Come July 1, up to 10 players from the Phoenix Coyotes roster could become restricted or unrestricted free agents. In theory, a rival GM could submit a generous offer sheet to one of those restricted free agents, daring the NHL as financial custodian of the team to match the offer and keep the player. The best players available will be forward Scottie Upshall and defenceman Keith Yandle, and while neither is likely to set off a rabid bidding war, the situation does bring up an intriguing question.
How will the league respond if the sharks start circling the Coyotes' free agents?
The Coyotes' budget is being determined by the NHL since it is paying the bills until a court auction determines a new owner. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said this week he hopes a purchase offer from Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf will be ready "soon" but could not be more specific.
But what happens if a team puts in an offer sheet on Yandle that would double or triple his current salary?
Does the NHL tell the rest of the league to back off, thereby skewing the free-agent market? Daly says there will be no interference from the league. Given the obvious conflict-of-interest and collusion implications, that is the wise thing to do.
Some GMs and owners believe an awkward situation will be avoided either because the Coyotes' free agents won't lure a big offer sheet, or because only a few teams will be spending big on free agents this summer due to the economy. The salary cap is expected to dip significantly before the 2010-11 season.
"No disrespect to the players, but I could get similar types of players as unrestricted free agents and not have to worry about paying compensation [in the form of draft picks to the Coyotes]" one GM said, requesting anonymity to avoid tampering charges.
Still, the situation could have implications for the free-agent market, serious enough that Paul Kelly, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, passed along word through a spokesman that the union will be watching "very carefully."
In the meantime, Daly said the club's budget for the 2009-10 season is still being worked out between the league and current owner Jerry Moyes, who stopped paying the bills last season and put the club into bankruptcy. Daly would not give a number for the Coyotes' player salaries but did say, "I do not anticipate mandating a minimum payroll."
Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said recently he expects to be able to chase free agents himself but will likely have to do so within the budget set by the league. In any event, he may not have much to spend because the Coyotes are already committed to $32-million in salaries for next season.
Last season, the Coyotes had a payroll of $43.7-million (all currency U.S.), $3-million above the league minimum and higher than only one other club's, the Los Angeles Kings at $42.6-million.
The $43.7-million is deceptive, as it represents the amount charged against the NHL's maximum cap number of $56.7-million. The Coyotes actually paid out $38.9-million in player salaries, since cap numbers are accounted by average salaries over the length of a contract rather than the salary in one particular season. On that basis, the Coyotes' payroll for next season would be near the league floor.