(ESPN.com) – I wonder how long it’s going to take for more and more people in hockey to stop freaking out when it comes to pending unrestricted free agents. In football (the NFL), players come and go every offseason, but it seems there isn’t that same narrow focus on making sure pending free agents are either re-signed midseason or are traded for assets (like in the NHL). They often fulfill their contracts and move on, and it’s not the end of the world. They get replaced.
With all headaches around the Boston Bruins lately, and news coming out that the salary cap will most likely remain flat next season, it seems like a good time to bring up a new concept creeping into trading and signing players in the NHL. It’s something that has directly impacted the Bruins in recent memory and will continue to do so.
When a player is set to become a free agent at the end of an NHL season they’re either, a) unloaded by the trade deadline so the team losing the player gets something in return, or b) the team the player is on is in position to make a Stanley Cup run and they keep the player for the run knowing they’ll probably lose him in the summer for nothing. However, letting a player walk regardless of where the team is at has never been seen as a logical move. That was before a flat salary cap.
It seemed to take a few seasons of salary cap era hockey before most general managers started to really value cap space the way they value traditional compensation from a trade. The NFL, as stated in the excerpt above, figured it out quickly. They routinely sign players, be it stars or plugs, and let them walk at the end of their deals regardless of where the team is positioned because the cap space gained is what they’re after. Look no further than the New England Patriots when they let Darrell Revis walk for nothing. It’s a common move in that league. The NHL is slowly having to learn it’s okay to do the same.
Part of the reason they’re learning now, and why it’s affecting today’s trade market, is that general managers are no longer overspending as much and building through the draft is the way to go. Draft picks aren’t seen as something you just happily throw into a trade like they were pre-cap. In the pre-cap NHL the St. Louis Blues probably move Kevin Shattenkirk by now because it only takes one team to not give a damn about the money and picks to get him. Today everyone cares. You can’t spend like a drunken sailor anymore. Especially when the cap is projected to not increase. Shattenkirk may make it to free agency this summer because of his price tag and the market environment. That used to be unheard of.
What’s more, the amount of available cap space to a team makes them adjust how much they really value the player they’re interested in. Before, if you liked a player you just needed the owners checkbook and you could figure out the rest later. Hell, the GM’s involved would probably be long gone before the mess they created could be dealt with, ie: Peter Chiarelli before Don Sweeney.
The Bruins have direct experience with this now, and in the past. Now because they can’t go get the meaningful pieces they need to fix their roster without chewing up cap space and assets that took forever to finally get again. And in the past with Loui Eriksson. They didn’t trade Loui at the deadline last year for valuable draft picks or an affordable player. So, they let him walk for nothing in free agency. Fine. But when they let him walk, instead of embracing the huge cap space gained, they immediately went and threw all of those cap dollars at David Backes for the next five years. Whether you’re a Backes fan or not, one could argue the Bruins would have been better off letting Loui walk to get significant cap space and not sign Backes at all. That’s something seen as crazy in the NHL world. Not in the NFL. In the flat cap world you’ve got to wonder if the Bruins brass would rather be sitting on Backes-sized extra cap space right now rather than cutting him checks. Regardless, the Bruins mismanaged Loui’s situation entirely.
In the end what you’re seeing is a quieter market that’s trickier to navigate for everyone. Cap space is at such a premium it wouldn’t surprise me to see teams becoming more comfortable letting players freely walk at the end of their deals each summer in NFL-esque fashion rather than suitors picking them up at the trade deadline. Everyone keeps their draft picks and no one hastily overpays. Obviously if a team feels there a move away from a real Cup run they’ll pull the trigger, but those teams are few. GM’s can now collectively drive down price tags in free agency (see Cody Franson in ’15 and Kris Russell in ’16) and not have to give up picks for players in late season deals.
If the Bruins eventually end up in full rebuild mode then they’ll have to embrace as much cap space as they can and take advantage of the well managed teams issues. Because a flat cap sucks for good teams (Chicago Blackhawks) who manage their assets well. They can’t be rewarded for their good management by keeping everyone because there isn’t enough cap space to go around. The poorly managed teams (Boston Bruins) can pick up some solid roster fixes if they can strike because they have cleared cap space, like how Tuevo Terravainen went to Carolina last summer.
Good players will have to go, be it via trade or by letting them walk. But before the Bruins can even enter this kind of market management will have to admit to what the team really is and then not screw it up. Don’t hold your breath on that part just yet.
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