The Money Game
Looking back, the telling sign was the deal inked by St. Louis defenceman Erik Johnson, the most coveted draft eligible player on the planet just four years ago.
Coming off his three-year entry level deal, all Johnson could squeeze out of the Blues was a two-year deal worth $2.6 million. To a working stiff, that's the moon and more. But for an NHL player, it's just above the NHL average, and to a league in which many teams have tried to lock up their best young players to long-term, lucrative deals at that point in their careers, it marked a sea change.
From there, it's not that big of a jump to where we are now, with more than a dozen talented restricted free agents sitting on the sidelines without contracts as training camp looms. Years ago, this would have been controversial, with holdouts once the scourge of the league as players knew they had leverage and, particularly under the Bob Goodenow regime, weren't afraid to use it. They could stay out, knowing that without a cap, the pressure was all on the team, which looked cheap if it couldn't win without them.
These days? Not so much. Right now, the only restless rustling seems to be coming from Montreal, where unsigned goalie Carey Price, according to a CBC Montreal report, is "ready to strike" if he can't get a deal worth $3 million per season out of the Canadiens.
Otherwise, there's an expectation that all of these players will ultimately sign a new deal. That applies to the high end players like Bobby Ryan, and to the lower end players like Maple Leafs forward Christian Hanson, forced to hold his nose and sign a one-year, two-way contract ($650,000 for the NHL, $105,000 for the Marlies) after trying to wait the Leafs out all summer. Hanson had exactly no options, and the Leafs played somewhat of a game of hardball, although six-figures to play in the AHL isn't bad.
So what's the story? Why so many unsigned?
For starters, money is tight, tight, tight across the league, with many teams already close to the payroll cap of $59.4 million, and others determined to be closer to the floor of $43.4 million. Adding to the complexity of the market is the fact some teams are in ownership flux, notably Dallas, which still hasn't signed 27-goal scorer James Neal or defenceman Matt Niskanen and may be hoping to stick to a budget of $45 million as owner Tom Hicks looks to unload the team.
Some clubs are generally being more hardnosed about their money. Atlanta walked away from a $2.4 million arbitration award to winger Clarke MacArthur, and have yet to come to terms with winger Niclas Bergfors, who played well after coming over in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade last season and ended up with 21 goals.
"We will not do a deal where if there is a situation where we placed a player on waivers tomorrow, would he be claimed?" said new Thrashers GM Rick Dudley in some telling comments to reporters.
The brutal reality, of course, may simply be that the unsigned RFAs out there just aren't that good. Specifically, they're not perceived as good enough to attract an offer sheet, like Edmonton laid down for Dustin Penner and Toronto was prepared to do last summer for Phil Kessel..
Ryan would be the possible exception. But he turned down a five-year, $25 million contract offer from the Ducks and wants a shorter team deal that would walk him right up to UFA status in a few years, something the Ducks don't want to do.
Otherwise, players like Marc Staal, Martin Hanzal, Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller and Andrew Cogliano find themselves looking for substantial dollars from teams without the threat of a possible offer sheet. Colorado is looking at having the lowest payroll in the league this season, and even with Stewart coming off a 28-goal season and having traded Wojtek Wolski to land Mueller, the Avs don't feel compelled to give these players big money or term.
Edmonton's Sam Gagner, who was in the league at 18, signed a two-year, $4.55 deal, not bad for a 15-goal scorer, but not anything comparable to, say, Jordan Staal's four-year, $16 million extension or the six-year, $18.75 million pact signed by Florida's Rostislav Olesz back in the summer of '08.
Times have changed, particularly with only two years left on the current CBA. Smart agents and players have already figured that out.