The Bear Cave

July 1, 2009 8:20 AM

Free Agency Market makes Final Preparations for 2009 Opening

The wait is finally over. At noon on Wednesday, the NHL will open the doors of the free agent market, allowing players without a current contract to negotiate with whatever teams they are interested in playing for. Some teams will be looking for a final piece or two in a potential puzzle that includes a Stanley Cup. Other teams will attempt to make a splash by landing a big name or two. A few teams have plenty of money to spend, while a select group of teams will be battling with the salary cap during the summer months. All of these different scenarios should make for another interesting July in the world of hockey.

With the final hours ticking away, teams have been working extremely hard to keep some of their players in the system. Tuesday's biggest news came from Calgary, where the Flames prevented defenseman Jay Bouwmeester from testing the market, signing him for five years and $33 million. The San Jose Sharks, New Jersey Devils, and Dallas Stars were also busy on the eve of the big day, re-signing Rob Blake, Johnny Oduya, and Jere Lehtinen. On Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins locked up one of their keys to victory, keeping Bill Guerin in the fold for one year and $2 million.

While signings are certainly fun, there should be a decent amount of trades going down as well. On trade occurred on Tuesday, as the Montreal Canadiens acquired Scott Gomez from the New York Rangers in exchange for Christopher Higgins. A few minor league players were also included in the deal. It looked like there would be another trade, but a certain player wouldn't allow it. Dany Heatley refused to waive his no-movement clause on a move that would have sent him to the Edmonton Oilers for Andrew Cogliano, Dustin Penner, and Ladislav Smid. Apparently, beggars can be choosers in this situation, as Heatley was the one who got the ball moving by requesting a trade in the first place. The Ottawa Senators would probably like a mulligan for the day, as they also found out that restricted free agent Chris Neil rejected their contract offer.

Tuesday's final piece of news came from Boston, where the Bruins opted to buy out the contract of Peter Schaefer. Schaefer was making $2.1 million last year while playing in the AHL with Providence. Because this was a buyout, Boston will be forced to carry $566,667 against the cap for each of the next two seasons. This is the second year in a row that the Bruins have made such a decision, as Glen Murray's $1.383333 million buyout is still on the cap this season.

So, what about the market? Well, there are names, names, and more names. The free agent list includes hundreds of players from various levels of the game, all looking to secure a destination for the 2009-10 season. Starting at the top of the charts, there are ten free agents (all unrestricted) that made more than $5 million this past season. They are: Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, Nikolai Khabibulin, Scott Niedermayer, Mats Sundin, Alex Tanguay, and Sergei Zubov. Sakic and Zubov are both nearing the end of their careers, while the other eight will likely land a pretty penny or two.

Most of the higher priced free agents are unrestricted this summer, meaning that there should be some intense bidding wars between clubs. In terms of money, the top two restricted free agents are forward Nikolai Zherdev of the New York Rangers and goaltender Kari Lehtonen of the Atlanta Thrashers. Both made at least $3 million this past season, and both are eligible for arbitration.

Aribitration could play a factor into some players' decisions. Every restricted free agent that made at least $1 million this past season is eligible for aribtration, while quite a few others also qualify if they opt to go that route. At this point, it's tough to say whether arbitration will be a smart route to take or not. If a player had a successful season, it isn't necessarily a bad move. In past years, rulings have been on the high side of the dollar sign, which could lead more players into taking that chance. The deadline to request arbitration is July 5th. However, players and teams do have the opportunity to mutually back out if an agreement is reached. That happens frequently, as neither side usually wants to wait for a neutral party to make the ultimate decision.

With rumors swirling about a significant drop in the salary cap for 2010-11, a lot of people have talked about this offseason as possibly being a slow one. I agree in the sense that I don't believe players will get monumental amounts of money. However, I think there will be a decent amount of movement and signings. I expect Wednesday's storyline to mostly feature players being re-signed, as teams will be trying to beat the 12:00 deadline. After that, let the party begin. Some of the bigger players might get the offer they are looking for, while others will just be happy to get a respectable deal done. In the grand scheme of things, I expect that the higher priced talent will go later. A few might go early, but most will wait. First, they will want to see other players set the bar, allowing them to know where their potential ballpark is. Second, that cap scare for next season will scare some teams into waiting. When players wait, they get impatient, which plays into the hands of the teams, as they will likely get more affordable deals done.

For those looking for numbers as a base, we travel back one year to July 1, 2008. Five trades were made, 14 players re-signed with their previous teams, and 33 players signed on with somebody different. My prediction for this year is four trades, 18 players re-signing, and 26 players signing somewhere new. 12:00 can't come fast enough!

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