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Despite lower salary cap, unrestricted free agency expected to be busy as usual

When the clock strikes noon, money will be thrown like crazy ... as usual.

Even with the salary cap being set lower than many general managers expected and hoped for at $69 million and what's considered a shallow pool of top-end players available, this unrestricted-free-agent period figures to follow the familiar script of teams bidding up prices to keep up with each other.

"You have to be prepared rightly or wrongly to overspend and to give more term than you probably would want to," Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said on a conference call last week. "That doesn't mean you don't make a good deal, it's just the deal is probably pricier than you would like."

Bad contracts of years past are being revisited now as they're bought out, like the Buffalo Sabres getting out from the rest of Ville Leino's deal or the New York Rangers having little choice but to cut ties with Brad Richards. Last year's madness included Mike Ribeiro getting $22 million over four seasons, and last week he was bought out.

"It is a time where I think the day after some of these contracts are signed, people go, 'Hmmm,' and sit back and think," Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said last week in Philadelphia. "That's the age we're living in. That's the nature of it."

The teams that sign winger Thomas Vanek, centre Paul Stastny, defenceman Matt Niskanen hope their investments prove more sound. Those three players lead the crop, followed by wingers Matt Moulson and Jarome Iginla, centre Dave Bolland, defencemen Christian Ehrhoff and Dan Boyle and goaltenders Ryan Miller and Jonas Hiller.

Already, before teams are free to sign players at noon Tuesday, over $1.1 billion has been spent to retain potential unrestricted free agents at an average cost of $3.57 million, according to CapGeek. Many of the top free agents will get more money than that on an annual basis, just based on the market value.

Still, Chiarelli believes it's possible to spend smart money in free agency.

"As long as the expectations are in place and you know the player that you're getting, I wouldn't necessarily call it a bad deal," he said. "It may be in five years if it is a bad deal, but it is something that can help your team and you just have to be cautious of the hysteria that happens."

The hysteria started early this year thanks to the new five-day window teams and pending unrestricted free agents have to talk before deals can get signed. They've been free to discuss fits and salary parameters, just not agree verbally or in principle.

It seems to have given players more leverage than before because they can consider options rather than make a quick decision on July 1. For teams, the negotiating period is still a work in progress.

"It's useful in that you can lay some plans and some groundwork," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis said last week in Philadelphia. "Whether it helps in getting players in or not, I think that remains to be seen.”

Compliance buyouts have also changed the landscape, pouring more players like Richards, Ehrhoff, ex-Vancouver Canucks winger David Booth and ex-New Jersey Devils defenceman Anton Volchenkov into the market. Those players can double-dip on pay cheques, while their former teams can allocate the saved salary-cap space elsewhere.

The Buffalo Sabres have the most cap space, according to CapGeek, with almost $39 million. They need to spend more than $20 million just to get to the $51-million floor.

First-time GM Tim Murray isn't worried about needing to get to the floor, nor is he scared of the perils of free agency.

"I don't think it's dangerous. I go back to my old cliche: evaluate properly and it's never dangerous," Murray said Saturday in Philadelphia. "If you fall in love with the flavour of the week, it could be very dangerous.

"But do your homework. Evaluate players properly. Go after the right players, which doesn't mean it's the top guy on somebody else's list. It's who you feel is the right guy."

The negotiating window has shed some light on the idea that some guys are wanted by a lot of teams. Niskanen's agent, Neil Sheehy, said in an email that more than 10 teams had shown interest in the 27-year-old defenceman and that they were planning to pare down that list before Tuesday.

That's a task many of the top free agents and their representatives have been going through because it's still very much a players market.

"It's kind of the double-edged sword," Cheveldayoff said. "You're trying to find pieces that can maybe push you and the different depths of the free agent market in different years entices you or maybe doesn't excite you.

"But it's a way to add and if you can do it reasonably and maybe someone fits in your organization and maybe it becomes a long-term thing. You have to take a look at that regardless of the dollars."

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