Only a year and a half following the ratification and implementation of the current NHL collective bargaining agreement (CBA), we have a clearer picture of its impact upon the unrestricted free agent (UFA) market.
The salary cap, implemented under the previous CBA, continues to have a long-ranging effect. Teams which make the most money no longer have unlimited ability to spend whatever they want on on the best available talent. Those clubs usually have the willingness to keep pace with a risking cap ceiling but remain constrained by the cap. While the cap doesn’t necessarily provide a level playing surface for all clubs to bid competitively for free agent talent, it at least to gives most of them a fighting chance.
When the salary cap was implemented in 2005 I predicted it wouldn’t prevent general managers from making dumb decisions, especially when it came to free agency. Many NHL clubs have overspent on second-tier free agent talent or aging stars past their prime. Some of them under the previous CBA found creative ways to sign players to long-term deals by heavily front-loading the contracts to ensure a cap-friendly average salary. But if the cap didn’t fix stupid, it at least limited just how stupid some NHL general managers could be in the free-agent market.
The cap also had an effect upon the depth of talent in the UFA market. Contrary to popular belief, the NHL UFA market was never a place well-stocked annually with superstar talent in the years before the salary cap. It’s always been a place where second-tier talent could take advantage of the lack of first-tier talent to cash in on big paydays they otherwise wouldn’t have received as restricted free agents, while aging stars used their legacies to command salaries they’re no longer worthy of receiving.
Thanks to the combination of the salary cap and the lowering of the eligibility for UFA status to age 27, (age 25 or 26 if the player has seven consecutive NHL seasons), NHL teams now re-sign their star players to long-term deals well in advance of their UFA eligibility.
As the previous CBA unfolded, the number of available UFA stars dwindled, creating more of a marketplace for lesser talent. But as we’ve seen both this summer and last, the implementation of term limits on contracts has resulted in fewer of the lesser lights earning lengthy, expensive deals.
This year saw only two players – Marian Gaborik and Matt Niskanen – receive the seven-year maximum. Ryan Callahan and Andrew MacDonald reupped with their current teams for six-year contracts. Six contracts were for five years, nine were for four years, while the rest were three years or less.
While the opening day of NHL free agency has traditionally seen most of the best talent signed away, such moves are now happening within the opening three hours of free agency, rather than spread throughout the day. That’s because of a six-day free-agent interview period leading up to the starting of free agency, allowing rival GMs to interview a club’s pending free agents, both unrestricted and restricted.
While the two sides aren’t supposed to talk contract (wink, wink), the interview period allows a general manager to determine which pending UFAs are interested in signing with his team, while giving a pending UFA a better idea of which clubs have genuine interest in his services. That speeds up the signing process on the opening day. This trend began during last year’s opening day of free agency but was largely attributed to the lockout-shortened season. This year, however, the impact of the interview period upon the UFA market is very apparent.
For the duration of this CBA (which is supposed to expire in September 2022), we can expect UFA periods to have far fewer available stars, more secondary and declining talent being overpaid but on shorter-term contracts, and the best available talent snapped up within the opening three hours of the market.