a history of injuries.
Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom might be the best bet for a team looking for a No. 1 goaltender, but he won’t come cheap. He earned $6 million this season.
Teams on a budget might consider retread Ray Emery, who had the fourth-best goals-against average in the league while playing behind Corey Crawford in Chicago, or Mike Smith, who can’t get the deal he wants in Phoenix. Smith shared the NHL lead in shutouts with five.
There could be some added talent to the pool after the NHL buyout period, which begins 48 hours after the end of the Stanley Cup final. The Canadiens’ Tomas Kaberle is among the players in line for a golden handshake.
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