With the unrestricted free agent market for this summer pretty much picked clean, it’s time to start looking toward 2015. And if you’re doing that, you might be disappointed, since the best free agent out there next summer might be Mike Babcock.
Yes, there’s the likes of Jason Spezza and David Krejci, along with Derick Brassard and Marc-Andre Fleury, but chances are much of the top talent will not even see the calendar turn to July 1 before re-signing with their current teams. Chances are, the Dallas Stars didn't trade for Spezza only to lose him after one season, so there will be a full-court press to sign him. And the Boston Bruins, for all their cap woes, will probably do everything they can to keep their playmaking center in Krejci.
This, of course, was not supposed to happen. By having players as young as 25 reach the criteria for free agency, it was supposed to create a free-for-all for the best young players in the league. Instead, it has the potential to turn Free Agent Frenzy to Free Agent Fizzle.
What has happened is teams have increasingly been doing what the Chicago Blackhawks did last week by signing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to eight-year contracts. Both would have hit the market as unrestricted free agents for the first time next summer had they not signed, but they opted for the security and big money of their long-term deals.
But they’re not the only ones who have done that. If you look at the list of players who would have been eligible for their first crack at unrestricted free agency – either having accumulated seven accrued NHL seasons or reached the age of 27 - you see that many of them are on deals that will carry them well beyond that.
Toews and Kane, of course, are in Chicago until after the 2022-23 season, but Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux isn’t far behind. The eight-year extension that kicked in this past season keeps him under contract until 2021-22. Drew Doughty, who will play his seventh NHL season in 2014-15, is under contract to the Los Angeles Kings until 2018-19. Steven Stamkos, who would have been in the same position as Doughty, is committed to the Tampa Bay Lightning through the 2015-16 season.
Imagine if you were to put those five players on the UFA market for 2015 and watch GMs all over the league trip over themselves offering them seven-year deals for the maximum allowable salary – which would be $13.8 million based on the $69 million salary cap for the 2014-15 season. It will almost certainly be higher next summer.
Kyle Okposo and Milan Lucic are both committed until the summer of 2016, unless they sign extensions before then. Brad Marchand is under contract until 2017 and Semyon Varlamov has a deal with the Colorado Avalanche that goes through the 2018-19 season.
All of which is good for the teams that employ them, and for the players as well, but it certainly takes a little luster off the shine of July 1. It’s not exactly killing unrestricted free agency, since all it takes is one or two big names to get the wheels of commerce turning at breakneck speed, but it certainly puts a damper on it.
You certainly can’t fault the players for taking the security of the long-term deals. And where those deals take away from the free agent excitement, there is a certain comfort for fans in knowing their young stars aren’t going to go all LeBron James on them.