Overrating the 2011 NHL Free Agent Class

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By Mike Miccoli

On Monday, the Florida Panthers acquired the negotiating rights of soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Tomas Kopecky from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a conditional draft pick. By Wednesday, the Panthers had signed Kopecky to a four-year, $12 million deal paying the left-winger $3 million annually after his career year of 15 goals and 42 points (with a -13!) in 2010-11 with Chicago. Don’t laugh just yet—it gets better.

Late Wednesday night, the rights of Steve Montador, another upcoming UFA, were traded to Chicago from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a 2012 seventh round draft pick. What kind of a bizarro world have we entered where Montador is actually a hot commodity prior to free agency frenzy that comes on July 1?

This upcoming 2011 free agent class is pretty flimsy. In fact, it might be the weakest since the lockout. Today on NHL.com, there’s a column predicting where the top-15 free agents will sign. On that list: Andrew Brunette, Ed Jovanovski and Ray Emery—three players I wouldn’t even put on a top-100 list of active NHLers. It will be hard for clubs to drastically improve using free agency as their primary vehicle. Next season’s teams who show improvement probably did so by bolstering their lineup via trades, drafts or prospects in the systems. I don’t foresee Tim Connolly carrying his new team on his back next season. Sorry…that was a bad joke.

The news isn’t all bad with this free agent class, though. Brad Richards, Tomas Kaberle and Tomas Vokoun are all available and could make an impact on a team who’s deficiency just so happens to be one of these players’ specialties. If James Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff are unable to come to an agreement with the teams that have acquired their rights (Columbus and Buffalo, respectively), they’ll play a significant role in free agency too. After that, the rest of the UFAs aren’t exactly going to be on a top line, or a top pair or even start in goal. Simon Gagne is injury-ridden but could still be a decent second-liner for a team looking for speed on the left side. Depending on where he lands, Ville Leino may not be a top right winger and J.S. Giguere is not going to start anywhere unless it’s Phoenix, where Jason LaBarbera is challenging John Grahame for the I’m-always-going-to-be-a-backup-huh award, or Florida, where Scott Clemmensen probably won’t get a chance.

Most importantly, these players are all quite lucky. On a year where the free agent class is weakened and many teams are looking to improve, the NHL’s salary cap increased by $4.9 million to a whopping $64.3 million ceiling per team. The cap floor is now set to $48.3 million, $2 million less than the cap was in 2007-08. Happy pay day, boys.

Part of the reason Kopecky was signed for $3 million annually was because of Florida’s desire to reach the cap floor of $48.3 million. It’s also the same reason they were gung-ho to trade for Brian Campbell and his $7.1 million cap hit for the next five years. In no way is Campbell an elite-defenseman in the NHL, top-20, maybe, but not elite–he’s just getting paid like one. If and when Wisniewski signs with the Blue Jackets, is anyone going to be surprised that if the deal pays the defenseman $5 million or more annually? Teams distant to the cap floor with plenty of room on their rosters (Florida, Colorado, Phoenix, Winnipeg and the Islanders) can afford that and by doing so, they’re automatically overrating players enabling future free agents to get ludicrous contracts. Does this sound familiar?

The teams that locked up their players early on had it right and may have saved a bunch of money by doing so. This unrestricted free agent class should boasted names like Joe Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, Alex Semin, Kevin Bieska, Jimmy Howard and Ilya Bryzgalov to name a few (those who would be in the upper echelon, at least). Instead, we’re left with this batch and get to watch as the biggest news of the day is where and when Jaromir Jagr’s flight landed. (Answer: New York.)

Some teams are taking the conservative approach with their UFAs, re-signing them before they can even test the free agency waters. The Capitals did it with Brooks Laich (another slight over-payment of six-years/$27 million), the Lightning did it with Dwayne Roloson (one-year/$3 million, smart), and the Canucks did it with Bieska (six-years at $4.6 annually, a steal). The Hurricanes might have done it best of all locking up Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen before they even whiffed an offer from another team–and believe me, they would have.

If the teams and the players weren’t able to negotiate something, the player’s rights were traded to another team—as was done with Ehrhoff (twice), Wisniewski, Kopecky and Bryzgalov. Better off doing so than competing and overpaying come July 1 because really, it’s not worth it unless it’s a minor upgrade.

Remember when everyone thought that the Toronto Maple Leafs were insane for signing Jeff Finger (him?) to a four-year, $14 million deal? Something tells me that will be topped this summer. The cap space is there for many teams, as is the mediocrity talent in the free agent class—an essential recipe for a ridiculous signing in a post-lockout, salary cap era of the NHL.

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Mike Miccoli


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