Free agency frenzy to hit fan next

Well, another NHL season and subsequent draft are in the books.
All that’s left now is the impending free agency frenzy beginning July 1, which is sure to see more big names change addresses in the new NHL salary cap world.
As expected, Steven Stamkos went first overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but this year’s entry draft will be most known for being the year of the defenceman.
Among first-round picks, 12 defenders were selected, including four of the top five picks.
There also were several trades of note on draft day, with Olli Jokinen going from sunny Florida to sunny Arizona and Francophone Alex Tanguay going to Montreal from Calgary, with Mike Cammalleri filling Tanguay’s void with the Flames in a trade with L.A.
Alexander Ovechkin cleaned up at the awards show the previous week, claiming both the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the players’ choice for the most outstanding player.
His trophy haul already had included the “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer (65) and the Art Ross Trophy as the top point-getter (112).
The Stanley Cup final, which now seems like a distant memory, turned into a pretty good showdown between the perennial powerhouse Detroit Red Wings and the upstart Pittsburgh Penguins.
On the ice, experience was the deciding factor. The Wings’ 23 Cup rings proved to give them an edge, but it also was the fact they’ve learned from their disappointing playoff showings in the past.
You need to learn how to fail before you learn how to win, and Pittsburgh hasn’t had enough of that heartache to truly appreciate the position they were in.
That said, it’s hard to argue with many of the pundits who predict more to come from this Penguins’ team. Their window of opportunity is still there for another three or four years, but sooner or later someone is going to have to go.
Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal both will become restricted free agents after next season, and both surely will demand top dollar.
Both players were restricted to the rookie maximum salary cap plus bonuses ($984,200 for Malkin, $850,000 for Staal) during their first three seasons in the league—and undoubtedly will get huge raises.
If Crosby’s $8.7-million contract is any indication, Malkin will be expected to haul in similar coin. And if Staal continues to progress, he’d probably fetch an offer sheet as an RFA in the $4-million range at the very least.
So Pittsburgh will have to be diligent in signing both of them long-term during the season next year in order to avoid seeing them pull on another team’s sweater.
Both those impending complications are overshadowed by current RFA Marc-Andre Fleury, who surely raised his stock by a strong playoff showing. His current $1.6-million contract will be worthy of a significant boost, comparable to the $5- to 7-million range many of the league’s best goalies make.
The Penguins have filed for salary arbitration to prevent a team from tendering him an offer sheet, but the dollar amount should side in Fleury’s favour.
Furthermore, Ryan Malone proved his mix of toughness and skill was an invaluable asset, and the local Pittsburgh product is due to become an unrestricted free agent next Tuesday.
His playoff success will lend itself to a big raise from the $1.45 million he made last season—and the rumours already are flying that he’ll be long gone in early July.
Columbus has been the team most thrown around in connection with Malone, so expect him to cash in wherever he ends up.
And it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that Marian Hossa likely will become very rich on the open market with a team that can afford to pay him top dollar.
He’s reportedly said he’d settle for less money to sign with a contender, notably the Pens, but I doubt locking Hossa up for a lengthy term is in their best interests. They have said to have dangled as much as $7 million per year to the star winger, but he’s not biting at it yet.
Recent reports have him at least testing the free agent market come July 1 to see what’s out there.
Can the Pens keep their core intact and still complement them with enough depth to build and maintain a dynasty?
Tampa Bay’s decline after their Stanley Cup victory was a direct result of having too much money tied up into three players (Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis) and they finished dead last this past season.
That said, Tampa Bay had all its money tied into forwards while Pittsburgh’s core includes two of the league’s top five forwards (Crosby and Malkin), an all-star goalie (Fleury), a shutdown centre (Staal), and an elite puck-moving defenceman (Sergei Gonchar).
The new salary cap world limits the big spenders from throwing money at players and buying teams, but league profits suggest the cap will go up by $6 million to an estimated $56.3 million—perhaps allowing Pittsburgh to work things out after all.
Nonetheless, an escalating salary cap would do more harm than good, once again separating the rich teams from the poor.
But that issue is deserving of its own column altogether.

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