The NHL Free Agent Frenzy began at 12:00 ET this past Tuesday, July 1st. While most teams out on the market salivated over marquee names, such as Matt Niskanen, Thomas Vanek, and Paul Stastny, the Ducks mostly stayed pat and made minor moves, signing blue-liner Clayton Stoner to a four year, $13 million deal and goalie Jason LaBarbera to a one year, $750,000 contract.
Free agency is a way for teams to bolster their roster with veteran players, but the auction nature of the frenzy can leave smaller teams on the short end. The Ducks fit in this category: as a budget team, they cannot afford to shell out seven year, $40 million deals on the open market to players. This was a huge reason why there were rampant trade rumors surrounding Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry last season: as pending unrestricted free agents on a budget team, were the Ducks going to be able to pay both players and still build a winning team around them?
That question was answered: Getzlaf got eight years and $66 million, and shortly after, Perry got eight years and $69 million. With those two cornerstone pieces under contract long-term, Bob Murray did his job building a roster, which won 54 games and had 116 points in the regular season.
This offseason, the Ducks also dealt for veteran pivot Ryan Kesler, who has two years left on a six year, $30 million pact that pays him $5 million a year. Entering free agency, the Ducks had slightly under $17 million in cap room to use. However, the Ducks were expected to operate at a budget of $60-61 million, instead of the max $69 million announced a few days before free agency began.
Currently, the Ducks have slightly under $13.4 million in cap room, with a cap payroll around $55.6 million, per capgeek.com. While it seems feasible that the team could sign a player such as Dany Heatley or Mike Ribeiro for a cheap, one-year prove-it deal, I doubt the Ducks go that way for two reasons.
First of all, the Ducks have committed themselves this season to giving young players opportunities. For a budget team like the Ducks, the organization constantly needs young players coming through the pipeline and developing to succeed. By signing a veteran winger like Heatley, it blocks the opportunity for players such as Matt Beleskey, Patrick Maroon, Emerson Etem, and Devante Smith-Pelly to develop in a top-six forward role. In a salary cap sport, teams need young players to step up and have key roles in order to win a championship. Getzlaf and Perry were on their entry-level deals when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, but played big minutes on the second line for the team with Dustin Penner.
The Ducks chose not to give contracts to Saku Koivu, Daniel Winnik, and Jonas Hiller in the offseason. Stephane Robidas signed a three year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was done to give more playing time to players like Rickard Rakell, Sami Vatanen, Frederik Andersen, and John Gibson. The Ducks have already committed themselves to this plan, and it doesn’t make sense to back away from it by signing a veteran player who would block the kids from playing .
Secondly, the Ducks have eight restricted free agents to get under contract with what is left on their budget, which is around $5.6 million at most. While some players may accept the qualifying offers that the Ducks gave them, players such as Jakob Silfverberg, Smith-Pelly, and Vatanen may wish to negotiate new deals with the Ducks that may pay even more than the one year tenders the Ducks offered up to those players. Even if all eight players were to accept their qualifying offers, five of them would be due raises (the tender is 105% of the previous year’s salary if the player made under $1 million and 110% if the player made under $660,000), and that would actually cost the Ducks about $8 million, more than they have to spend.
The Ducks could look to unload the contract of a veteran defenseman, such as Bryan Allen or Mark Fistric, both of whom will lose minutes thanks to Vatanen’s imminent increased role and the signing of Stoner, who is a similar player to both but can play both the left and right side. Still, the Ducks would add $3.5 million to their budget if they trade Allen without retaining any salary, and far less if they decide to unload Fistric, whose contract has both lower value and more term.
When those eight restricted free agents get signed under contract, where does that leave the Ducks with money? Close to none. So not only does it not make sense for the Ducks to sign any more free agents, but they also physically cannot sign anymore because they lack the finances to do it.
The Ducks still have a very solid core of players. The majority of last year’s team returns, and the team has made a definitive effort to get tougher by adding players such as Kesler, Stoner, and Nate Thompson. It is a great thing to have the main pieces of a team in place before free agency hits: although the open market is a great way to add to a team, it should be for mostly complementary pieces, not centerpieces. The Ducks’ team-building process is just about finished. Now, only the regular season awaits.
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