How the NHL Draft Has Replaced Free Agency

(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports) NHL Draft
Most General Managers will have a smile on their faces during the NHL Draft. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

For years, many fans, including myself, viewed July 1 as one of, if not the, most exciting days of the NHL calendar. The start of free agency was like a, somewhat, blank canvas was thrown in front of every General Manager in the league to make a pretty portrait that would turn out to be a Stanley Cup-contending masterpiece.

However, as the years have gone by, the mystique and enthusiasm around free agency has seemed to dwindle. That’s not to say it’s not an exciting or fun time, but with more and more top players locking into long-term contracts before ever hitting the market, the quality of available players just isn’t what it used when players like Brett Hull and Zdeno Chara, among others, hit the market.

Now, free agency is filled more second- and third-tier players than anything else. And before you say ‘It’s always been that way’, the point being driven here is that it’s more rare now to see that top-tier free agent make it to the summer than it used to be. Sure, sometimes a Brad Richards – 2011’s top prize – makes it to free agency, but it’s more likely that a player of that caliber gets locked up nowadays.

So, instead of free agency being the king of excitement, a new day has become the leader of the pack. It’s not the start of prospect development camp, it’s definitely not the first day of training camp and it’s not trade deadline day, which is more of a month now than a single day. No, the day that is now Grand Poobah of the hockey world is NHL Draft day.

From the great level of prospects that seem to come out every single year – see Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad and others – to the trades that go down during the event, the draft is never short on euphoric moments. It’s even a time period when potential free agents can see their rights traded, which gives another team a chance to sign them before hitting the open market.

Needless to say, the amount of activity that can, and usually does, happen during the draft has quickly surpassed that of free agency and even deadline day. Just look at the 1999 NHL draft as proof of this.

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Twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin were two of the top available prospects that year. The belief among everyone in and around the league was that the two would not play for a team unless they were both taken by the same organization. What happened that day was flurry of moves by then Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke.

Burke, likely wearing an untied tie, dealt defenseman Bryan McCabe and a future first-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for the fourth overall selection. That pick would then be sent along with a pair of third-round picks to the Tampa Bay Lightning for the first pick. The first overall pick was then sent to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers for the second spot.

After the Thrashers took Patrik Stefan, one of the worst top picks in league history, Burke used the second and third picks on the Sedin twins. This ended a string of three trades in a short period of time to secure two of the more prolific players over the past decade. Go ahead, just try and find a free agency deal that comes close to that amount of hysteria.

While there is certain to be debate on this topic, one can’t deny the amount of buzz there is surrounding the draft in the modern NHL. Yes, free agency will always be fun, but it’s just not at the top of the mountain anymore.

The draft is one of the few times all year where all of the teams are located in a single, central setting. And no matter what the NHL does on other days of the calendar, there is no better time than draft time for something major to happen.