While most of the attention will be on star winger Ilya Kovalchuk and whether it is the Los Angeles Kings or New Jersey Devils who shower him with millions of dollars when the NHL's free-agent auction opens Thursday, the most interesting action will be found among the goaltenders.
Interesting is probably not the word the goaltenders would use, since the sheer number of them versus dwindling vacancies means some familiar names will be looking at pay cuts or waiting until deep in the summer before landing a job.
"There are anxious moments and a lot of time there is nothing you can do," goaltender Marty Turco, 34, said yesterday and then laughed nervously. "So I have made myself busy and scarce. I go about my daily routine but with phone in hand."
There was one less vacancy by the end of the day on Wednesday, as Michael Leighton agreed to a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers. He led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup final but had to wait until Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren's flirtation with pending free agents Evgeni Nabokov and Turco did not work out before he was offered a contract.
Leighton signed a two-year deal for $1.5-million (all currency U.S.) and $1.6-million. He did not hit the jackpot as some expected but the deal was still a handsome raise on the $600,000 he earned last season.
Nabokov and Turco remain at the top of the free-agent class, which will probably include Chris Mason, Jose Theodore, Martin Biron, Antero Niittymaki, Johan Hedberg, Ray Emery and probably Dan Ellis, barring a last-minute signing by the Montreal Canadiens.
The San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning are the only teams looking for a No. 1 goaltender, according to most NHL experts. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman is expected to look hard at Mason, while Turco, who turned down $2-million a year over two years from the Flyers, is said to be the Sharks' preferred choice.
After that, it should be a scramble with the jobs going to those who keep their demands modest.
This, according to Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, is the result of several factors. The past two seasons, he said, have had a large number of young goaltenders like his own Jimmy Howard establish themselves as No. 1 goaltenders and a large number of journeymen like Leighton figure out what it takes to be successful, which means expensive stars like Nabokov, who made $6-million last season, feel the squeeze when their contracts expire.
Before the current collective agreement was signed in 2005, players became free agents at 31 and teams tended to spend big money on them. Now, with the age of unrestricted free agency down to 26, teams try to lock up their budding stars with long-term contracts, leaving even less money for the free-agent market.
"Some of the young kids are in the process of taking their salaries north and some veterans are in the process of taking their salaries south," Holland said. "It's the development of some young goalies and the re-emergence of some other goalies who reinvented themselves."
Holland pointed to goaltenders such as Craig Anderson of the Colorado Avalanche, Leighton and, a few years ago, his own Chris Osgood as veterans who reinvented themselves. A year ago, Holland noted, youngsters like Howard, Jonas Gustavsson of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jonathan Quick of the Kings were not holding down NHL jobs. They are also all cheaper than veterans. He added that other teams copied the Red Wings, who won Stanley Cups with Osgood after experiments with free agents did not work out.
"We could look over the 30 teams and there are probably 10 goalies who were not in the market two years ago," Holland said. "It's putting pressure on the high-priced guys. As their contracts expire, this year for the first time there is a goalie glut, which is what has gone on in the skater market for the last two or three years."
At this point, the goalies who are not taken by either the Sharks or Lightning will be competing for backup jobs, at least to start the season, with the possible exception of the Atlanta Thrashers. But Thrashers GM Rick Dudley does not have a lot of money to spend and he was still trying to re-sign Hedberg going into free-agent day.
In previous years, a team like the Washington Capitals might have tried to sign a pricey veteran to give youngster Simeon Varlamov another year to develop. But GM George McPhee says he is going to go with Varlamov and rookie Michal Neuvirth, who will each make $822,000.
"Yeah, there's a lot of goalies looking for jobs," Turco said. "I'm not entirely worried. I think I'll be playing in the NHL next year. I'm not sure things are cut and dried."