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In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015, file photo, Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad celebrates his goal against Anaheim Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen with Jonathan Toews (19) during the second period in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Playoffs in Chicago. (AP)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015, file photo, Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad celebrates his goal against Anaheim Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen with Jonathan Toews (19) during the second period in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Playoffs in Chicago. (AP)

Mirtle: NHL grapples with death of the bridge contract as young stars get paid Add to ...

For the first time that many in the hockey world can remember, NHL general managers didn’t go all-out bananas on July 1.

Third-liner Matt Beleskey didn’t get a seven-year deal for the GDP of the nation of Tuvalu. Dependable top four defencemen such as Paul Martin and François Beauchemin didn’t sign for huge term or dollars.

There were no bloated David Clarkson-type contracts: deals for aging players that teams would regret almost instantly and attempt to buy out or dump within a couple years.

And, five whole days into free agency, there are still dozens of useful unrestricted free agents sitting anxiously on the sidelines, waiting for contracts.

What happened? Where did the frenzy go?

For the first time in the NHL, it appears the attention has shifted toward where the really valuable players are: restricted free agency. Ten years into a salary cap world, GMs unhappy with the quality of UFAs available have finally begun to view offer sheets as a useful tool to pry players away from their teams.

And it’s working.

It happened three times last week alone: Dougie Hamilton went to Calgary (after the Oilers made noise about an offer sheet), Ryan O’Reilly went to Buffalo (after negotiations with Colorado went nowhere), and Brandon Saad went to Columbus (after his requests were way too high for cap-strapped Chicago and multiple teams planned to pounce).

All three players are between 22 and 24 years of age; O’Reilly is the only one with more than 208 NHL games played.

That hardly mattered; there were a large group of teams clamouring to get them, lining up to trade packages of picks and/or prospects and then sign them to enormous deals.

They all landed the six- or seven-year deals for big money – $5.75-million a season for Hamilton, $6-million for Saad and $7.5-million for O’Reilly – that weren’t available to the UFAs who had waited much of their career to hit the open market.

Even only five years ago, it was almost unheard of for a 22-year-old player to get that kind of money. Saad’s $6-million deal today is the equivalent to roughly $5-million under the cap in the summer of 2010; the vast majority of players making that much were at least 25 and on the verge of hitting UFA, which most typically get to at 27.

Back then, the only 22-year-olds in the top 80 salaries in the league were the elite of the elite: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Sidney Crosby.

You can see the trend even better if you go back further. In 2005, the league’s three highest paid players were over the hill: Jaromir Jagr (then 33), Martin Brodeur (33) and Alexei Yashin (31).

That kind of old-school thinking has been completely obliterated.

What the cap has forced GMs to do is find as much value for their $71-million and change as they can. That means eliminating overpays, which means eliminating legacy contracts for veterans who are paid for their name more than their production.

It also means targeting players entering their prime rather than those leaving it.

The NHL is becoming much more advanced analytically speaking, with at least a dozen teams now employing a full-time staffer charged with crunching numbers. Again and again, these analysts have shown that peak performance in the NHL is between age 22 and 27, earlier than many in the game previously believed.

Combine that with the accelerated pace of games – with coaches now valuing speed over all else – and the league continues to get younger and faster.

The reality, too, is that GMs are increasingly wary of giving long-term pacts to older players given the dramatic falloff for the likes of Mike Richards, Vinny Lecavalier, Alexander Semin, Dany Heatley and others while playing on enormous deals.

The “smart” money is on young players such as Saad and Hamilton, who have established themselves at a young age and who will play all six years of their new deals in their prime. They’re still getting better, even as their cap hits will decrease relative to a rising cap.

It’s a shift that makes plenty of sense, but one that’s also led to a large number of contract stalemates around the league. Teams on a budget or with limited cap space still want to give their young players the so-called “bridge” contract – with a lower cap hit until they get closer to UFA and prove their value – but the landscape is shifting rapidly in the favour of players such as Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis), Derek Stepan (the Rangers) and Braden Holtby (Washington), who can all make a case they deserve to be paid like stars.

Bridge deals haven’t disappeared; they’ve simply become harder to get done. The Toronto Maple Leafs pulled off one in signing Nazem Kadri to a one-year, $4.1-million deal on Sunday. But the Leafs still have a difficult arbitration case pending in goaltender Jonathan Bernier, whose price will likely be kept down by the team’s midseason implosion.

Whether the others get their massive paydays, from the teams that drafted and developed them, isn’t nearly as certain as it used to be.

20 notable RFAs without a contract

Carl Hagelin, Anaheim

Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim

Mikkel Boedker, Arizona

Marcus Kruger, Chicago

Gustav Nyquist, Detroit

Justin Schultz, Edmonton

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida

Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal

Colin Wilson, Nashville

Craig Smith, Nashville

Adam Larsson, New Jersey

Brock Nelson, NY Islanders

Derek Stepan, NY Rangers

Mike Hoffman, Ottawa

Mike Del Zotto, Philadelphia

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis

Jonathan Bernier, Toronto

Braden Holtby, Washington

Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington

Marcus Johansson, Washington

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Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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