With September here and training camp on the horizon, it’s time for an end-of-summer NHL tradition: looking back on the past few months and slapping a broad theme on them. Every year around this time, we pick through the summer’s headlines and arrive at a pithy title to summarize an entire offseason. Last year was the Summer of Analytics. The year before that was the Summer of LOL Maple Leafs. In 2012, it was the Summer of Lockout Preparation. (OK, technically that one was the Summer of Lockout Preparation Part III, Snider’s Revenge — but we all agreed that felt a little wordy.)
As for this year, it looks like it will go into the books as the Summer of … Fiscal Sanity?
Granted, that doesn’t have much of a ring to it. But looking back on the past few months, it’s hard to arrive at a different conclusion. After a decade of increasingly disastrous offseasons in the salary-cap era — filled with awful free-agency signings, panicked extensions, and other nonsensical spending sprees — this was the year when the league’s general managers got conservative.
Now, it would be wrong to treat this as a phenomenon that appeared without warning, as if all 30 NHL GMs bolted upright in bed one night with the realization that the game’s economics needed to change. But it would be just as wrong to act as if this summer’s market correction was somehow inevitable and predictable. Many of the contracts handed out to pending free agents during the regular season showed no indication that it was anything other than business as usual; remember, it was only April when Canucks fans were rationalizing the ridiculous deals given to bit players Derek Dorsett and Luca Sbisa under the logic that surely someone would have given them more on the open market. And in any other year, they’d have been right.
But by the end of June, even before the champagne had stopped flowing in Chicago, the league’s teams were busy tightening their belts. Let’s look back at how it all played out.
RFAs on the Move
The first signs that the winds were changing came before free agency even opened, with the trading of two young stars who were about to hit restricted free agency.
For years, the reality of top young RFAs had been this: They didn’t move. Oh, they’d inspire all sorts of rumors. They’d posture, and their teams would posture right back. Occasionally, they’d pretend to be considering an offer sheet, and in rare cases, they might even hold out. But young RFAs almost never actually went anywhere, because young players are the most valuable asset in today’s league, and teams were ultimately willing to hold on to them at just about any cost.
That changed this year, as both Chicago’s Brandon Saad and Boston’s Dougie Hamilton were unexpectedly traded in the days around the entry draft. Both are already very good players, and both could have superstar-potential ceilings. And yet both were dealt, at least partly due to fears of an incoming offer sheet. Those kinds of threats have rarely scared teams in the past — every single one has been matched since 2007 — but this year it was enough to spook two teams into moving on from future stars.
The two deals were received very differently; the Hawks were generally seen as having made the best of a bad situation, while the Bruins were widely criticized for getting too little in return. But both pointed to the possibility that the ground was shifting in advance of free agency. When the markets opened, that seemed to be confirmed.
The Free-Agent Frenzy That Wasn’t
Brian Burke used to say that NHL GMs made more mistakes on trade deadline day than in the rest of the year combined. But over the past decade, the undisputed title for the league’s dumbest 24 hours had clearly shifted to July 1, when the league calendar rolls over, free agency opens, and teams with newfound cap space throw those dollars at anyone with a pulse. Agents salivate, fans cringe, and sportswriters get ready to write their annual roundup of all the worst deals.