If the summer of 2017 hasn’t produced the least impressive free agent group in NHL history, it’s certainly in the running for that dubious distinction. This year truly represents hockey’s version of a yard sale. Lots available, much of it of questionable use or quality, with some hidden treasures that might turn out to make their purchasers happy if they can be acquired at enough of a bargain.
It’s kind of difficult to fathom that 12 years after the fact, the NHL and many of its teams have yet to master the salary cap, a system that requires discipline, courage of conviction and dispassionate assessment of the value of a player. Starting Saturday, a lot of deals will be made. The vast majority of them will do nothing to push the needle for most of the teams acquiring those players and, in fact, will set many of them back because so many mistakes will have been made.
In fact, the Washington Capitals got an early start on the parade by signing right winger T.J. Oshie to an eight-year contract extension that carries an annual cap hit of $5.8 million that will take him past his 38th birthday. Clearly the Capitals believe that Oshie’s 33 goals last season are a portent of things to come and he will defy logic by becoming a better player as he continues to age. After all, he hasn’t scored this many goals in a season since high school. Why else would they sign him to a long-term deal at a higher annual salary than Oshie has ever made in his career?
This is one of those contracts that could look decent for a couple of years, but will get uglier and uglier the later it goes into the deal. Oshie is a winger and teams are not, or at least should not, be spending big money and/or term on anyone who can’t play center for them. Teams should be building down the middle and this doesn’t help the Capitals do that. It’s pretty clear the Capitals don’t really care about the long-term on this one, which is the same mistake the Toronto Maple Leafs made with David Clarkson. So the Capitals actually might be able to get themselves out of this one in a couple of years and have teams take turns batting that cap hit around to get up to the salary floor.
So now teams are faced with a 28-year-old Kevin Shattenkirk as the crown jewel, the same Shattenkirk who was about as underwhelming as he could possibly be when he moved to the Capitals from the St. Louis Blues at the trade deadline. Still, he’ll command a seven-year deal at big money where the New York Rangers will be big players because New York Rangers. Just because Shattenkirk is the biggest fish in the pond, does that necessarily make him a good catch?
After Shattenkirk, the most talked-about free agent defensemen are Trevor Daley, Dmitry Kulikov, Dan Girardi and Andrei Markov. Let me say that again so there is no misunderstanding. After Shattenkirk, the most talked-about free agent defensemen are Trevor Daley, Dmitry Kulikov, Dan Girardi and Andrei Markov. One of them is 33 years old. Another is a guy whose minus matched his age of 26 and had back and concussion problems. The third is a guy who was bought out by a team that loved him. And the fourth is a guy who is 38.
If a team doesn’t have one guy – just one guy – in its system that could fill the role those four would for a fraction of the cost, I would suggest they should either fire everyone involved in scouting and player development or stop trading away picks so they can stockpile those kinds of players.
At forward, we’re really talking about Joe Thornton, a 37-year-old who had seven goals last season, some of them even on a goaltender. Look, I love Joe Thornton. He’s a wonderful guy, a great person to have in the dressing room and outside of it representing your franchise. He can still be a secondary playmaker on a good team, but the Los Angeles Kings? Really? Have the Kings watched where the style of play is going these days? The last thing the Kings need to do is to get older and slower, but they appear to be serious players in the Joe Thornton Sweepstakes.
After that, you have Thornton’s running mate Patrick Marleau, who is two months younger. The wildcard is Alexander Radulov, who had a renaissance in Montreal last season and is looking to be rewarded. For Radulov, as is the case with most of these players, is not the money, but the term. Only Radim Vrbata had more points than Radulov among this year’s group of unrestricted free agents, but there are all kinds of pitfalls in offering Radulov a long-term deal.
That brings us to the likes of Sam Gagner, Thomas Vanek and Justin Williams, who are all coming off 48-50-point seasons and have some value, but also some very prominent red flags. After that, the pickings get very, very slim.
Kind of makes you wonder what all the fuss is about. I don’t agree with Brian Burke on much, but I am in lockstep with his notion that GMs make more mistakes on trade deadline day and July 1 than they do any other time of the year. And it looks as though this year will be no exception.