It's been a good summer to be a free agent in the NHL and an even better one for players whose free agency will be coming up in 2016. That was made very clear on Wednesday when Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed eight-year, $84 million extensions with the Blackhawks.
The pre-UFA lockdown of Toews and Kane is a trend born of the new CBA, which has teams more inclined to overspend on their own prime assets than on aging mercenaries. It's a trend that seems sure to continue next year when a crop of UFAs—including Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan and Martin St. Louis—will offer few answers to the questions that teams will be asking.
St. Louis is sure to get another deal, but at 40 the 2013 Art Ross winner is unlikely to top his current $5.6 million salary. The Stars already are looking to re-sign the recently acquired Spezza, but they won't match the $7 million on his expiring deal for a player that will be handling second-line duties. Given his age (Spezza will be 32 next summer), it will be tough for anyone else to justify that kind of money, either.
As the premier sniper heading to market next summer, Ryan has the greatest potential to strike it rich. But to really cash in he'll need to top 40 goals for the first time in his career ... and even that won't get him north of $7 million.
There are other noteworthy names that will draw interest if they make it to market in 2016, including Marc-Andre Fleury, David Krejci and Marc Staal, and they all should do well, but the really big money will again be staying in-house. Among the stars who become eligible to sign blockbuster extensions with their current clubs next summer: Steven Stamkos and Anze Kopitar, who will be entering the final seasons of their current deals.
Kopitar is very comparable to Toews, having been the first-line center on two Stanley Cup winners and the leading scorer in the 2014 playoffs. Kopitar is also perennially in the mix for the Selke Trophy as the league's best two-way forward. He is an irreplaceable piece of the championship puzzle for a Kings team that has seven core players, including Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and Marian Gaborik, locked up through 2018–19. Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi has done a terrific job getting everybody signed at rates that are on the lower end of the scale by today's standards (Doughty is the most handsomely compensated at $7 million) but his days of sitting on his wallet end here.
Lombardi may be able to sell Kopitar on a hometown-discount deal in the range of $8 million a year, but that's the best the GM can hope for. What Toews and Kane will receive starting in 2015-16 could mean $10 million a year or more for Kopitar over a term of at least six years, especially if the Kings win the Cup again, or at least make another deep playoff run.
It's a big number, to be sure, but Kopitar would be worth it. You can't replace a talent like his in its prime, and without him the rest of that locked-in L.A. core is a shadow contender.
And then there's Stamkos, who can go ahead and reserve an armored car now. He's gonna need it as the NHL's next $100-million man.
It's a crazy number, but he can back it up. How many players are locks to score in the neighborhood of 50 goals? And how many of them are centers who play 200-foot games?
That list of such players begins, and ends, with Stamkos, who has two Rocket Richard trophies and seasons of 45, 51 and 60 goals to his credit. At 24, he's just now entering his prime years, which should be good ones: His career average of .57 goals per game has trended up to .68 over the past three seasons. Not even Alex Ovechkin (.59 over the same span) connects at such a furious a clip.
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has assembled a deep and promising supporting cast, but that's exactly what it is: support. Stamkos is the headliner, and given the way Tampa Bay has been built, he's arguably the NHL's single most important player to his team. If he asks for the maximum of eight years at a little over $12 million per season—very possible as the salary cap rises to reflect the new Canadian TV deal—Yzerman should grab his pen, sign on the dotted line and count himself lucky to lock in a generational talent as the face of his franchise.
These days that's just smart business.