We’ll never forget the Brad Richards sweepstakes of July 1, 2011. He and agent Pat Morris sat in the offices of Newport Sports in Mississauga, Ont., hosting the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings for in-person pitches while media members camped outside the building. The Rangers ended up winning with a nine-year, $60-million offer. It was an old-school bidding war, commencing the day unrestricted free agency opened, with no winks or pre-negotiating allowed.
That changed, of course, in the next CBA, struck for the 2012-13 season. It was then that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed to introduce a free-agent negotiation window in which teams could talk to players for five to seven days before free agency officially began.
NHL teams had a framework of what was and wasn’t allowed during the negotiation window. The intent was for an owner and GM to sit down with a player early, talk about the team’s vision and figure out if there was a fit, said Octagon player agent and co-managing director Allan Walsh. Teams were told they could discuss the “general parameters” of a deal. But because the rules weren’t strictly enforced, the definition of “general parameters” was pretty open to interpretation, and teams started all but hammering out contracts in advance.
“It couldn’t be policed properly, so it was disregarded,” Walsh said. “So in effect, July 1 actually opened five to seven days before July 1. And it was the Wild, Wild West.”
Contracts couldn’t officially be signed, but Walsh estimates most were essentially done about 48 hours before July 1.
“July 1 in the morning, you talk to a GM, and he says, ‘I’m done,’ ” Walsh said. “You’re done? Free agency opens in an hour. ‘Yep, I’m done. I feel good about what I’ve done.’ ”
The murky guidelines of what was allowed meant every team perceived things differently and nobody knew exactly how far one could push a negotiation – or when to start discussing actual offers.
“I never understood the ‘interview period,’ ” said Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. “We reached out to a few players during it and were told we are late.”
The impact of the UFA negotiation window was instant and drastic. In the four seasons leading up to the change, an average of 58.8 players signed contracts on July 1. The number ballooned immediately after the shift to the window as 87.5 players signed on average on July 1 in 2013 and 2014.
In theory, adding the negotiation window was convenient for players. They could spend more time weighing offers, as John Tavares did hosting half a dozen teams in the week before he signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018. But the teams and GMs benefitted more than the players did. “If they couldn’t get a guy at the price they want and the term they want, they calmly go down to the next guy,” Walsh said. “The key is that there was lots of planning.”
Planning will be much more difficult to do now. As of last week, with the new CBA ratified and extended through 2025-26, the UFA negotiation window has been eliminated. It will make GMs’ jobs a bit trickier having to start from scratch in their pursuit of players July 1.
“I’ve been a manager when there’s no interview period, I’ve been there before,” said Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland, who was GM of the Detroit Red Wings from 1997-98 to 2018-19. “I’ve made decisions and signed players, so I’ve been in both situations, so whatever the rules are, we’ll make our decisions like we have to. If you ask me what I’d prefer, I prefer an interview period, but I prefer a short one. Two or three days.”
But GMs won’t even have two or three days of prep time now. That’s a massive win for players and agents, Walsh says, as it puts all the pressure back on GMs to make their moves within a single day, feeling heat from ownership in the hours leading up to the teams’ end-of-day press conferences. When one player comes off the board at a given position, a piranha-like rush to the next best player at that position will drive up his price drastically.
“Before 2013, we had a true free-agent frenzy,” Walsh said. “I went to the market on July 1 with several high-profile free agents. I’m in L.A. 9:00 a.m. Pacific, 12:00 Eastern, and the gun goes off, the phone starts ringing like crazy at exactly the start. And GMs are throwing offers from the moment it opens, and from the first conversation, there’s a little desperation in the voice.”
Not all GMs would agree, of course. The way Holland sees it, there’s pressure no matter what, with or without a negotiation window.
“I think it’s all the same, but it’s just compacted,” he said. “In a salary-cap world, I know my needs, I know how much cap space I’ve got, and quite often those decisions are made for me.”
So what should we expect when unrestricted free agency begins in mid-October? For one, we can say goodbye to the deluge of media leaks in the hours leading up to noon ET, as no talks will have begun by then this time. We can expect fewer signings on Day 1, too. We might expect some sudden bidding wars driving certain players’ prices well beyond their perceived values, especially at premium positions such as right defense, but the salary cap will be flat at $81.5 million as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic this off-season. Maybe the big overpays don’t arrive until the 2021 or 2022 off-season, then.
From 2013 to 2019, the free-agent “frenzy” was aptly named on the media side of things, with a ton of deals to report on July 1 or even in the days leading up to July 1, but things were calm at the actual negotiating tables as teams took their time. Now, the “frenzy” is truly back. It’s a free-for-all starting at 12:00 p.m. ET on Day 1.
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