The term frenzy as it applies to the first day of NHL free agency may need to be modified for next year. How about fretful – as in two networks of panelists, forced to endlessly debate the merits of the Marc Methot-for-Nick Foligno swap? Or foolhardy, which may be the only way to explain how Filip Kuba commanded a two-year, $8-million (all currency U.S.) deal from the Florida Panthers, who waved bye-bye to Jason Garrison when they signed the former Ottawa Senators defenceman.
The problem was that the two primary free-agent catches, defenceman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise, had so many offers, and so many front-loaded contracts to ponder that they needed time to make a final decision. Makes sense. These are life-changing decisions for two young men who will be rich beyond their wildest dreams once they make their choices anyway. So for them to spend an extra day or two weighing their respective options was both predictable and sensible.
On the first day of free agency, it was left to the low and middle-range free agents to snap up the dollars being tossed around. Mid day, on Twitter in Canada, five NHL players were trending: Brad Boyes, Adam Burish, Matt Carkner, Tanner Glass and Colby Armstrong. Tells you all you need to know about how the day unfolded.
Garrison, by the way, cashed in on his breakthrough 16-goal season for Florida in a meaningful way, signing a six-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks worth a cool $4.6-million a season, the most dollars committed to any player on the opening day. Suter’s signing will dwarf those numbers – expect a deal in the $80-million range – if he signs with the Detroit Red Wings, who were considered the clubhouse favourites as the day’s activities wound down.
Probably the team you felt sorriest for was the Phoenix Coyotes, who were once again forced to watch a key member of the organization depart for financial reasons. That would be 40-year-old Ray Whitney, their leading scorer last season, with 77 points, and a second-team year-end all-star. Whitney joined Pacific Division rivals, the Dallas Stars, the only team in the league offering him more than a one-year commitment on a contract extension.
Whitney received $9-million over two seasons from the Stars, reasonable if there is no significant drop-off in his production over the next 24 months. Eventually, the bottom falls out on even the most venerable of the NHL’s forever-youngs; Whitney says that will not happen to him any time soon.
Of greater concern in Phoenix, which also lost defenceman Adrian Aucoin to the Columbus Blues Jackets, is the future of team captain Shane Doan. Doan, an unrestricted free agent, assured the Coyotes he wouldn’t sign elsewhere until he got a clearer indication of whether hockey would survive in Arizona or not beyond next season.
So he’ll linger on the market for 10 more days at least, but if he doesn’t get the right answers from prospective Coyotes owner Greg Jamison at that juncture, then a possible soft landing somewhere in the Northeast Division – the Vancouver Canucks, the Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames – makes the most sense.
The Oilers were still busy celebrating Sunday their weekend coup – signing 22-year-old unrestricted free-agent defenceman Justin Schultz to a two-year, entry-level contract. Schultz joined the Oilers after two former greats – Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey – both telephoned him and extolled the virtues of their former team. More and more, this is a recruiting tactic that teams use to land talent. Sidney Crosby was reportedly trying to recruit Parise on behalf of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Joe Sakic, a senior advisor to the Colorado Avalanche’s Greg Sherman, was involved in the historic P.A. Parenteau signing ($16-million over four years).
Money isn’t even the be-all and end-all any more, not at the high end, where lifestyle choices, the chance to win, and familiar surroundings play a part in a players’ decision. For Schultz, the chance to play for an Oilers’ team with blue-chip talents such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov trumped the chance of playing for the Canucks in his home province of British Columbia.
The Oilers also re-signed Ryan Smyth to a two-year, $4.5-million contract, which represents a significant pay cut, but is more in keeping with the third-line, supporting role he is expected to play for Edmonton in the future.
Whitney helps Dallas, but to the extent of making them a playoff team? Maybe not. Essentially, his production will replace Mike Ribeiro’s, and with Burish leaving for the San Jose Sharks, thanks to a four-year contract commitment, the Stars will be without two of their four starting centres from a year ago, after Ribeiro was traded to the Washington Capitals at the draft.
Anybody who spent Sunday glued to the television set in the hopes that the team they support would make a splash in the free-agent market likely came away disappointed. Free agency fizzled on the first day; tune in again Monday, when the sands in the NHL’s power structure may genuinely start to shift, once somebody lands the few big fish that are actually available on the open market this summer.