With the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter dominoes falling into place, the NHL's high rollers can start playing that game seriously. Among the big wallets with lots of room under the salary cap and not much to fight over when it comes to spending their money are the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers.
This crowd will be duking it out for such notable players as Rick Nash, Bobby Ryan, Shane Doan, perhaps Jay Bouwmeester and, most intriguing of all, maybe Shea Weber.
But once again one of the smaller fish struck first, as the Tampa Bay Lightning signed Matt Carle to a six-year contract Wednesday night for what will be his second stint with the team. Carle, 27, was the best free-agent defenceman available, having had 38 points last season with the Flyers. That earned him $3-million (all currency U.S.) per year from the Lightning.
Carle's signing once again left the Red Wings at the altar in their bid to replace the retired Nicklas Lidstrom, at least when it comes to his spot on the roster, as Suter rejected their pitch for the Minnesota Wild.
Nash, Ryan and Doan are now the best forwards available, although Doan will not make a decision until Monday. That is the day it might be known if the approval of an arena lease will be put to a public referendum in November, which would imperil Greg Jamison's attempt to buy the Phoenix Coyotes.
Unlike Doan, neither Ryan nor Nash are free agents but both have been up for trade, although the action was not going to pick up until Parise made his decision. Nash, 27, has been on the block since last February, when he told Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson he wanted out. Ryan, 25, was put on the market in late June by the Anaheim Ducks.
But all eyes may shift to Weber now that Suter has decided to leave the Nashville Predators for Minnesota. Predators general manager David Poile, who once hoped to sign goaltender Pekka Rinne, Suter and Weber to long-term contracts, only has Rinne nailed down. Now he is under the gun to keep Weber after Suter decided to take a 13-year, $98-million contract from the Wild.
"I'm going to turn my attention to [Weber]," Poile said on a conference call. "He's the captain of our team, I want to build our team around him."
Weber, 26, is one of the five best defencemen in the NHL and is now a restricted free agent. If Poile cannot sign him to a long-term contract now, he may have to trade him, creating another frenzy this summer, rather than lose him for nothing as a free agent a year from now.
A long-term contract may not be in Weber's best interest. The collective agreement expires on Sept. 15 (bargaining sessions are set for Thursday and Friday) and no one knows what will happen in the next contract.
At present, a player can become an unrestricted free agent seven years after he signs his first NHL contract. That means players as young as 25 can cash in on a market that, as the Parise and Suter signings showed, allows good players to sign for superstar money.
However, it is possible the age of unrestricted free agents could rise in the next agreement. That would leave Weber with an extra year or more before he hit the open market, so a short-term contract might be the best decision.
Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson is hoping he will now get many more serious bidders for Nash aside from the Rangers. The Penguins, Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes are all said to be interested.
However, not all of those teams are on the list of approved destinations Nash gave Howson. His no-movement clause in his contract gives him the right to call the shots, although Nash has never said publicly which teams he favours.
All of those teams and a few more will also make enquiries about Ryan, who does not have a no-movement clause and comes considerably cheaper than Nash with a cap hit of $5.1-million for the next three seasons. Nash will cost his new team about $7.8-million for the next six years.