Burning Questions for 2016 NHL Free Agency

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJune 21, 2016

Burning Questions for 2016 NHL Free Agency

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    It's almost time for the NHL's 2016 free-agency window to open.

    Starting Saturday, June 25, NHL teams will have permission to start interviewing potential unrestricted free agents, discussing "the potential interest in as well as general parameters of a potential future contractual relationship," according to a league memo transcribed by Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune transcribed in 2014. The interview window for restricted free agents opens on June 28.

    In both cases, teams and players can speak about the length of a contract and how much it would pay, but no one can sign on the dotted line until free agency officially begins on July 1.

    Some big names are on their way toward hitting the market this summer, but the free-agency period is about much more than which player hits the biggest jackpot.

    Here are some of the most intriguing questions  swirling in the run-up to NHL free agency.

What's the New Salary-Cap Limit?

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Last summer, the NHL announced its salary-cap range for the 2015-16 season on June 23, three days before the first round of the draft and the opening of the free-agency interview period.

    James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail suggests the final cap ceiling will likely come in below $73 million, which would be a small increase of about $1.5 million from 2015-16. 

    While the final number is still up in the air, some teams have already started making moves in an effort to open up cap space for offseason deals.

    The Florida Panthers got a jump on their competition by dealing defenseman Erik Gudbranson to Vancouver back in late May and then flipping the contract of injured forward Marc Savard to the New Jersey Devils on June 10. The Chicago Blackhawks were also proactive when they traded forwards Bryan Bickell and Teuvo Teravainen to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for two draft picks on June 15.

    General Fanager shows 15 teams—half the league—finished the 2015-16 season within $1 million or less of the $71.4 million cap ceiling. Clubs with cap space to spare have the opportunity to make some good deals once the big spenders find out exactly where their budgets will top out next year.

How Will the Expansion Draft Shape Roster Decisions?

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    A unique variable in play this spring is the likely expansion draft that will stock the roster of the new NHL team in Las Vegas in June 2017.

    According to Steve Carp of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, multiple sources have confirmed the NHL's board of governors will vote on June 22 to approve the new franchise, which would then start play in T-Mobile Arena just off the Las Vegas Strip in the fall of 2017.

    Though the league has not yet formally confirmed the rumours, detailed reports of next summer's expansion draft have also surfaced in reports like this one from Sportsnet's Chris Johnston. Existing teams will face limits to the number of experienced players they are able to protect, so managers will have to make sure they have enough room on their protected lists to squeeze in any new faces they acquire through free agency without leaving other valuable members of their franchise vulnerable.

    Once you look past the top tier of free agents, concern over expansion draft risks could put a damper on the marketplace for mid- and lower-level talents.

Where Will Steven Stamkos Sign?

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    It's not often we see teams' franchise players hit the open market through free agency in the prime of their careers.

    Team captains like Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and Nicklas Lidstrom spent their entire careers with one organization. Mark Messier was getting very long in the tooth at age 37 when he signed his big free-agency contract with the Vancouver Canucks back in 1997, nearly two decades ago.

    Steven Stamkos doesn't have a Stanley Cup ring yet, but the Tampa Bay Lightning captain does have an appearance in the final under his belt, as well as two Rocket Richard Trophies and 312 goals in 569 games played—second in goals-per-game among active players, per QuantHockey.com, behind only Alexander Ovechkin. At 26, he also should be heading into the best years of his career.

    Players like Stamkos simply don't hit the open market, but as things stand right now, that's exactly what's about to happen on July 1.

    Though both Stamkos and the Lightning have expressed hope that a deal can get done to keep him in Tampa Bay, general manager Steve Yzerman sounded frustrated on Monday, with a window of just a few days remaining before other clubs can officially approach his player. 

    "We're doing all we can to sign him," Yzerman told Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, before adding, "I can't force him to sign a contract with us if he doesn't want to. If he wants to go to July 1, he has that right."

    Stamkos' decision will directly impact the future of other players in Tampa Bay, where restricted free agents Nikita Kucherov, Cedric Paquette and Alex Killorn are all in need of new contracts this summer and Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop are headed toward UFA status after the 2016-17 season.

    If Stamkos signs, other players will likely need to be moved. If another team reels him in, that should start the dominoes falling with respect to other big signings and possible trades this summer.

    After Stamkos, the other big names set to become unrestricted free agents this summer include Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, David Backes and Andrew Ladd at forward, Brian Campbell, Luke Schenn, Kris Russell and Dan Hamhuis on defense and James Reimer and Karri Ramo in goal.

Which Trades Will Shake Up the Marketplace?

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Free agency is not the only way to bolster a lineup for next season.

    If a team has a specific need, that role can also be filled via trade, as the Toronto Maple Leafs demonstrated on Monday when they acquired goaltender Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks, per David Satriano of NHL.com.

    Toronto sought a No. 1 goaltender after the tandem of James Riemer and Jonathan Bernier failed to deliver good results in 2015-16. The Ducks are committed to John Gibson as their long-term starter and would likely have been forced to expose Andersen in the expansion draft if they had re-signed the restricted free agent.

    Expect to see more trades of this type in the coming days, as well as more teams offering up late-round draft picks for a shot at early negotiating rights for some of the more intriguing free agents who are about to hit the market. 

    So far, defensemen seem to be the primary target of that ploy. The Arizona Coyotes offered up a fifth-round draft pick to the Dallas Stars on June 16 for a one-week head start on luring Alex Goligoski to the desert, per TSN, while the Florida Panthers gave up a sixth-rounder and a conditional fourth-rounder to the New York Rangers on Monday for a shot at Keith Yandle, per the Canadian Press (via TSN).

Will the Threat of Offer Sheets Force Teams' Hands?

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    Derek Leung/Getty Images

    Offer sheets for NHL free agents are rare occurrences in today's NHL, and successful ones are even rarer. The last restricted free agent who changed teams after being signed to an offer sheet was Dustin Penner, who left the Anaheim Ducks to sign a four-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers during the summer of 2008.

    General managers don't like using offer sheets. They know the tactic drives up prices in the marketplace and that it's rarely successful. But the fact rival teams have a tool that allows them to lure away important young talent does impact the marketplace.

    Last year, for example, we saw the Boston Bruins trade defenseman Dougie Hamilton and the Chicago Blackhawks move Brandon Saad before they could be poached via offer sheets. By proactively making the trades, the teams were able to have a say in exactly what assets they'd receive—and make sure their young stars landed in the opposite conference, where they wouldn't be a constant thorn in the side of the club or the fans.

    This summer, ironically, it's the Columbus Blue Jackets who find themselves tight to the cap after being the winning bidder for Saad one year ago. After giving up quality young center Ryan Johansen to bring in a much-needed budding blueliner in Seth Jones, the Jackets are now at risk of losing Jones via offer sheet if they can't free up some cap space and get him signed before July 1.

Which Teams Will Successfully Play the Waiting Game?

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Top players can still attract big money and big term, but quite a few mid-level free agents ended up waiting for weeks before signing on with their new teams for the 2015-16 season.

    A few teams that kept cap space and roster spots open for more additions were able to extract some good bang for their buck when they did make their moves late in the offseason. Here are a few examples:

    • Brad Boyes—Toronto Maple Leafs—one year, $700,000, 60 GP, 24 points
    • David Schlemko—New Jersey Devils—one year, $625,000, 67 GP, 19 points
    • Lee Stempniak—New Jersey Devils—one year, $850,000, 63 GP, 41 points with Devils—traded for a second-round and fourth-round pick at the trade deadline 
    • Scottie Upshall—St. Louis Blues—one year, $700,000, 70 GP, 14 points, 17 playoff games
    • Marek Zidlicky—New York Islanders—one year, $1.5 million, 53 GP, 16 points, 5 playoff games

    All of those players will once again be testing the free agent waters starting on July 1. Can they deliver again, or will other bargain signings take center stage next season?

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

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