The notion that this is a poor year for the NHL free-agent bazaar, which kicks off Friday at noon, only considers one side of the equation.
If you are a mediocre NHL player, though, this could be the best possible year to become an unrestricted free agent.
First, there is the paucity of top-line talent available (Brad Richards and a bunch of other guys). That shortage became more acute Thursday when the Buffalo Sabres joined the ranks of the big spenders thanks to new owner Terry Pegula. They locked up defenceman Christian Ehrhoff for a reported 10-year, $40-million (all currency U.S.) contract.
Most of all, though, there is the minimum NHL payroll for next season of $48.3-million, which was announced last week. As of Thursday afternoon, according to CapGeek.com, there were nine NHL teams with payrolls of $41-million or less. That list starts with the Carolina Hurricanes ($40.9-million), a number that includes their own tribute to the high cost of mediocrity in the form of the three-year, $9-million contract they bestowed on forward Jussi Jokinen on Thursday.
NHL teams have until opening night in October to get their payrolls up to the minimum or under the maximum. Given the rise of the payroll floor, this appears to be the first year in which most news stories this fall concern teams' attempts to climb to the floor rather than who is getting waived or traded so a team can get its payroll under the cap.
A preview of this came at the NHL entry draft last weekend when Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon traded for an outrageous contract that he negotiated himself when he was general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks. One of the reasons Tallon is the ex-Chicago GM was that contract, a multi-year deal for $7.1-million a year to defenceman Brian Campbell.
But even after trading for Campbell, Tallon is still dead last in the NHL in payroll at $26.1-million. People are already figuring he will overpay goaltender Tomas Vokoun to remain with the Panthers.
By the end of the day, it may turn out to be a great day to be Andrew Brunette or Patrick Eaves or Mike Comrie or Ruslan Salei, players who have had a moment or two in the sun but are not sure-fire all-stars. If you are one of the GMs who has to get his payroll in order and you could use some scoring, maybe you would be willing to outbid someone for Brunette, say, who made $2-million last season and has been a steady scorer in the 20-goal range, although he will turn 38 next month.
Or take Michael Ryder, for instance. He had the great fortune to sign a three-year deal in 2008 for $12-million, just before the NHL's GMs collectively went on an austerity kick. He went from 27 goals in his first season with the Bruins to 18 in each of the past two. Up until the playoffs started, few thought he would get anything more than a token offer once he became a free agent on Friday.
But then he had a monster postseason this year and was an important contributor to the Bruins' Stanley Cup win. Now, if they want to keep him, the Bruins may have to fend off several other bidders.
NHL insiders are not sure how this scenario is going to play out. One agent who has some clients in the decent-but-not-great category thinks overpaying free agents is just one of the ways a GM will get his ducks in order. He can also overpay his own restricted free agents, offer bonuses on a grand scale that may not be reached (but they still count against the cap) or wait a while and start trading for the salaries he needs.
The latter method will be a twist on the tried-and-true one teams with cap room already use. That is, a GM with lots of cap room will offer to take an overpaid player off a rival's hands as long as he throws in a good prospect or a draft pick.
One team to keep an eye on when the auction starts is the Buffalo Sabres. For the first time, GM Darcy Regier will be a serious player, as his chase of Ehrhoff showed. New owner Terry Pegula wants his team to be aggressive. With Ehrhoff, the Sabres payroll rises to more than $57-million but they could still make a play for one of the top forwards.
When Regier traded a fourth-round pick to the New York Islanders on Wednesday for Ehrhoff's rights, his intent to be a serious bidder was affirmed.
Another of the top defence prospects, James Wisniewski, received an offer from the Columbus Blue Jackets, who traded for his rights, but he may not sign until Friday morning. And it looks like the Blackhawks will sign defenceman Steve Montador to a four-year deal worth $11-million.
Finally, free-agent time is also a time for GMs to quietly discard their mistakes. An example Thursday was the Minnesota Wild buying out defenceman Cam Barker. He was the third overall pick in the 2008 entry draft by the Blackhawks and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher traded his 16th overall pick in 2009, defenceman Nick Leddy, for Barker, who did have 40 points for the Blackhawks in 2008-09.
But all Barker, 25, produced for his $3-million salary was 12 points in 71 games for the Wild over two seasons, while Leddy, 20, became a Blackhawks regular last season.