We’re two weeks into the NHL’s unrestricted free agent period and “stagnant” would be the best word to describe it at this point.
After a frenzied day of signings on July 1, business slowed to a crawl in the ensuing days. At first it was blamed on the July 4th weekend in the United States, but since then there’s been a whole lotta nothin’ goin’ on.
Well, a whole lotta nothin’ in terms of notable players signing with new teams.
Former San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov tested the UFA waters, didn’t find anything to his liking, and hightailed it to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
The Philadelphia Flyers raised eyebrows by signing one-dimensional Russian winger Nikolai Zherdev, creating speculation they’ll shed salary by shopping veteran winger Simon Gagne, a move which has yet to materialize.
Given the fact the Flyers are over the league’s $59.4 million salary cap for next season by nearly $2.5 million, a Gagne trade will eventually happen. They’re allowed to go over the cap during the offseason by 10 percent provided they’re under the cap by the start of the season, so there’s not a great rush to get a deal done right now.
Of the 31 players who filed for salary arbitration last week, all of them are either second-tier or marginal talent. Expect most of them to re-sign with their current teams before their cases go before an arbiter between July 20 and Aug. 5, the league’s designated arbitration period.
In fact, some already have, as Eric Fehr and Jeff Schultz re-upped with Washington while Dan Carcillo inked a one-year deal with Philadelphia.
A few lesser-light UFAs were signed, most notably defensemen Brett Clark (Lightning), Joe Corvo (Hurricanes), Brett Lebda (Maple Leafs) and forward Rob Niedermayer (Sabres).
Several teams were busy re-signing their restricted free agents, most notably the St. Louis Blues by signing goalie Jaroslav Halak to a multi-year deal.
The biggest move in recent days was an attempt by the San Jose Sharks to sign away defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson from the cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman matched the offer sheet, only to create another salary cap headache for his club, which could force him to consider another salary-dumping trade.
One reason for the stalled market could be teams are waiting to see what happens with superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk.
The best player in this summer’s free-agent market, Kovalchuk and his agent have been unsuccessful thus far in their efforts to land what is rumored to be a ten-year, $100 million contract. They’ve received offers from the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings, but so far negotiations with both clubs have failed to make any significant headway.
Kovalchuk has a standing offer of a four-year, nearly $40 million contract from SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, but it appears his desire is to remain in the NHL.
If so, he might have to consider accepting lesser offers — perhaps five-years at $8 million per — or a one-year offer similar to that signed by Marian Hossa two years ago with the Detroit Red Wings and hope next year’s market proves more lucrative.
A Kovalchuk signing could revive the market or perhaps stir more trades, but that remains to be seen, since another factor contributing to the slow market is the high number of teams lacking available cap space and the willingness to spend it this summer.
Currently 17 NHL teams have less than $9 million in available salary cap space. Of those, 10 have less than $5 million of available space. That doesn’t leave much to pursue available free-agent talent or take on additional salary via trades.
Of the remaining 13 teams, many — like the Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and N.Y. Islanders — are under self-imposed salary caps well below the league’s $59.4 million ceiling, meaning many of them will focus on re-signing their restricted free agents or wait for more bargains in the free-agent market.
Not only does it seriously limit the market for a top free-agent superstar like Kovalchuk, it also means veterans like Bill Guerin, Marty Turco, Paul Kariya, Jose Theodore, Slava Kozlov, Pavol Demitra, Mike Modano, Alexander Frolov, John Madden and Maxim Afinogenov could be waiting a while to find new contracts.
When they do, most are likely to find offers less than they expected, perhaps considerably less, forcing them to either accept pay cuts to play in the NHL or head overseas to Europe for perhaps more lucrative contracts.