Flooded market leaves players waiting by the phone

Updated: July 2, 2004, 4:29 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

To the best of anyone's knowledge, no NHL player woke up Thursday morning with an NHL owner at his door.

Don't laugh. It's happened before. Team owners, or their minions, have hit the road in corporate jets and company limos to be on the doorsteps of coveted the moment the clock strikes midnight, opening the free-agent signing period.

But that was then. This is now.

With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on Sept. 15 and the league's economic future a virtual unknown, owners appear to have clamped down on their heretofore excessive ways.

Either that or they are just waiting for someone else to make the first move.

"The old adage is that it only takes one," said a prominent NHL agent who spent Thursday making calls on behalf of a bevy of high-end players, most of whom are unrestricted. He asked to be unnamed for fear of putting off some of the folks who sign checks on a biweekly basis.

"There doesn't seem to be a rush to sign guys what with the uncertainty of the CBA," he added, "but you look at what's out there and it's hard to argue that you can't improve your team."

True enough. The names that hit the open market on Thursday are the stuff Stanley Cups are made of.

From the Detroit Red Wings we give you Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios and the near-legendary Steve Yzerman. From the defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning, we introduce captain Dave Andreychuk and Jassen Cullimore. The list of former winners include Mike Keane of the Vancouver Canucks, Richard Matvichuk of the Dallas Stars and Vincent Damphousse and Mike Ricci of the San Jose Sharks.

Among the rich and sometimes tragically famous you can pick from oft-injured New York Rangers Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure, Los Angeles Kings Adam Deadmarsh and Jason Allison, St. Louis Blues defenseman Al MacInnis, Atlanta Thrashers goalie Byron Dafoe, Dallas Stars winger Shayne Corson, and the always troubled Theo Fleury, last seen last season in Chicago.

In the still eminently useful category, the Boston Bruins offer Mike Knuble, Glen Murray and Brian Rolston. The Buffalo Sabres are featuring Alexei Zhitnik and James Patrick, while the Stanley Cup runners-up, the Calgary Flames, have Craig Conroy and Chris Simon available. The Edmonton Oilers haven't signed Peter Nedved, nor do the Kings have Zigmund Palffy's signature on a dotted line.

The list is seemingly endless.

"It's a different market to be sure," our agent in anonymity said. "But then you look at what the Leafs did Wednesday, and you look at some of the price points being set and the money they have at their disposal, and you can't help but think some (GMs) are going to be out there shopping."

Said another agent: "I think you'll see a flurry of signings in the next little while and then a lull. But once teams come to the realization that there is going to be hockey again, that's when the market will pick up again."

The Leafs reportedly agreed to terms that would pay 39-year old goalie Ed Belfour $22 million, plus incentives, over three years. They are also said to have inked veteran Gary Roberts to a one-year deal for $3.75 million, a $500,000 pay cut, and gave his pal, and sometimes linemate, Joe Nieuwendyk a $1 million raise to $3 million.

It's not unusual for veterans to take less money in order to stay with their respective teams. After making $5 million last season, Keith Primeau signed a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers worth an average of $4.25 million ($4.5 million the first two seasons, $4 million the last two).

But when it comes to adding a new player or two, the game seems to have changed a bit. Instead of adding payroll, some teams cut it first -- opting not to qualify certain players or trading some away -- so they could free up cash to go shopping.

The Ottawa Senators sent goalie Patrick Lalime to St. Louis so they could -- eventually -- sign free-agent goalie Dominik Hasek. The Senators also traded away forward Radek Bonk and aren't re-signing Bondra, presumably so they can make offers to others.

Still, the unresolved question is, at what price?

The market is flooded with free agents, the most in recent memory. If the laws of supply and demand hold true, that should make it a buyer's market. Consider, too, that most teams are at least giving lip service to the idea that there will be payroll limits under the new CBA. If there is a sudden outburst of spending it likely will be among teams looking for one or two pieces of a Stanley Cup puzzle or a player at a price point that is simply too good to pass up.

Still, if an agent can get two teams into a bidding war, all bets for a subdued market are off.

"We think it may take awhile to get to that day, but it will come," said a Canadian-based agent who acknowledged that his phone traffic was down a bit on Thursday, a national holiday in that country. "At that point you could argue that the salaries might be lower, but I don't think anyone can say for sure."

With Palffy reportedly during down a $6.5 million deal from the Kings, perhaps because he anticipates a better offer from the New York Rangers, the agent could be right.

And if a team sends the right amount of money in a truck instead of the corporate jet, few agents or players will mind.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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