NHL free agency opens with big-name moves
What does it mean for any franchise when its core players depart in the offseason? Usually: rebuilding. The short summer away from NHL play is punctuated by events that can easily upheave the sport’s entire culture. Whether it’s about money, a championship, or a general manager’s vision for a team’s future, roster changes in the hockey universe come suddenly and often.
This offseason has already seen huge, sometimes crushing, departures by big-name players who have never in their NHL careers worn more than one jersey. For a few of these players, signings have been more about sentimentality than the money. These types of moves are interesting given the current state of the NHL free agent market.
General managers have offered record-breaking contracts for what is hardly a sure chance at leadership roles or a Cup, and they have made statements by putting key players on the trading block–popular sentiment be damned.
When Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were traded away from the Philadelphia Flyers last offseason on the day of the NHL Entry Draft, it would be less than a year before they lifted a Cup together in Los Angeles. At the same time, their former team suffered a second round exit despite levels of prodigious talent and big-time offseason acquisitions of their own. The Flyers had an active offseason after the trades, attempting to answer their goaltending problem with the pricey Ilya Bryzgalov, and leadership concerns with 40-year-old Jaromir Jágr. Many thought Philadelphia had a chance to go all the way with their roster by the time the playoffs came around.
But the NHL seems to be getting more competitive every day. The Cup champion Los Angeles Kings of 2011-12 were an eight-seeded team who got on a roll in the spring and never, ever stopped. Not to mention the need for a new collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA this summer–things are continually looking very wild and very different across the board in the National Hockey League. It seems like a long time ago that people correctly predicted the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins returning for a Stanley Cup Finals rematch in 2009. The definition of consistency is changing. No one is pointing at any one team and using the word “dynasty” these days.
Speaking of the Wild, Minnesota (who hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2007-08) swooped in and got two favorite sons from two much more recently successful franchises this month. Zach Parise, a former first-round pick and captain of the New Jersey Devils, not only returned to his hometown of Minneapolis to play but signed a 13-year deal worth $98 million. Parise is a gifted winger with valuable leadership and locker room presence, sure to be an asset on any team.
Ryan Suter also left the franchise he had spent his entire career with, the Nashville Predators. While Suter is from Madison, Wisconsin, Minneapolis is certainly closer to home for Suter, and his wife happens to be from Minnesota, too. He signed a deal identical to Parise’s to play for the Wild. Even as a tough and intelligent defenseman reaching the prime of his career, it would be hard to demand that kind of contract at any other point in NHL history. But the timing was right for a payday. The Minnesota Wild needed to be more competitive.
Later, Parise and Suter confessed that they both had wanted to go to Minnesota to play together again. Both were alternate captains for Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics, earning the silver medal together. Really, it all makes sense when spelled out, but many fans of other teams were sitting on the edge of their seats and obsessively checking their team’s cap space and roster spots on CapGeek.com while refreshing Twitter, imagining what would happen should their team land Suter or Parise.
So were Devils fans and Preds fans–wondering how the team could possibly contend the same way without them. It would seem obvious to any fan that the Wild had the least immediate chance to hoist a Cup of any potential suitor for the two talented players. But the cash value and contract length would seem unbeatable–especially to move closer to home. And there is no science whatsoever to the latter half of the NHL season. Depending on who is injured, who is on a tear, and meteoric collapses by any number of star-studded rosters, the Wild could be winning playoff games in May. No one really knows. It seems that both Parise and Suter were willing to take that risk.
The Penguins suffered a similar loss in a trade when center Jordan Staal turned down a $60 million, 10-year contract extension to remain in Pittsburgh. He was subsequently traded to Carolina on draft day, having stated that he wanted an opportunity to play with his older brother, Carolina’s captain Eric Staal. Jordan then accepted the exact same contract extension from Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford that he had turned down from Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero.
Considering that Carolina finished 12th in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, Staal’s move wasn’t about the money or terms. Fans can assume it was about something more intangible–not only the chance to play with Eric, but the fact that Jordan was much more talented than his third-line center role suggested. He would always be below Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby on Pittsburgh’s depth chart; the current situation wouldn’t permit him to reach his potential.
Whether this trade makes the Hurricanes a contender remains to be seen. On paper, it wouldn’t seem so. But it’s those intangibles that often make championships. Some years, it will be the juggernaut that can’t be stopped all season. But more often than not in the NHL, the stars align and allow for a few surprises, and regular season records become less relevant as the summer approaches. (Never forget: two-time President’s Trophy winners the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Bruins in 2011.)
Remember these moves, then, as I’m sure you did when Mike Richards and Jeff Carter skated across center ice with Stanley while their Flyers teammates from the previous year watched them from home, on television. Anything can happen.
Other things to watch: Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash is still looking to be traded, and has a list of six teams that he will accept a trade to as part of his NTC (no-trade clause); however, GM Scott Howson has not accepted any offer from any of these teams, looking for a bigger return. Coyotes captain Shane Doan is still testing free agency and hasn’t signed with any team. The Anaheim Ducks could possibly move Bobby Ryan, who asked for a trade this offseason outright. The Canucks are also fielding offers for their franchise goaltender, Roberto Luongo.