Expect next summer to be quiet in free-agent market

BY foxsports • September 9, 2010

The summer of 2010 wasn’t a particularly memorable one for NHL fans expecting the usual frenzy of bidding by teams for the best available free-agent talent.

Apart from a few notable exceptions — the New Jersey Devils efforts to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a contract acceptable to the league, the Chicago Blackhawks walking away from an arbitration award for goalie Antti Niemi while matching an offer sheet from San Jose for defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson — there wasn’t as much excitement compared to previous summers.

A lack of notable free-agent talent combined with too many teams lacking significant cap space led to a summer of little free-agent sizzle. And it’s possible we could see a similar trend next summer even if the salary cap should increase significantly over the current ceiling of $59.4 million.

Twelve teams — Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, Edmonton, Minnesota, New Jersey, NY Rangers, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Vancouver — currently have payrolls in excess of $40 million for 2011-12.

Six others — Atlanta, Carolina, Colorado, Florida, NY Islanders and Phoenix — have payrolls under $30 million but tend to spend well below the league’s cap ceiling so it’s unlikely to expect them to pursue expensive free-agent talent next summer.

That leaves 12 clubs — Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Los Angeles, Montreal, Nashville, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Washington — with payrolls currently between $30-$40 million for 2011-12.

That would suggest more than enough for bidding wars next summer, but that isn’t necessarily so.

Teams with stars eligible for free agency next summer — Boston (Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron), Chicago (Brent Seabrook), Dallas (Brad Richards) and Montreal (Andrei Markov) — will likely see their available cap space significantly reduced re-signing those players.

Buffalo, Nashville, Columbus, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Dallas haven’t been big spenders on UFA talent in recent years and will likely continue to focus on retaining their own talent.

The Kings tried to land Kovalchuk this summer, but their focus over the course of the upcoming season will be re-signing young stars Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds, which could take a huge chunk out of their cap space.

That would leave only Washington and Toronto but don't assume they’ll be spending madly on free-agent talent.

Many of these clubs might be tempted if there’s plenty of star talent available in next summer’s free-agent market.

Currently Chara, Bergeron, Richards, Markov, Joe Thornton, Nicklas Lidstrom, Alexander Semin, Tomas Vokoun, Tomas Kaberle, Ilya Bryzgalov and Simon Gagne are eligible for UFA status, along with notables like Craig Anderson, Jason Arnott, J.S. Giguere, Kevin Bieksa, Chris Phillips, Christian Ehrhoff, Jamie Langenbrunner, Tomas Fleischmann, Niemi and David Backes.

Restricted free-agent talent includes Doughty, Seabrook, Zach Parise, Steven Stamkos, Shea Weber, and Jeff Carter, who would be enticing targets for offer sheets if unsigned by their respective teams by July 1.

But most are likely to be re-signed before next July meaning that like this summer, the pickings for quality free-agent talent could again be slim.

Next summer will also be the second to last prior to the next round of collective bargaining between the league and the players association in 2012. Uncertainty over the direction of those talks and of what a new CBA could contain will also likely hamper spending on free agents.

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