NHL unrestricted free agency is awful. Let’s just put that out there to start. In the salary-cap era, good players rarely make it to the market, and the ones that do get ridiculous deals that almost always end up being viewed as mistakes. Meanwhile, miscellaneous depth guys somehow transform into stars for one day, get paid accordingly, and then go right back to being what they’ve always been. It’s a mess.
We’ve been doing this for a decade now, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. At some point, smart teams are going to start sitting out July 1 entirely and wait around for prices to come down and bargains to emerge. But the lure of getting a player for nothing — and the ability to ignore the fact that a cap-crippling contract is certainly not “nothing” — almost always seems to prove too powerful.
So here’s your free-agency preview: Your favorite team won’t do anything. You’ll complain. Then your favorite team will do something. You’ll feel vaguely uneasy about it. Months later, you’ll realize they made a horrible mistake, and you’ll vow never to get suckered in by July 1 ever again. You will break this vow.
This year could be even worse than usual, because there’s a distinct lack of talent available. Remember last year, when free agency featured reasonably big names like Ryan Miller, Paul Stastny, and Thomas Vanek? Good times. (Well, except for the teams that signed those guys.) This year’s list pales in comparison, with very few players who could be considered stars, or potential stars, or even former stars.
But teams have cap space and impatient GMs, so somebody is going to get paid. Here are 10 players to watch as the action unfolds today.
Former team: Washington Capitals
2014-15 salary: $6.25 million ($6.08 million cap hit)
He’d be great for: A team looking for a veteran blueliner and power-play quarterback. Green is the biggest name available among defensemen, and maybe the biggest at any position. He can eat minutes, and he’s a big right-handed shot in a league where that’s rare. And he has a résumé; he’s the only defenseman this century to score more than 30 goals in a season, and he’s twice been the runner-up for the Norris Trophy.
As long as you can ignore: Those big seasons were a long time ago. Green hasn’t been a star since 2010, and last year he spent most of the season playing on the Capitals’ third pairing. He’s not awful defensively, but it’s not a strength, and he’ll turn 30 in the season’s first week. If you sign him for anything close to last year’s money, you’re basically paying for the past instead of the present. Someone will.
Former team: Los Angeles Kings
2014-15 salary: $3.05 million ($3.65 million cap hit)
He’d be great for: A contender with its eye on the Stanley Cup. Williams would be a good fit just about anywhere — he’s always been an excellent possession player, so stats guys get little hearts in their eyes when they talk about him — but he’d be especially attractive to a team that considered itself a Cup favorite. That’s because of his track record in crunch time; he has a history of coming up big in Game 7s, and he won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP in 2014. If you believe in “clutch,” Williams is your guy.
As long as you can ignore: For one, the Game 7 stuff is based on a grand total of seven career games, so all standard disclaimers about small sample size apply. More importantly, Williams will be 34 on opening night and has been a 40-point player in each of the last two seasons. That’s still worth paying for, but any team that goes longer than three years will probably regret it down the line.