How NHL ‘interview period’ improves free agency

Thomas Vanek. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

The National Hockey League refers to the coming week, where pending free agents may speak with interested clubs, as its “interview period.” Why not a “negotiating period”?

“It’s not really a negotiating period ’cause you can’t negotiate,” barked one agent, who preferred not to be identified.

OK, so teams, agents and players are not supposed to hammer out the specifics of a contract during the six-day period that opens Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. ET and lasts until free agency opens up for real at 12:01 p.m. ET on July 1. At 12:01 a.m. ET on July 1, restricted free agents can also be courted for a 12-hour period before the opening of free agency.

But they can go down every other road, like getting a feel for whether or not one side is talking two-year deal and the other is talking six years. With as much money at stake as there is on July 1, is it hard not to agree that the “interview period” is a far more civilized way of doing business.

“From a player’s perspective,” begins agent Stephen Bartlett, who represents one of the top UFAs this July 1 in Tomas Vanek, “it used to be the team saying, ‘You have one hour [to decide on a six-year commitment], or we’re going elsewhere.

“The idea to get a head start on finding out who is interested, to talk about potential destinations, for a player and his wife to know that, ‘All things being equal, this would be our first choice, this would be our second choice…’ This period has really taken away the shotgun element to this process.”

From a player’s perspective, after 500 or more NHL games and a lifetime of lacing ’em up to finally put the player in a position to choose term, location and security, they do, in fact, deserve better than one hour to make a decision of such gravity. As for the family, some teams use a family liaison, a team employee specifically employed to help players’ wives learn more about schools, housing, work/visa issues, etc.

So while team management is selling the player, the team liaison is selling the wife. Of course, with the draft going on in Philadelphia this week, the visiting component of the “interview period” is mitigated somewhat.

On the team side, if you are committing something like $49 million and seven years — or even half of that — wouldn’t you want the player and his wife to be absolutely rock solid in their decision to come to your city? (See: Pronger, Lauren, and Edmonton.)

“The more information you have, the more informed you are, the better decision you make. It’s as simple as that,” said a third agent.

A year ago, the terms of engagement were not set out as clearly by the NHL and the NHLPA. Must chastising ensued as GMs and agents went beyond the boundaries that were envisioned when the two sides included the “interview period” into their latest collective bargaining agreement.

So, this year advisories were written that more clearly define the parameters of engagement:

“Clubs are permitted to discuss their potential interest in, as well as the general parameters of, a potential future contractual relationship with another Club’s pending RFA or UFA during the applicable ‘interview periods,’ but Clubs may not enter into any agreements, or make any binding offers, promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind, express or implied, oral or written, concerning the terms of a potential SPC with another Club’s pending RFA or UFA.”

Let’s face it, using comparables, the agents already know roughly what their player will fetch. What they did not use to know until July 1, however, was the level of interest in their player league-wide. And we all know that the more teams involved, the better the contract.

Take Mike Cammalleri in Calgary as an example. Flames GM Brad Treliving said this week that “talks continue” with Cammalleri and agent Ian Pulver, but beginning tomorrow Cammalleri can offset what he knows about Calgary — the team, the city, the family life — against specific teams from across the league that show interest. His final decision will be made with more intel.

Same with Jarome Iginla and Boston. “We’d like to sign Jarome,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told the Boston media Monday. “I mean, he has been a valuable player for us, I think there is a good fit and we’d like to sign him.”

Boston has salary cap issues, however, and it just could be someone else is willing to commit more term to Iginla in what could well be the future Hall of Famer’s final contract.

Or Vanek, whom we always hear is headed for Minnesota. Is the Wild truly interested and able to add that kind of contract to its payroll? Now it won’t be a guess for the Vanek camp, which has already turned down offers from Buffalo, Montreal and the New York Islanders.

The “interview period” is upon us. It really is a smarter way of doing business.

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