A marginal increase in the salary cap for 2015-16 made it difficult for several players available in this summer’s thin unrestricted free agent market to land lucrative contracts. With September approaching, several unsigned veterans (like Cody Franson, Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross and Jiri Tlusty) face the prospect of accepting deals worth far less and for much shorter terms than they originally expected.
Next summer’s UFA market should be considerably deeper in talent. Top stars like Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar, Carolina’s Eric Staal, Chicago’s Brent Seabrook, Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien, St. Louis’ David Backes, Calgary’s Jiri Hudler and Colorado’s Erik Johnsson are slated for UFA status. Even if most of them are re-signed before July 1, several could still be available.
However, if there’s only another marginal bump in the salary cap (currently $71.4 million for the upcoming season) next year, its impact will be keenly felt upon that potentially deep UFA pool.
Half of the NHL’s 30 teams – Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Vancouver and Washington have cap payrolls in excess of $50 million for 2016-17. Many of them have key free agents to re-sign. Should next season’s cap increase by another $2.1 million to $73.5 million, it still won’t leave most of those clubs with sufficient room to pursue the best available UFA talent.
For the other 15 clubs, it remains to be seen how many are willing to invest the big bucks necessary to successfully bid for those UFA stars. Some of these teams also have notable talent to re-sign, potentially taking them out of the free-agent bidding wars.
The Anaheim Ducks, for example, must re-sign goaltenders Frederik Andersen and John Gibson, along with defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen. The Calgary Flames’ notable free agents includes top-line forwards Jiri Hudler (UFA), Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau (who are RFAs).
In Colorado, the Avalanche must retain UFA defenseman Erik Johnson and RFA forward Nathan MacKinnon. The Los Angeles Kings, meanwhile, will be paying big dollars to retain Anze Kopitar. They must also keep sufficient cap space available for when young forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson seek more lucrative deals down the road.
On paper, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets seem well-situated to become major bidders in next summer’s UFA market. However, they’re also traditionally budget-conscious clubs with important players of their own to re-sign.
Young Predators stars like Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones are restricted free agents, while the Jets have Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd as UFAs, along with Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele as RFAs. If the Predators and Jets stick to their usual cost-conscious script, they’ll focus more on re-signing those players instead of making big splashes in a potentially deep UFA pool.
Rebuilding clubs (Arizona, Buffalo, Carolina, Edmonton, Florida, New Jersey and Toronto) could be unwilling or unable to pursue expensive UFA talent. Their status could also make them undesirable destinations for stars keen on signing with contenders.
The cost of re-signing top restricted free agents is another factor that could affect the 2016 UFA market. RFAs like MacKinnon, Monahan, Gaudreau, Forsberg, Jones, Trouba, and Lindholm could be tempting targets for offer sheets. As we saw this summer, the threat of such offers can result in a notable RFA getting traded to a club willing to pay their expensive salary request. Should one of the aforementioned players sign a lucrative offer sheet, it will have an effect upon how much money remains available for the top UFAs.
It’s accepted logic that the best available UFAs will receive top dollar. If a superstar like Stamkos hits next summer’s open market, he could command over $11 million annually. Even in this year’s thin market, and despite the slight increase in the cap ceiling, notables like Mike Green ($6 million per season), Andrej Sekera ($5.5 million annually), Paul Martin ($4.85 million annually) and Michael Frolik ($4.3 million per season) still landed lucrative deals.
While next summer’s top UFAs should still receive expensive new deals, many of the second-tier talent could be scrambling to find expensive, long-term contracts. That group includes Arizona’s Mikkel Boedker, Boston’s Loui Eriksson, Calgary’s Kris Russell, Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader, Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec, the New York Islanders’ Kyle Okposo, the New York Rangers’ Keith Yandle and Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata.
That’s not to suggest NHL teams won’t pursue next summer’s top UFA talent, or that none of them will receive expensive contracts. As with this summer, what could happen is there won’t be as much money for the best second-tier players. That means an increasing number of UFAs could find themselves waiting much longer for the big deals that were once so common. And like this year’s unsigned free agents, some of them could end up accepting far less than their perceived market value.