With draft completed, thoughts turn to free agency, realignment
The next key day for NHL teams is July 1, the beginning of free agency
The salary cap for teams rose to $64.3 million for the upcoming season
Realignment will be discussed at the board of governors meeting in December
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The 2011 NHL Draft came to a close Saturday afternoon, and when the last pick was made -- a Swedish goalie by the name of Johan Mattsson to Chicago -- all eyes turned to the next key date on the league calendar: July 1, free agency day.
The flurry of trades and maneuvers done over the last 72 hours has, in many teams' cases, granted some flexibility for July 1, when a handful of very desirable free agents will hit a market that looks ready to spend. Not only do big-budget teams like the New York Rangers have ample room under the cap ($22.2 million for nine players), but with the salary cap floor rising to $48.3 million, there are a handful of teams that are well below the floor as it stands and will need to spend money this summer. If a team does not reach the floor or goes over the cap, they are not operational until they are compliant, meaning, they can't play.
Even after taking on defenseman Brian Campbell's bloated $7.1 million contract from Chicago, Florida's payroll for next season sits at $22.3 million. Of course, the Panthers have only 11 players signed and won't be reaching for the cap limit (set at $64.3 million), but they will have to be active to even reach the floor. Colorado also has about $20 million to spend on 10 players to reach the league-mandated minimum.
The big-market teams, too, have money they can spend. Apart from the Rangers, who reportedly have some complex cap issues to sort through because of captain Chris Drury's knee injury, Detroit, Toronto and Washington are all comfortably under the cap and are averaging more than $2.5 million per roster opening, according to capgeek.com.
So with all that money up in the air, where will it all land? Of course, the big-name free agent looks to be Stars forward Brad Richards, whose suitors will reportedly include New York and Toronto. But there are also some teams with some real needs in net -- Florida, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Colorado -- and the free agent market for netminders is thin this offseason, especially now that Ilya Bryzgalov signed with Philadelphia. If the Panthers cannot come to terms with Tomas Vokoun, then the 34-year-old goalie could get a pretty penny if some teams with assets in net are not willing to deal.
No matter what, though, it looks like the recent trend of inflated contracts will continue. And the bidding wars could get even more interesting given that they may include even more suitors looking to spend for different reasons.
NOTES: With the Winnipeg Jets now firmly in place for next season, the thoughts about divisional realignment have begun. Though it is too late to make any changes for next season -- the Jets will play in the Southeast Division with Carolina, Washington, Tampa Bay and Florida -- it's never too early to begin speculating beyond that. The main contention will come from Midwest teams like Detroit and Columbus, who all call the Eastern time zone their home but play in the Western Conference. Nashville is in the Central time zone, but geographically is closer to Eastern Conference teams. The topic will be discussed at the Board of Governors meeting in December, and some believe that a dramatic realignment is imminent.
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