Brad Richards tops free-agent class that appears set to cash in on July 1

Everything appears to be in place for the floodgates to open along with the start of NHL free agency on Friday.

With a number of teams eager to open their wallets and very little top-level talent available beyond Brad Richards, one league observer predicted the spending could get “out of control.”

NHL general managers have certainly been down that road before—most notably July 1, 2008, when nearly US$400 million in contract commitments was handed out in a matter of hours.

While it seems unlikely that kind of money will be spent again—there simply aren’t enough players available—a similar climate exists this time around. The free-agent crop doesn’t come close to matching the demand, so players like James Wisniewski, Erik Cole and Max Talbot have leverage to ask for more money than they otherwise might.

Interestingly, some of the big spenders will likely be teams at the bottom end of the pay scale that are trying to reach next year’s $48.3-million salary floor.

“I look at my board and I see the number of players and quality of players, and there’s just not the high-end players,” Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said Thursday on a conference call. “Of course, you’ve got the floor of the cap and teams have to spend so you’re going to get contracts that are generally higher in the unrestricted market.

“I think they’ll be at an even added premium because they have to spend.”

Richards was destined to be paid big money no matter what kind of shape the market was in. The centre has averaged slightly less than a point per game since the lockout and is the lone marquee player available.

He travelled to suburban Toronto and will be with agent Pat Morris when the suitors start making their pitches at 12 p.m. ET on Friday.

Richards is 31 and recently played out the last season of a deal that paid him $7.8 million annually. He’ll likely command another long-term contract in a similar pay bracket.

The urgency in the marketplace could be seen in some of the signings made Thursday: Buffalo signed Christian Ehrhoff to a reported $40 million, 10-year contract; Carolina gave forward Jussi Jokinen a $9-million, three-year deal after watching his goal total drop from 30 to 19 last season; and Chicago signed journeyman Steve Montador to an $11-million, four-year contract after surrendering a seventh-round pick to acquire his rights from Buffalo.

And those players didn’t even reach the open market.

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The average salary was $2.28 million last season (before escrow deductions) and appears destined to take another jump in 2011-12, the final year of the collective bargaining agreement.

A number of GMs find themselves in an awkward position. With pressure mounting to improve their team and send a message, they have very few choices. To top things off, they must all surely be aware of the mistakes made in the recent past.

Former Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon famously lamented “on July 1, you always overpay” after spending more than $79 million to land Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet in 2008. Tallon is now in charge of the Florida Panthers and needs to spend to get to the floor even after acquiring Campbell in a trade last weekend. Who does he want to overpay now?

A number of teams probably regret getting involved in the free-for-all that was July 1, 2008.

Toronto grabbed Jeff Finger that day while the New York Rangers landed Wade Redden and both players now find themselves earning big-league money in the minors. The Columbus Blue Jackets also inked Mike Commodore—the same player they placed on unconditional waivers Thursday with the intent of buying out the remaining two years of his deal.

Sheldon Souray, signed to a five-year deal by the Edmonton Oilers in 2007, can also expect to be bought out Friday after being placed on waivers.

It’s the time of year where GMs make more mistakes than any other. Clearly, none of them want to repeat those errors.

“I’m a little wary of the market,” said Chiarelli. “The cap is high and it’s certainly going to come down in some shape or form (eventually).”

Of course, he can afford to be patient. With the nucleus of his championship team virtually intact—defenceman Tomas Kaberle and forward Michael Ryder will each test free agency—there is much less pressure for Chiarelli to get involved in the action.

Ultimately, the key to successfully navigating this July 1 probably lies in bringing modest expectations.

“If you’re looking for a No. 1 centre or that kind of player, maybe (the free-agent class) is not as strong—that’s debatable,” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman told local beat writers Thursday on a conference call. “But we haven’t been focusing on that because we’re comfortable with the players we have in those roles. We’re trying to get a different kind of player into our mix here.

“I think it’s a good group for that.”