Free agency looms like a storm cloud.
No, seriously, it actually looms, beginning in earnest on October 9th, a mere three days away. With the temporary end of the Interview period, there’s a good chance that this Free Agency period, normally a time where maybe one good player suddenly ends up somewhere completely anticipated and we all bemoan how boring Free Agency has gotten, this has the potential to be a free agency period talked about for years to come.
The talent heading into Free Agency this year is considerable.
According to CapFriendly, there are approximately 291 NHL contracts coming off the books of the 31 NHL teams, 262 of which are active roster players. Of that list, even the one of the top 10 on the list could make a massive impact right away for whatever team happens to sign them.
Whole team’s fortunes in-net could seemingly change overnight if someone lands Henrik Lundqvist or Jakob Markstrom. Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug (sigh...) or Dmitry Orlov could also help place stability into a defensive corps in flux, guys like Mikael Granlund or Mikko Koivu could be valuable depth pieces for teams desperate for centers, Taylor Hall could be the offensive dynamo he is once again on a team that could actually support him for once, Kevin Shattenkirk has “Stanley Cup Champion” on his resume right now! Tell me what team wouldn’t go for him, even at his advanced age? Especially teams that happen to be having leadership troubles?
Of course, the problem facing nearly every player right now is...
Nobody is gonna want to spend any money this offseason.
Thanks to the league-wide $0 gate since March, pretty much every team has lost considerable amounts of cash to “Unprecedented Times”. A euphemism that here means “The Scream-Yourself-Awake-Waking-Nightmare Being Alive In 2020 Is.” That has led to billionaires crying poor, as per usual, and has led to layoffs, pay cuts, bonus cuts, and any sort of money-saving measure that does not automatically turn your club into the Ottawa Senators. Compounding that is long-standing reports that many teams, including Boston, are considering an internal cap until everything at long last settles down or a vaccine is discovered, and we can all come back to the games again to spend money on commemorative hats, pucks, new jerseys for the kids, and whatever fresh slice of hell the Frito Lay Kitchen puts out during the 2nd period because, what the hell, you’re up/down 2-1, might as well celebrate/eat the frustration away, right?
Regardless, even the teams with cash are considering internal caps, with teams that aren’t almost going as far as to say outright they’re going on them. And to cap all of that off, the Salary Cap itself; having been locked in at the current rate of $81.5 Million, when almost everybody was expecting it to shoot up to $84 million thanks to steady ratings and the upcoming Seattle expansion. The realities of the money right now give the impression that anybody who was expecting a big pay day may not get it, and any team-player relationship that’s close may have to be severed since they simply cannot pay the $6-8 million dollar AAV contracts that many of these players might be expecting.
At the same time, everyone wants to get better right now, and they can’t think too hard about exactly how they wanna do it.
GMs are in a weird place. Many teams are preparing for the reality of lean times, whatever that means for each team, while also preparing to improve the teams they’ve built/inherited however they can. And the biggest, most consequential part of the problem is this:
They really can’t afford to be cautious.
First thing’s first: First paychecks are due by Halloween. If you can’t pay a player right now, you have to get rid of him now, as well as get something for him, even if it’s just middle-round draft capital. Another critical part of this free agency period is that pre-signing interview rule, which has been waived. You can’t call a guy up and decide on whether or not you like them over the course of a couple of days or weeks like you could before...You gotta dial up a player/his agent at 11:50am on the first day of Free Agency, and press “Call” at 11:59:45am in order to get through on-time and pray you weren’t the only GM to think about this idea halfway through the morning. This waiving brings us back to ye olden times, where truly anything could happen, and someone’s ear is probably going to catch fire dialing Alex Pietrangelo’s answering machine for the 8th time.
Oh, and the draft is today.
Meaning there’s a non-zero chance that if you’re a GM, say, Julien Brisbois, who has spent the last week or so in a haze of champagne before going straight to Natural Lite, you have about less than a few days to consult with your pro scouting staff to get ready to call whoever you can to make miracles happen. And before that, you gotta go talk to your amateur scouting staff who did not have a full year’s worth of data thanks to the Pandemic, and you have to decide whether or not you’re going to select some kid from Moose Jaw named Xhraeydehn Stielmeet in the 5th round. And you can’t forget that the “n” in Xhraeydehn is silent, don’t want to embarrass Xhraeydehn and the Stielmeet family on live TV when you select him 196th overall at 1 in the afternoon over Zoom, do you? And once that’s over, you have a weekend’s worth of time to finalize that Free agency list.
And maybe sleep for a little bit. If you get lucky.
Brisebois, Sweeney, Gorton, and probably Bowman have the talent group in their operations staff for that, maybe keep all those plates spinning at once. There are a lot of teams right now that just don’t.
Which means while yes, a select few teams are going to luck the hell out by getting one or even several quality players to sign with them, several more are going to make mistakes, because those quality players will be gone in the time it takes to make a good sandwich. It gives the impression that teams are going to need to have a prepared list the likes of which will almost certainly not end with the guy at the top ending up on their roster. Many teams can indeed look to win the Stanley Cup with nothing but their prospect pools, but the rest are going to be trying to make a meaningful impact happen with an internal cap, a flat salary cap, and not a whole lot of time to make it so.
In short, this is the free agency period from heaven, designed to put teams through hell.
One of the darkest little secrets about NHL fans, who otherwise say they prefer things to be a certain way, is that they love chaos. There were plenty of fanbases that hated the way the Draft Lottery turned out...at least openly. Especially Detroit fans, I’m told they had a stake in it going their way. There were plenty more fans however, that loved it, and maybe were actively hoping that the worst team in the NHL didn’t get the first overall pick, and you know what? They got their wish. Chaos happened. And a team that’s been rebuilding for the better part of two-three years is now going to add to the Metropolitan Division’s murder-hydra-heads one Alexis Lafreniere.
Part of what makes the playoffs so good is that chaos, the never quite knowing who’s going to stall out or surprise. And this, after several free agency periods that seem to exercise nothing but caution, is going to be an absolute circus. Some team is going to park a truck outside Pietrangelo’s house and demand he sign with them until he is declared dead by a coroner. Others are going to anoint Braden Holtby their starter.
It will be true chaos the NHL has not seen for a good long time. And I cannot wait.