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Nashville Predators Ryan Suter checks Vancouver Canucks Ryan Kesler (L) during the second period of their NHL game in Vancouver, British Columbia October 20, 2011. (REUTERS)
Nashville Predators Ryan Suter checks Vancouver Canucks Ryan Kesler (L) during the second period of their NHL game in Vancouver, British Columbia October 20, 2011. (REUTERS)

NHL free agency

Big money talks as NHL free agents look to cash in Add to ...

The last time NHL labour negotiations collided with the opening of free agency was in the summer of 2004.

Weeks after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, 158 players – including Pavol Demitra, who was paid $6.5-million (U.S.) in 2003-04 by the St. Louis Blues – were effectively on the unemployment lines because they hadn’t received qualifying offers from their respective teams, making them unrestricted free agents.

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There were murmurings hockey wouldn’t start on time and maybe wouldn’t start at all.

The uncertainty over the future caused different teams to react in different ways.

Some teams shed salary, paring down to a barebones lineup in the hopes cash on hand would be useful once the new labour landscape was shaped. (The Boston Bruins were particularly aggressive, and lost quality in-their-prime players such as Brian Rolston and Mike Knuble – one reason the Bruins failed to make the playoffs the first two seasons after the lockout that erased the 2004-05 NHL season.)

So here we are, some eight years later, with the free-agent class of 2012 readying for offers, and agreement on only one thing: Whenever the NHL gets back to playing, teams will need quality talent to compete.

It means the two prized catches hitting the open market on Sunday – New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise and Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Suter – will be awash in offers. (There are a handful of teams – the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota Wild – who will be bidding hard for both.)

Beyond that, the market could lag for the middle-to-lower echelon free agents, players who often represent the best value.

In some ways, this summer represents an important referendum on the Red Wings and their cachet with NHL players.

Detroit, in the person of general manager Ken Holland, has done a remarkable job of attracting and retaining talent for an organization that has made the Stanley Cup playoffs for 21 consecutive seasons.

Four years ago, when Marian Hossa hit free agency, he took a one-year contract from the Red Wings, turning down multiyear contracts worth tens of millions more from other teams, because he figured Detroit represented his best chance to win a Stanley Cup.

As Holland says, the Red Wings can’t sell climate, anonymity, or a state-of-the-art facility to players. Their pitch revolves strictly around the hockey-playing experience.

With Nicklas Lidstrom now retired, the Red Wings have the need, the will and the cash (roughly $20-million in available salary-cap space) to land one or both of Parise and Suter.

If they succeed, they can remain part of the NHL elite for another half-generation. If they fail, there’s a chance they could drift back to the pack.

Pittsburgh is similarly positioned in the U.S. Rust Belt, but the Penguins have the extra attraction of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, all approaching their primes, to help coax free agents into the fold.

Crosby and Parise developed a friendship when they were in their teens. (Crosby played a season for Parise’s father, J.P., at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a U.S. high-school.)

For some players, the chance to win; the chance to play with other great players; or simply the chance to play with old friends or teammates, all become factors in the decision-making process when the cash is going to be limitless anyway.

Of course, the cash was limitless last summer, too, when an orgy of first-day spending produced some eyebrow-raising decisions.

The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets drove the market and broke the bank with their spending sprees.

Buffalo piled a lot of cash in front of Ville Leino (six years, $27-million) and Christian Ehrhoff ($40-million for 10 years). Columbus acquired the negotiating rights to James Wisniewski and signed him just ahead of July 1 for $33-million over six years.

Both teams missed the playoffs, none of the nouveau riche responded with great seasons.

Fifty players either moved to new teams or resigned with their existing clubs within the first five hours of the opening of the 2011 free-agent market.

The lasting image was of the Los Angeles Kings, so anxious to throw money at centre Brad Richards, that they were early for their appointment at a Toronto player agency. TSN cameras caught them knocking on the door, peering in, just short of arriving with caps-in-hand and bushels full of money – which Richards ultimately rejected anyway to sign with the New York Rangers on Day 2 of the proceedings.

Erik Cole received $18-million over four years from the Montreal Canadiens. Scottie Upshall squeezed four years and $14-million out of the Florida Panthers. Jaromir Jagr, at $3.3-million for one season from the Philadelphia Flyers, seemed like an exercise in fiscal prudence.

The chequebooks are poised to open again Sunday. – and the deciding factor for the most-desirable, high-end talent will be how contracts are structured.

For players with multiple options, they will want their money up front. Contracts will be structured in such a way that the signing bonuses will be huge, so the players get their money before any future CBA provisions can tax it away. Any team not prepared to write big cheques, payable right away, will likely not be a player for the major free agents.

In an era where the labour tom-toms are thrumming in the background and caveat emptor is a Latin expression nobody comprehends any more, that is the one development you can absolutely take to the bank.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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