Johnston: Uncertainty hangs over free agency

Mike Ribeiro and Jarome Iginla are two of the most prominent free agents available this off-season. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Here we are on unfamiliar ground in NHL free agency.

As of 12:01 a.m. ET on Wednesday, teams were formally allowed to speak with any unsigned player — be they restricted or unrestricted free agents. They can even fly those players to their city, put them up in a nice hotel and give them a face-to-face pitch about why they should sign on the dotted line.

While this has been standard practice in the NBA for years, the two-day wooing window represents a Brave New World in hockey.

And there was a high degree of uncertainty within the industry about how exactly it would play out.

First, it is important to note that there are rules about what is permitted. Free-agent contracts can’t officially be signed until Friday afternoon and the league recently distributed a memo to teams that outlines the limits of what they can provide during visits with players.

The most they can offer is business-class flights to a free agent and his partner — private jets aren’t allowed — and accommodation in a hotel equivalent to where they would stay during the season. Gifts are forbidden and the only money that can change hands is the standard NHL per diem rate.

Even still, this essentially marks the beginning of free agency.

Players such as Mike Ribeiro, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr and Daniel Alfredsson — yes, even the Ottawa Senators captain remains unsigned — can now truly start imagining themselves in different uniforms. They can also speak with general managers and coaches about how they might fit into a new situation.

If things progress quickly, their agents can agree in principle on the term and value of a new contract.

It is a departure from the previous system, where the floodgates opened all at once and whispers of tampering were commonplace.

“It makes a lot of sense for me,” Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier told reporters Tuesday. “I think (in the past) there was a lot of talking and interviewing that was either third party, informal (or) connect the dots. I think a lot of things were happening in the background anyway. I think this process makes it more formal and gives other clubs that weren’t cheating, gives everyone a better footing in order to negotiate, interview, speak with representatives or the players themselves.

“So I think it’s a lot better.”

Vincent Lecavalier can lay claim to being the first player this year to test out a free-agent window — albeit his situation was unique. After being bought out by the Tampa Bay Lightning last week, he travelled to New York during the draft and held face-to-face meetings with close to 10 teams.

On Tuesday, Lecavalier agreed in principle to a $22.5-million, five-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers — one that will officially be approved by the NHL on Friday.

A handful of agents contacted by recently said it was unlikely that any of their clients would travel to meetings with prospective clubs this week because of the narrow timeframe before free agency opens.

Some teams felt the same way.

“No, we’re not going to do that,” said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford. “We’ll look at the list and be prepared if there’s somebody on there that we like. How many places can these guys go in 48 hours, you know?”

In future years, when the schedule isn’t so compacted, players will be given up to five days before free agency opens to speak with teams. You’ll probably see more of them hop-scotching the continent when that happens.

The primary method of communication this time around will be conference calls that include front office personnel, agents, the player and possibly his family.

For teams looking to make a free-agent splash like the Dallas Stars, it should be an important time to sell targeted players on the merits of coming to Texas.

“We’re going to talk to people,” said new Stars GM Jim Nill.

Among the other top names available on the market are David Clarkson, Danny Briere, Ryane Clowe, Tyler Bozak and Nathan Horton — to say nothing of the large pool of restricted free agents that could be inked to an offer sheet.

The 41-year-old Jagr is an unrestricted free agent for the third straight summer and plans to return for a 20th NHL season. However, agent Petr Svoboda indicated to on Tuesday that the free-agent window didn’t hold as much appeal to the veteran winger as it might to others.

“He knows pretty much everything he needs to know about the teams by now,” said Svoboda.

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