While we'll never live to see the day when an NHL free agent gets to book his own infomercial on ESPN to announce his intentions, hockey fans do have our quaint (by comparison) Free-Agent Frenzy each summer to pass the time.
The 2010 Frenzy didn't lack for drama and intrigue, and we wanted to go behind the scenes to find out more about it.
We spoke with four agents in the last week, with clients of varying degrees of prestige, that were involved in this year's Free Agent Frenzy in some capacity. Each agreed to offer anonymous observations about what they experienced, in order to increase the candor of their comments. (It also means they can freely over-praise friends or grind axes, so take that into consideration as well.)
By no means is this meant to be a complete picture of every player or agent's experience during free agency in 2010; rather, it's a snapshot of some of the trends, signings and personalities that have dominated the headlines since July 1.
Too Many Elite Teams on the Sidelines
When it came to unrestricted free-agent defensemen, there were seven teams aggressively bidding on five players: Sergei Gonchar(notes), Paul Martin(notes), Dan Hamhuis(notes), Zbynek Michalek(notes) and Anton Volchenkov(notes). The salaries they ended up receiving weren't outlandish because there simply weren't enough bidders to jack up the offers.
"The money was pretty much the same everywhere. Guys were just deciding on where they wanted to play the most," said one agent.
"There wasn't the same frenzy out there that we had in previous years," said another.
The Boston Bruins weren't active in the Frenzy. The Chicago Blackhawks couldn't be active, except as a trading partner or in bidding farewell to their own free agents. The New York Rangers were active, but not for the bigger name players on the market.
Then there were the Toronto Maple Leafs, who signed Colby Armstrong(notes) for 3 years and $9 million but weren't engaged otherwise on July 1 according to multiple agents. "Not only were the Leafs not aggressive, but their offices were closed and their GM and assistant GM were not taking calls for part of the day," said an agent.
Another agent said Burke is a general manager "on a high horse," believing that the franchise can sell itself. But that agent said Burke's approach is understandable given the market: "Toronto should be a great place to play. It has everything but the winning."
Lamoriello's Hail Mary
Three of the agents weren't surprised to see Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils stay aggressive on Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) even after signing Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder(notes) on July 1. The window for the Devils to win with Marty Brodeur is closing quickly, and one agent felt Lamoriello was living in the moment rather than with consideration for the franchise's next decade.
"He's thinking that this is going to be someone else's problem in a few years and 'I don't give a [expletive].' I think he sees a two-year window to win," said one agent.
No Dumping Zone
Some of the agents were surprised that teams were unable to shed salary during the Frenzy via trades; they expected there would be "more moving of liabilities" to free up space for free agents and to take advantage of the marketplace.
In reality, teams were calling around and attempting to offload problem contracts, but there were few takers. Other teams want to wait until their own RFAs and arbitration cases are settled before jettisoning salary through trades.
The salary floor plays into this, too. Normally, acquiring a big contract from another team can help a franchise that's staring up at the floor. But during the Frenzy, those floor teams were overbidding on some lower-tier free agents as a way of "overcompensation," as one agent put it.
"Since the floor teams have to get to the floor, the teams in the middle are being forced to overpay for players other teams don't want. There's too much demand for lower-tier players," he said.
Another agent said that teams like Phoenix, Nashville,
Florida and Tampa "went into July 1 with the plan to wait until July 10 to see
who's left," despite some of them making significant signings (Matthew Lombardi(notes)
to the Preds; Ray Whitney(notes) to the Coyotes).
Garth Snow Is Actually Quite Good at His Job
We asked the agents: Which general manager gets a bum rap from fans and the media but is actually quite good at what he does?
Two answered immediately and emphatically: New York Islanders GM Garth Snow.
"The most underrated GM in the business," said one agent. "He knows every nuance of the CBA. He has confidence in his five-year plan and is methodically implementing it."
Another agent said that Snow is a straight-shooter with a "player's mentality" rather than a Harvard education; and that as the GM for a team struggling to attract significant free agents, Snow is a hustler. "He gets a player's ear by being aggressive," said the agent.
Other shining star GMs mentioned by our agents: Bob Murray
of the Anaheim Ducks and newbie Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who
was calling agents within a day of his announcement as new Bolts GM to find out
more about Lightning players that weren't even on the NHL roster yet.
The Hollywood Allergy
Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times hit on the problem for the Los Angeles Kings in free agency, both in their pursuit of Kovalchuk and top-flight defensemen like Paul Martin:
It's a chicken-and-egg dilemma for the Kings. They can't attract elite free agents until they become a Cup contender, but they can't become a contender until they lure players they haven't developed -- a productive winger, second-line center and fleet defenseman.
They will try to fill holes with prospects such as centers Brayden Schenn(notes) and Andrei Loktionov(notes) and defensemen Thomas Hickey(notes), Viacheslav Voynov and Jake Muzzin. That's a lot to ask.
Because the Kings can't pick up and move to the East, they have no choice but to hope they have drafted and developed players well enough to become a choice destination before their talented kids become frustrated by early playoff exits and flee, and the rebuilding process has to start all over again.
Two of the agents were on opposite sides of this issue. One said the Kings are clearly a team that's nearing championship contention but was "just not quite there yet." He also said that travel schedule concerns for veteran players do come into play in the open market for teams like Los Angeles.
Another agent didn't believe that the Kings have trouble attracting top free-agent talent, and that this summer was an anomaly: "I don't agree with that. They set their sights on one guy, they made a hell of an offer to get him, but the player wanted $10 million a year or bust.
"I think LA is poised to be the next Chicago."
Marty Biron Set The
Last summer, Biron misjudged the goalie market and saw his opportunities disappear as players like Dwayne Roloson(notes) and Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) were aggressive in finding new homes. He ended up taking a one-year deal with the New York Islanders behind Roloson.
This summer, Biron was one of the first players to sign, with the New York Rangers: 2 years at a miniscule $1.75 million. According to one agent, his signing affected every B-level goalie's price tag during the Frenzy: "He undercut almost all of them by coming in at the number he did."
True enough, there was only one goalie that signed for at least $2 million against the cap this summer thus far: Antero Niittymaki(notes) with the San Jose Sharks. Meanwhile, Evgeni Nabokov(notes) and Marty Turco(notes) remained unemployed.
There were about 10 goalies for six spots, according to
another agent. So it was a buyer's market.
Biron Aside, The Rangers Are Clueless
They agreed that 4 years and $6.5 million for a player with both a history of concussions and a decline in fighting totals was a confusing move. They also felt that the Rangers, more than any other team, were a franchise without a plan during this summer's Frenzy.
"Keep Glen Sather away from the switch," said one agent.