Free agency has lost much of its sizzle

Dave Gross
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The Rangers bought out the final year of captain Chris Drury's contract Wednesday, making the 34-year-old forward a free agent.- Associated Press file photo

Once hailed as the most exciting off-season day on the National Hockey League calendar, unrestricted free agency has seen the sizzle fizzle in recent years.

So while hockey fans will cuddle up - as per usual - to their TV sets at 1:30 p.m. NT on Friday for the much-anticipated kickoff, once the name Brad Richards gets ticked off, they'll be reaching for the bucket of Red Bull to keep upright.

It's the second straight year the unrestricted free agent cupboard has offered up few tasty goods.

Rogers Sportsnet's Hockeycentral analyst Nick Kypreos says the reason is simple.

"Teams are smart. Their top talent is being tied up for multi years. They don't let it get to this point, because you just end up overpaying," said the former NHLer.

"This might be one of the stranger ones we've seen in a while. It's not like we've got a ton of big names."

And the trend will continue, says former NHL general manager and current TSN analyst Craig Button.

"With the CBA that was introduced in 2005 they lowered the free agency age. What teams realized is that players are starting to hit their prime at 25, 26, 27. So they start tying up these players at 23, long term. Not even allowing them to get (to free agency)," said Button.

"You draft a player at 18, you spend a lot of development time to get them to the NHL, then just when they're about to get to their prime, you're going to lose them? Teams realize real quick, (they're) not going to let that happen."

Given the lack of big names, followers of the game who believe in frugality are in for a jolting Canada Day weekend ahead.

With the salary cap escalating in 2011-12 to $64.3 million US, and - perhaps more applicable here - the salary cap floor lifting to $48.3 million, money's going to be flowing like blood and bullets in a Quentin Tarantino flick.

"It's a three-headed monster here and what it is, is simply this: there are too many teams chasing too few players with too much money in their pockets. When you have those three things I can guarantee you one thing, and that's this: prices are going to go up," Button said. "When demand exceeds supply and you have too much money chasing? Sorry, prices are going way up."

Not surprisingly, the Florida Panthers jumped out of the start gate first.

Florida's cap room is enormous and the elevator is well below the salary cap basement.

Wednesday, general manager Dale Tallon threw $12 million at centre Tomas Kopecky.

"I'm thinking, what is he, a third- or fourth-liner? You got to go $3 million per on him?" Kypreos said.

The head-scratching is bound to continue through the weekend.

"Bob Gainey always had the appropriate line for contracts and players like that. He'd say: 'There's no such thing as bad players, just bad contracts,'" Button said.

The Rangers bought out the final year of captain Chris Drury's contract on Wednesday, making the veteran forward an unrestricted free agent after four seasons in New York.

"He's a really good player, but there was no value in his contract anymore," Button said about Drury. " There's a guy who was chased hard and signed for $7-million-plus, and you don't blame the player, but once he's signed to that, he didn't change because he got more money, but the expectations did."

Drury, 34, never hit it big with the Rangers after he and fellow centre Scott Gomez were signed on the same day to bolster the team's offence that was then powered by Jaromir Jagr. Gomez was traded to Montreal following the 2008-09 season.

But it was the Kopecky signing that caught Kypreos's attention on Wednesday.

"It's not that (Florida had) a choice," he said "they're mandated to spend money. As revenues go up, obviously the cap goes up, but, what has driven the revenues up more than anything is the Canadian markets and the dollar. There are still American teams that are struggling.

"It's become a real goofy system."

The goofiness, almost poetically, is likely to wind through New York once again.

The team with a history of bad deals is expected to throw the bank at Richards. Buying out Drury helps, and as of Wednesday, the Rangers were more than $25 million under the cap.

"You just wait till Friday, Saturday and Sunday," said Button. "You're shaking your head today? Just wait.

"(Rangers coach John) Tortorella knows him, he knows Tortorella, it just seems to me all signs are pointing to New York," said Button, referencing Tortorella and Richards' time together in Tampa Bay that resulted in the Lightning winning a Stanley Cup in 2003-04.

 

Organizations: National Hockey League, Rangers, CBA Florida Panthers

Geographic location: New York, Florida, US Montreal Tampa Bay

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  • Brendan
    June 30, 2011 - 08:22

    Don't care much where Drury or Richards end up. I'd love to see Ryder get a lucrative 2 to 3 year deal and Purcell get a whopping 5 year BONANZA.