NHL free agents take high-priced hit in stagnant cap era
Aside from defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner attracting $20-plus-million contracts, NHL free agency isn’t what it used to be. Not in a stagnant salary-cap era.
Though plenty of players switched teams once the signing period opened Saturday, missing were the high-priced, long-term contracts that were once the norm.
Shattenkirk, considered the top free agent available, signed a four-year, $26.6 million contract with the New York Rangers. And after nine seasons in Washington, Alzner signed a five-year, $23.1 million deal with Montreal.
Alzner acknowledged he had few options beyond Montreal, which was the only city he visited this past week.
The expansion Vegas Golden Knights didn’t make a peep after spending the past two weeks stocking their roster through the expansion and entry drafts, and trades.
The most lucrative deals inked were a pair of contracts to retain young stars. San Jose Sharks locked up defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic with an eight-year, $56 million contract, and Anaheim signed defenseman Cam Fowler to an eight-year, $52 million deal. The Sharks also extended the contract of goalie Martin Jones by signing him to a six-year, $34.5 million deal.
That’s a drastic change from a year ago, when three free agents signed seven-year contracts, including aging veteran Milan Lucic’s $42 million deal with Edmonton.
“There’s a whole lot of factors,” Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said, noting players’ age was one and so were the moves by teams to sign their players to extensions well before they might have hit the market.
As for a primary factor, Holland said: “The cap used to go up $4-5 million a year.”
Long-time player agent Steve Bartlett said teams are handcuffed by long-term deals and a flat cap, which Colorado GM Joe Sakic also cited. The cap has barely budged, going from $69 million in 2014-15 to $75 million next season.
Teams are instead resorting to a payroll model used by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. It’s one in which teams commit high salaries to their best players — such as Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — and fill secondary needs with youngsters and lower-priced journeymen.
That’s the approach Sharks GM Doug Wilson took in re-signing Vlasic, Jones as well as Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Brent Burns in November.
“These are guys who fit for now and the future,” Wilson said. “They are core pieces for our team at key positions. Getting these guys under contract was a really high priority.”
And they were signed at the risk of San Jose losing aging stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in free agency.
The Edmonton Oilers will soon find themselves in a similar fix with youngsters Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl both completing their fixed, entry-level rookie deals.
In Buffalo, newly hired general manager Jason Botterill noted he didn’t need to make a big splash in free agency after addressing a key need by acquiring defenseman Marco Scandella in a trade with Minnesota on Friday.
“If there’s something that makes our team better, we’ll certainly do it,” said Botterill. “But we don’t have to do anything crazy.”
He didn’t. Aside from signing Oilers castoff forward Ben Pouliot and journeyman goalie Chad Johnson, the Sabres signed five players to fill minor-league depth roles.
The pace of signings didn’t change with more than 30 players switching teams within the first 90 minutes.
Nick Bonino left the Stanley Cup-champion Penguins to sign a four-year, $16.4 million deal with Western Conference champion Nashville. The Predators freed up cap space to sign Bonino by trading center Colin Wilson to Colorado for a 2019 fourth-round draft pick.
The Penguins restocked by signing defenseman Matt Hunwick and goalie Antti Niemi. Hunwick takes over after Ron Hainsey signed with Toronto. Niemi fills the spot vacated after Marc-Andre Fleury was selected by Vegas.
The Wild lost center Martin Hanzal, who signed a three-year, $14.25 million contract with Dallas.
Vancouver was busy. The Canucks signed center Sam Gagner (three years, $9.45 million), defenseman Michael Del Zotto (two years, $6 million) and goalie Anders Nilsson (two years, $5 million).
Several players returned to familiar surroundings.
Like Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp is back in Chicago. He signed a one-year $800,000 contract after the forward spent the previous two seasons in Dallas.
Justin Williams signed a two-year, $9 million contract to return to Carolina, where he won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2004. Williams spent the past two seasons with the Washington Capitals, where he combined for 46 goals and 100 points.
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