TSN.CA - The National Hockey League?s free agent season opens at
12:01 AM ET on Tuesday, July 1, but will anyone be hunting for big
game this summer? For the first time in a decade, the supply of
available talent looks to be greater than the demand, and that could
result in a flat market.
Teams are already tightening their purse strings heading into the
final year of the existing collective bargaining agreement (CBA),
telling some players they will not be offered contracts at all. More
are expected to get this news than ever before.
"There's a good chance less players get qualifying offers this year,"
Blackhawks GM Mike Smith said. "It's going to be a different kind of
Restricted free agents who do not get qualifying offers from their
clubs will become unrestricted free agents. Among those expected to
be set free are Oleg Tverdovsky of New Jersey, Trevor Letowski of
Vancouver and Jonus Hoglund of Toronto.
Why would teams let these players go with no compensation? Quite
simply, they are making too much money. In order to retain their
rights, teams must offer a restricted free agent at least the same
amount the player made last season. Instead of over-paying the player
again, more and more teams are deciding to cut their losses and move
in the proverbial different direction.
"We've taken this approach for three years now,? said Atlanta
Thrasers GM Don Waddell. ?We let Andrew Brunette go, we let Steve
Staois go, guys that are good players in the league... So we've
already made those tough decisions. But you will see more and more
players, particularly this year, not get qualified."
Economic uncertainly is also creating a feeling of unease, which will
no doubt hamper the free agent season. The current CBA ends Sept. 15,
2004, with a long, ugly labor war expected as the owners fight for
the salary cap that players want to avoid at all costs.
"The money has been pulled back in, even by teams that most people
think have money," said Maple Leafs Coach Pat Quinn. "Everybody is
very cautious right now."
?We don't want to overpay and have our hands tied," Red Wings GM Ken
Holland told the Detroit News. "Nobody knows what the new (CBA) will
bring. We want to have some flexibility."
The Stanley Cup playoffs, which saw strong showings by low budget
teams such as Anaheim, Ottawa and Minnesota, have given many big
spenders another reason to re-evaluate their free agent strategies.
Even Lou Lamoriello, GM of the Stanley Cup champion New Jersey
Devils, says his budget needs to be lessened. "In my mind, our
salaries ($50 million) were too high," he told the Bergen Record. "I
have to do something about it."
For starters, he?ll be saying good-bye to Tverdovsky.
Other teams will have tougher decisions to make. The Dallas Stars
have already decided to let Norris Trophy finalist Derien Hatcher
test the free agent market. They tried to sign him, but broke off
negotiations last week when the numbers would not come down. Big
spenders a year ago, the Stars will do a complete about-face this
"Our biggest priority is to wait to see where the market is set on
Derian and then react to that," Stars GM Doug Armstrong told the
Dallas Morning News. "We'll monitor the league, of course, but we are
not a buyer this year."
The Detroit Wings, who already have $8 million a year invested in
Curtis Joseph, have until midnight Monday to pick up an $8 million
option on retired goaltender Dominik Hasek, who wants to play again.
If nothing can be resolved, Hasek will become an unrestricted free
agent Tuesday. The Wings also have to worry about Steve Yzerman,
Sergei Fedorov and Darren McCarty ? all of whom will be unrestricted
free agents if deals are not signed before midnight Monday.
Hasek?s situation has brought up the possibility of blockbuster
trades as teams try to shed salary heading into the CBA negotiations
and the possibility of having to meet a $35-$40 million salary cap in
"There will be a lot of good players available based upon the calls
I've been getting, and from what I heard at the entry draft," Holland
said. "We feel we've made very fair offers (to their own free
agents), but we believe we have some options between unrestricted
free agency and the calls we're receiving (for possible trades)."
"You can get just about anybody you want right now," said Flyers
General Manager Bob Clarke. "There are not very many hunters and a
whole lot of sellers."
Clarke noted that he was recently offered a player who would "floor"
the media if they knew he was on the block.
Bruins GM Mike O'Connell noted that teams are in a difficult
situation because a salary cap is not guaranteed. That means teams
are trying to build for two possible futures at the same time.
"No one knows what the environment will be like," O'Connell told the
Boston Herald. "You have to be prepared for the new CBA, whatever it
looks like. You have to be flexible. If there is any kind of cost
certainty (a cap), you have to have a team that can function and
compete in that envirnoment.
"If there isn't cost certainty, you have to be able to function and
compete in that environment, too."
While GMs around the league are talking a tough game, at least some
player agents are starting to get the message.
"I don't think it's just tough talk," agent Allain Roy told the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch. "Some teams are promising to run it on a slim
budget. ... It's like the teams are saying, 'Why spend the money now
if after 2004 we don't have to?'
"The days of free-spending are over."
Other agents, however, see all the talk as nothing more than a
smokescreen the GMs will not be able to maintain.
"Realistically, it appears like teams are tying to exercise
organizational courage, which they have been loath to do in the
past," agent Carlos Sosa said. "Having a team say no to an asset by
not holding on to it is new. They've always talked a good game. We'll
see if it happens."
And, as Roy points out, someone is bound to crack when one of the big
spenders is confronted with the reality that a star player like
Hatcher is available for the right price.
"What happens when there is the opportunity of spending a little more
money and getting the one or two extra players available that might
push you over the top?? Roy asked rhetorically. "Why wouldn't a team
spend the money and try to win the Stanley Cup one last time?"
With the labour war looming, one last time might be right on the
A look at the different criteria for free agents ahead of Tuesday's
official kickoff to the NHL free-agency period (from the Canadian
Group II (restricted): Players, 30 and younger as of June 30, who
have been tendered a qualifying offer by their respective clubs and
are subject to draft choice compensation and right to match. The
draft choice compensation scale is based on compensation offered by
the new club. (See below for compensation table).
CP's take: The largest number of players belong to this group every
year. Every team has at least half a dozen. And yet there's nothing
``free'' about these guys. There's just too much compensation to sign
a Group II player. Sergei Fedorov was the last such player to get an
offer sheet in February 1998 from Carolina. It was matched by
Group III (unrestricted): Players age 31 or older as of June 30 with
at least four years of NHL experience.
CP's take: These are the guys that have received the big bucks over
the years, like Bill Guerin's $45-million US, five-year deal last
summer with Dallas. There's a small pool of these players every year
so teams over pay to acquire them.
This year's class - unless they sign before Tuesday - includes
forwards Sergei Fedorov, Teemu Selanne and Joe Nieuwendyk as well as
defencemen Derian Hatcher, Brian Leetch, Eric Desjardins, Bryan
Marchment, Dmitry Yushkevich, Murray Baron and Glen Wesley. Jeff
Hackett and Felix Potvin are the only starting goalies available.
Group IV (restricted): Players who have never signed an NHL contract
and who become a free agent after having met the conditions for a
defected player. The NHL club owning his rights must make a
qualifying offer and receives only the right to match any offer sheet
signed by the player with another NHL club.
CP's take: Ignore this one, it's the most obscure category and is
seldomly used. The NHL didn't even bother releasing the names of
these guys last year. These are usually European players drafted in
the late rounds who never see the light of day this side of the
ocean. They end up playing with European clubs while certain NHL
teams retain their rights.
Group V: Players who have completed 10 pro seasons or more (NHL or
minors, excluding junior hockey), and are in the final year of his
contract earned less than the NHL average salary and received a
timely qualifying offer. These players have the right to elect Group
V unrestricted free agency once in their careers. Should a player not
elect to become an unrestricted free agent, since his prior club had
tendered him a qualifying offer, he would remain subject to draft
choice compensation and right to match as applies to Group II free
CP's take: These guys always opt for unrestricted free agency. Martin
Lapointe did it two years ago and got a monster contract from Boston.
This year's crop of Group V free agents includes forwards Vaclav
Prospal, Todd Marchant, Jeff Shantz and defencemen Greg De Vries,
Cale Hulse, Jamie Pushor and Ian Moran.
Group VI (unrestricted): Players age 25 or older, have completed
three or more professional seasons, and in the case of a player other
than a goaltender have played fewer than 80 NHL games (regular-season
and playoff), or in the case of a goaltender have played fewer than
28 NHL games (regular-season and playoff).
CP's take: These guys are usually fringe players who spend most of
their careers in the minors although defenceman Nathan Dempsey
qualified under this category last summer and left Toronto for
Unrestricted: Players who were not tendered a qualifying offer.
CP's take: This promises to be the increasing trend this summer and
next as NHL clubs tighten their purses ahead of the anticipated
September 2004 labour strife. Look for players under the age of 31
such as Trevor Letowski from Vancouver, Oleg Tvedovsky from New
Jersey and Jonas Hoglund of Toronto to be in this group come Tuesday.
Draft choice compensation for signing Group II restricted free
Offer: $667,433 US or below; compensation: none.
Over $667,433 - $917,720: Third-round choice.
Over $917,720 - $1,084,579: Second-round choice.
Over $1,084,579 - $1,334,867: First-round choice.
Over $1,334,867 - $1,668,582: First-and third-round choices.
Over $1,668,582 - $2,002,298: First-and second-round choices.
Over $2,002,298 - $2,336,015: Two first-round choices.
Over $2,336,015 - $2,836,589: Two first-round and one second-round
Over $2,836,589: Three first-round choices
Each additional $1,668,582: One additional first-round choice to a
maximum of five.
CP's take: In other words, if a team were to offer $5 million a year
to restricted free agent J.S. Giguere next week and the Mighty Ducks
did not match within seven days, Anaheim would receive five first-
round draft picks as compensation.