Flurry of trades, signings expected before NHL free agency
While Julien BriseBois knows exactly how confident he is about the possibility of re-signing playoff performer Ondrej Palat and veteran defenseman Jan Rutta, he's not saying.
"Still working on that," the two-time Stanley Cup-winning general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning said. “Too early to tell.”
He's also right that it's too early to tell exactly what NHL free agency will look like when it begins Wednesday. Colorado, which beat Tampa Bay in the Cup Final, is looking to sign postseason standout Valeri Nichushkin among a group of potential free agents, and others such as Calgary MVP candidate Johnny Gaudreau, Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin and Florida trade deadline pickup Claude Giroux could all get new deals to stay rather than hitting the open market.
“It’s not July 13 yet,” BriseBois said. “Those guys may all be signed by then.”
A big star re-upping with his team has already happened a couple of times: the Pittsburgh Penguins signed veteran defenseman Kris Letang for six years and the Nashville Predators signed high-scoring winger Filip Forsberg for eight. Teams have until midnight EDT Tuesday — 12 hours before free agency begins — to get the maximum benefit of signing players for eight years, after which they can only get up to seven.
Still, even that timeline feels like a lifetime away in the hockey world, especially with the bulk of the offseason condensed into less than three weeks.
“We’ve got some time,” Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic said about discussions with several pending free agents. “We know we’re not going to be able to sign everybody. We know that. But we’ve got our priority and then we’ll see. I think some players will test the market and see what’s out there for them and see if they want to come back, but time will tell.”
The Avalanche, who signed goaltender Alexander Georgiev on Sunday after acquiring him from the New York Rangers, could be busy. They have not only Nichushkin but center Nazem Kadri, forwards Andre Burakovsky, Darren Helm and Nico Sturm and defensemen Josh Manson, Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray set to be unrestricted free agents if they don't re-sign.
Kadri seems the most likely out the door for a big payday after a career year and breakout playoffs, though that would give Colorado some space to take care of other players.
“I think we’re in the ballpark with some of the guys,” Sakic said. “I’m not going to go into details with who, but we’re hopeful we’ll be able to make an announcement and not have all of them go to the market on Wednesday.”
Calgary GM Brad Treliving expressed the same optimism about Gaudreau, who set career highs with 40 goals, 75 assists and 115 points and finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting as the league's most valuable player. He said these things take time and pointed out Gaudreau isn't the first or last top player to go un-signed until the final days between free agency and talks continue.
“You look at all the options, but our focus is on Plan A, and until such time as Plan A’s not a reality, we’ll focus on that,” Treliving said. “The only focus is trying to get him signed, and we’ll continue working at that end.”
The same appears to be the case for the Panthers and Giroux, the longtime captain of the Philadelphia Flyers they acquired at the trade deadline. The Boston Bruins are also waiting to hear from their longtime captain, Patrice Bergeron, who's expected to only play for them if he returns for a 19th season.
“He’s made real good indications to us that he’s trending in the right manner, but until he makes that proclamation, we’ll wait,” Bruins GM Don Sweeney said.
Some teams can't afford to wait until Wednesday to make moves because they need to clear salary cap space before then. After a weekend of goaltender musical chairs at the draft and more coming on that front, Minnesota GM Bill Guerin figures the league will be buzzing with activity before free agency.
“You could definitely see it,” Guerin said. “Teams are doing everything in their power to get cap space, so I could see a lot."