Who among you out there gets a rush from the free agent frenzy?
I certainly do.
You may be compelled to go about your life as per usual onwards from July 1, but there is something gripping about the time of year which has the power to singlehandedly reshuffle the balance of power in the NHL. You’ll have sports radio on wherever you go, hoping to catch that news alert. You’ll frantically refresh theScore’s Free Agency live tracker (corporate shill alert) on your phone (it’s mobile friendly!) to see who is looking for a new home. And as we forge into this brave new world, it’s becoming increasingly likely that free agency, as the frenzy we know it to be, will never come back.
The spectacular phenomenon to come out of the last NHL CBA was a slew of long term contracts with various forms of salary loading. The technical term for this in the state of New Jersey is cap circumvention. The pioneers of said trick of the trade are largely ambiguous — obviously it’s easy to point to the brain power in Long Island and say that their Rick DiPietro contract inspired a generation. I, however, would argue that nobody looked at that deal and said, “THAT… now THAT is what we have to be doing.”
If we’re doing an earnest appraisal of the maneuver, Ken Holland and the Detroit Red Wings are our likely culprits here. Many of you will recall that there was a time not too long ago where we all wondered how on earth they intended to keep Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen in the fold after their consecutive Cup appearances. The answer was simple. Lock them down for a long, long time so that the cap hit is easily digested.
And at that moment a revolution began.
Since the 2004 lockout over 40 contracts have been signed with a term of seven years or more. The biggest length record is still owned by DiPietro, though he was joined in the 15 year echelon by Ilya Kovalchuk (cheater!) a little over 24 months ago.
How does this tie into free agency? Let me explain.
With long term contracts now all the rage for top tier talent — you may chuckle, but there was a time when DiPietro was a very talented player, though obviously not 15 years in length talented — we’re seeing players locked into long term deals with clubs, where they will remain until they are either traded when the actual salary figure is tenable or simply go off into the sunset in their 40s.
As such, the free agent pool across the league will see its impact names dwindle and we will see an influx of deals that overpay for borderline talents. Take this past offseason, for example. While the world waited for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to sign with mouths agape, and the rest of us tried not to soil our knickers when Shane Doan was linked to our franchises (Shane Doan? Really?), NHL GMs who weren’t in the running quietly went out and overpaid for players like Brandon Prust. Third line grinders are now receiving 300% pay increases.
Long term deals have become a brilliant way for the average NHLer’s salary to get up there. Fewer stars out on the open market means that the distinctly ‘alright’ player inches closer to the top prize of free agency, and given the precedent set league wide for long term deals, you better believe the average term length gets up there as well.
There are obvious benefits and drawbacks to this system.
From a quality control perspective, the way players are being locked into franchises puts a greater impetus on effective scouting for those franchises who miss on their targets. Scouring Europe or the junior ranks for players becomes a much more valuable resource. Similarly, trading GMs are forced to be much more shrewd with their deals, as there are a lot of years and dollars tied to a good portion of the league.
Putting a higher premium on intelligent personnel moves is a very good thing, but backroom workings don’t put fans in seats. Players do. Lockout joke here.
The on-ice drawbacks are certainly apparent. Stagnation in where teams fall in the standings could very well be soon to follow. Many hockey fans like to take potshots at the economic structure of baseball for a ‘lack of competitive balance’ — yet, since the last NHL lockout there have been six Stanley Cup champions and five World Series champions — the St. Louis Cardinals are the only repeat champion in baseball. Sure, the NHL has a salary cap, but if the only players to change uniforms under said cap are role players, the balance isn’t going to do a whole lot for you.
Given that there hasn’t been much flux in the top tier of hockey teams in recent years, you’d be hard pressed to argue that the NHL really preserves a higher degree of competitive balance, and long term contracts won’t do much to change that.
While we have to wait and see what comes of contracts and what survives this lockout, it’s evident that this isn’t a sustainable system.
We may need that amnesty clause after all.