July 1st represents the start of free agency – a time when all 30 teams are able to go shopping for free agents to fill their rosters in an attempt to build the best team possible entering the 2009-2010 season. All 30 teams have holes to fill, and all have money to spend. Some, though, will have to spend more than others to get players to sign with them.There are about 11 teams, just over 1/3 of the entire league, who simply cannot get elite players to sign with them as free agents.
The reasons each team struggle to attract free agents vary but the end result is the same – players simply don’t want to play for them. I believe those teams to be (in alphabetical order) Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Columbus, Edmonton, Florida, Los Angeles, Nashville, NY Islanders, Phoenix and Tampa Bay. As a result those teams are forced to either acquire talent via trade or to overpay to get players to sign with them.
There is anecdotal evidence that each of those teams can recruit and sign marquee free agents and I’m sure fans of those 11 teams will point to the signing of Sheldon Souray, Rob Scuderi, Mattias Ohlund, Paul Kariya and others as proof. I believe those to be the exceptions to the norm and would contend that, in most cases, the teams paid more than market value to get those players under contract.
The Oilers are a curious case. This is a team that has been rejected by numerous NHL stars over the past few years. It began with Chris Pronger demanding a trade less than a month after helping Edmonton reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Then Ryan Smyth was traded away and signed with the Colorado Avalanche the following summer. Then Marian Hossa turned down a lucrative offer to instead play for the Red Wings and, most recently, Dany Heatley refused to waive his no-trade clause two separate times despite claiming to want out of Ottawa. Those are all elite NHL players and none of them wanted to play in Edmonton. Why?
In the case of most of the teams I listed the teams’ location in a non-traditional hockey market, lack of on-ice success and/or lack of an ownership committed to winning is to blame for the franchise struggling to recruit talent via free agency. After all, if you were a star player who could play for any team in the league would you choose to play in Phoenix? Or Atlanta? Neither would I.
But in the case of Edmonton they’ve got a great tradition of winning in the NHL, they’ve got a rabid fan base that supports the team 100% and they’ve got owners committed to brining the Stanley Cup back to the City of Champions. So why are players so reluctant to play there?
The salary cap has helped these teams acquire talent if only because the elite teams and the teams with deep pockets can no longer stockpile star players. Is there any doubt that the Red Wings would have re-signed Marian Hossa had there not been a salary cap? Or would Pittsburgh have re-signed him the year before?
There’s very little the NHL can do to change the fact that free agents do not even consider over one-third of the league when it comes to free agency but it does takeÂ a lot of the drama out of July 1st. When you know that no matter how badly those 11 teams need to add a star player they are not going to sign anyone significant it makes things a lot less interesting. It’s kind of like being a Jewish kid on Christmas and watching the other kids open their presents while realizing that there are none for you. Or, if there is one, it’s a hand-me-down.
It also keeps those teams from improving themselves and moving from the bottom of the league to the top which would, conceivably, help them attract more players in the future. Many people claim that teams simply have to draft better but when teams like the Panthers watch Jay Bouwmeester, their first round draft choice in 2002, leave town the first chance he gets and see him be replaced by Jordan Leopold it’s tough to see a way that they can ever become an elite franchise regardless of how well they draft. The same is true in Buffalo where the Sabres had to watch both Daniel Briere and Chris Drury leave town the same summer.
Again, there is no solution to this problem – at least not one that I know of – but it is a problem that is affecting over one-third of the league. Teams in non-traditional hockey markets will have a tough time gaining die hard fans when they are constantly losing players in their prime and fighting for the bottom couple of spots in the playoffs. One year of excellence followed by years of mediocrity is not enough for most fans which means the team suffers at the box office which affects their budget which affects their ability to sign or retain star players and the cycle continues.
I am curious if any of you can see a way that teams like Atlanta, Florida, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Nashville, Columbus, Carolina or Tampa Bay can ever become an elite franchise for an extended period of time? If so please post your thoughts or ideas here for all of us to read and discuss.