NHL's Economic Climate Complicated By Rapidly Shrinking Free Agent Pool

The 2011 NHL free agency frenzy starts this Friday, July 1st. Or does it?

That's the question on the minds of the hopeful fans wishing for substantial improvements (or at least shakeups) when the clock strikes 12:00 EDT two days from now. This year's free agent talent pool was already said to be weak from the get go, but the signings of the last several days seem to signal an impending fight for table scraps between NHL general managers.

The talk for months has been about Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff. One is signed, the other's rights were traded to the Islanders. Brooks Laich re-signed with the Capitals at a handsome price. Joni Pitkanen, Maxim Lapierre, Pascal Dupuis, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Alex Tanguay, Eric Brewer, Ilya Bryzgalov, Andrei Markov...the list goes on. All pending UFA's, all re-signed. Not a stellar group, mind you, but maybe that tells you something about what is leftover out there: It's not much. Add to it swirling Max Talbot and Roman Hamrlik rumors along with the fact that all day Wednesday and Thursday remain and you wonder if there will be anything left.

"That's normal, though, right?"

Yes, and no. It is normal for UFA's to come to agreements in these late hours, and it's normal for the fickle public, clamoring for big trades and sexy moves to be disappointed, but this year is different. The cap floor makes it different.

As of late Tuesday night there were 17 NHL teams sitting below the cap-floor. Taking into account only the dollars that those teams MUST spend under the CBA to reach the cap floor, there will be an absolute minimum of $149,149,964.00 handed out in contracts and bonuses in the coming weeks for the 2011-2012 season only.

Take into account the Red Wings, Kings, Maple Leafs, Rangers, Sabres, Ducks, Lightning, Oilers and any other team that has a pretty significant amount of cap space left that history tells us they're going to use, and that number swells considerably. That's a lot (A LOT) of money waiting to be spent on a lot of spare parts.

The addition of teams like the Stars, Panthers, Avalanche, Islanders and Coyotes to the mix is what makes the situation highly unpredictable. It's a sellers market out there right now with so many GM's pockets burning with dollars to spend. The sellers being the players, who have their talents to offer. Free agents will be fielding calls from teams with lots of money that the league is telling them they must spend and also teams who, you know, can actually offer them a chance to win some hockey games.

Will the few gems out there choose the money (I hear South Beach is nice) or the chance to play meaningful spring time hockey (in Detroit), and where do the Stars sit in that equation?

Continued after the jump...

Last year Joe Nieuwendyk told media "It's safe to say we're not going to be a big player in free agency, just as we weren't last year." That allowed us to paint a pretty clear (boring) picture on the eve of free agency last year. Fast forward to this season and, even though Dallas is still ownerless, the cap-floor makes all the difference.

"We have to be in the game. With the floor at 48, we have to be in the game," Nieuwendyk said. "Our philosophy hasn't changed. Even though we're still in this situation that we're in, we're not going to be stupid either on July 1. When you look at free agency and the crop of players, with no disrespect to them, it's probably not as strong as it has been in other years."

That's the attitude that so many teams have, and it's the principal difference from last year to this year. Traditionally only the teams with the coin would go out there and throw numbers around. This year every tom, dick and harry with a payroll is going to be out there fighting because the CBA says they have to.

Armed with that attitude and a proverbial pocket full of quarters, the Stars will wade out into the water on Friday and call the guys they have their eyes on probably to find that they're having trouble getting through to inundated agents with dollar signs coming out their arses from all the offers. Again, because there's a lot of money out there that simply must get spent.

When they're put to a decision, how will they react? Nieuwendyk addressed the possibility already saying that "it's very easy to overpay, but we want to be smart with our overpayments if that's the case."

On the Monday of the Glen Gulutzan announcement Nieuwendyk mentioned trading as an attractive route to getting the pieces that they want, though we've been unable to come up with many trade-able assets that could be used. You don't see much in the way of trading once the frenzy begins in July 1st, and the majority of most fertile trading hours have passed, but we still can't help but wonder if a trade is in the offing in the next 48 hours.

Otherwise, it's on to those "smart overpayments" he talked about. You part with draft picks, or you take on a questionable contract or two that may or may not help you much. It's a tough place to be.

The economic climate is further complicated by the possibility of labor strife and another lockout at the conclusion of next season. It's an absurd idea, right? Why would the league put themselves through that again? The dichotomous nature of the league (highly profitable teams vs teams hemorrhaging money, not much in between) has reached 2004 levels and could be said to be getting even worse, since this time the cap-floor is forcing teams to spend, spend, spend and it will cause them to lose tens of millions of dollars.

Any multi-year contracts signed will have an impact on what will almost surely be a season with a cap rollback after the new CBA is negotiated, meaning no GM wants to put his team in a bad spot for the future. (Though it didn't stop the Capitals from giving Brooks Laich six years or the Jackets from taking on a 10 year contract).

Personally I expect the Stars to land one player (be it a forward or a defenseman) in the early throws of free agency for between 4 and 6 million dollars, whether we like it or not, and then I expect smaller fish to fill out the roster. The question is which one of those two parts will help the Stars more next season? My money is on the depth guys. There just simply isn't enough premium talent out there for everyone with a wad of cash in their hands to get a piece.

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