New approach thins free-agent market

With Nashville making a run at the Stanley Cup, will that keep Ryan Suter in a Predators jersey? Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- After the first session of the general managers meetings at the Boca Raton Club and Resort on Monday, Florida GM Dale Tallon was chatting about his summer plans in the continued building of the Florida Panthers into a serious playoff contender. I asked him whether we should expect another free-agent spending spree like the one we saw this past year.

Someone else jumped in and joked, "Impossible." Tallon smiled and agreed.

The Panthers built this year's Southeast-challenging Panthers in free agency, but it's not a strategy likely to be duplicated by other teams this summer. NHL front offices have done their in-house analysis of the summer unrestricted-free-agent market, and it's not pretty. In a shift in strategy leading up to the trade deadline, teams started signing their own guys, as the Carolina Hurricanes did with Tuomo Ruutu and Tim Gleason. As the Edmonton Oilers did with Andy Sutton and the New York Islanders did with Frans Nielsen. After the deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs locked up Mikhail Grabovski. It made for a quieter trade deadline, but the impact will really be felt on July 1.

One front-office executive said the team plans its free-agency strategy in December assuming that about three of every five potential free agents will sign with their own teams. That number looks to be higher this year.

"The majority of teams have taken the philosophy that it's better to dance with the devil you know than the devil you don't know," said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong. "That's why I think you see more players signing with their team."

"Things have changed. Free agency is not what it used to be," said Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. "It's not really a huge bonanza to become a free agent anymore unless you're a superstar like Brad Richards."

That's the one thing that might save the hype surrounding this year's market. Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators and Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils remain unsigned and could be among the few game-changers available. But Nashville is looking like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, which dramatically increases the chances that Suter will stay with the Predators. The Devils continue to overachieve, which might be enough for Parise to stick around.

Complicating things even further is the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. The NHLPA and NHL will be negotiating a new CBA this summer, which means teams likely will be operating under one salary-cap number on July 1 and another when an agreement is negotiated. If the players take a significant cut in the revenue split, as has happened with other professional leagues, the salary cap could be much lower before the season starts, which means cap teams that were aggressive in free agency will have to scramble to get under the new number.

If teams were hesitant to enter a thin market in the first place, that might cause them to put on the brakes even harder, although Tallon doesn't see it that way.

"You can't. If you stop doing business, you're going to get passed," Tallon said. "A lot of teams are going to keep doing business. We'll do our business based on what's happening now and then we'll adjust accordingly. You can't stop."

The uncertainty means general managers already have started addressing holes for next season. The Phoenix Coyotes and the Blackhawks anticipated having a need at center next year. The Coyotes examined the free-agent market and decided to trade for Antoine Vermette to fill that vacancy. His salary was a little higher than they were comfortable with, but it was in line with what they would have had to pay for someone with his skill set this summer. Plus, with the shrinking market, the best available centers right now are guys such as Olli Jokinen, Jarret Stoll and Paul Gaustad. And even that group could thin out, with Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster confirming he'd like to get Jokinen signed to a contract extension.

"I met with Olli before the trade deadline and told him we would discuss a new contract after the season and he was on-side with that approach," Feaster wrote in an email.

Suddenly, Vermette looks like a pretty darn good center option.

"That's not to downgrade any of the players on the market," said Phoenix assistant GM Brad Treliving. "When you factor in age, factor in who plays in certain situations -- you could argue some are better suited playing in a checking role than being relied on to create offense. That was the analysis."

In Chicago, the long-term answer at center might not come through a trade or free agency. Bowman sounded committed to keeping Patrick Kane in the middle next season and beyond. Kane has impressed Bowman with his playmaking ability at center and the suggestion is that he's always been more of a passer than a pure goal scorer.

He's certainly a better option than anything Chicago might get in free agency this summer.

"That's one of the reasons we wanted to use Patrick in the middle," Bowman said. "We could go sign one of these [free agents]. Are they better than Patrick Kane? I don't think so."

Bowman said he probably has pushed harder for Kane's move to center than anyone else in the organization, but that might be thanks in part to his realization that a top-line center won't be available any time soon. He likes what Kane has been able to do this year and, with Kane 23 years old, sees room for growth at that position for Kane.

"He has tremendous hockey sense. He's not going to win the Selke, I don't think. There's a lot of guys who are great players who aren't necessarily defensive minded," Bowman said. "You think of guys like [Pavel] Datsyuk, who is a great player -- he's 33, not 23. At 23, he wasn't doing what Patrick is doing."

Bowman's conclusion? "The free-agent [inventory] for centers is not going to impress you all that much," he said. "You have to do it different ways."


• It wasn't an issue officially on the general managers agenda here in Florida, but there's been an undercurrent of concern about the way games have been called this season. Some general manager have quietly expressed concern that officials are letting too much go and that the standard is slipping. The number of power plays per game has dropped to 6.8 from 7.8 earlier on this season, which averages out to one less power play per game. That number is down significantly from the 11 power plays per game called in the year following the lockout.

• I asked Bowman whether there was any consideration about giving goalie Ray Emery a contract extension. Emery signed a one-year deal worth $600,000 after earning a spot on the team in training camp and has pushed Corey Crawford for the starting job in Chicago. "We'll probably get to that at some point here. We're not doing that now," Bowman said. "He's played really well. There's no questioning that. He's come in, even the games we've lost, he's been really solid. He hasn't had a game where he's totally dropped the ball. ... He gives our team a little bit of confidence that way." Emery is 15-9-3 this season with a 2.66 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage, secondary numbers that are better than Crawford's. Bowman hasn't ruled out a contract extension for Emery before the season ends. "Some guys we've signed leading into a playoff run," he said. "Other guys we've waited to see how it plays out."

• Interesting to read that coach Randy Carlyle wants to make an effort to build friendships with his players in Toronto. One of the criticisms of Carlyle was that he wasn't always the best when it came to interpersonal skills with his team. One former Anaheim Duck joked that he was grateful to Carlyle for helping him win a Stanley Cup but won't be exchanging Christmas cards any time soon. It sounds as if Carlyle wants to shake that image. "I think it's important that they feel comfortable to speak freely and have a friendship," Carlyle said according to the Toronto Star. "When you've coached for a number of years, you can't make sure that every player is happy. But you want to know how they feel."