When the NHL and NHLPA instituted a bargaining window in the week before July 1 as part of the most recent collective bargaining agreement in 2013, it opened up a realm of possibilities for unrestricted free agents and the teams chasing them. But who truly benefits from the change? It depends who you ask.
To be perfectly clear about the issue, it’s important to acknowledge teams were already reaching out to players before the policy was put in place. They just had to be more subtle about it. “Everybody used to tamper anyway,” said one NHL team executive. “Now it’s legal.”
The advent of the negotiation window meant players could physically visit the cities they were interested in, meet with team personnel and get a sense of what their potential new homes would look like on and off the ice. The window opens after the NHL draft and closes June 30, so this year it’s eight days (June 23-30).
Today’s tours can include visits to the arena as well as the communities that players tend to live in and schools their kids may attend. The latter two stops are more for the wife and kids, said the executive. For the players, the window gives them a chance to talk with coaches and management, and get a preview of where they might fit into the lineup.
Wade Arnott, an agent with Newport Sports, cites client Jay Beagle as an example of a player who used the window to his advantage last summer. Beagle, who had spent his entire NHL career with the Washington Capitals, found himself looking elsewhere as a UFA after winning the Cup with the Caps. The gritty center took a trip to Vancouver and, while the city is known for its natural beauty, it was the meeting with the coaching staff and management that was influential in convincing Beagle to join the franchise on a four-year deal worth $12 million.
Another player agent half-joked he hates when his clients visit a city, because they fall in love with the first one and just want to sign instead of exploring other options and creating a market for themselves.
Some franchises have to work harder than others in that respect. Florida GM Dale Tallon said his team hasn’t brought in anyone during the window. “A lot of the guys have already been here,” he said. “If it meant tipping the scales, we’d do it, but we haven’t needed to yet.”
With sun, sand and no state income tax, the state of Florida is already known as being athlete-friendly, which is a boon for the Panthers (who are one of the frontrunners for Columbus UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) and Tampa Bay. The Lightning have done a great job in recent years at keeping their own pending UFAs, most notably Steven Stamkos, and doing so on team-friendly deals.
As for the overall impact of the window, it depends on the player. Back in the day, teams used to literally line up on July 1 to meet with an in-demand talent. One of the most famous cases was Brad Richards, a Newport client who was coveted by many in 2011, so much so that team reps waited outside the agency’s office in Mississauga, Ont., for their chance to make a pitch. The New York Rangers won, signing Richards to a nine-year, $58.5-million deal.
Today, those big stars can get pitched by teams beforehand, giving them more time to weigh their options. If teams want to fly a player in, they have to wait until the negotiation window opens – after the draft. That results in some scrambling on the travel end, but it’s the letter of the law. Having said that, maybe there’s some chatter in the weeks (or months) leading up to the negotiation window whereby teams can intimate to an agent something like, “Hey, save a day to come visit us. We can talk term later.” As mentioned earlier, in the years before the negotiation window, teams were subtle when contacting agents prior to July 1.
This negotiation window also gives teams an opportunity to read the tea leaves, giving them an opportunity to figure out a Plan B or C ahead of time. “It’s been advantageous for both the player and the club,” Arnott said. “Both get to do due diligence before signing.”
John Tavares was the big prize in last year’s UFA class, and he held meetings in Los Angeles, where agent Pat Brisson of CAA Hockey is based. Tavares met with six teams before choosing his hometown Toronto over suitors San Jose, Boston and the New York Islanders.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson went out of his way to thank Tavares for the consideration, releasing an official statement after the center signed with the Leafs. “I want to thank John Tavares and Pat Brisson for their interest in the San Jose Sharks and professionalism throughout this negotiation process,” Wilson wrote. “While we are naturally disappointed in the final decision, it’s extremely heartening to know that the top players in this league consistently view San Jose as a place they want to play.”
If you’re not Tavares, the window can still be helpful, but you have to be patient. Scott Bartlett is part of Sports Consulting Group, whose clients include Clayton Keller, Justin Faulk and Cale Makar, and Bartlett has seen the subtleties of the window play out in various ways. “It’s great for the high-end guys because they can get pitched by teams,” he said. “For the lower-end guys, there’s more of a waiting period.”
According to the NHL team executive, the window is a good time to meet with role players and put them on the clock: the team may like them, but if they’re not willing to sign right away, the team already knows who the next guy on their list is.
When it comes down to it, free agency is a game of musical chairs. For some agents, the window has been a negative because it makes teams more indecisive. Instead of having their best pitch ready to go as soon as free agency opens July 1, they’ve had days to hem and haw about a potential signee. But some teams believe the players have the advantage under the new rules, because they can tell Team B what Team A is willing to give them. “It was a stroke of genius by the NHLPA,” said the NHL exec. “One-hundred percent, it drives the prices up.”
Teams and players cannot put pen to paper on a contract before July 1, but the framework can be figured out. This is why a flood of deals are announced shortly after noon on July 1. The deals can be plotted out ahead of time, which harkens to the pre-window days when there was enough grey area to get things done unofficially if the parties were smart about it.
Last year, the majority of free agents signed right on July 1, and surely the negotiation window was a reason for that. The results were mixed among those who waited longer. On July 2, James Neal left Vegas for a five-year pact with Calgary worth $5.75 million per season, then struggled with the Flames.
On the other hand, the Islanders didn’t sign Robin Lehner until July 3, and he became one of the top goalies in the NHL. He even revealed he wasn’t New York’s top choice (see pg. 26 for more) at the time. St. Louis playoff hero Patrick Maroon didn’t sign with his hometown team until July 10.