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NHL's new-age free agency: More teams in mix, more money to spend, fewer stars available

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Center Paul Stastny is heading to his hometown of St. Louis after signing a four-year, $28 million contract with the Blues. (AP)

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Center Paul Stastny is heading to his hometown of St. Louis after signing a four-year, $28 million contract with the Blues. (AP)

Free agency ain’t what it used to be. There was a time when it was known for big teams and big dollars and big names – like that summer when the Detroit Red Wings traded for Dominik Hasek, signed Luc Robitaille and later signed Brett Hull, too, bloating their payroll to around $65 million.

That was 13 years ago.

Today there is a new system and another dynamic. Teams tend to lock up their best players, so stars rarely make it to the open market. No one can spend more than $69 million because of the salary cap, but everyone must spend at least $51 million because of the salary floor. A few teams are strapped because the cap figure came in a little lower than expected for 2014-15, but many have millions to throw at a few free agents when the market opens at noon Tuesday.

The NHL is more competitive than ever before. Free agency is more competitive than ever before. On a league-wide financial level, the owners are protected because they can’t spend more than 50 percent of revenues. If they overspend, they get back money held out of the players’ checks in escrow. But within the planned economy, more teams are involved in the bidding wars. The free agents have more options.

“Free agency used to be about eight or 10 teams,” said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. “Everybody’s in the free agent market now because of the ceiling and the floor. It’s really important to draft. It’s really important to develop. Are we going to explore the markets? Yeah. Can I stand up here and tell you we’re going to be the team standing at the end with one of those defensemen that are available? No. I can’t make those guarantees because I’ve been through the process.”

There were only two bona fide stars on the market two years ago: winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. The Wings especially wanted Suter. They flew to his farm in Madison, Wis. They made their pitch. Both Parise and Suter signed with the Minnesota Wild. Parise was from the area. So was Suter’s wife.

“You can be right there with money, or you can be the highest bidder,” Holland said. “But at the end of the day, there’s other factors that go into players’ decisions.”

Once again there aren’t many marquee names available: Paul Stastny, Thomas Vanek and Jarome Iginla up front; Matt Niskanen, Christian Ehrhoff and Dan Boyle on the back end; and Jonas Hiller, Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur in goal. Virtually anytime you hear about a free agent – marquee name or no-name – you hear “several teams” have expressed interest.

Stastny is considered a second-line center on a good team, but his list of suitors was so long Monday that his agent was working to pare it down to a manageable length. If he leaves the Colorado Avalanche, he almost certainly will receive a massive seven-year deal from someone like the St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers or the Dallas Stars. Whoever doesn’t sign him might ante up for Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza in a trade. After that, the options at center include Brad Richards, the slowing leader bought out by the Rangers, and Mike Ribeiro, the guy the Arizona Coyotes bought out because of bad behavior.

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Thomas Vanek might have to decide between a short-term deal in Minnesota or a longer offer elsewhere. (Getty)

Thomas Vanek might have to decide between a short-term deal in Minnesota or a longer offer elsewhere. (Getty)

Vanek was traded twice last season and had a disappointing playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens. Still, he’s so sought-after because of his scoring touch that he will have to decide between a shorter-term deal in Minnesota – where he played in college and lives now – or a long-term deal elsewhere. It will be lucrative either way. Iginla would look great in the right spot on a short-term deal as he turns 37. The other options on the wing include Mike Cammalleri, Ales Hemsky and Matt Moulson.

Niskanen, who raised his stock with a strong season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, was clearly the most attractive defenseman available until the Buffalo Sabres bought out Ehrhoff on Sunday. But puck-movers are at such a premium that neither will have trouble landing a pricey long-term deal. Boyle will have no trouble landing a pricey short-term deal as he turns 38. Anton Stralman seems like an under-the-radar acquisition, but he’s on-the-radar in this market and ought to do well.

The Vancouver Canucks need a starting goaltender and are expected to sign Hiller or Miller. The question is what happens to the guy they don’t sign because this is the one position that has few jobs available. And where does Brodeur go? He’s 42 and isn’t the same goaltender who won an NHL-record 688 games for the New Jersey Devils. Though he wants to play, he’ll have to settle for a backup role elsewhere.

“There’s not a lot of quality, and the dollars are a little shorter [because the cap came in at $69 million],” said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. “So it’s going to be interesting to see. It may play out like a lot of years, where some of the big guys get their money, and then it very quickly starts to shift from a buyer’s market from the players’ standpoint to more of a seller’s market.”

In a sense, there are no excuses. Even though the light supply and heavy demand seem dangerous for teams, GMs do control their payrolls. Just because other GMs make bad decisions doesn’t mean you have to make bad decisions, too.

“I’ll go back to my old cliche: Evaluate properly, it’s never dangerous,” said Sabres GM Tim Murray. “If you fall in love with the flavor of the week, it could be very dangerous. But do your homework, evaluate players properly, go after the right players. Doesn’t mean it’s the top guy on somebody else’s list. It’s who you feel is the right guy. I don’t know why it would be dangerous. …

“We place a value on each player. Do you have to overpay sometimes? Sure. But does the agent force you to go crazy? They don’t do that. That’s your choice.”

In other words, if you’re going to go crazy, be smart about it.

But in another sense, that’s easy to say. Murray is a new GM starting a rebuild with ultra-low short-term expectations. And he will have to spend money on someone to reach the minimum of $51 million – maybe veterans on short-term deals at inflated salaries or his own restricted free agents. That affects other GMs because agents use those deals as comparables.

“The teams that are so low in the salary cap, they have to pay a lot of money to get these guys just to reach the floor,” said New York Rangers GM Glen Sather. “They may not be worth it, so it blows up everything. That distorts the market.”

What if you’re the GM of a team that is supposed to be close to the Stanley Cup? What if you’re the GM of a team trying to become a contender? What if you’re the GM of a team that hasn’t made the playoffs and needs to turn things around? Parity means anyone can win; it also means everyone is expected to win. There are lots of teams competing for the same players for different reasons. You know where this is headed.

“I hear all kinds of numbers being batted around by guys that have offered contracts to guys for huge dollars,” Sather said. “Now, I don’t know whether that’s true, but that’s what I’ve heard on the street.”

That’s what we’re going to see Tuesday.


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