James O'Brien

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 14: Jiri Hudler #24 of the Florida Panthers skates out to face the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on March 14, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Islanders defeated the Panthers 3-2.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A buyers’ market is bad news for veteran free agents


If you’ve followed NHL off-seasons in the past several years, you’ve likely encountered certain tropes:

  • A player coming off of an injury-ravaged season is now in “the best shape of his life.”
  • Some guy on a bad team is super-optimistic about a playoff run this time around, everyone. (Taylor Hall mastered these proclamations before his naivete was shattered.)
  • After big names and trendy positional guys grab the mammoth deals in free agency, we start to see who’s losing this game of musical chairs.

Are we already at that point for mid-level, veteran free agents?

Josh Jooris gave that impression when he spoke to the Calgary Herald about signing with the New York Rangers.

“There’s still players on the market and teams are making decisions,” Jooris said. “It’s a buyers’ market so, at that point, the players don’t really have much pull. I wanted to get something done sooner rather than later.”

Good thinking, because time equals lost money for many free agents.

Losing the waiting game

Look at last summer, when guys like Curtis Glencross and Maxim Lapierre retired or went overseas after seeing their options rapidly evaporate. Lee Stempniak played great hockey even after having to carve out his own spot with a PTO.

Every year, it seems like highly overqualified players need to beg for roster spots.

It’s plausible that a dry market increased Brad Richards‘ odds of retiring, too.

When you look at a list of unrestricted free agents, it’s not exactly like there are only table scraps remaining, especially for teams that might be willing to forgive some flaws to grab some bargains.

Plenty of interesting names remaining

Yes, the likes of James Wisniewski and Dennis Seidenberg have seen better days, yet the desperate rush for defensemen makes you wonder if they can still land a decent payday.

Radim Vrbata and Jiri Hudler languished in their contract years, yet they both were prominent scorers. At 32, Hudler in particular seems like he should be able to find a nice home.

The way things are going, Kris Russell may stand above everyone else as the person who bluffed one too many times in the poker game of free agency.

(General Fanager’s list is handy for looking over other solid names waiting for a gig.)

Demanding times for those in low demand

Some of those guys might just need to ask for a little less money or term. Still, it’s not the greatest sign when The Hockey News is already listing five players who might have to battle for jobs at training camp.

It’s not even August yet. Yikes.

Again, this isn’t really a new thing. A salary cap that keeps limping along has been hurting free agents for some time. Such stories have been rolling in to PHT since the earliest days, too.

There are exceptions to the rule, but in most cases, offers become less desirable as time marches on.

Generally speaking, the real losers of free agency are the players waiting on the sidelines.

Leafs give Auston Matthews a fully loaded rookie deal

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews celebrates onstage with Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Lou Lamoriello after being selected first overall during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

If Lou Lamoriello really was playing hard ball with Auston Matthews, give 2016’s first overall pick credit for hitting it out of the park.

The Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they signed the rookie forward to a three-year entry-level contract on Thursday.

While the team didn’t lay out the specifics of the deal, it sounds like Matthews got exactly the sort of deal he wanted … at least when you consider the stringent ceiling presented by rookie maximum rules in the CBA.

Any issues with Lamoriello were downplayed. Maybe it was just out of habit for the former New Jersey Devils GM?

For what it’s worth, Lamoriello brushed off any speculation.

It’s possible that most of Toronto’s work is done, at least for this off-season:

Nathan Horton‘s $5.3 million cap hit and Stephane Robidas‘ $3 million mark could both go on LTIR, depending upon the Maple Leafs’ needs, so that number is a little fluid.

The bottom line is that Matthews isn’t breaking the bank. The question is: can the Leafs improve fast enough to truly benefit from the star American forward essentially being underpaid during this entry-level deal?

In other Maple Leafs news, old banners are being replaced. Almost feels like a changing of the guard, huh?

Report: Islanders ponder leaving Brooklyn, building arena near Mets

UNIONDALE, NY - OCTOBER 22:  New York Islanders partners Scott Malkin (L) and Jon Ledecky (R) answer reporters questions during a press conference at Nassau Coliseum on October 22, 2014 in Uniondale, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

New York Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky insists that Brooklyn is “our home,” but the Barclays Center’s issues still seem to prompt doubts about the future.

The latest report is that the Islanders “are in talks” with New York Mets executives to build a hockey arena in Queens, next to Citi Field, according to Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnick.

There’s no word on how far along such discussions are, although Soshnick’s sources said the Islanders and Mets have been talking for “months.”

More than a few people view this as the Islanders using such threats to leverage improvements at Barclays, as the Islanders’ first season drew complaints about transportation to the arena, obstructed views for seats and choppy ice during games.

Puck Daddy points out that the Islanders can opt out of their lease after the 2018-19 season, so it wouldn’t be surprising if a Queens-area building alongside the Mets stands as merely one of several rumored options.

There have already been a few:

This provides plenty of time for people to make fun of the situation, too.

Hey, you can’t expect to develop a world-class free agent destination without a world-class building, right?

Reilly Smith thinks he’s found a home with Panthers

DENVER, CO - MARCH 03:  Reilly Smith #18 of the Florida Panthers controls the ball against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on March 3, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Avalanche defeated the Panthers 3-2.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Reilly Smith is still just 25, yet he isn’t that far removed from fears of traveling down the dreaded “journeyman” path.

He was at a fork in the road in 2015-16: either stick with the Florida Panthers after being traded from the Boston Bruins or find himself bouncing around the NHL some more.

(Heck, as Corey Crawford mentioned, ‘tweeners sometimes must even ponder leaving North America entirely.)

Smith was already on his third team when he joined the Panthers, but he made a big impression with the Cats. He generated a career-high with 25 goals, and maybe most importantly, wowed with eight points in six playoff contests.

The financial reward was significant: a five-year, $25 million contract extension.

It’s about more than just money, however.

Sticking with a team with such potential and chemistry – not to mention getting that security with a nice term – made the move a “no-brainer” for Smith, as he told the Miami Herald.

“I feel like I’ve found a home here in Florida,” Smith said.

“That means a lot. … I’m still fresh in my career, and I hope there’s a lot more good times still to come.”

With a modified no-trade clause, Smith also has some say regarding where he goes if the good times hit an abrupt stop.

The young forward has to feel pretty nice about being part of the core of this team as it pivots to a new direction. The front office staff changed in dramatic ways while Brian Campbell and other familiar faces were replaced by the likes of Keith Yandle and Jason Demers.

Smith and Vincent Trocheck really earned their spots in 2015-16, and they now enjoy life as established players.

Some are more convinced than others that this will all work out, but if nothing else, Smith has to be awfully happy at the moment.

What a difference a year makes …

Speaking of finding a home with the Panthers … Jonathan Racine hopes to eventually do so. He signed a one-year, two-way deal with the team today.

Predators’ messy legal battle may go to arbitration with NHL

NASHVILLE, TN - APRIL 11:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettmann attends Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals between the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bridgestone Arena on April 11, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) A chancellor will rule within the week on whether a co-owner of the Nashville Predators can keep his lawsuit against the team’s ownership group in a Tennessee court or have to submit to arbitration.

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle heard nearly three hours of arguments Wednesday on a motion that would force David Freeman out of her court and back into arbitration with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Freeman, a former team chairman, sued Predators Holdings LLC and current team chairman Tom Cigarran on June 23 and is seeking $250 million in damages for his original 48 percent stake in the team being diluted.

The lawsuit states that Freeman, through Commodore Trust, organized the Holdings investment group in 2007 to keep the Predators in Nashville. But it charges that some Holdings members “have conspired to repay his dedication to the team and community by claiming that Commodore owns less than one percent of Holdings.”

The lawsuit also states that members of the Predators ownership group have refused to treat Commodore Trust as an owner and have repudiated Holdings’ “commitment to compensate plaintiffs in return for tens of millions of dollars of loan guarantees that kept the Predators solvent and in Nashville.”

The complaint names Cigarran “the chief architect of this scheme.”

Freeman has been involved in other NHL arbitration cases over the past year, but the lawsuit argues that Bettman cannot be impartial because he has an obligation to protect the league.

At Wednesday’s hearing, attorneys for Freeman and Commodore Trust – which is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit – argued that league rules are so overly broad that they wrongly could allow the commissioner to arbitrate this case. They also argued Freeman is technically not a co-owner of the team but rather an investor in a trust whose business dispute should not be decided by the commissioner.

Lawyers for both Predators Holdings and the NHL defended the commissioner’s impartiality and the league’s constitution, which gives Bettman the right to handle disagreements among both clubs and owners through arbitration. They also said Freeman agreed to arbitration when he signed consent agreements as part of buying the Predators in December 2007.