Spector: NHL enters a brave new world

David Clarkson, Nathan Horton and Jarome Iginla were among the highest paid players on the first day of free agency. (AP)

Move over, deadline day.

The NHL moved into what Phoenix general manager Don Maloney called “a brave new world,” this July, and the result was somewhere around $375 million in signings.

It was a free-agent frenzy of pre-lockouts proportion, and a day on the NHL calendar that may usurp trade deadline day in player movement.

All of this in a year when the cap is falling to $64.3 million. As of now, around supper time in the eastern time zone on Friday, teams had signed 59 contracts, for 105 years of term, for a grand total of roughly $375 million.

Then Jarome Iginla signed a one–year deal worth possibly $6 million with the Boston Bruins, and the promise of more deals over the next few days remained. We’ll have a firm tally for you by Monday.

So what was the difference? Why did this UFA season blast off so much quicker than so many before?

The consensus was, the difference maker was the two-day talking period for agents and GMs that led into July 5.

“I don’t know how much wining and dining was being done,” said Maloney. “But I have a feeling in years to come, with a bigger window to do your selling, you’ll see some more extravagant efforts to get players to come. It’s a brave new world we’re living in.”

Next season, the two-day window expands to five days. So teams can bring more players to town, the way Oilers GM Craig MacTavish did with David Clarkson.

It’s a chance to showcase neighbourhoods in which to live, schools for players’ children, and training facilities for the player. And when you are Edmonton and you can do it in July, it is all the better.

“The weather cooperated,” MacTavish said, somewhat in jest. “We make a compelling case. We don’t always get them, but neither does New York or Toronto. But we make a very compelling case.”

On one hand, the visitation period should be the great equalizer. It’s a chance for Winnipeg to show a prospective UFA its Manitoba lake country, beautiful terrain that lies closer to that city than most other towns can claim.

A team like Calgary might get a recruit and his family to the mountains for an hour or two, to help sway their decision. Los Angeles would take a player to Manhattan Beach; San Jose to wine country; Buffalo or Detroit to some of the surprisingly lovely suburbs that most are unaware of.

And of course, for player agents, it allows more time to milk the market.

“Apparently the spirit of the deal was, we weren’t allowed to make offers during this introductory period,” Maloney said. “We had an email (from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly) that came out about midway through that said … you could talk to free agents … but you could not get down to the numbers.”

Still, as GMs spoke with players, they found plenty of time to reach out to their agents as well.

Who’s kidding whom? To think we’re going to have five days for site visits, but not have agents and GMs hammering out the numbers, is naïve.

“It gave the agents much more time to shop their players,” said Maloney. “A year ago, when the gun went off on July 1, you had about 15 minutes to decide what you want to do and where you want to go. In this new environment, I believe it’s much more beneficial for the players, quite frankly.”

With nearly $400 million being thrown around, why wouldn’t the NHL want to create an atmosphere where players and teams have the necessary time to make informed decisions? It’s a complex landscape here in the cap world, and contracts signed will impact a GM for years to come.

Another thing we’re learning, however, is that acquiring players at the free-agent deadline may be back in vogue.

“When you’re spending money, you’re not spending assets outside of the cash,” explains MacTavish, who scored a few players of his own on Friday. “The difficult deals are when you’re spending the money attracting players (via trade), but you’re taking on the salary and expending assets outside of the cash.

“Everybody feels now that — despite the fact it’s inflationary — in this (UFA) market you’re not giving up any assets.”

And one more thing a few GMs have learned this summer?

“If I learned anything in the last few days,” Maloney said, “it is if you have anybody you like, you’d better sign them sooner than later. Don’t get them close to free agency.”

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