34

Would NHL Free Agency Consider a Major Change?

NHL free agency is usually focused on long-term deals, most of which become overpayments in the latter years of the contract. It is very rare an elite player actually signs as a free agent with another club, but this year John Tavares is at least going through the “courting” phase.

He will be meeting teams in person at his agent’s Los Angeles office, according to Pierre Lebrun, and they will be hearing pitches from the Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and his current club, the New York Islanders. Some other clubs might get over-the-phone pitches.

It is expected he will sign a seven-year contract, eight if it is the Islanders, but what if he follows in the path of NBA superstars and signs a short-term deal?

Tavares could potentially change the NHL free agent landscape if he decided to sign a one or two-year deal at the max salary of $15.9 million. Honestly, I’d be surprised if it was the max salary, but even a one-year deal at thirteen or fourteen million might entice him.

I recognize the NBA is a different game. Their best players are on the floor 80% of the time, and often 90% or more in the playoffs. The NHL is different. Tavares will only play twenty minutes, 33% of the game, and paying him $15.9 million would significantly limit a team’s cap space.

But on a one-year deal, teams and Tavares would be looking to win this year. The Islanders currently have the most cap space, $32.7 million. What if they pitched a one-year deal for Tavares to see how he liked things with a new GM and head coach, in Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz respectively? The Islanders aren’t close to winning, but they could entice Tavares with a massive one-year deal.

The Maple Leafs have 17 players signed at $54.8million. They could offer a one-year deal, and try to go for it this season, before having to sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to contract extensions next summer. It wouldn’t be the norm, but we have seen it before.

In the summer of 2008, Marian Hossa was 29 years old. He just finished a three-year contract that paid him $6 million/year. Instead of signing a long-term deal, Hossa signed a one-year with the Detroit Red Wings. Hossa was looking to win a Stanley Cup. At the 2008 trade deadline, he was traded from Atlanta to Pittsburgh and the Penguins lost the Cup Finals to the Red Wings. The Wings had cap space and Hossa signed a one-year deal worth $7.45 million with the Red Wings. They lost in the 2009 Cup Finals to the Penguins.

One month later he signed a 12-year deal with a $5.275 million cap hit with the Chicago Blackhawks. He ended up winning three Cups with the Hawks.

The Lightning, Bruins and Sharks are closer to winning than the Islanders.

Nikita Kucherov is in the final year of his $4.76 million contract. He will get a massive raise next year, but Steve Yzerman has built a strong organization in Tampa, and the prospect of a one-year deal, which would include no state tax, on a competitive team, could be enticing.

The Bruins believe they can win now as well, and Zdeno Chara is in the final year of his contract. They’d have to shed some salary (likely David Backes) to sign Tavares, but they too are a legit playoff contender.

Tavares has never played on the west coast. He might be more willing to sign in San Jose if it was a short-term deal with a higher cap hit.

WISE FOR TEAMS?

Short term deals with higher cap hits make sense for Tavares. There is no guarantee he will win of course, but if the superstar players are looking to maximize their money, it is a good option.

Does it make sense for teams? I see pros and cons.

The biggest pro is it significantly reduces the risk of them having a diminishing asset. Too many teams sign 28, 29 and 30 year old players, sometimes even older, to long-term contracts and the final years of the contract can be a major drain on their cap hit.

Jonathan Toews has a $10.5 million cap hit for another five seasons. He is 30 years old and had 52 points last year.

Corey Perry has a $8.625 million hit for another three years. He is 33 years old, produced 53 and 49 points the last two seasons, and isn’t getting any faster.

Zach Parise carries a $7.538 cap hit for seven more seasons. He turns 34 this summer, had 42 points in 2017 and missed half of last season with an injury, and scored 24 points in 42 games.

Brent Seabrook is 33 with a $6.875 million cap hit for another six seasons. His production has dropped from 49 to 39 to 26 points the past three years and he is now playing fewer minutes.

There are many other recent free agents who aren’t living up to their long-term contracts, including David Backes, Milan Lucic, Andrew Ladd, Kyle Okposo and others.

It is rare to see a free agent long-term contract work out for teams. Most often the player is a shadow of himself and their production/dollar ratio is terrible.

The obvious negative of a short-term/big dollar contract for a team is if the player leaves after one season. Some teams won’t want to be looked at as “pit stops,” but they will have a lot of free cap space to replenish their team in other ways.

It could also make it more difficult to maintain loyalty from their fanbase, but considering most teams will have their star players for the first ten years of their career, I don’t see this being much of an issue. By the time the player finishes his second contract, they will have been in the NHL for ten or eleven years. If the organization hasn’t built a foundation of trust and belief from the player to re-sign with them, then that is on the organization.

I doubt we’ll see a lot of free agents doing this, just like we haven’t seen a massive influx of them in the NBA. But some have and I wonder if we’ll see Tavares sign an unconventional short-term free agent contract.

He isn’t one of the NHL’s ten best players, so he likely wouldn’t make sense for a team to sign him to a one-year max deal. But if Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Erik Karlsson or some of the other truly elite players ever tested free agency, I think we could see a max deal offered.

PARTING SHOTS…

1. Now that John Carlsson has signed, I don’t see many UFAs, outside of Tavares who should get a contract longer than four years. Some will, but term is what often crushes teams more than overpaying in salary. James van Riemsdyk is 29 and coming off a career-high 36 goals. He is the best forward available, but he is a complementary winger. He is very smart, and a proven top-six forward, but his career year came with him playing third line minutes. He didn’t face the opposition’s best defenders. A team that signs him for six or seven years will play him on their top line, or second line, and while 28 goals and 57 points is very reasonable, I’d be leery of him after year four or five.  It is just the nature of the beast. He’d be the second best UFA forward after Tavares, but he isn’t a cornerstone of your franchise, so signing him for six or seven years doesn’t make much sense to me. However, the NHL has done this for years and they will continue to do it, unless we see the best players in the league sign shorter term deals for bigger money.

2. I’m curious to see what David Perron and James Neal receive on the open market. Perron had a career-high 66 points in the regular season, but only scored one goal, in his final game, this playoffs. He was a healthy scratch a few times as well. He can help your team, no question, but he is 30 years of age and his footspeed is already considered an issue. Perron only has four goals in 57 career playoff games and I wonder how much teams will look at those numbers.

Neal turns 31 in September and scored 25 goals again, and he was productive in the postseason like he has been in his career. He never kills it in the playoffs but the past two years he scored six goals each year in runs to the Finals with Nashville and Vegas. I think Neal will have more suitors than Perron, but I don’t see why a team would pay him more than the 5 million cap hit he has had for the past six seasons, and I’m curious if he can get a fifth year from a team. There is a lot to like about Neal in the near future, but the extra years of the deal are the concern. He’d be a great fit for the Oilers, I’m just not sure they have the cap space to sign him, and they surely couldn’t go longer than a four-year deal. Ideally, it would be three.

3. Tobias Rieder is now a UFA after the LA Kings decided not to qualify him at $2.2 million. Rieder is 25 years of age. He is a bottom six forward. He killed penalties in Arizona, but when traded to the Kings he wasn’t on their PK, despite his quickness. He wouldn’t be a sexy signing, but at the right price, I could see the Oilers having interest in him. The Kings didn’t want to pay a guy in their bottom six $2.2 million, and by the sounds of it his agent believes he can get close to that on the market, instead of signing for a lower cap hit to stay in LA.

4. The Oilers will have 24 skaters at their development camp, which runs today through to Thursday evening at the downtown community rink. Every player on the roster has been drafted, traded for or signed as a UFA by Keith Gretzky and Peter Chiarelli. Draft picks like Evan Bouchard, Ryan McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto, Stuart Skinner, Dmitri Samorukov, Ostap Safin, Kirill Maksivmov, Tyler Benson, Graham McPhee and Caleb Jones have shown potential that at the very least they should contribute in the AHL, and some look like good bets to be NHL players. It has been a long time since the Oilers had any real organizational depth. It will be a few years before we see legit depth at the AHL — players who are knocking on the door to the NHL — but they finally have a foundation of prospects.

5. Jones is the same age as Ethan Bear, but Jones struggled a bit more adapting to the pro game last year and I’m guessing that is why he is here, but Bear isn’t. I don’t believe it means Bear is poised to be a regular in the NHL, but more so about Jones so the organization can see how he is doing up close and personal.

6. San Jose has a history of veteran players loving it there. You know Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and others will be selling Tavares on everything great about the west coast. I think geography might hurt them, as Tavares has played his entire life in the eastern time zone, but they are my wildcard for landing Tavares.

7. If I was to sign one UFA goalie it would be Carter Hutton. I think NYI looks at him.

8. I like Jason Strudwick’s suggestion of Valtteri Filppula on a one-year contract for the Oilers. Not a flashy signing, but he’s versatile, can produce 25-30 points and can kill penalties.

9. I would also sign Anthony Duclair to a one-year contract. The Blackhawks aren’t going to qualify him, and on a one-year $1 million deal I’d take a chance on him. He turns 23 in August. A short term deal could turn into a good bet.

10. Devante Smith-Pelley wasn’t qualified either, which is very interesting. I don’t understand it with only making $650,000. To qualify him would be very cheap. He hadn’t done much in the regular season, but was excellent in the playoffs, but even at $750,000 he would be a worthwhile bargain. I understand he has arbitration rights, and they were leery of him choosing arbitration, but now all teams can negotiate with him. I do wonder if this shows Washington wonders if he just got hot for two months, and could revert to be inconsistent again.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • bazmagoo

    I think the Oilers should sign 2 or 3 wingers to short term, low money, prove it contracts, and 1 right shot dman to the same. If that is all that happens during the remainder of the off season, I’ll be content.

  • E-Mac

    I have often wondered why more players don’t sign one year deals chasing Cups. I think perhaps there are two issues, one being the negative press that you will receive from the other 30 team fan bases (ala Kevin Durant). And then two being the risk of injury which may end your career causing you to make significantly less money.

    • The Ghost of Alex Plante

      I think it’s just the nature of the sport. When the wheels fall if it can go downhill in a hurry, much quicker than the NBA for instance.

      Towards he end of their careers I think guys in the NHL tend to value term more because of the quick decline. You never know when you’ll lose that step or half a step, so the extra years on contracts can give you an extra year or 2 of income where a 1 year contract wouldn’t.

      NBA players can still be valuable even if they’ve lost a step just because of how the sport is played. In the NHL once you’ve lost a step you’re finished.

      • SailorD81

        There is also the fact that those short term player contracts for stars in the NBA are huge compared to the NHL. KD signed for 26 mil a year on a 2 year deal. It would be almost half that much in the NHL on a max deal.

  • Magicaleigh

    Max salaries in the NBA are structured very differently than in the NHL. Its not just the amount of the max that is different (based on where they sign), but also the amount it can rise year over year. So players changing teams sign shorter deals so that they can then hit the max max salary, 3 years versus after 4 (max length for a player on a new team.) There’s almost no incentive for a player in the NHL to sign a shorter term deal since they don’t gain anything from it when they can already sign for what is about as close to max dollars as teams pay.

  • OilCan2

    The GMs control the purse strings. I like that the Oilers are getting a bit more going through the pipeline. Speaking of low cost options Bouchard may look good in limited time plus 2PP time.

  • crabman

    I like that a few more possible UFAs have shaken loose because teams didn’t want to qualify. I would love to see the Oilers sign a combination of Pirri, Duclair, Rieder, and even Filppula to short deals. The Oilers won’t have a ton of cap space so short deal bets is best this offseason.

  • ed from edmonton

    Oilers signing Reider would be sweet in a way. Obviously he is looking for something north of $2.2M for a guy who scores about 10 – 15 goals and 25 to 30 points. Reider can skate well and kills penalties, both things the Oil need.

  • ed from edmonton

    I think that is Strudwick was a GM he wouldn’t sign a player udder 35, so not surprised about Fipullla. But at the right price he could be a nice fit.

  • ed from edmonton

    What the Oil do in free agency could impact how they handle Nurse. If they get a couple of FAs they may have no choice but to bridge Nurse and hope for the best in a couple of years. But if they strike out on FAs might as well try to get Nurse long term rather than be stuck with unused cap space like last year.

  • DoubleOhhStoned

    as far as UFA’s go, it probably better to sign that $7MM x 7 yr deal while you still look good, rather than sign $15Mm for 1 yr, then look washed up the next.

    • DoubleOhhStoned

      It’s incredible that GMs don’t foresee these players failing to live up the their contracts. I’m pretty sure I’m the history of the NHL there isn’t a player who is better at 37 than he was at 27 and yet we still have professional hockey managers paying guys for work they are not capable of doing.

  • Arfguy

    I could be wrong, but wasn’t there a rumour that Filpula shut down a deal to be traded from Tampa to Edmonton and then the Lightning had to find another partner, which ended up being the Flyers? Am I mistaken or was there something to it?

    I really think the best option for the Oilers is to sign cheap, young wingers who have not done much in the NHL. Players like Rieder, Yakupov and Duclair. It would be worthwhile to try and sign them to about $800K to $1 million. The Oilers might be able to compete for a Wild Card spot, at best, with that type of roster.

  • belair

    The Oilers need to get their hands on Austin Czarnik. He’s a guy who can slot in on the wing or at C when needed and has been used in all situations in Providence since graduating from College Hockey. He’s a speedy, skilled F that Chiarelli signed when he was in Boston. Great buy low option.

  • smiliegirl15

    Your line about the Sharks being close to winning before the Islanders makes me laugh. They always get so close but never make it all the way; the Islanders will win again before the Sharks do.

  • As I was shocked Trotz didn’t stay in DC, not qualifying Smith-Pelly, who was one of those bottom six wildcards, was almost as shocking. Wonder if the Isles take him.

    Brandon Davidson is a solid 3rd pair defensemen with good numbers. Surely there’s a team out there who’d take him.

  • ManagerForHire

    Why does Gregor always have so many spelling mistakes and typos? Normally I don’t care but every article he writes has mistakes to the point where sometimes his point is confusing.