2015 NHL Free Agency: The 10 Most Surprising Developments

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJuly 5, 2015

2015 NHL Free Agency: The 10 Most Surprising Developments

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Every year on July 1, the National Hockey League serves up some surprises as its free-agency season gets underway.

    In 2015, the landscape was a little different than usual. After the dust had settled, a lack of high-end talent available on the unrestricted free agent market and a shortage of salary-cap space among many of the league's highest-spending teams left us musing less about big contracts and more about other, more unexpected side effects.

    Here are the 10 most surprising developments from this year's NHL free-agent frenzy.

10. Mike Ribeiro Stays with Nashville Predators

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    What Went Down

    After resurrecting his career with a 62-point season as the first-line center with the Nashville Predators in 2014-15, Mike Ribeiro's negotiations for a new contract became tenuous when he was reported to have rejected a two-year, $6 million deal a few days before free agency began, according to Adam Vingan of the Tennessean.

    Ribeiro and the Predators ultimately agreed to a two-year deal worth a total of $7 million shortly before the free-agency window opened on Wednesday.

    Why It's Surprising

    Nashville general manager David Poile's leap of faith in signing Ribeiro after he was bought out by the Arizona Coyotes during the summer of 2014 turned out to be a win-win for both player and team. 

    The surprise lies not so much in the fact that the relationship continues, but that the two sides played hardball before the new deal was signed.

    Good News or Bad News?

    Most likely, good news.

    Though Ribeiro's off-ice issues continue to be a distraction—he's dealing with a civil lawsuit from a former nanny who is accusing him of sexual assault—on the ice, Ribeiro delivered all that was expected and more for the Predators last season. He'll continue to be a key part of Nashville's offensive engine going forward.

9. Offer-Sheet Threats Led to Big Trades—and Bigger Contracts

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    Bill Smith/Getty Images

    What Went Down

    Scared that they wouldn't have the resources to match predatory offer sheets to their best restricted free agents, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks got ahead of the threat by trading Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad, respectively, before the offer-sheet window opened on July 1.

    Why It's Surprising

    Both rising young stars, Saad had been a part of two Stanley Cup winners with the Blackhawks and had shown steady improvement during his three years in the NHL, while first-round draft pick Hamilton is coming off a breakout season with the Bruins, where his 42 points ranked him 23rd in league scoring by defensemen.

    Good News or Bad News?

    Both Hamilton and Saad figured to be key building blocks for their teams going forward, but big contract demands made it impossible to keep them around.

    They'll be missed, but the deals they've signed with their new teams will create a ripple effect. The Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets are beneficiaries now but could find themselves in similar predicaments when the time comes to lock up their own young stars.

8. San Jose Sharks Spend Big to Win Now

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    What Went Down

    Despite a disappointing season that saw the team miss the playoffs and part ways with coach Todd McLellan, the San Jose Sharks signalled that they're still in "win now" mode when they acquired coveted goaltender Martin Jones and signed veteran free agents Paul Martin and Joel Ward to lengthy deals.

    Why It's Surprising

    After winning four straight Pacific Division titles between 2007-08 and 2010-11, the Sharks have floundered in the regular season and been frustrated in the playoffs.

    A seven-game playoff loss—after leading three games to none—to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 led to Joe Thornton being stripped of his captaincy and talk of a youth injection, but the Sharks' new additions have pushed the team back up near the salary-cap ceiling—and increased the team's average age.

    Good News or Bad News?

    Let's say...strange news, for now. Martin, Ward and Jones should help new coach Peter DeBoer ice a more competitive Sharks squad in 2015-16, but it could be at the risk of developing the team's young players.

    The Sharks have stockpiled plenty of picks in the last two drafts, so they could have a nice collection of prospects ready to take the reins when the current group is finally ready to pass the torch.

7. Chicago Blackhawks Still in Salary-Cap Trouble

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    What Went Down

    The Chicago Blackhawks' 2015 Stanley Cup celebration was bittersweet. It quickly became clear that the team would be forced to part with players from its championship roster in order to remain salary-cap compliant.

    Rather than risk an offer sheet from a rival team, general manager Stan Bowman traded up-and-coming winger Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    But after bringing in Artem Anisimov as part of the return for Saad and re-upping Andrew Desjardins, the 'Hawks sit more than $400,000 over the salary-cap ceiling on July 4 according to General Fanager, most notably with only four NHL defensemen signed for next season.

    Bowman will need to make more tough decisions in order to get his team cap-compliant for next season.

    Why It's Surprising

    With so much championship experience on his roster, it's surprising that Bowman has yet to be able to swing that long-rumoured trade for Patrick Sharp and his $5.9 million-a-year cap hit, or to unload expensive spare parts Bryan Bickell or Kris Versteeg.

    Restricted free agent Marcus Kruger still needs a new contract, and the possibility of bringing back Johnny Oduya remains—if Bowman can conjure up the cap space that he needs.

    Good News or Bad News?

    Bad news. Bowman was forced to wait until days before the beginning of the 2014-15 regular season before he could unload Nick Leddy to deal with his cap issues last year. The Leddy situation caused a distraction, and Bowman got only a so-so return for his asset.

    The Blackhawks won't need to become cap-compliant until opening night on October 7. The longer Bowman's forced to wait before striking a deal, the weaker his bargaining position becomes.

6. Some Big Names Remain on the Market

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    What Went Down

    The NHL's 2015 class of unrestricted free agents took a good deal of heat for its lack of star power, but some of the biggest—and potentially most expensive—names on the list remain unsigned four days after hitting the market.

    Why It's Surprising

    Some players may be weighing their options or continuing negotiations through a holiday weekend on both sides of the border before signing on the dotted line. Still, you'd think there'd be more of a frenzy in the marketplace for players like 6'5", 27-year-old defenseman Cody Franson or two-time Stanley Cup winner Johnny Oduya.

    Good News or Bad News?

    Time will tell. As the summer progresses, free-agent deals tend to get smaller in value and shorter in term, so some players who'd hoped to cash in may be forced to sign one-year "prove it" deals to try to boost their market value next summer.

    Teams might be avoiding a contract mistake that could haunt them over the long term, but they could also be missing out on players who could improve their roster without huge price tags.

5. Spending Hasn't Been as Outrageously Extravagant as Usual

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    Debora Robinson/Getty Images

    What Went Down

    Before this year's free-agency period began, Michael Traikos of the National Post was one of many writers who warned of general managers' tendencies to overpay players who are available on July 1. He singled out defenseman Mike Green and forward Matt Beleskey as two top free agents, then said "Chances are someone will pay (or overpay)."

    At age 29, Green got a reasonable three-year deal at $6 million a season from the Detroit Red Wings—a shade below what he earned last year with the Washington Capitals.

    Beleskey was said to have turned down a four-year deal with a cap hit of $4 million from his previous team, the Anaheim Ducks, but took one more year at a slightly lower cap hit of $3.8 million a season to sign with the Boston Bruins in a deal that Puck Daddy's Jen Neale called "surprisingly reasonable."

    Why It's Surprising

    When unrestricted free agents have the opportunity to choose their landing spots, bidding wars between teams can drive up both term and dollar value of new contracts. Players get paid and get job security, but they can find themselves in tough situations when they try to live up to the expectations that come along with their massive new deals.

    Beleskey got one of just three five-year deals handed out this summer—the other two went to Michael Frolik in Calgary and Andrej Sekera in Edmonton. On balance, the league's GMs are committing to shorter terms and, for the most part, keeping their budgets in check.

    Good News or Bad News?

    Good news. Players and their agents might not be cashing in like they once did, but the seven-year deal worth $5.25 million a year signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs and David Clarkson back in 2013 is the only reminder needed that big contracts can be detrimental not just to teams that offer them, but also to the players who sign them.

4. Edmonton Became a Desirable Free-Agent Destination

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    David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

    What Went Down

    Thanks to a complete franchise overhaul that includes new CEO Bob Nicholson, new general manager Peter Chiarelli, new head coach Todd McLellan and shiny new draft-lottery prize Connor McDavid, Edmonton shed its status as a hockey wasteland as the Oilers attracted a couple of solid free agents on July 1.

    Utility forward Mark Letestu signed a three-year deal to leave the Columbus Blue Jackets, while sought-after defenseman Andrej Sekera's five-year contract includes a no-trade clause, according to General Fanager.

    Why It's Surprising

    After nine seasons outside the playoff picture, the once-proud Oilers franchise has been a less-than-desirable destination for free agents. 

    The regime change and the arrival of McDavid are triggering hope that Edmonton is on the verge of building a new dynasty on par with the Gretzky years in the '80s—or at least, making the playoffs. Free agents are following accordingly.

    Good News or Bad News?

    For the Oilers, it's great news—one of several signs that the team's long stretch of futility might finally be coming to an end.

3. Martin St. Louis Retires

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    Scott Audette/Getty Images

    What Went Down

    Coming out of a four-year contract that carried a cap hit of $5.625 million per season, 40-year-old Martin St. Louis was considered one of the more pedigreed members of the free-agent class of 2015. That is, until he announced his retirement on July 2, per Kristen Nelson of NHL.com.

    Why It's Surprising

    Just 16 months ago, St. Louis demanded a trade away from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Along with a 2015 second-round pick, the then 38-year-old, who'd won his second Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer in 2012-13, ended up fetching an impressive return of right wing Ryan Callahan, two first-round draft picks and a seventh rounder, per HockeyDB.

    St. Louis lived up to his high price tag when the Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final three months after he was acquired, then won the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team in 2014-15.

    St. Louis contributed just seven points in 19 postseason games before the Lightning eliminated the Rangers in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final, but he gave no indication that he was at the end of his playing career.

    Good News or Bad News?

    Probably good news. Though St. Louis was well-known for his superhuman workout regimen, he was showing signs of slowing down.

    With the timing of his free agency and subsequent retirement announcement, St. Louis is robbed of a farewell tour around the league like Teemu Selanne enjoyed with the Anaheim Ducks.

    Still, he retires with the knowledge that as an undersized, undrafted player, he goes out at the top of his game after a storied 16-season career that included two Art Ross Trophies, three Lady Byng Trophies, a Hart Trophy, a Lester B. Pearson Award (now known as the Ted Lindsay Award) and a Stanley Cup.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs Part Ways with Phil Kessel

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    Graig Abel/Getty Images

    What Went Down

    It wasn't strictly a free-agency story, but the Toronto Maple Leafs dominated the broadcasts and made their share of headlines when they announced on July 1 that they had traded sniper Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Why It's Surprising

    Rumours of Kessel's potential departure had swirled ever since the Leafs finished their disastrous season in 27th place in the NHL.

    The whispers got louder after Mike Babcock signed on as Toronto's head coach in late May. But Kessel's massive contract—a cap hit of $8 million a year for another seven seasons—made it seem like a trade would be tough to accomplish.

    By retaining $1.2 million a year in salary, the Leafs were able to move Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have been seeking a scoring right winger to play alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. 

    Good News or Bad News?

    Probably good news. Though Kessel has been one of the most productive scorers in the game, his goals didn't translate to team success during his six years with Toronto. It might be hard for Leafs Nation to watch if he goes on to do great things in Pittsburgh, but Kessel's situation in Toronto had reached the point where it was basically unsalvageable.

1. Los Angeles Kings Terminate Mike Richards' Contract

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    What Went Down

    After Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi chose not to use a compliance buyout on the last six seasons of Mike Richards' 12-year contract during the summer of 2014, it looked like the Kings were in a tough spot after Richards cleared waivers in January and was assigned to the AHL's Manchester Monarchs.

    Though Richards was recalled for six games near the end of the season, it was widely assumed that the Kings would need to bite the bullet and buy out Richards' contract this summer.

    Instead, Lombardi shocked the hockey world when the Kings announced on June 29 that they were terminating Richards' contract due to a material breach, per LAKings.com (via NHL.com).

    Why It's Surprising

    The news of Richards' contract termination came down without warning, during the league's window for making regular buyouts.

    It wasn't until the next day that the Winnipeg Sun (via Helene Elliott and Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times) reported that Richards' indiscretion was reportedly possession of OxyContin pills while crossing the border between the U.S. and Canada.

    No charges have yet been filed for the incident, which allegedly took place on June 17, but Richards is said to remain under investigation.

    Good News or Bad News?

    Both. If Richards has offered up a loophole for the Kings to wriggle out of buying out his contract, he's saved the team millions of dollars a year in cap penalties. That's how the situation stands right now.

    But it's likely that the NHL Players' Association will launch an appeal on Richards' behalf—and if he's not ultimately charged with a crime, his case would seem to be quite strong.

    In a summer when the Kings are already dealing with legal issues surrounding Jarret Stoll and Slava Voynov, it could be years before we find out the final implications of Richards' sudden contract termination.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com. Salary information from General Fanager.

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