NHL teams turn focus to free agents after draft
PHILADELPHIA – NHL teams are about to go shopping, and they will have less money to spend than they might have thought just a few days ago.
After a weekend in which 210 players were drafted, clubs will have more decisions to make, and they don’t have lots of time to do it. Free agency begins in earnest Tuesday, and any needs that weren’t addressed during the two-day draft – either in picks or trades – will have to be taken care of on the open market.
The ceiling for next season’s salary cap was set Friday at $69 million – up from $64.3 million. That number is a million or two lower than some projections had it after a year of record revenues.
“It was a surprise for every guy out here,” New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. “We all expected it to be higher.”
The Rangers were already in a pinch to get their numerous unrestricted and restricted free agents signed. They created some cap room by buying out the contract of veteran forward Brad Richards, and dealing Derek Dorsett to Vancouver Friday.
By the time they deal with their own free agents – some of whom might leave – they might not have much money left to add players.
“We already traded one guy to get some relief,” Sather said of Dorsett, who carried a $1,633,000 salary-cap charge. “We’ll see what happens in the next week.”
There were predictions of lots of trades during the draft, but after a flurry Friday, most remaining deals involved picks. In 15 trades Saturday, only five players were moved.
“Some people filled in some spots they wanted to and some didn’t,” new Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford said. “The ones that didn’t will be more active on Tuesday, I’m sure.”
On Friday, Vancouver dealt star forward Ryan Kesler to Anaheim and defenseman Jason Garrison to Tampa Bay, and acquired Dorsett from the Rangers, all before the draft’s first pick. Once the festivities got going, Pittsburgh and Nashville pulled off a big deal in which the Penguins sent James Neal to the Predators for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
But that was pretty much the extent of the trading.
“I was surprised, with all the talk and with teams trying to get to their budget, teams trying to work around the cap,” Rutherford said. “But there are still a lot of things in the works for teams. We’ve got free agency, so maybe it comes right after that.”
In a new wrinkle this year, teams were allowed to talk to potential free agents this week to gauge interest. It made for a hectic time for clubs that were deep into draft preparations. With the courting already at an advanced stage, the cost of free agents could rise more because competition is so fierce.
“If there was anything that was going to happen in trades, it was going to go right away because this has been a very peculiar week as far as free agency, the draft, and then signings of your own players,” New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “You were divided in so many different directions, and I think everybody said, ‘Let’s focus on the draft.’
“It was a distraction, to be perfectly honest. I hope they re-look at it and just think about the effect it’s had. You can just do so many things and do them right.”
San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson also set his sights on the draft. He is involved in a rebuilding process for his club that was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by eventual champion Los Angeles after holding a 3-0 series lead.
He doesn’t expect to be overly active in free-agent shopping, and trade discussions that started over the weekend could continue.
“Most of them are predictable. You’ve got a lot of teams that are still talking,” Wilson said. “The focus was basically on the draft.”
With cap issues on both sides of every deal, and players often controlling their fates with no-movement clauses, the art of pulling off a swap has many challenges.
“It’s harder to trade now than ever before,” new Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Dollars have got to line up, and picks have got to line up.
“You see some of the players that move around, they say, ‘I want out, but here’s my two teams.’ That’s hard for a general manager.”
That was the case with Kesler, who requested a trade but submitted only two teams he was willing to go to, and Jason Spezza – who wants to leave the Ottawa Senators. However, Spezza invoked his veto power Saturday and turned down a deal to send him to Nashville.
“I’m sure it’s disappointing for him, it’s disappointing for me because I’d like to accommodate him if I could, but he does have a year left on his contract,” Senators GM Bryan Murray said. “If that’s the case, we’ll have a pretty good player for next year.”