2012 NHL UFA Preview: Two primetime stars and a cautionary tale

Rewind one year. Thirty-seven minutes after NHL free agency opened at noon on July 1, representatives of the Los Angeles Kings arrived at an office building near Toronto. They had come to Newport Sports to make their pitch to the top player on the market – really, the only marquee player on the market – Brad Richards.

They couldn't get in the door. Literally. They pulled on it, but it was locked. They pushed the buzzer, but there was no response. All of it was captured on camera and aired on TSN's five-hour "Free Agent Frenzy."

Despite a push that included personal appearances by governor Tim Leiweke, general manager Dean Lombardi and some coaches, the Kings failed to sign Richards. So did some other serious suitors, who watched Richards go where everyone thought he would in the first place: the New York Rangers.

The Kings lost out on the big prize in free agency. But they won the big prize in the playoffs – the Stanley Cup.

* * * * *

Rewind one year again. Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli didn't like the landscape. Lots of teams had money to spend under the $64.3 million salary cap, and others had to spend just to reach the $48.3 million floor. But the talent pool was shallow.

Too much demand plus too little supply were going to equal bad deals. Depending on the new collective bargaining agreement, bad deals had the potential to become crippling in the future.

[Related: Justin Schultz drama exposes CBA flaws and rookie diva complex]

"The cap is high," Chiarelli said then. "The cap is certainly going to come down in some shape or form. So, generally speaking, I'm wary of the market, where I think it might be going. … At the end of the day, the parties will decide where the CBA is. But I can't see it being where it's at now."

With a new, ambitious, billionaire owner in Terry Pegula, the Buffalo Sabres went on a shopping spree. They traded for the rights to Christian Ehrhoff and signed him to a 10-year, $40 million deal. They signed Ville Leino to a six-year, $27 million deal.

The Sabres made a splash. They missed the playoffs.

* * * * *

Remember all that as NHL free agency opens at noon on Sunday.

Teams will court the marquee players on the market – Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

Teams will pay above-average players like stars, because they have the money and those are the best players available. It's already happening. The Calgary Flames traded for the rights to Dennis Wideman and signed him to a five-year, $26.25 million deal with a no-move clause. What's Jason Garrison going to get? Matt Carle? P.A. Parenteau?

What about Shane Doan and Martin Brodeur, respected, accomplished veterans who might be forced to leave the only franchises they have ever known because of ownership issues? What would you give Doan at 35 going on 36? What would you offer Brodeur at age 40?

This comes just as the NHL and the NHL Players' Association are beginning labor negotiations. Chiarelli and many others thought the cap was high last year. Many teams thought the floor was high last year. Well, both are $5.9 million higher for 2012-13 – at least for now. Obviously the league wants both to come down, and though the union will fight that, no GM can assume the cap space he has today is the cap space he will have whenever the season starts.

The moral of the story is simple: If you lose out in July, that doesn't mean you will lose out in June. If you make a splash now, you could still be sunk later. Buyer beware.

[Related: Devils goalie Martin Brodeur may test free agency]

"The media really focuses in on July 1st, and it's obviously an important time," said Red Wings GM Ken Holland. "But it's one of the important times. We just passed a real important time a week ago, the draft."

And that's coming from a guy who says he's going to be "active" and "explore the market" on Sunday, a guy expected to heavily pursue both Parise and Suter, trying to add impact players to a team that hasn't had high draft picks in years.

"July 1st is one tool to being competitive," Holland said. "If you're just going to rely on July 1st, I don’t think you can sustain competing for a playoff spot year after year after year. … You've got to build a team."

* * * * *

If I were Sidney Crosby, I'd be knocking on the door of my buddy Parise at the stroke of 12. If I were Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, I'd have armored cars idling outside the homes of Parise and Suter. If I were the Kings, I'd bring along the Cup on my recruiting trip this time. That ought to open some doors.

The right free agent in the right situation can be worth a big contract. Richards was the perfect fit in New York, because he had a relationship with coach John Tortorella, the Rangers needed a No. 1 center and he could mentor a young roster. At least early on, his nine-year, $60 million deal makes sense. The Rangers made the Eastern Conference final.

But you've got to be realistic about your chances of landing a marquee free agent. You've got to keep in perspective what it would mean if you land him or not. And you've got to be careful not to make mistakes, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the CBA.

Based on conversations with people around the league, five teams seem to have a shot at Parise: Pittsburgh, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minnesota and New Jersey. Five teams seem to have a shot at Suter: Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota and Nashville. Only two teams seem to have the cap space and up-front dollars to go after both – Detroit and Minnesota – at least as it stands right now. One team could hit the jackpot, or two teams will be happy, tops.

Beyond that, everyone will be competing for second- or third-tier free agents. There will be some good deals and some bad ones, but maybe more bad than good in this climate.

If your team lands somebody, celebrate – cautiously. If your team is shut out, remember that sometimes when one door closes, another opens. Either way, check back in a year or 10 to see how many names that ended up on these contracts ended up on the Cup.

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