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Time to free up NHL free agency + 30 Thoughts

Guest Irishjim

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By Elliotte Friedman

Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2012 | 09:29 AM


University of Wisconsin Badgers defenceman Justin Schultz, left, is coveted by NHL teams. (Erik Hill/Associated Press)

Highly coveted 21-year-old Justin Schultz is now a free agent, having declined to sign a contract with the Anaheim Ducks. He can't officially join a new team until July 1, but is free to listen to offers and enjoy tea with potential suitors, which he will do this week.

Here's the question: Why can't every free agent do this?

What if the NHL had a similar system to the NBA, where everyone without a contract can talk to any interested party for, say, a week before new deals are allowed to be signed? Basketball free agency begins Sunday -- just like hockey -- but no one can officially commit until July 1.

The No. 1 reason for this suggestion is cutting down on mistakes for both the teams and the players. Free agency is where the most errors are made and it usually comes down to fit.

For NHL brass, there's a rush to make contact, toss out your best offer, get something done before you lose your target and overpay another guy you really don't like. For players, it can overwhelming. You're either flattened by multiple offers or panicked that you aren't getting enough.

And even if you do find something that makes you happy, do you really know what you're getting into? How much knowledge is there about the organization or the city? And if you're married, heaven help you if your wife is unhappy (I'm speaking from personal experience).

One former player disliked the idea because he thinks the current set-up favours his active brethren.

"The system forces teams to overpay," he said.

That's true. But after thinking about it, I'm not sure things would be any different. Let's say, for argument's sake, the "courting period" began a day or two after the draft. That could keep July 1 as the signing date and prevent things from dragging further into summer.

During that time, free agents could visit as many cities or talk to as many teams as they wished, chat face-to-face, look around, see where they're going to live, etc. Just because you can't sign for a few days doesn't mean the pressure eases on the teams.

Imagine the reports: "Zach Parise to visit Pittsburgh today, Detroit tomorrow and Minnesota Thursday" or "Ryan Suter leaves Detroit, heads to Chicago."

That's not going to cool down fan or media expectations.

It could also benefit organizations like the Carolina Hurricanes, a team without a huge free-agent history but with a core of players that love living in the area. Bring someone down, show them why everyone stays there and maybe you get lucky.

Of course, this isn't foolproof. Last year, the Philadelphia Flyers acquired Ilya Bryzgalov on June 7 and that didn't go exactly as planned. Yet despite that spectacular implosion, more mistakes occur because life-altering decisions are made with so little time to think.

Maybe it's better for everyone if things are done differently.


1. Wrote a little bit yesterday about the New York Islanders' offer to trade all of their selections in last weekend's draft to the Columbus Blue Jackets for the No. 2 overall pick.

After posting it, a few people pointed out that this was likely Islanders owner Charles Wang's idea more than general manager Garth Snow's. That's probably true. Wang wields great influence in hockey decisions, even though ownership interference in such matters is rarely a good idea (see Rick DiPietro or Alexei Yashin contracts).

Asked a few draft gurus what they thought of the idea. Two said they could see a situation where it could make sense.

"[it's] only a seven-round draft now," said one. "If you've traded a few of your picks and don't have many, maybe you try it for a top player."

New York did have seven choices, though.

Meanwhile, another exec said his organization joked about offering all of its selections for a certain prospect, but discarded the idea when internal discussions turned serious.

A few teams wouldn't consider making such an offer because, even though you may not find more than two or three players per draft, what are you going to do?

Get up and leave without trying?

"Talk about a way to piss off your scouts," said an exec.

The math in Monday's article showed there is some logic to the Islanders' offer -- and the Blue Jackets' refusal -- because of the success rate of the picks in question. Later picks are especially unlikely to succeed. Of the 57 men chosen either 125th, 155th or 185th from 1990-2008, just seven even played an NHL game (Three reached 100, the other four played a combined 22).

A few readers pointed out on Twitter that all those extra picks would give the Blue Jackets greater flexibility to make other moves and more chances to hit the jackpot.

There's great disagreement with that thinking. The trades at this year's draft were hockey deals, not about flipping picks. The Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames made their first-round swap, while the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks did a small one involving the 109th and 191st choices. Other than that, it was so quiet that just one timeout was called. Everything was done by approximately 3 p.m. ET Saturday.

This wasn't the draft to be stocking selections, never mind the fact that so many picks could cause headaches with a team's 50-contract limit. When it was all over, Columbus got two players it wanted -- Ryan Murray (second) and Oscar Dansk (31st) -- and the Islanders can't be too upset with Griffin Reinhart as so many teams raved about him in the last few weeks.

2. Schultz's suitors are wondering if Anaheim still plans to file tampering charges the moment someone actually signs him. It's a tough process. You're obligated to hand over whatever correspondence the NHL desires.

3. Reports indicate Roberto Luongo only wants to waive his no-trade for Florida, but that's a tough one for the Panthers to pull off. You could see how they would want him, hoping to grow momentum from a Southeast Division title. Florida's goaltending wasn't great in the playoffs and he could serve as a bridge while Jacob Markstrom gets ready.

4. Here's the problem, though. The Panthers believe Markstrom will be a difference-maker. What makes more sense, then, for a non-cap team: Re-acquiring Luongo or (eventually) handing the job to the younger man? Even if you get the Vancouver Canucks to take expensive bodies in return for Luongo, it's still easier to build around Markstrom because he will have a lower salary. For a budget-conscious team, that's critical.

5. Luongo might not prefer Toronto, but he knows it makes a lot of sense for everyone involved -- even him. Several reports indicated Luke Schenn was offered for the goalie, but think Canucks GM Mike Gillis countered by asking for Toronto's fifth-overall draft pick. The Maple Leafs and Canucks are playing a macho game right now, but things will eventually get serious. Hopefully soon.

6. Will the seriousness begin with a Cory Schneider offer sheet? There's a lot of debate about this, but remember one thing: While Leafs GM Brian Burke has railed against this process in the past, he has stated his anger stemmed from the fact that the Edmonton Oilers didn't warn him in advance of the Dustin

Penner move. He did threaten to do it to the Boston Bruins, when chasing Phil Kessel. He doesn't like long-term deals, either. But he just added a guy (James van Riemsdyk) under contract until 2018. You assume, it if does happen, it would be modelled on the Niklas Hjalmarsson-Antti Niemi affair.

7. Generally, offer sheet talk is a waste of time. But I'm curious to see if two other players get any action. One is is Sam Gagner. He'll be 23 in August and the fit hasn't always been good in Edmonton. You're not going to throw $5 million at him, but is he worth a first- and third-round pick? (That's between $3,364,391 and $5,046,585.) There are a lot of teams looking for centres.

8. The other is Shea Weber and that probably depends on where Parise and Suter end up. The Pittsburgh Penguins have the rest of the league, especially the Eastern Conference, a little spooked. If they get one or both of them, other contenders are going to be desperate to do something. Desperate enough to make all-world defender Weber an offer?

9. Have always believed Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson's best opportunity to deal Rick Nash will be after Parise's decision. Think some other teams hoped their first-round picks would really appeal to Columbus, but that wasn't the case. My guess is that Nash and Bobby Ryan, if Anaheim wants to do it, get dealt after Parise signs. If Pittsburgh doesn't get Parise, Nash makes sense -- assuming it has what the Blue Jackets want.

10. One GM (no one quoted here) says there are about "8-10' good players available via trade. Of course, he was not willing to name them.

11. If Ducks GM Bob Murray wants to repair the organization's relationship with Ryan, all he has to do is look 31 miles northwest to Staples Center. The Kings had an awkward exchange with Dustin Brown at the deadline. He still captained them to a Stanley Cup championship. It's not ideal, but things can be fixed.

12. Two months after their opening-round loss to Philadelphia, it's still a painful memory for Pittsburgh. But the lessons are being learned by Penguins GM Ray Shero. "The Kings won the Stanley Cup allowing 30 goals the entire playoffs," he said Monday. "We scored 30 in the first round and lost (Actually, they scored 26, but you get the idea). "We played so well when [sidney] Crosby came back that we lost our identity a little bit ... We became a more run-and-gun, off-the-rush team. Look at the penalty kill. We were first [in 2010-11] and third this year. In the playoffs, the Flyers scored at will." Pittsburgh's penalty kill was 47.8 per cent against Philadelphia, by far the worst of any playoff team.

13. What does all of this mean? Shero is targeting players like Brandon Sutter because "he is comfortable defending anywhere on the ice. You have to be able to defend to win. And not just your defencemen, but your forwards as well." Hockey analyst Darren Pang made a great point about Sutter on Twitter. Sutter's a right-handed shot -- a balance for lefty centremen Evgeni Malkin and Crosby.

14. Shero might not have been happy Jordan Staal turned down a 10-year offer, but he did two important things for his franchise. He showed the fans the Penguins did everything possible to keep him. And he didn't punish Staal by sending him somewhere the forward didn't want to go. Players notice when teams do right. Sending Zbynek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes didn't hurt Pittsburgh's image, either.

15. Heard a lot of praise for Brian Dumoulin, the Boston College defenceman Pittsburgh got in the deal.

16. Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford handled this very smartly. He called Shero once after Pittsburgh was kayoed, promising not to be a bother, but admitting his interest. He called a second time six days before the draft. Then, when the Penguin GM was ready last Friday, Rutherford didn't fool around and made a serious deal. The head Hurricane had great incentive to get it done. Jordan's a terrific player. Also, why screw around, risk him getting sent elsewhere, thereby annoying your franchise player and captain?

17. It's well-known by now that the New York Rangers and Toronto talked to Pittsburgh. All Shero would say is there were two other legit suitors. Wondering if one was Minnesota because a couple of teams said they believed the Wild chased hard.

18. Last point on Staal. I think there was one team which considered going after him, but pulled back because of a potential lockout. Here's why. If you're not Carolina, it's not set up well for you to keep him if he's not showing up in your city until December. You lose the ability to really build a bond in the one year you have to convince him. Never thought of that until it was explained to me.

19. Finally, have to think there's no way Shero does this deal now without believing Crosby is healthy and locked-up long-term. All Shero would say is he hopes to get something done with his captain over the next couple of weeks.

20. Do believe the report that the Ottawa Senators is not on Rick Nash's list, but this would be a really good fit. He'd look great with Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson creating opportunities. The Senators will need a top winger to replace Daniel Alfredsson (how could Alfredsson retire if Nash actually did show up?). This is a team with the assets to close a Columbus deal. Don't know how flexible Nash is willing to be, but it wouldn't hurt to consider this.

21. Another attraction to Ottawa would be that the team is on the rise. Senators GM Bryan Murray didn't want to discuss Nash, but did slightly temper things: "We've got a lot of good young players, but we have to see which ones take the next step and which ones 'flatten out.'"

22. One of the keys for Ottawa will be finding a new partner for Karlsson. Filip Kuba, as it stands now, is unlikely to return. Jared Cowen would be a good fit, but Murray doesn't see any reason to split up the successful Cowen-Sergei Gonchar pairing.

23. A lot of questions about Karlsson's new seven-year, $45.5-million contract. It was a bit of a surprise because there was a minimal bonuses and no lockout protection. Karlsson did the Senators a favour by taking less cash with Gonchar's and Spezza's current contracts still on the books, providing flexibility. Murray and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk repaid him with a longer term than they initially wanted. Plus, if the age of unrestricted free agency rises in a new collective bargaining agreement, they'll be forced to qualify Karlsson at $7.5 million -- the final-year salary of this deal. Fair deal for both sides.

24. The biggest test for the Flames now belongs to their player development staff. Whatever anyone thinks of 21st-overall selection Mark Jankowski no longer matters. They've made the pick and must make sure their investment is properly cultivated. You've heard all the adjectives: "raw," "project," etc. Now you've got to make sure he gets from point A to point Z. One scout compared him to Blake Wheeler, a surprise pick at fifth overall in 2004, which isn't too shabby.

25. A few Flames fans asked about Jay Bouwmeester. There are teams who do like him. He plays 26 minutes a night and is incredibly durable -- having played 588 straight games. He can skate the puck of out trouble. "People have to realize he may never be the second coming of Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey, but he's still very useful," one exec said. 'So why don't you go get him?" I asked. There was a pause. "That cap hit." At $6.68 million, it's tough.

26. Wrote a couple of weeks ago that Brent Sutter would have received "official" permission to talk to Edmonton if he wanted (his contract with Calgary ends this week). Think I was wrong about that one. Sounds like the Flames weren't happy with the public dalliance between their former head coach and the Oilers. It's tough because we all understand the rivalry. But Calgary did fire Sutter and you can't blame a guy for looking at new work.

27. A lot of debate about Ondrej Pavelec's new deal in Winnipeg. Even though it turned out he wasn't serious about the KHL, he had leverage because the Jets are organizationally thin in goal. If he did leave or the team decided to trade him, the alternatives were not guaranteed to be better. By the time that Carey Price, Devin Dubnyk and Schneider are signed, this deal will look fine.

28. Besides being traded for each other, Schenn and van Riemsdyk have something in common: both needed a change of scenery. As I've written before, many teams believe Schenn will be better off outside Toronto and now we find out if that's right. The Flyers just seemed unhappy with van Riemsdyk as he was constantly included in trade discussions. He's more than capable of being a difference-maker, but must stay healthy.

29. Sharks GM Doug Wilson hates July 1, but does he make an exception for Ryan Suter? Maybe try to sell him on the fact uncle Gary Suter loved finishing his career there?

30. The Blackhawks were thrilled to get Teuvo Teravainen 18th in the draft. A few teams tried to move in from No. 12 on to get him, but couldn't get it done. The clubs in those positions would say, "If our guy isn't available, we'll make the deal," but always seemed to get their man. Chicago's gain.

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