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Are the NHL's pending UFAs finally seeing the money?

Ryan Lambert
Yahoo Sports

One thing that came up a lot at the NHL media tour in Chicago this week is the number of high-end pending UFAs who might be interested in moving on from their current teams.

Even with the acknowledgement that a number of these guys will probably re-sign with their current teams before July 1, next summer’s UFA class could be something the likes of which we have just never seen in hockey. Off the top of my head, guys whose contracts expire next summer include Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle, and probably a few more that I’m forgetting.

If even half of them hit the free agent market, that’s a lot of top guys in their mid-to-late 20s who will be looking for a lot of money next summer (and hoping the salary cap jumps as much as it did this year). I can’t imagine we’ve seen a single summer in the cap era in which so many borderline elite guys would go to market at the same time. And that doesn’t even count the number of players who are maybe a step or two below that level but who would, under normal circumstances, have commanded a pretty good-sized pay increase.

Labor relations and poor planning by GMs seem to be coming together at an interesting time. In part because of how much John Tavares got paid this summer (and the whole situation around that decision, to be honest) and in part because of how hard everyone on the planet knows the owners are going to try to screw the players again when the CBA expires, more guys are now thinking that the idea of a hometown discount might seem antiquated.

In the past, there seemed to be some level of understanding between teams that guys really shouldn’t be paid much more than about $7.5 million per year unless they were Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin types. Even as the cap grew, that number didn’t seem to move very much; one wonders how much of it was teams or players themselves saying, “How can [insert player here] make this much if [insert other player here] makes this much?”

Hall and Duchene were quoted this week, saying stuff along the lines of individual players upholding a long-standing tradition of almost deferential loyalty to teams has never really been reciprocated. They would know because of how things went with Edmonton and Colorado, respectively. Eberle, likely, would agree.

So if guys can’t get too many assurances that they’re going to be treated fairly by their employers, why should they act in their employers’ best interests instead of their own?

 

This is the kind of labor theory that can and should be applied to all types of employment, but elite hockey players like Hall or Karlsson or Panarin have the kind of bargaining power most workers do not. There are already only about 700 people who can be actual NHL players in the entire world, and those who can get into the MVP conversation on an almost yearly basis is limited to, maybe, 15 people. So why not do what Tavares did, right? Let half the league show up and fawn all over you and then you pick the team that gave you the best pitch (or in Tavares’s case, appeared on your childhood bed sheets).

Obviously everyone has their own priorities when they get to UFA status and Tavares was in a unique situation where he could go home to play for his childhood team, which is going to be a legitimate Cup contender for a decade, and could afford to pay him $11 million against the cap for seven years. Most guys aren’t going to have that kind of confluence of good fortune; two of the three wouldn’t be bad, but often you might have to take a discount to play for a contender or cash in by going to a crap team.

The league has, arguably, been moving in this direction for a while because players are getting bigger “second contracts” than they used to but the idea that RFA years must be cheaper than UFA years is persistent and artificially depresses guys’ ability to get what they’re worth. That’s why it’s good for so many players to just do short-term deals that get them to UFA status as quickly as possible, especially as the league adjusts to the growing understanding that NHLers peak right around the time they hit UFA in the first place.

Maybe — hopefully — guys are learning that they shouldn’t give away the kind of leverage they so often do by re-signing a few months or even a year early. The salary cap, of course, incentivizes guys to take discounts if they want to be on great teams, and Stan Bowman’s decisions around paying through the nose for his own best players (or at least what he perceived to be his best players) can be held up as reasons not to try to simply cash in.

This is one of the more insidious aspects of the league’s owner-friendly CBA, and it’s unique to hockey because while an NBA team can afford two or three elite talents who play 40 minutes a night to instantly transform them into a top-five team in the league, the impact NHL players have over the course of a season is significantly smaller because they just play so much less of the game.

But the thing is, in hockey as in anything else, employers should have to pay a lot to retain top talent and if that means tightening the belt in other places, then so be it. If top talents start hitting the UFA market — which at its core is inefficient — that might force teams to actually start thinking a little smarter than they currently do.

Take Hall and Eberle, they’re perfect examples of this. Yeah, the Oilers couldn’t afford to keep them, and McDavid, and Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins all at once. But that’s because they were investing too much money in too many players who weren’t close to worth it. Milan Lucic got just as much as Hall did the second that trade was made, but he’s worse in just about every way. Then the Oilers used a big chunk of the money they “saved” by trading Eberle to re-sign Kris Russell. These are inexplicable decisions, or at least indefensible ones, because what Hockey values and what’s valuable in hockey do not line up 1-to-1.

If, in three, four, or five years, it becomes common practice for high-end talent to test the free agent market instead of just saying they wanted to but ultimately it made more sense to stay where they’re comfortable, the league could look very different. We’re talking a thinned-out upper-middle class. That is, fewer guys making $5 million and more making $8 million or $3 million — which might at some point necessitate some kind of adoption for a mid-level exception, as in the NBA — but also a league that properly evaluates talent and pays players what they’re actually worth. If not, teams will be free to suffer the consequences.

In the NHL, it’s often framed as “every dollar [star player] takes is one that can’t go somewhere else,” but spending on star players has never been the problem. If anything, those guys have long been underpaid relative to their actual on-ice value.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad thing if guys want to take a hometown discount. But the fact is that for too long that didn’t even really feel like an option in a lot of cases. Increasingly, players will need to recognize that the apparent constraints placed upon their labor rights are artificial, enforced by owners and GMs who have a vested interest in making “taking less money” a part of hockey culture.

Perhaps, given the underlying functions of the league as a whole, players as a collective don’t have the bargaining power to really break owners at the CBA negotiating table. But it’s high time they start using every ounce of their collectively bargained rights to extract every dollar of their value when it’s time for their big UFA deal.

As with almost every problem in this league, everything bad about it circles back to hockey culture. Maybe, just maybe, John Tavares singlehandedly changed that this summer.

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Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)


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