The National Hockey League’s Free Agency period was, at one point, one of the days to look forward to most in a league year. Players with expiring contracts would be able to talk to other teams regarding new contracts, and most would receive a nice pay-day come July 1.
For the Buffalo Sabres, the free agency period has been a nightmare over the past several years.
It began on July 1, 2007 when the Sabres let top centers Daniel Briere and Chris Drury walk in free agency, where both would sign lucrative contracts with other teams. Also on that day, the Sabres were forced to match an offer sheet worth more than $7.1 million that the Edmonton Oilers had signed Vanek to earlier in the day.
This would be a dagger to most Sabres fans following an upset by the Ottawa Senators in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals.
Along with Briere and Drury in 2007, other big named NHLers that were available in free agency and on the move included Brian Rafalski, Scott Gomez, Ryan Smyth, Paul Kariya, Bill Guerin, and more.
As the years have gone on, there have been notable names in free agency, and then years that have had no one available for teams to bring in and change its franchise around.
2011 was a year in which the Sabres made some significant moves to get the team better, or so at least we thought.
In the first year with Terry Pegula under the helm as the new owner, the Sabres traded for the rights to free agent defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, and then signed Ehrhoff to a massive 10-year contract. Then, after the Sabres failed at signing top-prize free agent Brad Richards, Buffalo went after the next best free agent forward, at the time, in Ville Leino.
Looking back to the 2011 NHL Free Agency period, the Sabres used a compliance buyout on both Leino and Ehrhoff, and even Richards was later bought-out by the New York Rangers.
In 2012, it was the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter year where both men were signed to matching 13-year deals with the Minnesota on July 4. Also that year, Nashville Predators defenseman, Shea Weber was offer-sheeted to an insane 14-year deal by the Philadelphia Flyers, in which the Predators matched five days later.
Perhaps the 2013 NHL Free Agency period was the last year of free agency frenzy with names like Daniel Alfredsson, David Clarkson, Ryane Clowe, and Valtteri Filppula as the most notable names available on the first day of free agency.
Over the past two years, the names of high-end free agents have decreased as teams re-sign and extend its top players to new contracts before July 1. That, or teams find deals with other teams to trade for those top players, and then the players sign extensions with their new team.
We saw that this year with a few teams this year before or during free agency with the Columbus Blue Jackets acquiring restricted free agent Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks, then signing him to a six-year extension.
The Sabres have even done that with Ryan O’Reilly, a year before he would have hit the free agency market. Buffalo acquired O’Reilly at the NHL Draft, and signed him to a seven-year extension on July 2.
The 2015 NHL Free Agency period was a bit of a dud in terms of big names, as the biggest unrestricted free agent name out there was Anaheim Ducks’ forward Matt Beleskey, who has now signed with the Boston Bruins. Some other notable names, but not big names, included Antoine Vermette, Michael Frolik, Mike Green, and a hand-full more. Also, no restricted free agents were offer-sheeted by other teams. Vladimir Tarasenko was possibly the highest regarded restricted free agent on the market this offseason.
Does this mean that the frenzy of NHL Free Agency is dying?
With teams locking up its top assets before they even have a chance to hit free agency, it seems as though it is dying off. But with some teams in salary cap trouble, and other teams looking for a chance of pace, the 2016 NHL Free Agency period could come alive with some big names available.
Let’s take a look at some of the top unrestricted free agents available by position as of today:
- Steven Stamkos – Tampa Bay Lightning – 25 – $7.5 million cap hit
- Anze Kopitar – Los Angeles Kings – 28 – $6.8 million cap hit
- Eric Staal – Carolina Hurricanes – 31 – $8.25 million cap hit
- David Backes – St. Louis Blues – 31 – $4.5 million cap hit
- Tomas Plekanec – Montreal Canadiens – 33 – $5 million cap hit
- Milan Lucic – Los Angeles Kings – 27 – $6 million cap hit
- Justin Abdelkader – Detroit Red Wings – 28 – $1.8 million cap hit
- Andrew Ladd – Winnipeg Jets – 30 – $4.4 million cap hit
- Mikkel Boedker – Arizona Coyotes – 26 – $3.75 million cap hit
- Kris Versteeg – Chicago Blackhawks – 29 – $4.4 million cap hit
- Jakub Voracek – Philadelphia Flyers – 26 – $4.25 million cap hit
- Kyle Okposo – New York Islanders – 27 – $2.8 million cap hit
- Troy Brouwer – St. Louis Blues – 30 – $3.666 million cap hit
- Michael Grabner – New York Islanders – 28 – $3 million cap hit
- Teddy Purcell – Edmonton Oilers – 30 – $4.5 million cap hit
- Mark Giordano – Calgary Flames – 32 – $4.02 million cap hit
- Brent Seabrook – Chicago Blackhawks – 30 – $5.8 million cap hit
- Keith Yandle – New York Rangers – 29 – $5.25 million cap hit
- Dustin Byfuglien – Winnipeg Jets – 30 – $5.2 million cap hit
- Brian Campbell – Florida Panthers – 36 – $7,124,875 cap hit
- Cam Ward – Carolina Hurricanes – 31 – $6.3 million cap hit
- Jonas Hiller – Calgary Flames – 33 – $4.5 million cap hit
- Cam Talbot – Edmonton Oilers – 28 – $1.45 million cap hit
- Eddie Lack – Carolina Hurricanes – 28 – $1.15 million cap hit
- James Reimer – Toronto Maple Leafs – 27 – $2.3 million cap hit
Buffalo’s list of unrestricted free agents include David Legwand, Jamie McGinn, Mike Weber, Chad Johson, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Bobby Sanguinetti.
Some of the names in the unrestricted free agency pool are huge names, however, how many of them are going to be available for teams to sign on July 1?
The list of restricted free agents are even larger with some big, young names available. But how many teams are willing to make offer sheets for some of these players? Very few to none.
Of the list of unrestricted free agents, many people can speculate about players hitting free agency and who would want to sign a certain player.
Players like Stamkos and Kopitar are franchise players, and for their team to let them walk in free agency would be a shocking surprise. If a team is willing to pay the price and acquire a player with such caliber in a trade, good luck.
Players like Voracek, Girodano, and Seabrook have been stepping stones to their respective franchises, and it would still be surprising if they were to walk in free agency.
For other players, it seems unlikely if they were to walk in free agency without being traded during the NHL Trade Deadline, but crazier events have happened in the past.
Some players who could be players to go to free agency without compensation could be Staal, Backes, Abdelkader, Okposo, and Ward.
With regards to Staal and Ward, the Hurricanes are in turn-over, and for the price both players are at with their salary cap, trading them would be highly unlikely. Staal is Carolina’s captain, but it seems as though Staal would still want a higher annual pay. Unless the ‘Canes can make a compromise with Staal, he would be on his way to the open market. As for Ward, the team has wanted to unload on a poorly executed contract for a couple years now. If he is not moved at the trade deadline, he will hit free agency come July 1.
Similar situation with Backes from the Blues, where the team has been trying to find a deal with another team to move his contract. If the Blues cannot move his contract, and if the Blues miss the playoffs again, it could be tough to see St. Louis keeping its captain as the team may want to make changes everywhere.
For Abdelkader and Okposo, they are players on the rise, and will want huge pay-days come next year. The Red Wings and Islanders will have bodies to re-sign next year or young kids to extend for the future of the organization. They may be sacrifices of the salary cap, and also of teams who are looking more to the younger future.
NHL Free Agency may not be so exciting for the lucrative, and often times overboard, deals that are signed, but more for the trades that occur and the players involved in such trades. Every year has its surprises, and the 2016 free agency period is bound to have its own surprises come July 1, 2016.
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