“Whether it’s a lower pressure environment or a place to cement a legacy of their own, places like Carolina, Dallas, and Minnesota have to be given kudos for making themselves into attractive destinations to these types of players. In an age where big media markets hold all the power in terms of attracting a national television audience (thereby increasing a players’ exposure and personal brand popularity), players are starting to stray from the notion that they have to play in Detroit or Toronto in order to be relevant in the league.”
Those words were part of the closing of a column I wrote last Tuesday night about the proliferation of a new breed of potential free agent destinations in the NHL. These three teams had made big splashes and really put themselves out there as a good spot for a player to go, and it seemed relevant to discuss just how they were actually putting up a fight against the Penguins and Red Wings, among other teams.
The very next day, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise both agreed to sign 13 year contracts with the Minnesota Wild, spurning lucrative offers from a slew of other teams in order to play together in Parise’s home state. The move instantly vaulted the Wild from laughingstock status to serious contenders for a playoff berth and more next season, and after the shaking from the earthquake the news sent through the sport started to subside, several questions started being asked.
The first and chief among those, obviously, was why on earth the two players had agreed to sign with a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in four straight seasons, as opposed to two teams who are very much contenders for a Stanley Cup year in and year out. Obviously, Parise being from the Twin Cities area was a huge plus, but there were more specific reasons as to why he chose Minnesota.
He has cited Suter as influencing him to come and play for the Wild, and he also expressed excitement over the young core of talent that the team possesses.
That second point goes along perfectly with another point from that column on this site last week, where I argued that turning a team around was a huge incentive to come to a more unconventional club:
“Finally, there is the allure of being a key cog in building a franchise up from doormat status to legitimate Cup contender. The recent past has been littered with examples of this kind of thing, with Steven Stamkos being instrumental in making Tampa Bay relevant again, Alex Ovechkin bringing the Capitals back from obscurity, and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane rescuing the Blackhawks from oblivion. These types of stories are going to follow these players around favorably for the rest of their careers, and it has to be a bit of an incentive to a guy like Parise or Suter to try to join that pantheon of franchise saviors.”
These guys have also talked about attracting more talent to Minnesota, and the impact their signing in that city, as well as Jordan Staal’s being traded to and signing an extension with the Hurricanes could have far wider reaching impacts than just in their towns. More players could look at the potential of being a huge star in a new city because of the decisions that these three have made, and that can only benefit the sport moving forward.
Aside from just the free agency implications that these moves have wrought, there is also the potential that these moves could begin a changing of the guard in the sport of hockey. Teams like the Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks are still going to be very good teams with very serious playoff ambitions, but they aren’t going to be the dynamite favorites that they would have been had Suter or Parise come to their towns.
In a situation like that, all that needs to happen is an injury or two, and the fortunes of a team could go down very quickly. Instead of just falling from favorite status to mid-level playoff team, they could fall from the latter category into the barely outside the playoff bubble when all is said and done. With teams like Minnesota and Carolina angling for playoff spots in the near future because of their acquisitions, all it would take would be a bit of misfortune for either of those teams to miss the playoffs and have to seriously re-evaluate their rosters.
Another team that is going to be in that situation, surprisingly, is the Detroit Red Wings. They allowed players like Jiri Hudler to leave via free agency so they could take a big swing at landing either Parise or, more likely, Suter, and they came up empty in a big way. When you factor that in, as well as the decision of Nicklas Lidstrom to retire, and you are potentially facing a seismic shift in the team’s fortunes. Yes, they still have guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen to bolster their offense, but a big time security blanket for goaltender Jimmy Howard is gone, and when you look at the rest of their defensive core, it simply isn’t all that solid.
It would almost seem like blasphemy to suggest that the Red Wings’ 20 year playoff streak could come to an end next year, but when you look at the way that teams like Minnesota and Calgary have reloaded their rosters, as well as the other teams around them in the standings not losing very much ground, and it suddenly doesn’t seem that preposterous for the Wings to be that odd team out.
Minnesota also got in under the wire on what is likely going to be a big change to the CBA in the coming months. For now, players taking longer contracts to lessen their cap hits has been all the rage, but the next Collective Bargaining Agreement could severely limit the practice. Judging by the way the NHL came down on the Ilya Kovalchuk contract with the New Jersey Devils, they are very serious about this, so teams moving forward are going to have to pony up a bit more in terms of the salary cap space that will be eaten up by the big stars that they sign, and that could be bad news for a team like Detroit with some cap space to burn.
In addition to paring down those insanely long contracts, the league could very well enact some similar measures to what the NBA uses when calculating their salary cap. Instead of having a player’s hit be an averaging out of his salary over the life of the agreement, the NBA goes on a year-by-year basis for a player’s cap hit. This helps out teams who want to front load deals while a player is still in his prime and reasonably healthy, but it also means that more of their salary cap is eaten up by marquee players, thereby limiting their ability to make other moves.
If the NHL were to go along with something like that, contracts like the ones that Parise and Suter signed would probably become a relic, because there is little to no chance that a team would be willing to carry a player with a cap hit north of $10 million, especially if the salary cap comes down, which has been discussed as another potential fix to the problem of escalating salaries.
No one in their right mind should suggest that places like Chicago, New York, and Detroit aren’t going to have a huge amount of allure when it comes to drawing free agent players to join those clubs. What those pundits would be smart to say is that Minnesota’s signing of Parise and Suter has really shifted the paradigm in terms of what a player’s mentality is going to be as they approach free agency. No longer are they simply going to go along with what guys of the past did when agreeing to new deals. Instead, they are going to be emboldened to go to places like Dallas and Carolina because they’ll see not only dollar signs dancing in front of their eyes, but also a chance to make a lasting impact on a city that they’d have a difficult time duplicating in a bigger hockey market.
For now, it’s going to be interesting to see how the remainder of free agency shakes out, with guys like Alex Semin still on the market. It’s also going to be fascinating to see where Blue Jackets winger Rick Nash ends up. Will he end up accepting a trade to a more off-the-beaten path team like Carolina, or will he insist on going to a big market like Detroit or New York instead?
If he does go the smaller town route, then it will be just one more example of how hockey is truly becoming a parity-rich sport, and that can only be good news to fans in long-neglected cities. Their time is coming, and it will be a glorious dawn when the labor uncertainty plaguing the game right now goes by the wayside.