Why 2014 free agents are signing now

Pavel Datsyuk, Logan Couture and Evgeni Malkin have all locked up extensions. Getty Images

There's typically an order for how general managers approach the offseason. First, there's a decision made on pending unrestricted free agents, because they are the ones who can leave the soonest. Then come the restricted free agents and arbitration cases. And then attention is turned to seeing whether progress can be made on extending the contract of a key player who still has a year remaining on his deal.

This year has been a bit different.

Some of the biggest deals made are the ones for players who couldn't hit free agency until next year. And more are coming.

Pavel Datsyuk signed a contract extension with the Detroit Red Wings. Evgeni Malkin got his extension done in short order after the Pittsburgh Penguins' elimination and GM Ray Shero and Kris Letang are currently in talks to extend his contract. Claude Giroux would only be a restricted free agent next summer but there's an expectation that he won't be waiting much for his long-term deal. And here at the Stanley Cup final, nobody believes it will take long for a Patrice Bergeron extension to be announced after the Stanley Cup is awarded to the Chicago Blackhawks or Boston Bruins.

The general managers of these teams are working ahead.

Why in this order?

"Whoever calls me back, I deal with," Shero joked. "[Malkin's agent] J.P. Barry happened to call me first."

We know that's not true. Shero is one of the most diligent and prepared general managers in the game. But there are plenty of good reasons this is happening right now.

First and foremost, these are all franchise players for these teams. Nobody wants to get into a situation like Nashville and New Jersey dealt with last year where cornerstone players (Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, respectively) left for nothing. It's much easier to build a team when you know the best players are accounted for.

"The players that are getting locked up are certainly important players for these teams," Shero said. "You want to get them sooner rather than later. You want to know right away."

And it's Shero who set a fantastic example for his colleagues last year with how he handled Jordan Staal. He wanted to get the talented center signed long-term as part of the Penguins' core and set out on negotiations after the season. But there was a limit, like there is with Letang right now.

And rather than letting that situation drag into the season, he got a maximum return for Staal by trading him to Carolina at the draft. In the past, teams have let those contract talks extend into the season and, if they broke down, made the trade at the deadline. The currency at the deadline is draft picks and prospects because contending teams adding big names aren't going to subtract from their roster. Prospects and draft picks don't help a team like the Penguins, trying to win a Stanley Cup now. In the Staal deal, Shero needed a player he could plug into his lineup immediately as part of the package. He got one in Brandon Sutter.

"It's asset management," said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. "We all learn from history when you see good players that go to market become unrestricted and you lose them and you don't get any assets for them. It's not a way you want to run business. Ultimately, teams are making a decision a year in advance -- they either want to get extension or you consider what options you have."

Another consideration is that teams have hoarded talent so much in the salary cap era that each free-agent class seems worse than the last. If general managers were confident they could adequately replace these players in free agency, they might not be compelled to act early. But some of the worst contracts are signed on July 1 and often they're for a player who isn't necessarily hitting his prime. Big money has already been paid to this year's free-agent class for 39-year-old Sergei Gonchar and 35-year-old Mark Streit. Good players, but players on the decline.

Other options for teams this summer include Jarome Iginla, Danny Briere, Mike Ribeiro, Jaromir Jagr, Brenden Morrow, Ryan Whitney, Nikolai Khabibulin -- some big names with incredible accomplishments. Not guys you're building the immediate future around.

So when you have a franchise player, handling that situation perfectly takes precedence over everything else.

"If you really look at the free-agent market, you look at it and say, 'Well, I'm going to keep my own,'" said Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, who will be turning his attention soon to an extension for captain Dustin Brown. He also said he's going to talk with Matt Greene (an UFA in 2014) about a new deal this summer.

"If you look objectively, in terms of what's out there this year even, it makes you realize maybe you're better off with your own," Lombardi said.

Another thing that makes this summer unique is the salary cap is dropping to $64.3 million, the first time there's been a salary cap drop in an offseason since it was implemented.

Teams that are addressing these future free agents early are all typically teams that are willing to spend to the salary cap. The Flyers, Bruins, Red Wings, Penguins and Kings are all franchises that will take any money left over after making sure the most important players are signed and use it to attract more talent. Getting it done early shows them exactly how much they have to spend as they project future cap limitations.

So getting cost certainty established now before free agency is an important step.

"You've got a cap that's squeezing from 70 to 64 [million]. [In 2014-15] at the very worst the cap is holding. There's 200 players in the league UFA or RFA. Most of them are looking for raises, many of them significant raises," Holland said. "You have to decide where you want to put your cap space."

Having the critical Datsyuk contract done helps Holland know exactly how much he's comfortable spending now on this year's key UFA, Valtteri Filppula. Contract extensions are about leverage and it certainly would have helped Filppula's case for a big long-term deal if there was uncertainty about Datsyuk's future in Detroit. With rumors that Datsyuk wanted to play in the KHL, it would have been hard for Detroit to lose both those players in the next year. Now Holland knows he's getting at least one and is working on the other.

"I'd like to re-sign Fil but the deal has to make sense for Fil and it's got to make sense for us. If it doesn't make sense for us, we're not going to do a deal," Holland said. "If it doesn't makes sense for him, you're not going to do a deal."

There's a number there that works for the Red Wings, and with Datsyuk signed, Holland knows exactly what it is.