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Preparing for the ‘wining and dining’ period

The NHL's 30 teams' front offices--see: managers, voting members of the Board of Governors, amateur scouts, coaches, etc.--are all heading to Philadelphia ahead of Friday and Saturday's draft.

As the BoG is meeting in Philadelphia on Thursday, it's likely that the "wining and dining period's" interviews with prospective free agents, whose representatives are also going to be in Philadelphia this week, will take place in hotel conference rooms near the Wells Fargo Center, most likely starting on Wednesday morning (the "wining and dining period" lasts from June 25th to June 30th) and continuing until Monday.

In fact, I would imagine that teams will be reaching out to players' agents as soon as midnight to begin scheduling meeting times in Philly!

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Michael Russo reported that the NHL offered all parties involved a little "clarification" last Thursday...

In the June 18 memo (read over the phone to me by an agent), the league states, “After discussions with a number of general managers, we have revised and hopefully clarified with regard to last summer the permissible parameters of player contract and communication during the applicable interview periods.

“Please be advised that clubs are permitted to discuss the potential interest in as well as general parameters of a potential future contractual relationship with another club’s pending RFA or UFA during the applicable interview periods. The clubs may not enter any agreements or make any binding offers, promises, … oral or written concerning the terms of a potential SPC (standard players contract) with another club’s pending RFA or UFA.”

So in other words, teams and agents can now discuss the general parameters of a deal, as in, “I’ll be looking for a seven-year deal at around $5 million annually,” etc., meaning now players and agents at least know where each other is at heading into July 1 and know who’s in the game and who isn’t.

Last year, there seemed to be confusion where nobody had any idea of what could and couldn’t be discussed during the interview period. Some teams/agents apparently followed the rules, some teams didn’t, which created a conundrum that ticked off the teams that did follow the rules.

It’ll be interesting to see if this revision leads to some quick deals as free agency opens July 1.

But ESPN's Craig Custance, in an Insider-only entry, suggested that the reality of the situation is that the process of what one agent called "legal tampering" is still just that--fumbling around, trying to figure how to not screw up and get caught tampering while actually hammering out contract agreements and arrangements to sign players on July 1st:

An agent deadpanned, “What can you do, get to third but not go all the way?”

In theory, teams could have players visit as some free agents did last year, most notably Nathan Horton and his visit to Columbus. But opening the interview window the week of the draft means there might not be any team executives still behind in their home cities as the league descends on Philadelphia for the draft.

For one prominent agent, that’s a point of frustration.

“If you have a team that said, ‘Hey, we want to show you our city, our arena, training facility and schools,' all that stuff -- it’s hard to do when everybody involved in the sales process is in Philadelphia,” he said. “To me the whole thing is screwed up... I don’t think right now it’s going to work quite the way we had hoped it would. I guess it’s better than nothing.”

In theory, it would help cut down on the tampering, although even that may be wishful thinking.

“The tampering out there is ridiculous,” said one GM.

Another executive didn’t feel quite as strongly, but suspected that it’s a growing problem.

“I don’t know if it’s a function of this free-agent market being so thin and everybody trying to get out ahead of it,” he said.

Sportsnet's Mark Spector also weighed in on the process, and it's, uh...nuanced?

“It’s not really a negotiating period ’cause you can’t negotiate,” barked one agent, who preferred not to be identified.

OK, so teams, agents and players are not supposed to hammer out the specifics of a contract during the six-day period that opens Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. ET and lasts until free agency opens up for real at 12:01 p.m. ET on July 1. At 12:01 a.m. ET on July 1, restricted free agents can also be courted for a 12-hour period before the opening of free agency.

But they can go down every other road, like getting a feel for whether or not one side is talking two-year deal and the other is talking six years. With as much money at stake as there is on July 1, is it hard not to agree that the “interview period” is a far more civilized way of doing business.

“From a player’s perspective,” begins agent Stephen Bartlett, who represents one of the top UFAs this July 1 in Tomas Vanek, “it used to be the team saying, ‘You have one hour [to decide on a six-year commitment], or we’re going elsewhere.' The idea to get a head start on finding out who is interested, to talk about potential destinations, for a player and his wife to know that, ‘All things being equal, this would be our first choice, this would be our second choice…’ This period has really taken away the shotgun element to this process.”

From a player’s perspective, after 500 or more NHL games and a lifetime of lacing ‘em up to finally put the player in a position to choose term, location and security, they do, in fact, deserve better than one hour to make a decision of such gravity. As for the family, some teams use a family liaison, a team employee specifically employed to help players’ wives learn more about schools, housing, work/visa issues, etc.

I can definitely confirm that the Red Wings have a "team mom," as they call her, who helps coordinate those kinds of things. Having a team's family representatives show players where they might live (see: Detroit is surrounded by suburbs), where they'd be enrolling children in schools, etc. are just as important as getting a real feel as to what the coaching and management staff expect from you on and off the ice...

So while team management is selling the player, the team liaison is selling the wife. Of course, with the draft going on in Philadelphia this week, the visiting component of the “interview period” is mitigated somewhat.

The Flyers definitely have "home-ice advantage" here...

On the team side, if you are committing something like $49 million and seven years — or even half of that — wouldn’t you want the player and his wife to be absolutely rock solid in their decision to come to your city? (See: Pronger, Lauren, and Edmonton.)

“The more information you have, the more informed you are, the better decision you make. It’s as simple as that,” said a third agent.

As Spector points out, however, the reality of the situation is that the "numbers" are already out there. He's a fan of the system...

Let’s face it, using comparables, the agents already know roughly what their player will fetch. What they did not use to know until July 1, however, was the level of interest in their player league-wide. And we all know that the more teams involved, the better the contract.

And while I'm not so thrilled with its haphazard nature, I'll tell you this much: before the Red Wings signed Mike Commodore, they reached out to his agent and stated that they were going to offer X money over Y term, and then asked the agent to give Commodore 15 minutes to make his decision.

This isn't exactly a return to NHL teams flying their management staffs to players' homes with the big crystal apples that the New York Rangers were giving free agents in the early 00's, nor is it flying players into a city to show them what things are actually like there, or what the travel might entail, but it's certainly better than the alternative.

Update: USA Today's Kevin Allen also spoke to a player agent about the "wining and dining period":

"All of the sudden, tomorrow seems like the new July 1," agent Steve Bartlett said Tuesday. "I don't know if that it's exactly right, but everyone seems to be panicking like it is."

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, potential free agents can have preliminary talks with potential suitors starting June 25, though no one can sign another team's free agent until July 1. That means some teams are scrambling to re-sign players they don't want to lose.

"I think this (interview period) will have a significant impact," Bartlett said. "The original intent was to not have guys have to make a gun-to-your-head decision in 25 or 30 minutes or an hour. What everyone wanted was a time when you couldn't commit but you could have a sense of who was out there, so you could talk it over with your family. You could look at the school situation, the climate or decide if it was close enough to family."

Bartlett represents soon-to-be unrestricted free agents Ryan Callahan (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Brian Gionta (Montreal Canadiens) and said negotiations had picked up considerably in anticipation of the interview period starting.

"Ongoing discussions, but I would not want to handicap either at the moment," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they got done with the same team, and I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of them makes it to the unrestricted date. … But everyone seems to think (Wednesday) is a big day."

Meanwhile, there is plenty of buzz in the trade market because the Ottawa Senators are listening to offers for offensive center Jason Spezza and the Vancouver Canucks are taking calls about rugged two-way center Ryan Kesler. Plus, the Toronto Maple Leafs seem interested in making a major deal. The names of Dion Phaneuf, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and David Clarkson have all been mentioned in the speculation.

Adding excitement to the draft countdown is Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon's decision to entertain offers for the No. 1 overall pick.

And Allen continues...

Update #2: The Toronto Sun's Mike Zeisberger also spoke with an agent, Anthon Thun:

This so-called “wooing period” was also in place a year ago at the conclusion of the strike-shortened 2013 season. But according to Thun, there was still a lot of confusion regarding what was allowed under the terms of the then-new CBA.

“To be honest, there was still a lot of questions being asked at this time last year,” Thun said on Tuesday evening. “Some general managers weren’t quite sure what they could and could not do. It was all pretty new.”

Now, about 12 months later, Thun said both sides have a much clearer image on the guidelines for the next week.

“What you are allowed to do is discuss the parameters of a deal,” Thun said. “But nothing can be finalized until July 1.”

Indeed, when it comes to this interview period, the CBA reads that “Clubs may not enter into any agreements, or make any binding offers, promises ...”

In any event, Thun said the format allows more logical choices to be made come July 1.

Zeisberger continues, too...

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

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