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Washington Capitals centre Brooks Laich celebrates after teammate Jason Arnott scored during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Verizon Center in Washington on Sunday, March 13, 2011.Laich is staying with the Washington Capitals.The forward signed a six-year extension just days before becoming an unrestricted free agent. (Jacquelyn Martin)
Washington Capitals centre Brooks Laich celebrates after teammate Jason Arnott scored during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Verizon Center in Washington on Sunday, March 13, 2011.Laich is staying with the Washington Capitals.The forward signed a six-year extension just days before becoming an unrestricted free agent. (Jacquelyn Martin)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

NHL enters hazy, crazy days of summer Add to ...

Brooks Laich is off the market, after signing a six-year, $27-million (U.S.) contract extension with the Washington Capitals earlier this week. If you're keeping score, that's a $4.5-million per season for a player who contributed 48 points in 2010-11.

Defenceman Kevin Bieksa didn't want to leave Vancouver, so he settled for five years at a $4.6-million average, and will continue his Stanley Cup pursuit with the Canucks. Joni Pitkanen, happy in Carolina, received three years and $13.5-million from the Hurricanes, taking him off the market as well. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson, 41, took $3-million on a one-year deal to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Crazy money for journeymen players?

It's what we hear every year as the NHL's July 1 deadline to re-sign soon-to-be free agents draws near. Even before this week's action, the 2011 unrestricted free-agent crop was looking awfully thin.

There is centre Brad Richards, rumoured to be heading anywhere and everywhere -New York, Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit, Philadelphia or Tampa Bay - and after that, the quality falls off dramatically. No Marian Hossas. No Ilya Kovalchuks. Just a lot of Erik Coles, Andrew Brunettes and Radim Vrbatas - all of whom are going to get jobs somewhere, by the looks of things.

There are some decent players on the blueline, including two - James Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff - whose rights were traded by the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks to the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders, respectively. Unable to sign Ehrhoff, the Islanders subsequently flipped his rights to the Buffalo Sabres, who will then make a push to get him under contract.



The Blue Jackets, Islanders and Sabres have all had so little success attracting free agents to their rebuilding teams that surrendering draft choices to get a 48-hour head start on the negotiating process seemed like a defensible gamble. With the salary cap rising by almost $5-million, year over year, to $64.3-million, and the floor (the minimum that teams are required to spend) set at $48.3-million, there will be a lot of dollars chasing a handful of quality players - and the need to overpay will once again be acute.

"That's true," Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon acknowledged, "and that's why we made the move we did [acquiring defenceman Brian Campbell and his $7.1-million/year contract from the Chicago Blackhawks at the NHL entry draft]"

Tallon then went on to grab Tomas Kopecky's rights from the 'Hawks and subsequently sign him to a four-year, $12-million deal.

If Kopecky is worth $3-million per season, what then might someone such as the Nashville Predators winger Joel Ward get, after a 29-point regular season, but a sensational playoff? It could be outrageous.

In Kopecky's four previous NHL seasons, he scored 12, 19, 21 and 42 points, respectively. And the 42 this year came playing a lot of top-six minutes with Jonathan Toews, Hossa and Patrick Sharp. No three players on the current edition of the Panthers is going to get him the puck the way that trio did, but if you're Florida, and you need to get to the salary floor, you shop in familiar surroundings. (Tallon was responsible for both Campbell and Kopecky ending up in Chicago in the first place.)

It could also mean two of the league's most coveted restricted free agents - Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos and Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty - might be getting offer sheets from a team, trying to pilfer a star, willing to pay whatever it takes to sign him, and not perturbed at all by the four first-round draft choices they'd lose as compensation.



If either Stamkos or Doughty get to Friday without signing a contract extension, it is conceivable both could attract an offer in the 12-year, $115-million range - an annual average cap hit of $9.58-million, which would put them in a stratosphere last seen prior to the 2004-05 lockout. Of the two, it is thought far likelier Stamkos will re-sign with Tampa before Doughty comes to terms with Los Angeles.

"There's tremendous pressure on teams to win now," said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier, who suddenly has an owner - Terry Pegula - who is willing to jump into the free-agent fray with both feet, a significant about-face for an organization used to bidding players goodbye.

Who knows? Buffalo may even get Richards, a player they would not have pursued in the past due to salary issues.





Six years ago, the NHL and the players' association fought a bitter labour battle that ultimately cost them a full season of hockey - and this is they have to show for it?

It doesn't make a lot of sense. Then again, not much that happens around July 1 in the NHL ever does.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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