With shallow free agent pool, NHL GMs anticipate summer of trading

Last summer, the Florida Panthers basically flipped their house during the 2011 Free Agent Frenzy.

Along with trades for Brian Campbell and Kris Versteeg, GM Dale Tallon signed no less than seven players that contributed to the team's Southeast Division title last season. Even if it was an anomaly, Tallon's recruitment and ownership's investment showed that unrestricted free agency could help reverse the fortunes of a struggling franchise.

But anyone that expects the same kind of impact from the 2012 Free-Agent Frenzy on July 1 should slow their roll — outside of Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils, Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators, Alex Semin of the Washington Capitals a few others, the rest of the pool this summer is so shallow you can see concrete peeking through.

"It's going to allow a couple of teams to improve. But it's not a deep group," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke.

"What's happened is that in this system, everyone imagined that liberalized free agency would allow teams to improve more quickly. In response, teams have started to lock guys up. So it's not a deep group."

It's a new reality for NHL GMs that look to summer free agency to address their needs — that the UFAs that may have tested the market in the past are now opting to re-up with their teams before July. The Carolina Hurricanes inked Tuomo Ruutu and Tim Gleason. Josh Harding stayed with the Minnesota Wild. Barret Jackman re-signed with the St. Louis Blues. Andy Sutton remained an Oiler. Frans Nielsen is still a New York Islander. Colin Fraser and Jarret Stoll opted to remain Los Angeles Kings. Dozens more signed before free agency during the season.

Look at The Fourth Period's Top 30 free agents. Many of these players will break the bank on July 1, if only because the field is so limited. Others will find it difficult to locate a team willing to ante up for their services.

Why? Because most NHL GMs agree that as the Free Agent Frenzy fizzles this offseason, this could be The Summer of Trades instead.

The clouds over all of this are the CBA negotiations, which offer uncertainty ranging from the start of the season to the salary structure of the NHL going forward. Which is why so many teams were locking up their assets well before they reached free agency, rather than dipping into a thin field of available players.

"I think we might see more trade, more deals," said GM Don Maloney on NHL Live. "There are so many players signed right now."

Via James Mirtle of the Globe & Mail, the free agent picture for Summer 2012:

Not including the players who didn't receive qualifying offers on Monday (as the names haven't all been released), there are 145 players who played 20 or more games last season that are scheduled to become UFAs on Sunday at noon.

The positional breakdown of that group, via capgeek.com: nine of those are goaltenders, 49 are defencemen, 29 centres and another 58 as wingers. Those UFAs make up 19.9 per cent of the league that played 20 games last season, a number that could grow slightly as more names join the list after not receiving qualifying offers. (It could also shrink if players sign to stay with their current teams.)

As usual, the UFA route has its pitfalls for NHL general managers. These are veteran players seeking stability, which means term on top of money. For example, Tallon wanted to bring Ed Jovanovski back to Florida at age 35; it cost him a four-year contract worth $16.5 million for a player on the decline.

"The problem with July 1 is that when you end up signing those role depth players, it's usually 3, 4, 5 year deals. It's not money usually, it's the term you have to put out there to attract the player," said Maloney.

Since those are the stakes, and since the 2012 free agent pool is so thin, NHL GMs believe the next two months will be filled with more trade activity than we've seen in a typical offseason.

"Trade discussions are a priority right now," said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson on NHL Live.

"We're loaded in the two areas where there's a lack of supply out there: center and defense. I think that's spurred a lot of teams calling us."

Said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher: "If there's an opportunity to make a team better, it's hard to wait. ... There's a lot of unknown factors in free agency, so it's hard to cure all your ills there. The sense I got is, there may be a lot of (trades) later in the summer."

To put it in context, there were 18 trades between the 2011 NHL Draft and July 9, 2011. Among the players who moved were Dany Heatley, Ryan Smyth, the rights to Christian Ehrhoff (twice), Semyon Varlamov and Versteeg.

After July 9? There were six trades made through Sept. 1, with Brian Rolston and Daymond Langkow among the names on the move.

In 2010, there were 11 trades made after July 9 and through Sept. 1, of varying degrees of importance. (Who can forget the Great T.J. Fast for Graham Mink trade of Aug. 3, 2010? Besides T.J. Fast and Graham Mink, that is?)

That lack of late summer trade activity in the past might not carry over to this year. Many of the GMs we spoke with expect two trade markets: One during the Free Agent Frenzy, and another later in July and early August.

"I think it's going to more widespread," said Mike Gillis, GM of the Vancouver Canucks.

"With such a thin free agent market, there's going to be a lot of teams that didn't get what they wanted in free agency. You're going to have needs that you have to fill. I think there'll be a lot of discussion toward the end of the summer in trying to find fits where you can round out your roster and balance it out."

Player agents are anticipating the same thing, while hoping that their clients cash in on July 1.

"I wouldn't be surprised," said agent Allan Walsh. "I think there are tremendous needs for teams to improve at every position, and there isn't the supply of UFAs out there to meet the needs. So the next move is the trade market."