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NHL free agents becoming desperate as money dries up in a buyers’ market

The Carolina Hurricanes bought out Alexander Semin’s contract after the enigmatic forward cleared irrevocable waivers.

Karl DeBlaker/THE CANADIAN PRESS

There's a state of panic out there for NHL free agents.

Ten days in, the promise of a huge payday has largely evaporated. Now many players are worried about getting a deal at all.

Several executives surveyed this week weren't all that reassuring, either.

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"They should be [desperate]," said one. "The money's gone."

A cursory look at cap situations around the NHL tells a different story. At generalfanager.com, for example, there are only 11 teams within $6-million (U.S.) of the $71.4-million salary cap. And only Chicago, Tampa Bay, San Jose and St. Louis are obviously capped out.

In fact, the 20 highest-spending teams have a combined $110-million sitting there, waiting to be spent.

Those numbers don't tell the full story, however. Many teams still need to sign their key restricted free agents, and with young players getting paid like never before, GMs have been forced to allocate more dollars and term for those contracts.

So a team such as Washington having $11-million in cap space is wholly misleading: Once it re-signs netminder Braden Holtby and winger Marcus Johansson, who both elected for arbitration, there won't be much left.

Beyond that, a lot of other teams simply don't have any interest in spending to the cap. They either have internal budgets or want to have some flexibility to take advantage of the cap crunch in the fall, when teams such as the Blackhawks could be forced to give away useful players (Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell and Kris Versteeg top the list) to get compliant.

That happened last year with both Chicago and Boston, and the New York Islanders were the big beneficiaries, getting two top-four defencemen in Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk at a time when few teams could take on their contracts.

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Isles GM Garth Snow waited in the weeds and landed basically what became his top defence pairing in a huge year for the franchise.

Sometimes having cap space entering the season is advantageous, especially when other teams run into cap trouble or injuries hit during the year. It also allows for a big buy at the trade deadline if a GM feels his team is on the cusp of contending for a Stanley Cup.

The most curious part of this unique landscape, though, is how many useful players are still available. Not stars, mind you, but a few top-four defencemen and a lot of top-nine forwards. If teams continue to stand pat with their rosters, there will be a lot of veterans who deserve an NHL roster spot either taking bargain-basement deals or coming into training camps on tryouts in record numbers.

Hence the growing desperation – even in mid-July, when many in the hockey world are headed to the lake.

The best free agents without a home

Cody Franson, Christian Ehrhoff, Jiri Tlusty, Eric Fehr, Johnny Oduya, Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross, Tomas Fleischmann, Lubomir Visnovsky, Marek Zidlicky

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Honourable mentions: Alexander Semin, Sean Bergenheim, Mike Santorelli, Matt Cullen, David Schlemko, Stephen Weiss, Lee Stempniak

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