NHL's calm before the storm
Free agents will be getting younger
Leafs could lose out on big names
Market forces had already shrunk Canada Day's role on the hockey
calendar in recent years, but never has July 1 been more irrelevant
than it is in 2005.
In any other year, July 1 would have kickstarted the NHL's free-agent
feeding frenzy, but NHL management offices will be dark today and
player agents will find that they will not be confronted with the
prospect of having to have their phones surgically removed from their
"I'll be doing something (today)," said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim
Rutherford, "but it won't be what I'm usually doing on this day."
Don't worry, the NHL will make up for today's idleness once it comes
to a collective bargaining agreement with its players, likely
sometime next week. When that happens, the need to fill out rosters
in an abbreviated off-season, combined with the uncertain economics
of the game, will make for a stunningly chaotic period leading right
up to training camp in September.
As the two sides get closer, snippets of the deal are beginning to
emerge. It looks as though the upper limit of the salary cap will be
between $36 million and $38 million (all figures U.S.) including
benefits. As for unrestricted free agency, it will remain status quo
for the first year of the deal, meaning any player who has reached
his 31st birthday by July 1 will qualify as a Group III free agent.
Then it gets interesting. According to a number of sources, free
agency will go down one year with each passing year, meaning it will
kick in at 30 next summer, 29 in 2007 and 28 in 2008 and that is
where it will stay for the duration of what's expected to be a six-
That will force teams to sign young players to long-term deals, but
it may also work against the players by pushing more free agents into
what is already a flooded market. But for a player such as Leaf
defenceman Tomas Kaberle, it could be a terrific development. Under
the old system, Kaberle would have had to wait until 2009 for
unrestricted free agency, but in the new system will likely be
eligible for it two years earlier when he turns 29.
Undoubtedly, the Leafs will lose a huge advantage in the free-agent
market; now teams that will have more room in the new cap system
could be the ones that attract the big free agents.
"Before, players would pick a team based on economic conditions and
what they perceive to be the best deal," said player agent Pat
Morris. "Now it will be more a matter of who fits in and who doesn't.
Teams such as Chicago and Boston if they choose to be more
competitive and closer to the cap will be very appealing."
There is little doubt unrestricted free agents are in for much less
lucrative deals than in the past, but that had been the case in the
past couple of years even without a salary cap.
The days of players such as Dallas Drake signing a four-year deal for
$9 million just hours after the start of free agency and Bobby Holik
hitting the jackpot with the New York Rangers were already over:
fiscal responsibility had set in and there were more free agents from
whom to choose.
For example, Turner Stevenson, Matthew Barnaby, Ian Laperriere, Grant
Marshall, Jason Wiemer and Todd Harvey were all available as
unrestricted free agents last summer. But teams looking for a player
of their ilk simply went on to the next available player if they
found the price too high.
"Last year, there were more houses for sale," Morris said. "They all
have curb appeal, but when there are nine of them, people are going
to take a much closer look inside."