Unrestricted free agents in NHL lockout limbo

Thanks to the NHL lockout, unsigned unrestricted free agents, including familiar names like Jason Arnott and Brendan Morrison to name two, have seen any interest in them diminish.
Brendan Morrison, an unrestricted free agent who split last season between the Flames and Blackhawks, remains unsigned. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Two and a half months after becoming an unrestricted free agent, Kenndal McArdle is still waiting for the phone to ring.

And with the NHL now in a lockout, it's unlikely he'll be getting contract offers any time soon.

"It is something that can be frustrating because the unrestricted free agent market is a lot smaller this summer because of the lockout," said McArdle, a 25-year-old Toronto native who grew up in Burnaby, B.C.

"There's more worrying and more uncertainty in your life. For a lot of us, hockey is our livelihood and the uncertainty increases the amount of stress in your life, so it's been a long summer, to say the least."

McArdle is among a large group of unsigned players — young and old alike — waiting for the next collective bargaining agreement to determine where they will play their next season.

The unrestricted free agent list ranges from early-to-mid-career professionals like Fabien Brunnstrom and Angelo Esposito to aging stars Jason Arnott, Daymond Langkow, Brian Rolston and Brendan Morrison. Theoretically, McArdle and his contemporaries have time on their side and should be able to rebound from the lockout's impact on their careers — but the older players do not.

McArdle, a former WHL star, was drafted 20th overall by the Florida Panthers in 2005. He won a Memorial Cup with the Vancouver Giants in 2007 and a gold medal with Canada's world junior team the same year, but is now trying to stick in the NHL as a so-called depth player.

The winger spent 2011-12 with the Winnipeg Jets organization, suiting up for nine NHL games and splitting the rest of the season with AHL clubs in St. John's, N.L., and Portland, Maine. Once considered a can't-miss kid, he is concerned that the lockout will enable a new group of prospects to make their marks in the minors, and threaten his job security.

"It gives the young guys or the guys that are coming up another year to mature, another year to get ready, especially with the guys who will continue to play in the American Hockey League," said McArdle, who may consider playing in Europe or signing a minor-league contract.

"It gives them a chance to continue their development within the organization. It can help them to propel themselves up to the next level.

"At the same time, it can be a disadvantage to the young guy who is looking to make the jump this year. Hockey being the way that it is, another year in the minors may have a negative effect on that player's mental state and/or injuries per se."

'Everybody is waiting to see'

According to agent J.P. Barry, the usual September flurry of free-agent signings came to "a grinding halt" because teams are waiting to see how the new CBA's salary-cap numbers will affect their ability to sign players.

"The current [unrestricted free agents] are in limbo because the first wave was signed and now everybody is waiting to see what the cap number will be," said Barry. "Until they know what the cap number is going to be based on the negotiations, that [uncertainty] could affect the market for those free agents."

McArdle's agent Kevin Epp predicts there will be a "big rush" of signings once a new collective agreement is reached. He noted teams like the Edmonton Oilers, who re-signed Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle to long-term deals this summer, have been able to sign franchise players because they had salary-cap room to work with — regardless of the outcome of the labour talks.

But other clubs that are closer to the old cap have been forced to delay signings until the new financial framework is set. Consequently, many players and their agents are in wait-and-see mode.

"It's funny when you talk to [players] because they only know what we tell them — and we don't know a lot if nobody is doing anything," Epp said. "We have to be patient."

Once a new deal is done, he predicted, teams could hold off on signing older players and test younger and cheaper players first. If a young player does not perform as expected, then clubs could look to sign a veteran.

Many older free agents, like Morrison, a former NHL ironman who split last season between Calgary and Chicago, have also battled injuries in recent seasons. That fact raises the question of whether teams have delayed signing veterans because of their health.

But Morrison's agent, Kurt Overhardt, said the new salary cap will be the determining factor in a free agent's future. Overhardt believes Morrison, who is active in CBA negotiations even though he does not have a contract, will eventually get a new deal.

"It's not uncommon for guys not to be signed," said Overhardt. "There's a lot of cash still in the pipeline.

"People are just waiting to see what the number's going to be based on what the new system is. Injury has nothing to do with it."

'More than comfortable being patient'

Agent Wade Arnott, who represents his brother Jason, 37, said veterans understood teams were not going to sign players as usual following the first wave of signings in early July. Echoing the sentiments of other agents interviewed, Wade Arnott expects older free agents, including his brother, to get deals once the new CBA is completed.

"In his case, we had interest from a few teams in early July," said Wade Arnott. "One, in fact, made a proposal.

"He wasn't ready to commit right away to that situation, so he was more than comfortable being patient through the off-season. As it stands now, there are a good handful of teams, probably four or five teams, that are interested in Jason and I think they are waiting to see what the new CBA brings in some respects.

"In a few of those cases, they're also waiting on a couple of other signings."

Arnott said another lost season would be "not a positive thing" for aging players' careers, but a short lockout should not be a "major issue."

He said the lockout deadline produced a flurry of contract extensions for players whose contracts expire after the 2012-13 season. But several pending free agents also face career uncertainty. They include Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, Mason Raymond and Manny Malhotra of the Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask and forward Nathan Horton, Minnesota Wild netminder Niklas Backstrom and well-travelled Winnipeg Jets centre Kyle Wellwood.

Barry recalled that older players had trouble extending their careers after the last lockout. He pointed to comments from retired star Bill Guerin, who was active with the union but expressed regret publicly about his lost season. It cost him $9 million US in unpaid salary and resulted in him taking a buyout from the Dallas Stars after he underachieved in the following campaign.

But agent Overhardt said no player should use a lockout as an excuse for a shortened career. Ultimately, players of any age have to make sure they stay in top condition in order to keep their jobs.

"These guys have an obligation to stay in great shape," he said. "They have an obligation to keep their body fat low.

"They have an obligation to keep healthy. If they don't do that, they won't play.

"Whether there's a work stoppage or not, it's something that they have to do."