Whenever NHL free agency kicks into high gear in July, there are always a select group of teams who seem to be rumored to have their wallets open. Whether it’s an Original Six team like the Rangers or the Red Wings, a team with perennial championship aspirations like the Penguins or Flyers, or even a team who is looking for some recognition in the hockey world like the Kings, the same teams are just about always on the radar for potential free agents, and are the subject of just about every rumor that you come across while researching the topic.
Over the past few years, however, some new faces have started to make themselves known at the party. The usual suspects may always have the allure (who wouldn’t want to play in a world class city like Chicago or a place called “Hockeytown” like Detroit?), but these new clubs that have begun to emerge on the scene are so far off the beaten path that they stun everyone with their presence. They aren’t strongholds of the game, but players for whatever reason are starting to take a more serious look at them, and it’s good for the game.
Last year, that sexy team for free agents and trades was the Columbus Blue Jackets. Not only did they land one of the biggest free agent prizes in defenseman James Wisniewski, but they also made a blockbuster trade prior to the Entry Draft to nab Jeff Carter from Philadelphia. Granted, most of their moves blew up in their faces, and now they are looking at the prospect of having to deal away highly paid goal scorer Rick Nash, but the point is that they were a team who no one expected to get much traction in the market, but they did.
This offseason, there are not one but three teams who are looking to be that kind of club that makes a serious ripple in the free agent pool. First and foremost among those is the Carolina Hurricanes, whose name has been mentioned alongside just about every big free agent this month. Their notoriety soared considerably when they pulled off a trade at the Draft for center Jordan Staal, and they kept that momentum going by signing him to a 10-year, $60 million extension a few days later.
Chip Alexander, who covers the Hurricanes for the Raleigh News and Observer, tweeted after Staal signed his contract a quote from Joe Corvo, who said that getting Staal “has opened a lot of teams’ eyes. He’s definitely a game-changer.” As if they needed any more validation of their chops as a potential destination for free agents, the Hurricanes then initiated pursuit on both forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who are the top two free agents on the market. Neither player is going to sign in Carolina, but despite that setback, the Canes are also reported to be pursuing Nash in a trade with Columbus. The talks have been going on for months, according to Alexander, so there’s no telling what could happen if he agrees to join up with the suddenly very active Canes.
In addition to the moves being made in Carolina, another team that is on the prowl for some serious talent is the Minnesota Wild. Long known as a team whose style of play was predicated on defense and aggressive forechecking, the Wild are starting to remake their image somewhat. They have been long considered a serious suitor for Parise, who grew up in Minnesota, and have also been pursuing Suter as well. They are, according to Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo’s blog Puck Daddy, the team with the best odds of those who could feasibly sign both players (with Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Philadelphia being others), and the fact they are still involved in these negotiations shows that players are genuinely interested in coming to play for them.
Finally, there are the Dallas Stars, who have attracted more notoriety for the players they have lost, like Brad Richards and James Neal, rather than the guys they have attracted to the Lone Star State. So far this offseason, they have traded away Mike Riberio on draft day, and then yesterday they also traded away Steve Ott in exchange for Derek Roy from Buffalo. They did, however, make a sizable offer to Parise in the process, and they also scored a nice signing on Tuesday when they inked Jaromir Jagr to a one year deal.
These three teams, all outside of the playoff picture when the 2011-12 season came to an end, are making a serious run at contention, and they are gaining players’ attention. The real question, of course, is why? Why would these guys, who presumably have grown up dreaming of playing for teams like the Red Wings and the Blackhawks, choose instead to go to places where the game of hockey is merely a distraction rather than a rabid passion?
There are three potential reasons that players could head to different climates than anticipated. The first of which has been illustrated well in the Roberto Luongo saga, and that would be the lower pressure that would come with signing a contract in a city like Carolina or Dallas. Luongo has been seeking a trade away from Vancouver, and one team that keeps popping up as a destination he would like to head to has been to the Florida Panthers. South Florida isn’t exactly the most dedicated area for hockey fans (although they turned out a lot better to see the Southeast Division champions this year, to their credit), but Luongo still wants to go there for a less-pressure packed environment than he experienced in British Columbia.
Especially with a guy like Suter, the possibility of signing in Detroit has got to be a tempting one, but there probably isn’t a more pressure-packed situation that he could place himself in right now. With Nicklas Lidstrom retiring after last season, having to replace a Hall of Famer who has won a slew of Norris Trophies can’t be easy, and even though he won’t have the number 5 on his jersey, Suter would instantly be compared with Norris Nick fairly or not.
This isn’t to say that guys always shy away from the bright lights, but if you can get less media scrutiny and a still credible chance to be competitive for a Stanley Cup, then that’s a potential win-win in the eyes of some guys.
The second reason is actually the inverse of the first reason, which is the potential to be a bigger star than anyone else on your team. Say, for example, that Parise is looking at signing with the Penguins. It would seem really cool to be on the same line as a guy like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but he would always be third or fourth banana in that locker room, and after being the captain of the New Jersey Devils, it isn’t likely that he would enjoy that spot, and he may pull a Jordan Staal and seek a way out of that situation.
A similar situation presented itself to both Parise and Suter with their original teams. Parise was overshadowed in New Jersey not only by Martin Brodeur, but he also had to deal with Ilya Kovalchuk when he signed a massive contract before the 2010-11 season. Suter has never even been the most popular DEFENSEMAN on the Nashville Predators, with Shea Weber snatching those honors away.
Some guys are perfectly content coasting under the radar as other players get more notoriety, but some guys would prefer to be “the guy”, and places like Detroit and Pittsburgh aren’t exactly the best places for that to take place.
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.
What we are also learning about free agency is that cap space and a big market isn’t always the perfect recipe to attract talent. The Red Wings and Penguins both cleared significant cap space to make a run at both Parise and Suter, and yet both teams could potentially strike out on both guys when all is said and done and the decisions are in. This shows just how powerful the various motivations could be to stay away from these big markets, and the ability to throw money and prestige at a guy may not be as big a motivating force as it used to be in today’s NHL>
Obviously, all of these hypotheticals could be a waste of space on the internet come decision time for these two players. Parise could end up with the Penguins, as has been speculated to death for the past few days, and Suter could wind up in Detroit to replace Lidstrom as has been expected. The fact of the matter, however, is that those guys haven’t signed in the obvious places yet for a reason, and that is because these lower-tier teams have something to offer to big name free agents.
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.
That democratization of the sport is a good thing in the end, and will bring more hockey fans into the fold as a result. Even if they lose out on both players, these three cities have set the course for the league going forward, and they should continue to be possible landing spots for the next few years regardless of the outcome.