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Hockey No contract for old men: NHL faced with a free-agent frenzy of veterans

Shane Doan learned last week that the Arizona Coyotes no longer require his services after 22 years of loyalty.

Darryl Webb/Reuters

Nowadays, the primary byproduct of the NHL's obsession with youth is how the annual free-agent crop is overrun by older, established veterans who have to prove themselves all over again.

You could build a Hall of Fame class around pending free agents Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla, Patrick Marleau, Shane Doan and Andrei Markov, a sextet of players all past their 37th birthdays, trying to squeeze out another year or two in a league that's marginalizing its senior citizens.

Doan, for instance, learned last week that the Arizona Coyotes no longer require his services after 22 years of loyalty. But, hey, thanks for coming – and thanks for staying during all those lean years when it would have been easy to bail out. Doan is pondering his future and weighing if the chance to play another season is worth the effort of uprooting his family.

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By contrast, Jagr and Iginla have both demonstrated a willingness to move around as the years clicked off their career. In Iginla's case, he may be obliged to move again.

The most intriguing scenario may well unfold around Thornton, who is only 15 months removed from a season in which he finished 11th over all in NHL scoring. This past season, Thornton slipped to 50 points from 82, but few pass the puck as well as him, even at this stage of his career.

Like Jagr, he is a hockey lifer, who plays the game with the joy and abandon of a younger man – and really can't imagine a time when he does not play professionally.

Thornton does have options. He is getting overtures from San Jose's divisional rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, an organization where the front office – of newly appointed general manager Rob Blake and player development staffer Glen Murray – are long-time associates.

Does a revitalized L.A. team, which still features the nucleus of a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2014, have a chance to get back to the winner's circle? And if Thornton believes so, is it worth moving his family down the coast to play for one of the Sharks' great rivals? Northern California has been Thornton's home since 2005. He is dug in there, and his roots in San Jose may play a significant role in the decision.

About two weeks ago, just about everyone's list of the most attractive 2017 unrestricted free agents included four Washington Capital players among the top six. T.J. Oshie's decision to sign an eight-year, $46-million contract extension with the Caps took him off the market, but it left little in general manager Brian MacLellan's piggy bank to sign the other three: defencemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner, and forward Justin Williams.

Shattenkirk is the biggest prize and the player who will earn the most. The teams with gaping holes on defence – including the Tampa Bay Lightning, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers – are all making pitches. Alzner will be a good secondary option for any team that doesn't land Shattenkirk. He is versatile and congenial, and he can play in practically any team's top four.

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Williams, Radim Vrbata, Patrick Sharp and – as of Thursday – Scott Hartnell are all former 30 goal-scorers, all of them 35 or older, who will try to coax teams into believing they can still be productive, even as the miles on their odometers add up.

Negotiations between the Montreal Canadiens and Alexander Radulov appear hung up on term, which is not an uncommon development in NHL teams' talks with Russian-born players. Ilya Kovalchuk is said to be interested in returning from the Kontinental Hockey League and a trio of once highly rated young Russians (Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko and Dmitry Kulikov) are all back on the open market after failing to find a fit in St. Louis, Colorado and Buffalo, respectively.

Just where they end up, how much they earn and lengths of contracts they sign will be fascinating to watch. They could linger on the market for a while.

Once upon a time, the term "free-agent frenzy" was an accurate description of the rabid auction of players that unfolded July 1. But a few years back, when the NHL gave its teams permission to begin exploratory contract talks with pending free agents ahead of July 1, the process became far more orderly.

The net effect is that the most attractive candidates, even in a middling free-agent class, disappear off the market quickly. Once the initial signing flurry abates, players can linger in limbo until well into August, when the bargain-hunting teams resurface and start offering unemployed players discounted deals.

It may well be that the most newsworthy signings will be the extensions being finalized for emerging young stars such as the Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid.

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Under collective-agreement protocols, these contracts can be negotiated ahead of July 1, but cannot officially be signed until then.

Teams almost always try to take core players of McDavid's calibre off the market early. But when they tie up a lot of cap dollars in their young nucleuses, it leaves the 30-something crowd competing for comparative scraps.

Like it or not, that's life in the salary-cap world, and why the greybeard generation will be all over your television screen as free agency unfolds on Canada Day.

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