And so NHL free agency is upon us. It's a great stew whose ingredients no longer include a superstar from Tampa Bay but do consist of a handful of potentially impactful veterans, as well as a whole cutting board full of role players and others trying to reestablish themselves in different locales.
Here's a free-agency primer.
Making sense of RFAs, UFAs and offer sheets
Free agents come in all shapes and sizes, vis a vis the collective bargaining agreement. There are restricted free agents (RFAs) whose contracts are up but who remain the property of their current club and are therefore prohibited from negotiating with other teams. Restricted free agents can be the subject of an offer sheet from another club, but teams have the right to match that offer sheet.
There was some noise last week -- mostly white noise, it turns out -- about teams preparing an offer sheet on Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba or Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones before Jones signed a contract extension on Wednesday. Clubs invariably match offer sheets, so they are rarely presented, and both Winnipeg and Columbus made it clear they would do likewise if someone tried to sheet their young defensemen. If, on the off chance, an offer sheet is successful, the team losing the player is entitled to compensation in the form of draft picks. Using last year's numbers provided by the NHL, that could be -- depending on the value of the offer sheet -- up to four first-round picks for a contract in excess of $9.1 million annually.
Unrestricted free agents (UFAs) are, of course, players who have no restrictions on them based on their age, their NHL experience and the fact their current contracts are at an end. Teams who extend their own players before noon ET on July 1, when the market opens, have the option of offering term up to eight years. After the start of free agency, teams may only offer up to seven-year terms, which was a factor in Steven Stamkos signing an eight-year extension with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday.
The NHL will put out a list of all free agents on Friday, and it may include more than 200 names of unrestricted free agents -- as was the case last year. But that number includes dozens of players who are not playing in the NHL but who haven't officially retired or who are playing in Europe or elsewhere. The actual number of players actively looking for NHL jobs is more like 80 to 90, and that includes many who will end up signing two-way deals with NHL clubs or ultimately signing American Hockey League contracts.
Any team, in theory, can sign any of the unrestricted free agents who go to market. But the two things that teams need if they're going to be successful in attracting top-end free agents are real money and salary-cap space. In general, you can figure out which teams have more cap space by inverting the standings. Poor teams more often than not have lots of cap space because they've shed veteran talent and have more players who are on entry-level deals. That's why teams like Toronto, Tampa Bay, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers have less spending flexibility.
Some teams have had to or will have to shed salary in order to be active in adding free agents or trading for players who have term left on their contracts. That's why Chicago dealt Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen in the days leading up to free agency and why you hear names like Rick Nash emanating from the Rangers camp. New York needs to free up space to make moves going forward. The fact that the salary cap will go up only marginally next season, to $73 million from $71.4 million this past season, puts even more pressure on those teams that regularly spend to the cap.
Which teams will make a splash?
So which teams are under the most pressure to make some noise during the free-agent period?
The Rangers are certainly one franchise that needs an overhaul of some sort after being bounced in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Boston Bruins have missed the playoffs two straight years and, to put it charitably, are in a state of transition. To put it less charitably, they seem adrift. They need help along the blue line and up front.
Even though the Edmonton Oilers made a stir Wednesday when they acquired Adam Larsson from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for former No. 1 draft pick Taylor Hall, the Oilers need more help along the blue line. Edmonton is expected to make a serious run at forward Milan Lucic, who played for current Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli in Boston and won a Cup there.
The Detroit Red Wings have cap room and had been expected to make a play for Stamkos. They could now turn their attention to some of the other forwards on the market (more on that below), but Red Wings GM Ken Holland also needs to find out what his current core of young players is capable of following the departure of Pavel Datsyuk and the wake of waning productivity from captain Henrik Zetterberg. Detroit will move into a new building in October of 2017, and that's when the team needs to be arcing upward -- so Holland may be more conservative this time around because he's keeping his powder dry for next summer.
So, who's left now that Stamkos has decided to remain in Tampa?
Let's look at an interesting forward group that, while diminished by Stamkos' absence, remains deep and talented. Kyle Okposo will get a long look from teams seeking a top-six winger with grit and skill. He's used to playing with John Tavares on Long Island and will be a good fit pretty much anywhere.
Leadership skills will be part of the allure for players like former Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer, who is coming off an excellent spring for the Western Conference finalist St. Louis Blues. And what about St. Louis captain David Backes, who is likewise coming off a strong playoff run and will demand a lot of attention as a free agent?
If there's concern about signing these types of players it's in extending too much term for someone whose productivity may decline over time because he plays such a demanding, physical game. Lucic fits into this hard-nosed category as well. Loui Eriksson, coming off a stellar season in Boston, will be attractive to teams looking for a solid two-way winger. One player we're curious about is Mikkel Boedker, who has tremendous speed and good skill but has never really lit it up offensively or hit the 20-goal mark. The 26-year-old Dane could provide good value.
On the blue line, fewer options exist now that players like Keith Yandle (who signed a 7-year, $44.45 million deal with the Florida Panthers) and Alex Goligoski (acquired by the Arizona Coyotes) and Dmitry Kulikov (Buffalo) have been moved. And, in the case of Goligoski and Yandle, signed to long-term deals.
Jason Demers is being courted by Edmonton. Brian Campbell would like to return to Chicago and there appears to be a fit there. Dan Hamhuis is an interesting under-the-radar type who was in demand at the trade deadline but didn't end up moving from Vancouver -- and is now ready to hit the market. He was a member of Canada's Olympic team in Sochi in 2014 and has lots of upside in spite of some injury issues over the past several seasons. Also look for possible movement on a couple of defensemen with a year left on their respective current deals, St. Louis' Kevin Shattenkirk and the Anaheim Ducks' Cam Fowler.