2013 NHL free agency: Silly signings inevitable despite lockout battle, salary cap constraints

Nicholas J Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Somebody will do something dumb. Somebody always does.

The NHL free agent market opens Friday, and the Philadelphia Flyers have already agreed to a five-year, $22.5 million deal with bought-out center Vincent Lecavalier.

The Flyers gave Lecavalier a big contract even though they just spent tens of millions to buy out two players, including goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, the solar system’s most hu-man-gous big free agent bust. Even though their main holes are on defense and in goal. Even though scouts say Lecavalier, at 33, with more than 1,000 games of mileage, doesn’t play with pace anymore and has maybe two decent years left.

Gotta love the Flyers’ aggressiveness. Gotta question their wisdom at the same time. Rival execs shook their heads. There is a reason the Tampa Bay Lightning gave Lecavalier $32.7 million to walk away. One prediction: He will become the first player in NHL history to be bought out twice.

The first buyout didn’t count against the salary cap for the Lightning, because the new labor agreement gave each team two compliance buyouts to be used within two years. The next one would count against the cap for the Flyers, because it would be just a plain, old buyout. But hey, by then, the cap might have skyrocketed. Who cares?!?!

[Related: 10 most intriguing UFAs]

There will be more silliness soon – the Toronto Maple Leafs appear poised to make a splash – and it will cause people to wonder if the owners learned anything, why the NHL just went through its third lockout in three negotiations. People will say nothing has changed.

Well, no, nothing has changed in terms of the owners’ and the agents’ behavior. But that’s the point. That’s actually the reason why the NHL just went through its third lockout in three negotiations – because the owners can’t control their competitive nature and constantly spend themselves into trouble, because the agents’ jobs are to exploit every angle and avenue to get the best contracts for their clients, because it is what it is and always will be.

The owners’ only chance to rein themselves in is to reset the system in collective bargaining. They could try to restrain themselves on their own, but that would be collusion and it might not even work. They would have liked to have restricted the system even more, but they had to get the players to agree and could push only so far.

Remember: The NHL didn’t make much of an economic argument this time, unlike 2004-05, when the league commissioned a report to show how badly it was bleeding red ink. Commissioner Gary Bettman did make some memorable comments about the cost of jet fuel and massage therapists, but generally he was straight up.

“The fact of the matter is,” said Bettman just before the lockout began, “we believe as a league we are paying out too much money.”

NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said the owners wanted what they wanted because they wanted it, and he was pretty much right. Though some teams needed the salary cap to come down to survive and others needed it to compete, for the most part the owners wanted the cap to come down because they wanted it to come down.

They were paying the players 57 percent of hockey-related revenue. Other leagues had gotten their players to accept about 50. They wanted 50. They used their leverage, canceled almost half the regular season, squeezed the players and got it – along with some other things, like limits on the lengths of contracts.

So while nothing has changed in terms of the owners’ and the agents’ behavior, many things have changed. The salary cap will come down from $70.2 million (prorated) in 2012-13 to $64.3 million in 2013-14. Contracts are limited to seven years – or eight years if a player re-signs with his current team. Teams can’t tack on phony years at low salaries at the end of contracts to artificially lower the cap hit, and they can get hit with a cap penalty if a player retires before the end of a long-term deal.

Revenues are expected to rise in the future, and so the cap is expected to rise in the future, perhaps dramatically. The players will get paid. They will get paid more than ever before, at least eventually. It might cause serious problems for some teams and, yes, trigger another lockout in eight or 10 years. But the cap won’t rise nearly as fast as it would have, with the players receiving 50 percent of HRR instead of 57, and so the players won’t get paid as much as they would have under the old system, let alone a free market. And though teams will make mistakes, they won’t make 10- or 12- or 15-year mistakes. They can’t.

[Photo gallery: Top 10 UFA forwards]

There is a new dynamic, and teams are trying to figure out how to best maneuver for the long term and the short term.

Long-term example: The Pittsburgh Penguins signed extensions with Evgeni Malkin (eight years, $76 million) and Kris Letang (eight years, $58 million). Max terms. High cap hits. But with terms limited, stars will demand the max amount of years, and with phony years outlawed, cap hits will be higher. Both of those cap hits also don’t affect the Pens until next season, and assuming the cap goes up and up, they will take up a lesser percentage of the Pens’ payroll as time goes on.

The short term will be fascinating. Though the market doesn’t feature younger cornerstones like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, who signed matching13-year, $98 million deals with the Minnesota Wild under the old rules last year, there are names. Bryzgalov. Mikhail Grabovski (if he clears waivers and is bought out by the Leafs). Daniel Alfredsson. Jaromir Jagr. Jarome Iginla. Nathan Horton. Mike Ribeiro. Andrew Ference. David Clarkson. Hey, Tim Thomas!

[Photo gallery: Top 10 UFA defensemen]

There is only so much money to go around because the cap is coming down. Teams are trying to make trades to free up space but are having a tough time finding partners with space to add, and whoever signs a free agent will have that cap hit count immediately. Lecavalier was wise to grab the cash from the Flyers first. The top free agents will get the big money; the rest will get what is left over. Some teams will overspend; some players will get a reality check.

“Obviously some players are going to get signed,” said Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher. “But I don’t think there’s the money or the room for everybody to get what they’re probably looking for. So that will be the interesting part, to see how quickly players make their decisions to sign and how teams allocate their dollars.”

Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said many teams are taking a “cautionary approach.”

“It’s not cast in stone [that the cap will rise in the future], so I think there’s a general caution,” he said. “There may be a rush on a few guys, but I just think this is the first time the cap has come down, so I think we’re in new territory.”

[Photo gallery: Top 10 UFA goalies]

The new two-day interview period, in which teams, agents and players can communicate openly before signing contracts, has helped sort out what Chiarelli called “kind of a market adjustment.”

Somebody will do something dumb. Somebody always does.

It’s free agency. One of the quirks of the salary cap system is that the age for unrestricted free agency went from 31 or 27, which led teams to lock up their best players, which led to fewer top players hitting the UFA market, which led to too much demand for too little supply – too much money for too many guys.

“I don’t think that’s a good tool to build your team,” said Stan Bowman, GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Stanley Cup champions. “You can sort of fine-tune it through free agency, but the term and the dollar amount and everything, it just gets crazy, understandably. Our goal is to not have to really be a player in that market.”

It is what it is and always will be. Just keep in mind that because of the lockout and the new labor agreement, it won’t be as crazy as it could have been. Don’t be fooled. Imagine what a team like the Flyers would do in a free market. We talk about mistakes in terms of salary cap space more than in terms of blowing budgets.

The owners can be dumb sometimes. But they’re smart enough to know it.


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