The big fish is gone, so now teams will circle around the other targets when NHL free agency opens Friday.
Even with Steven Stamkos staying with the Tampa Bay Lightning on a $68 million, eight-year deal, the free agent market presents plenty of big-time players from forwards Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson and Kyle Okposo to defensemen Brian Campbell and Dan Hamhuis.
“There’s some high-end guys this year and it’ll be interesting to see what they get paid,” Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think the market will fall into place after those guys find destinations and establish the top salary level.”
If Stamkos’ $8.5 million cap hit established Wednesday sets the bar, it’s good news for not only Lucic, Eriksson and Okposo but the next level of free agents. More than a handful of players should be able to cash in even though the salary cap only went up slightly to $73 million.
Lucic has been linked to Edmonton after the Oilers traded Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday. Eriksson, a former Boston Bruins teammate of Lucic’s, will also be a top target.
Beyond those players, there’s St. Louis Blues captain David Backes and right wing Troy Brouwer, Chicago Blackhawks left wing Andrew Ladd, New York Rangers forward Eric Staal and plenty of useful players who might have to wait their turn.
“I’m hoping a lot of those guys go quickly because the trickle-down effect is always how everybody else figures out where things are going to go,” Brouwer said over the phone Wednesday. “You’re going to see the top guys, and they’re always going to get their money. The big dogs always get to eat first.”
Brouwer went from being unsure about landing a long-term deal going into the final year of his contract to being in line for one after scoring eight playoff goals. Okposo impressed with 64 points in the regular season, and Capitals left wing Jason Chimera set himself up for a nice deal with 20 goals.
The defense market is weaker after the Florida Panthers traded for and signed Keith Yandle and the Arizona Coyotes did the same with Alex Goligoski. But Campbell is willing to take a short-term deal to try to win another Stanley Cup. That was one of the motivations for Stamkos in taking below market value to re-sign with Tampa Bay.
“We’re trying to put as competitive a team on the ice (as possible) and we asked Stammer, will you work with us on this?” Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said. “Stammer’s contract, he’s the captain of our team, he’s our leading goal-scorer, he plays in all situations. The contract, it works for us.”
Predators GM David Poile, who acquired defenseman P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens for Shea Weber, said a lot of players have been re-signed by their teams before unrestricted free agency, much like years before.
The only problem is that while the crop is deep, the cap space isn’t.
“How many teams are going to be capable of adding free agents? There are going to be a few,” Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray said. “There is going to be a flurry in the beginning, but if you recall last year at this time, there was a flurry, and then it went dead. I’m thinking that could become more of the norm going forward. There are too many players for jobs.”
For some teams, like the Lightning and the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, maintaining is more important than adding. The Blackhawks, who won in 2010, 2013 and 2015, don’t have the space to add much, but GM Stan Bowman knows how to take his chances at bargain buys.
There should be no shortage of those, either, starting with Staal, who at 31 isn’t a superstar but still has something left in the tank. Stamkos himself might be a bargain based on his point-a-game production.
“At the age of 26 I believe a player is really entering the prime of their career,” Yzerman said. “He’s going into his peak years now. Regardless of what happens statistically, that to me is an indicator of playing your best hockey. I think Stammer’s best years are ahead of him.”