It's not a stretch to say that Tuesday was the nadir of the NHL offseason thus far: No unrestricted free-agent signings (haven't had a significant one since Brett Lebda(notes) to the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 7), no trades and the biggest pot-stirrer was Dan Carcillo avoiding arbitration with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Last summer, the movement of players between teams (or players re-committing to their teams) was fluid throughout July. Several agents and executives we've spoken to have marveled at how "soft and quiet" this market has been.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of free agents sitting, watching, waiting for the process to play out; as agent Allan Walsh told ESPN in its rundown of UFA players:"Teams appear to temporarily be in a holding pattern, but I expect the UFA market to become active again soon."
Business could pick up again; but for now, here are five reasons why the hot stove has been extinguished in the NHL this summer.
1. Cap Space Doesn't Equal Spending Space
According to the venerable Cap Geek, here are the 10 teams with the most room under the cap as of this morning:
The Atlanta Thrashers are still facing an ownership muddle. The St. Louis Blues are facing some turnover in their ownership, and have said they're basically done with the UFA market. The Dallas Stars face ownership uncertainty and an internal cap. The Phoenix Coyotes ... well, are the Phoenix Coyotes.
There are teams with ownership uncertainty, teams for sale and teams that are simply being frugal in free-agency that aren't increasing their payrolls as dramatically as when the economy was humming. Plus, the new CBA battle is looming in a couple of years, which factors into this too.
Simply put: There are a lot of general managers crying poverty to agents right now because ownership has reined in payroll costs. However ...
2. The Waiting Game
... the longer free agents wait this summer, the better chance we'll see those GMs circle back to their bosses and ask for loosened purse strings. Not only for the UFAs, but for the salary dumps that have been on hold this offseason.
"I think that there's some merit in the argument that they've been given a budget," agent Rick Curran told us earlier this week. "But every general manager has to win right now or he might not be around next summer or the summer after. I think that at some point, 'round August when they start to look at their roster and they see there are a couple of players out there who can enhance their ability to win, they'll go to their owners and ask for a little bit more."
And, in some cases, they'll actually get it.
3. Yesterday's Overpaid Players Don't Mean Anything To Today's General Managers
There's been a significant market correction this summer for nearly every position save for defenseman. The goalie market crashed to the point where Evgeni Nabokov(notes) is making $6 million a year in the KHL and Marty Turco(notes) remains unemployed.
Brian Rolston(notes), who signed his free-agent deal with the Devils in 2008, will make more against the cap ($5.062 million) than any UFA forward who signed a new contract this summer save for Patrick Marleau(notes) of the San Jose Sharks ($6.9 million). And Marleau's cap hit is still lower than the one established for Chris Drury in 2007.
Please recall that Malhotra made $1.5 million base salary in 2008-09. That summer, he became an unrestricted free agent, didn't get a sniff, and settled for a $700,000 contract with the San Jose Sharks as a lower-line player.
He sucked it up. He worked his ass off. He made a difference. And now, he's making $2.5 million a year over the next three years with the Vancouver Canucks.
A lot of players haven't committed to new teams because they've seen the price tags for themselves and for there peers over the last few seasons and assume that's still the reality of their surroundings. When, in fact, it's actually delusional.
4. The Kovalchuk Effect
The Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils are both courting Kovalchuk; and they're both teams that could have, in theory, been dance partners for UFAs or salary dumps from other teams.
Other teams that might feel they have a shot at Kovalchuk should his demands shift from long-term to short-term deals are also holding off. Which means left wings like Alex Frolov and Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes) are left waiting by the phone; which means a left wing like Simon Gagne(notes) and his reps are left trying to find a new home for him among limited options as he waives his no-trade clause.
When Kovalchuk goes, it could open the faucet on a great many moves. At least that's the sense we get.
5. Finally, No One Wants Your Team's Garbage
As we wrote in our Free Agent Confidential piece, it's been a no-dumping zone for "mistake" contracts this offseason. The only team that's been able to shed salary is the Chicago Blackhawks, and that's because none of the guys they traded had a problem contract and most were desirable assets.
Curran said that the free-agent errors of the past have haunted this year's market:
"We've now reached the stage where the teams that traditionally spend to the cap, they've found that some of the decisions they would have done differently have caught up with them," he said.
"You've got two things that are scary. You've got the guy who can spend the money and wants to spend the money but has no space because he can't move someone off his roster. Because there's no buyer. The team he's trying to move him to has plenty of space but they don't have any money. And they're not going to inherit someone else's mistake. If they're smart."
So, in other words: If you want the summer hot stove to ignite again, hope that the stupid ones take out their wallets.