BUFFALO – In the words of veteran Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play man Bob Cole, “Everything is happening.” Even though the draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in Buffalo, the off-season heavy lifting for most teams begins now.
With the free agent courting period beginning Saturday, that should create quite a frenzy over the next few days, particularly when it comes to pending unrestricted free agent Steven Stamkos. Teams have called. Teams will continue to call. Whether Stamkos does a tour of each team who wants to speak to him or they come to him at the Newport agency’s offices in suburban Toronto, not unlike the conga line that showed up at its doors when Brad Richards became a free agent in 2011 is not known. But the line will be long and the talk will be rich leading up to the opening of free agency next Friday.
The Lightning have made their pitch to Stamkos, which is believed to be somewhere in the range of $8.5 million per season for eight years. The sense is that a deal is not going to get done unless and until the Lightning are prepared to put a nine at the front of the yearly salary. But the Lightning have two advantages. First, they’re the only team that can offer him nine years. Second, if Stamkos wants to win, none of the teams that is pursuing him gives him a better opportunity to do that than the Lightning do.
The Detroit Red Wings became the frontrunner in the race when they relieved themselves of Pavel Datsyuk’s salary on Friday night. But they’ll be joined by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks. There was even speculation that the New York Rangers, of all teams, might get in on the action. That would require them to move Rick Nash’s contract, which would cause all hell to break loose. And we all know that if the Rangers are involved, the numbers are bound to get goofy. There is talk that someone might step up and make an offer of $84 million over seven years. And all it takes is one team.
One gets the sense that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman isn’t about to get caught up in all the chaos. “I have no control over what other teams do,” he said Saturday after the draft. “It’s all a part of the business and we all have decisions to make. We’re both very clear on our positions.”
The Sabres are one of those teams that will be heavily involved in the Stamkos transaction and next to the Lightning, are the team that would be able to provide the most promising prospects for the future of his career. As of Saturday afternoon, Murray hadn’t officially contacted Stamkos’ camp, but said that call will be made. “The next conversation I have with (Stamkos’ agent) is to just, I guess, ask if Steven is going to be available on July 1 and would he have an interest in Buffalo,” Sabres GM Tim Murray said. “I have to ask that question. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t.”
Stamkos is not the only big-name free agent who could be available July 1. Another is Kyle Okposo, who is destined to leave the New York Islanders Friday and will be another player who is hotly pursued. It’s not such a spectacular free agent class, but there is some quality there in the form of Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, Troy Brouwer and David Backes. With the exception of Dan Hamhuis, the market for defensemen is pretty sparse. Clearly, defensemen have become the most valued currency in the NHL these days.
Along with the courting period, teams have to offer their restricted free agents qualifying offers by Monday and the period to buy out players ends on Thursday. Most teams are also holding their summer prospect camps this week as well. We'll also learn Monday who will make up the Hockey Hall of Fame's induction class of 2016, which represents Eric Lindros' best chance of finally receiving his due and being inducted.
One thing you probably shouldn’t expect to see is the threat of an offer sheet made to a restricted free agent because teams seem so reticent to do it. There is some real quality among that group with the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Seth Jones, Filip Forsberg and Sean Monahan available. But GMs who have those players don’t seem terribly concerned because they see offer sheets as an exercise in futility because they usually don’t work.
And the fact that the salary cap was basically stagnant, with an artificial inflator edging it up to just $73 million from $71.4 million, will have an effect on business. “With our cap being flat, that’s changed the game a lot this year,” said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill. “Restricted free agents get a (minimum) 10 percent raise and if every free agent wants to go from making $3 million to $6 million and it’s a flat cap, the numbers don’t add up. They just don’t add up. We’re all making commitments to our younger players at an earlier age and that money goes into the system. So you go from making $895,000 to $5 million and the cap is flat, the money has got to come from somewhere.”