Iain MacIntyre: NHL teams jump off ‘fiscal cliff’ to drain wallets as Canucks show strategic restraint
After lengthy lockout to ‘fix’ hockey, Day 1 of free agency becomes $350-million spending spree
Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis talks to reporters outside Rogers Arena about Friday’s big free agency moves around the National Hockey League.
Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, Vancouver Sun
VANCOUVER — Each man would be appalled at the association, but seven hours and $350-million US into National Hockey League free agency on Friday, we discovered that Mike Gillis and Brian Burke have something in common.
It was 12 years ago that Burke, then general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, famously stood before reporters and said how embarrassed he was to work in the NHL when so many GMs were “nuts, absolutely out of their minds” when it came to free-agent spending.
On Friday, Gillis merely wanted to say it. You could tell.
This is the league that locked out players for four months, then tried to justify it by telling fans the hockey business needed fixing and that this would be achieved if owners got a bigger share of revenue by lowering the salary cap.
Then on the fifth day of the seventh month — lucky seven to anyone with a pair of skates and an agent with a working telephone — these fiscally-responsible and wary owners allowed their top employees to gorge on free agents.
General managers stuffed themselves in a feeding frenzy unseen in league history, pouring more than $350 million into free agents’ bank accounts by Friday afternoon. Including the $128 million paid to players this week to buy them out of contracts, a procedure intended to allow these cornered GMs to duck under the plunging salary cap, the player tab is nearly a half-billion dollars. And it far exceeds that when all the money committed players signed or re-signed by teams before the opening bell Friday is counted.
Within two hours, spending had already surpassed last year’s opening-day record of $201 million. Imagine if the salary cap wasn’t plummeting, dropping to $64.3 million next year from $70.2 million. Imagine if these free agents were not universally regarded as the mangiest crop in years.
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David Clarkson, a 29-year-old who has 170 points in 426 NHL games, got a seven-year contract worth $36.75 million from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ryane Clowe cashed in on his three-goal season with a five-year, $24.25-million deal from the New Jersey Devils.
The Tampa Bay Lightning agreed to pay Valtteri Filppula, who once in six seasons has surpassed 40 points, $25 million over five years. Chronic under-achiever Stephen Weiss got the same from the Detroit Red Wings.
“Uh, you know, I don’t know how to describe it actually,” Gillis began when asked about the gush of money from teams to players.
Expert commentators described nearly every signing as good, great or fabulous for the team. History will prove otherwise on many of the transactions. Certainly, they were fabulous for the players.
Told how Burke once described his colleagues’ spending, Gillis smiled, fidgeted slightly and said: “I’m not embarrassed being part of the NHL but I am surprised. I’m surprised about the (length) of a lot of the contracts that came down. But you know what? That’s those teams and their operation. They do things for the reasons they think are right. We weren’t part of it this year, but we have been in the past.”
The Canucks signed only gritty, versatile forward Brad Richardson (two years at $1.15 million) and depth defenceman Yannick Weber (one year, $650,000). But Gillis shouldn’t be lauded for his restraint.
Apart from making big-ticket purchases during past free-agency openings, the Canucks have already committed so much money to keep the players they have, there was little left to spend on Friday. What they did commit, they did so strategically.
Richardson, 28, a speedy and antagonizing player from the Los Angeles Kings, adds some of the “bite” that new coach John Tortorella desires and could fill a hole as the Canucks’ third-line centre.
But with just 16 points in 99 regular-season and playoff games the last two seasons, Richardson must prove he has the offensive skills to play in the top nine.
He’ll be pushed at training camp by Canucks prospects Jordan Schroeder, Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce.
“I don’t even think I’ve come close to reaching my potential offensively,” Richardson, who is from Belleville, Ont., said. “I haven’t been given a ton of opportunity that way. Vancouver wouldn’t have brought me in if they didn’t think there was more there. That’s been the frustrating thing — it was nice to play in L.A. on a great team, but I knew I had more to give.”
The 24-year-old Weber, who spent parts of the last four seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, has a good right-handed shot and replaces some of the blue-line depth the Canucks lost by buying out Keith Ballard and not re-signing Andrew Alberts.
The Canucks chose to pursue Weber over Jonathon Blum, the former Nashville Predator and Vancouver Giants’ junior star who had expressed a desire to return to the city.
The Canucks were outbid by the Edmonton Oilers on Phoenix Coyotes centre Boyd Gordon (three years, $9 million) and were sticker-shocked by rugged Dallas Stars winger Eric Nystrom, who went to the Predators (four years, $10 million).
Centre Max Lapierre became an ex-Canuck, signing with St. Louis. Vancouver added a pair of minor-league defencemen, Alex Biega and Jeremie Blain.
The transactions left the Canucks with about $5.7 million of salary cap space, but still needing another five players to fill out their NHL roster. Two of those players, still to be re-signed as restricted free agents, will be defenceman Chris Tanev and fourth-line winger Dale Weise.
The other spots may remain open for training-camp competition.
This assumes Roberto Luongo, defaulted to starter status by Sunday’s trade of Cory Schneider in a cliffhanger ending to the Canucks’ goaltending melodrama, decides eventually to return to Vancouver to resume collecting the $40 million the team owes him.
He has little choice, really, but it’s interesting that the 34-year-old now has Gillis flapping in the breeze just as Luongo was buffeted by uncertainty for 14 months.
“I’m going to go down (to Florida) and meet Roberto as soon as we settle down here,” Gillis reiterated. “Right after things happen, in the heat of the moment, people say things and do things. Roberto’s our goalie. He’s under contract here. I’m going to go down and go through all the events with him and make sure we have a clear understanding.
“I want to make sure that I’m absolutely clear to him and explain everything that occurred. I have the utmost respect for this guy. He’s an absolutely fantastic person.”
Fantastically well-paid, too. After all, he plays hockey.
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