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The thing with free agency is that, pretty much every year, it's a feeding frenzy. And the problem with that is that it's usually not warranted.
A perfect case in point in all this occurred Thursday, when Mikhail Grabovski was put on waivers by the Maple Leafs for the purposes of a buyout, and in doing so became one of the top free agents on the market. This isn't necessarily a knock on Grabovski himself, as he's a fine player who drives possession in a way that Tyler Bozak (the guy they bought him out to pay) very much is not and could be a second-line center or better on just about any team in the league. But when a Leafs castoff, for any reason, is skyrocketing up the free agent class, you know it's a shallow one.
That's not something anyone is really trying to hide this year, either. "Weak" is a word thrown around a lot in the past few days and that's pretty accurate. Nonetheless, though, it's very probable that teams will be happy to pay guys way too much money, like they always do. This time around, the people who actually give out the money and years will probably do it more for mediocre players than they should.
The reasons for this are three-fold. First, the idea of getting The Big Free Agent on the market always serves as some sort of enticement, and is indeed a great way to grab headlines in the summer, and possibly make yourself look like a destination market. For this reason, there will be a clamor for the Nathan Hortons and Valtteri Filppulas of the world even if they don't necessarily warrant being paid in excess of $5 million for the next several years.
There will, for example, likely be a line around the block for Mike Ribeiro, all teams tripping over each other to give him lots of money for a long time, simply because he loaded up on power play points with Alex Ovechkin, and despite the fact that he's on the wrong side of 30 and the team that just saw him for 48 games (and gave up assets to get him) doesn't feel like he's a fit even despite all the production over which other teams will be salivating.
Second, the market in general is likely still going to be feeling the effects of the lockout-shortened season in two ways. In some instances, teams will probably be more willing to forgive guys who had tough years because of the relatively small sample size. The talk out of Toronto, for example, is that Dave Nonis acquired Dave Bolland because he thought he could bounce back from the tough, shortened campaign of 2013. Someone, therefore, is likely to do this with David Clarkson, who only put up 24 points this past season (9-6-15 of which came in the first 12 games). Someone is going to back a dumptruck full of money up to his house hoping that they'll get the 30-goal-scoring Clarkson of 2011-12, instead of the one whose career high before that was 17.
Then, by the opposite token, teams seem more willing to write off guys for mediocre seasons at the same time. The Leafs are allowing Clarke MacArthur and Grabovski to hit the market, the Sabres are doing the same with Nathan Gerbe. Not that it makes a whole lot of sense, but it only serves to chum the waters in the market in general. The problem there is that a lot of teams have a lot of needs, and all these buyouts (or in the Bruins' case, trades to clear cap space) are being made not because deals are necessarily unpalatable in some cases, but rather because they want to go shopping. It doesn't make a lot of sense to undervalue some of these guys otherwise, especially given how little is actually on the market to begin with.
The third thing, and this is the big one, is that teams are willing to handicap themselves in the short term, when the cap is $64.3 million, because they correctly assume the ceiling will explode within the next two or three years. The Canadian television contract comes up for negotiation next summer, and TSN and the CBC have to already be sharpening their implements of war to come out on top in that battle. In addition, the league will have so many outdoor games next season that the league will have to build a Scrooge McDuck vault to keep it in. It has been reported in a number of places that teams think the cap will be in excess of $80 million within the next three seasons, so they don't seem to mind so much that $6 million for Stephen Weiss, or whomever, is mindless overpayment for the sake of doing it. It's like if you keep throwing your garbage out the window into your front yard, and then one day you move it all to the back yard instead. It's still garbage and you still own it, but it's not quite so bad or visible.
This may be especially true for teams looking for free agent help on their blue lines. There are a lot of decent enough forwards available for any number of roles, but effective defensive help is minimal. Someone, as a consequence, is going to give Rob Scuderi an absurd amount of money, and the same goes for Michal Rozsival and Andrew Ference and maybe even Tom Gilbert, though obviously to varying degrees. The dearth of quality will lead those looking for that kind of help, will be in greater competition for those guys. And because of the previous points, they'll be further emboldened to spend.
That kind of thing is also a problem because it is, in the same way as offer sheets, necessarily inflationary to the rest of the UFA market. If David Clarkson, for example, gets $5.5 million a season for five years from somebody under this cap, what is it going to cost when Thomas Vanek or Phil Kessel theoretically hit the market next summer. Things are going to get out of hand in a hurry.
The best players available in this already-bizarre summer all come with obvious issues. There are no shining beacons here, and yet people will flock to them nonetheless. You so rarely see massive, franchise-altering free agent moves even when big-time players are involved. You certainly don't see them with players of this caliber.
It's always a seller's market at this time of year, but when Danny Briere — who will be 36 in October, and is coming off a few years in which he was awful at even strength despite somewhat weak competition — is getting multiple seasons at $4 million per under a $64.3 million cap, you know that reason isn't exactly going to rule the day.
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