VANCOUVER – The waiting is about to end for Jim Vandermeer.
Now that the NHL lockout has been resolved, he and other, older unrestricted free agents will have their future decided once the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified by owners and players. Since the lockout began Sept. 15, and even longer, he and his fellow journeymen have been in limbo because of the lengthy labour dispute.
“It’s kind of like a snow slide,” said Vandermeer, a 32-year-old Caroline, Alta., native, who entered the NHL in 2002-03. “Guys that are 30-35 years old, a lot of them are D-men, they were just trying to wait and see. They talked to teams before (the lockout), and they basically got the same response that I did.
“It would be nice if (teams) could give you a good answer, if they were really interested. But it obviously depends on what their cap space is …”
In other words, the end of the lockout could also spell the end of some careers.
When free agency opened in July, teams like the Minnesota Wild rushed to sign younger unrestricted free agent stars like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to long, lucrative deals. But Vandermeer and his peers had to prepare to dodge the fallout from a restructured salary cap in the new CBA.
The veteran free agents caught a break, because the cap will stay at the pre-lockout US$70-million level for one more—shortened—season before dropping to $64.3 million.
“The fact that the cap isn’t the lower number will help many of these guys pick up roles on clubs,” said player agent J.P. Barry.
“It’s going to be important for a lot of players, particularly again veteran players, to have strong short seasons here, because with the salary cap coming down, there will be a push. There is some protection with the compliance to ease up the system, but taking down the cap down $6 million will have an impact on some players.”
Barry, who only has one unrestricted free agent client, defenceman Cam Barker, 26, expects most UFAs to be signed to one or two-year deals. The “real squeeze” will be felt by pending restricted and unrestricted free agents, whose contracts are due to expire after the short season, as they deal with the drastic cap drop that will stay in place in following years.
“It will likely be a tougher summer, to be in the marketplace this summer, than it would be in the summers after,” said Barry.
While much of the attention will be on current restricted free agents like P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens and Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars before the season opens, there will be “more of a scramble” for older veteran UFAs.
Teams must quickly decide whether they can fill one or two holes by promoting players within their organizations, or sign experienced veterans from outside. Vandermeer is wary of the effect that a salary-cap drop will have on his other veterans’ careers.
“It’ll be a bite out of your salary, or some guys are just going to get washed right out,” said Vandermeer of a lower salary cap.
“That’s exactly what happened the last lockout. I was going through that, too. It’s tough to see when you’ve got some guys that have played 10-15 years and their careers are over because GMs think they’re over-priced, or cap number is put in place and they can’t afford them.”
Time will tell whether clubs decide to start making payroll cuts this season in preparation for 2013-14 or later.
“It’s just a matter of talking to a bunch of teams and seeing who’s interested,” said Vandermeer, who has also played for Philadelphia (two stints), Chicago, Calgary, Phoenix and Edmonton.
“Hopefully, there’s enough interest that I actually have a choice of places, and I’ll just go from there.”
According to Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis, clubs will put more of an onus on veterans in the upcoming abbreviated season.
“You don’t have the luxury of a full season to experiment,” said Gillis, whose team has a need for another veteran rearguard. “We were planning to introduce a number of young players. Now, I am not sure how that is going to work out with a shortened schedule.
“Obviously, with a 48-game schedule, you don’t have any room for experimentation or introduction unless the player is ready to play and ready to contribute. That is going to change the dynamics—not only for us, but every team in the league.”
Gillis explains that with such a short season the stakes are too high.
“We are going to have to go with our best players every night, no matter what, to make sure we get into the playoffs and have an opportunity to advance,” said Gillis.
Barry agrees with the Vancouver GM’s assessment.
“They have 48 games, so they probably need to have a fairly set idea of what they want to do with their roster,” said Barry, adding teams with just one or two holes to fill will likely look within their organizations.
Accordingly, teams could have greater demand for veteran free agents as they chase the Stanley Cup before further financial restrictions reduce their chance of winning one in the future. But Vandermeer is taking nothing for granted.
“I’m confident (of signing with another team), but as a free agent you really never know,” he said. “I’m staying in good shape, skating lots and I’ll be ready to go if I get a chance to do it.”
Other older UFA without teams include centre Jason Arnott, 38, who has won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2000, winger Brian Rolston, 39, goaltender Dan Ellis, 32, and defenceman Mike Commodore who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06 and went to the finals with the Calgary Flames in 2003-04.
Commodore signed a minor-league contract with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs in late November in a bid to keep his NHL career alive.
Younger UFAs in their early-to-mid-20s include ex-Edmonton Oiler Gilbert Brule and Kenndal McArdle, who played in the Winnipeg Jets organization last season.
Agent Barry is anticipating a busy week of negotiations. He suspects some deals were virtually completed Monday as negotiations were allowed to resume. But signings won’t be announced until the new CBA is ratified.
“We’re being advised by (the NHL Players Association) to at least entertain discussions already,” said Barry. “Once we know the exact rules, I think you’ll see some contracts coming out in public right after ratification.”