30 Thoughts: NHL free agents reluctant to commit early | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in Canada30 Thoughts: NHL free agents reluctant to commit early

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2014 | 10:14 AM

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Forward Thomas Vanek, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, inked a $19.5-million free-agent deal with the Minnesota Wild.  (Francois Laplante/Getty Images) Forward Thomas Vanek, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, inked a $19.5-million free-agent deal with the Minnesota Wild. (Francois Laplante/Getty Images)

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In 2012, more than 20 unrestricted free-agents-to-be signed in advance of the annual summer meat market, insuring their futures before anyone could bid. This year the number is down to eight.
From May 1 to June 30, 2012, more than 20 unrestricted free-agents-to-be signed in advance of the annual summer meat market, insuring their futures before anyone could bid.

Three were traded to new locations before they committed: Brad Stuart, Tomas Vokoun and Dennis Wideman. The rest included Paul Gaustad, Josh Harding, Barret Jackman, Chris Kelly, Travis Moen, Lee Stempniak and Jarret Stoll.

We've still got another week to go before this year's extravaganza, but do you know what the number is in 2014? No peeking!

Eight -- and five are goalies in a very tight market for that position. The three skaters are Mike Brown (San Jose), Kimmo Timonen (Philadelphia) and Marek Zidlicky (New Jersey). That's it.

There is time for this number to increase, but it's clear one major post-2012 change impacted a player's willingness to sign early. The new CBA allows a week-long "courting period" where free agents can chat with potential employers to see if there's a match. Technically, no financial inducements can be made, but that's almost impossible to enforce. You can imagine the conversations.

GM or owner, not wanting to break the rules: "Do you like numbers with lots of straight lines? Or do you like curves?"

Player: "Definitely curves."

GM/owner (in his head): "Does he mean $6 million? Or $8 million?"

I was a big supporter of this idea for two reasons. First, teams were really complaining about tampering. Second, it is great for fan and media interest, as we race to find out who's talking to whom.

After spending some time on the phone last weekend, it's clear the players love it and the agents love it. But, my goodness, do the teams HATE it. A couple of the rants were sports-radio-caller brilliant.

"It used to be that, come July 1, the risk was shared equally," said one GM with a calmer take. "The player could say, 'I want to see what's out there,' and that would be fine, because we could say, 'Go ahead, but we also want to see what's out there.' The player risked losing his seat at our table. That's not the case anymore. They can test free agency, but we can't replace them in free agency -- yet."

That's why there is so much talk about trades. The free agent class is weak to begin with -- teams want to settle their problems beforehand. But somebody is going to miss out. If you're Ales Hemsky or Paul Stastny or whomever, don't you want to make sure?

It makes the teams crazy, because it creates uncertainty. And that uncertainty will add a little more wildness to a loopy week.

30 Thoughts

1. The Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons reported L.A.'s offer to Marian Gaborik was three years and $15 million US. I'd heard an average annual value of closer to $5.5-$6M, but the same length. There was optimism something would get done. Whatever the case, Gaborik's decision absolutely affects the market.

2. When Los Angeles announced John Stevens's promotion last week, it also revealed new contracts for Davis Payne and Bill Ranford. Who didn't come up? Darryl Sutter. That led to speculation he might work one more year before Stevens takes over. Doesn't sound like that's Dean Lombardi's plan. Word is discussions are underway on a new contract for Sutter.

3. As we head towards Philadelphia, site of Draft Smorgasbord 2014, who are the teams to watch? Well, Florida is atop the list, because of its willingness to separate itself from the first overall selection. Other teams don't believe GM Dale Tallon will make his final decision until Thursday night, so there might be a lull beforehand. Why show your best offer on Tuesday when it might not matter for 48 hours?

4. One team that has definitely made an offer? Vancouver. I believe it included their first pick in this draft (which is sixth overall) and Hunter Shinkaruk, who was taken 24th in 2013. There was at least one other piece, probably off the main roster, but I can't pin it down. It's not Ryan Kesler, who won't go there.

5. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reported Kesler would only go to Chicago or Pittsburgh. I don't think the list is a long one, but it does include Anaheim.

6. Interesting scenario of the week: Will the Canucks and Kesler work towards a three-way deal that gets Kesler where he wants to go if Vancouver can't find a match with one of his preferred destinations?

7. Islanders GM Garth Snow is on record telling Newsday's Arthur Staple that he will give up the fifth selection for a player who can help them win now. Other teams are more in "stealth mode," and one is definitely Toronto. Dave Nonis is like a baseball GM, throwing 25 players on the waiver wire to hide the one he really wants to move.

8. There is no doubt he is testing the market on a significant portion of his roster. I don't think Toronto will make a deal just for the sake of it, but the Leafs are looking to add depth up front and re-arrange the blue-line. Teams asking about Morgan Rielly are being laughed out of existence. I also don't think Jonathan Bernier and Phil Kessel are available, either. They get asked a lot about Jake Gardiner and James van Riemsdyk, but are you willing to make an offer that doesn't allow Toronto to say no?

9. Nonis was not available to comment, but he has always maintained he will only trade youth for youth. Or, if we're talking about a more veteran player, someone with term who can still help. Toronto will consider moving up, but would the Maple Leafs consider dropping out of the first round entirely if they got a significant asset?

10. Two others to watch: Carolina and Winnipeg. When the Hurricanes introduced new coach Bill Peters, GM Ron Francis said, "I don't foresee a major makeover." That may be true, but it would surprise no one if he made one significant move to jolt his group. Not sure his top young players (Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner) are available, though.

11. As for Winnipeg, we've all heard the Evander Kane rumours, and there is growing consensus the Jets are willing to do it. Zach Bogosian's name is getting around too, which surprised me. But the Jets are probably in the same position as the Maple Leafs (and others), listening to inquiries about almost everyone on their roster, not necessarily pulling the trigger, but listening intently. They know the honeymoon is running out.

12. Finally, there's Philadelphia. It would be a surprise if the Flyers, hosts of this draft, did not at least inquire about what it would take to get near the top -- if not right at it. This is a franchise unafraid to take bold swings.

13. There were rumblings a few weeks ago about Edmonton moving up, but that trail's gone cold.

14. The Oilers offered Steve Smith a chance to stay, but as the "eye in the sky" as opposed to being on the bench. Apparently, he's interviewed elsewhere. If Dallas Eakins is looking for someone else who played defence in the NHL, he might turn to AHL Lake Erie's Dean Chynoweth, a friend of his who made a positive impact with Travis Hamonic (as an Islanders assistant) and Tyson Barrie. But Chynoweth might not want to be in the press box, either.

15. Hearing a lot of Montreal's decisions are based on whether or not the Canadiens decide to keep Andrei Markov. His asking price (reported to be three years and $18M) is steep, especially that third year. Accepting that, or something close to it, affects Marc Bergevin's ability to do other things. He's undoubtedly looking to see if there's something he can do that would make this choice an easier one.

16. In the middle of all the Jason Spezza rumours, he did a really nice thing for Sam Bennett. Bennett told reporters while attending Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final that Ottawa's captain (for now) reached out to him when news broke that the upcoming first-round pick couldn't do a single pull-up at the NHL combine. The two work out at the same gym. So what was said? "I don't really know Sam, but he is around the gym. So I called him because I felt bad for him," Spezza wrote by email. "I know the pressure he must be under before the draft."

17. He continued: "I told him that I have never really watched him play; the only reason why people are making a big deal about this is because you are an amazing player. [Don't] make what should be a positive life experience of getting drafted become a negative because of one test... I said he is probably well aware that he needs to work at his upper-body strength. Use the criticism constructively and use it to motivate, not to beat yourself up... My whole career people have told me about all the things I do wrong but it just drives me to get better... And I told him to own it, don't be cocky about the fact that you can't do a pull-up but don't run from it either... Anyways, that's kinda the Coles Notes version of my talk." That's great stuff. (Spezza responded through a third party -- no way he's giving me his email address right now.)

18. There's a lot of linkage between Spezza and St. Louis, which makes a ton of sense. I asked four execs to name the one trade they think will happen, and Spezza to St. Louis got three votes. (This, of course, means it won't occur. Eric Staal would also look great in a Blues jersey, if Carolina wanted to do that.) Anyway, the key name being mentioned in return is Patrik Berglund, who needs a new contract after making $3.2M last season. There are differing opinions on him. He's bounced a bit from centre to wing and has this weird career history of strong production in odd-numbered seasons (eg. 2012-2013, which is a good omen for next year) but lower totals in even ones (2013-14).

19. The Blues have a few options with Berglund if this is not to be. Almost everyone is looking for centres and Berglund won't cost as much as Kesler or Spezza or Joe Thornton (assuming he is even available). For example, if the Canucks trade Kesler and still desire to add more, would they look at Berglund to fill holes?

20. So, Bill Peters, is Eric Staal a centre or a winger? "Both. But, to me, he's a centre to start.

21. Peters had a great line about his captain. I asked if he'd had a chance to speak to Staal and he said he was going to talk to him as soon as we were done. "You're talking to me before you talk to him?" I asked. "I'm almost finished driving," Peters answered. "I don't need to take notes with you. I do need to take them with him."

22. A couple things he said were pretty interesting. About making the playoffs, he said, "I'm going to ask our players, 'Can we get one more win a month?' That's 14 points. It's not that daunting of a task." He also pointed out how the Hurricanes had 70 more minutes on the power play than the penalty kill (third-best in the NHL), but ranked 28th overall with the man-advantage. That's a killer.

23. Peters impressed every team who interviewed him with his preparation. Apparently, the binders he brought were really something. And he made sure to have enough for everyone talking to him, meaning he researched how many people would be in the interview. As someone who is occasionally brutal on details, I enjoy hearing about this stuff.

24. So, what happened in Pittsburgh? There is zero doubt the Penguins were going to hire Peters or Willie Desjardins. They were the top two on the list. When Carolina snapped up Peters, Desjardins was the guy. Desjardins can answer this better than anyone else, but in the end I think his heart was in Vancouver.

25. He's from Western Canada and has the Medicine Hat connection with Trevor Linden. But do not underestimate the place of Doug Lidster in all this. Lidster -- who worked alongside Desjardins in AHL Texas -- is very tight with Linden and also will be joining Vancouver. If Linden and Desjardins had any doubt about each other, Lidster would have erased it. If Desjardins wouldn't be able to take Lidster with him to Pittsburgh, as it was reported, that would have been a problem. (For the record, another Penguins candidate said he was not told about any restrictions on assistants. That source is not Peters, who is quoted above.)

26. The Canucks were supposed to interview Scott Arniel on Monday and Desjardins on Tuesday. They changed the schedule. Pittsburgh brought Desjardins into town last Thursday, met with him and, word is, were ready to offer him the job Friday morning. I'd like to see Linden's phone records from Thursday night. Whatever the case, someone from Vancouver made a pre-emptive strike, making sure it was all but done before Pittsburgh could close.

27. The Penguins are unlikely to promote their AHL coach, John Hynes. If Peters and Desjardins were the choices, is that good news for Todd Nelson? Very similar resume. Another new interviewee will be Mike Johnston, who coaches at WHL Portland and was on Vancouver's list.

28. Penguins fans are looking at this and saying, "What the heck? Does no one want to coach Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?" It's a great question and one we are all asking. The number one answer: It hasn't been a lot of fun there. Ownership and the team's CEO, David Morehouse, are taking most of the heat, but that's not a true picture, because it extended onto the bench and in the dressing room. The demands, the pressure and the disappointment took its toll on a lot of people. No one likes to lose, but things used to be joyous there. That must be re-discovered. It also reveals what a great job Ray Shero did preventing all of this from going public while he was in charge.

29. One other Pittsburgh note: hearing Kris Letang will not be traded, barring a ridiculous offer.

30. OK, one more. Assistant coach Todd Reirden, responsible for defence and given permission to look for other work, may end up in Washington alongside Barry Trotz.

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