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GMs Playing the Waiting Game for 3rd/4th Liners

With August only a few days away, a surprising number of quality free agent forwards are still available.  And with the way the market is moving, there’s no reason to believe all of these players will be scooped up in the next month.

What we’re seeing is another byproduct of the salary cap era in the NHL.  Many of the expected Stanley Cup contenders for next season are looking at big holes in their lineups and little cap room to fill those voids.  The non-contenders, builders, and small-market franchises are more willing than ever to hit the cap floor and then fill in with youth.  The result?  Dozens of solid veterans, 3rd and 4th liners—some of whom are strong penalty killers or have the talent to move up to the 2nd line in a pinch—are waiting out the general managers who know they can strike late and get a bargain.

It’s not an entirely bad situation for these free agent forwards.  The best example from last season is that of Manny Malhotra going to San Jose in September on a pseudo-tryout basis, then signing an under-market, one-year, $700,000 contract with the Sharks.  Malhotra is a solid all-around centerman, excellent in the faceoff circle, a decent penalty killer who was coming off his best offensive season, a 35-point campaign with the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

Malhotra turned down more money and more term from Atlanta to sign that deal with the Sharks, hoping to play for a winner and earn a better contract this offseason.  He did all that, anchoring the Sharks’ 3rd line and subsequently earning a three-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks at $2.5 million per season. 

It seems that Malhotra’s 2009 signing may be serving as an example to many general managers this offseason.  One need only look at his former team, the Sharks, to see how Doug Wilson is playing the game.  Their third and fourth lines are currently built around Scott Nichol and a group of first and second year players, some of whom have very minimal NHL experience, if any.  Will Wilson really go into October with lines such as these?  It’s doubtful, but his priority right now is finding another first or second pairing defenseman.  The bottom forward lines can be addressed later—and with the number of quality veterans still available, the odds are high that he can convince someone of Malhotra’s caliber to take a below market one-year contract.

The players available now—and who might make it to September unsigned—aren’t without their warts.  Some guys are past-their-prime scorers (Paul Kariya and Slava Kozlov); some of them might not bring the offensive potential to fill in on the 2nd line occasionally (John Madden and Wayne Primeau) and some might have questionable injury histories (Jeff Halpern and Glen Metropolit). 

That said, many of the players listed below will be available and could make for crucial depth additions to Stanley Cup contenders come September:

- John Madden (CHI)
- Owen Nolan (MIN)
- Darcy Tucker (COL)
- Jeff Halpern (LA)
- Dominic Moore (MTL)
- Glen Metropolit (MTL)
- Steve Begin (BOS)
- Richard Park (NYI)
- Arron Asham (PHI)

Some players still available, such as Eric Belanger and Raffi Torres, will likely not last until September—or be willing to go for a bargain-basement deal.  The players listed above are the most likely and appealing of the UFA veterans to still be on the market when training camps are opening.  Many, if not all of these players, will end up having to take contracts around a million dollars or less if they want to continue their careers in the NHL this coming season. 

It’s a tricky game these players are now involved in, one in which they’re at the mercy of general managers: Wait too long or keep your demands too high and you may not have a job in the NHL this coming season.

Filed in: NHL Teams, | KK Members Blog | Permalink


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