Well, we’re now officially through month 1 of free agency, and, unlike in other years, there have been no lucrative contracts handed out to any unrestricted free agents, even by the Rangers. There are plenty of free agents left on the market, ranging from elite front line players, to quality checkers, to minor league elites and checkers.
In case you haven’t really been following free agency so far, the biggest names that have been signed so far are Mark Recchi, Scott Mellanby, Mike Knuble, and Dominik Hasek. Of these players, only one is what you would consider a “household name,” that being the latter in Hasek. That means that players like Alexei Kovalev, Pavol Demitra, Brett Hull, Zigmund Palffy, Paul Kariya, Jason Allison, etc have yet to sign on the dotted line. And it’s not like they haven’t received offers from other teams, they just haven’t accepted them yet.
So why haven’t these star players inked contracts yet? Take a wild guess. That’s right, money. As I’m sure everyone is aware of by now, the looming CBA expiration has caused many owners to tighten their wallets and offer less significant deals to free agents, including the always free-spending Rangers. Most of the aforementioned “big name” free agents have received contract offers which would see them make less money than the year before. And this is the part that is surprising many people, most of the players really aren’t that upset about this. Hull will likely see his $5 M salary cut in half via free agency, while Allison will probably sign for about $5 M less than last season.
You may be wondering that if the players are willing to accept a modest deduction in pay, how can it be a money issue that has stopped them from signing? This is where it gets a little more complex. Player contracts are like any other work deal, you do the job, and then you are paid for it. In the event of a work stoppage, the players cannot play, and therefore, will not be paid. As a result, all contracts are frozen, and no one gets anything. A couple of years ago, several players in free agency signed for a lower base salary, but added on a signing bonus to be paid out before this upcoming season. Signing bonuses are paid before the season, and there is no clause that says that a player must play in order to receive it. So, as it stands, these lucky few players will get some form of financial compensation whether there is a season or not.
To give an example of this, let’s deal with the big-name Canadiens free agent, Alexei Kovalev. Unconfirmed reports out of Montreal a couple of weeks ago said that Kovalev had rejected a 3 year, $13.5 M deal, a base salary of 4.5 million dollars per season. However, none of this is guaranteed money, if there is no season, Kovalev wouldn’t see any of this moolah. But, say the Canadiens were to offer him a 3 year, $13 M deal, making a base salary of $4 M this year, and $4.5 M the next 2, but add a $500,000 signing bonus on this season’s contract, he may be more enticed to sign. Why? Because, regardless of what happens with the labour talks, he will at least receive that signing bonus, and won’t go home empty-handed.
Players in this year’s free agent market have seen this strategy employed the last couple of years, and now are likely seeking similar deals. So far, they have been unsuccessful, as the owners are refusing to offer these types of contracts, but for how long will this last? Right now, it’s a simple game of cat-and-mouse, with each side claiming that the ball is in the other parties’ court, but it seems safe to say that eventually, an owner will cave in so the team can land a highly prized player and greatly improve their on-ice product. Just when that will happen is yet to be determined. Stay tuned folks, free agent season is far from over yet.