There’s no Black Friday for NHL general managers. No Boxing Day, either. But there comes a point every summer when it becomes clear that free agents can be had at deep discounts. And we may have reached that point on Thursday with the Penguins’ signing of Matt Cullen to a one-year, $800,000 deal.
Now, Cullen’s no star. He’s been a very valuable player over the years, but at 38 he’s almost certainly heading into his final NHL season, and he’s doing it in a diminished role as a fourth-line center. But he’s also a proven veteran who can win draws (he finished at 54.0% last season and 56.7% in 2013–14) kill penalties, ramp up the pace of a game and provide leadership both on the ice and in the locker room. In other words, a versatile and valuable asset who can round out the roster of a Stanley Cup contender.
That makes him a great fit for Pittsburgh, an organization that’s done a solid job of retooling this offseason after coming up short—again—in the spring. The Pens are a good fit for Cullen as well. “It’s a team that’s making a real strong push to make a run at it,” Cullen said. “There’s no secret I’m getting to the end of my career. So to have an opportunity to play with a team of this caliber is really exciting. I feel really lucky to have this opportunity.”
No doubt he does. Desperation has a way of altering a man’s perspective. Five weeks into free agency and still unemployed, Cullen looked at the NHL’s free-agent seating chart, recognized how few chairs were still up for grabs and planted himself in one before the music stopped. Sure, he accepted a cut-rate deal, but he’s still got a job. And now that he’s signed his name on the dotted line, there's a good chance others will follow.
It’s inevitable. With cap space drying up and teams switching their focus to what the kids in their organization might be able to bring to the table, unemployed veterans need to lower their expectations now or gear up for what could be a very long and very humbling wait.
That means teams could find some real bargains over the next couple of weeks. Consider a player like Brad Boyes, who had 38 points and was +11 for a very mediocre Panthers team. The 33-year-old winger has quietly established himself as one of the top shootout weapons in the league, scoring on 44.3% of his attempts in his career, with 12 game-winners. He made $2.625 million last season, but Florida bought out the final year of his deal. Boyes could provide affordable offense in a middle-six role.
Curtis Glencross could be a similar bargain. His offensive game might be in decline, but the 32-year-old wing still brings speed, tenacity and a bit of touch. If a contender like the Rangers doesn’t snap him up for depth now, it’s a good bet he’ll land with a non-playoff team that might look to flip him at the deadline for a draft pick. But there aren't many of those opportunities either, so Glencross could be at the point of lowering his sights.
Christian Ehrhoff already has a lowball offer on the table from the Blue Jackets, and the fact that no one has topped it sends a clear message to the veteran about his limited options. The 32-year-old blueliner is coming off a $4 million, one-year deal with Pittsburgh, but he'll be lucky to get half that much this time around after he missed most of the second half of 2014–15 with concussions and other injuries. If healthy, Ehrhoff can be a valuable top-four defenseman, but teams aren’t going to ante up knowing the risk.
If there’s one unrestricted free agent on the market who can still hold the line (at least for the moment), it’s Cody Franson. Just 27, he’s an outstanding offensive defenseman who excels in transition ... almost to the point that a team can overlook his adventurous tendencies in his own zone. Because clubs are always looking to bolster their blue lines, and because puck movers are held in such high regard, Franson could still have multiple suitors from which to choose even at this late date. But whatever enthusiasm some teams feel for him is likely to cool as time passes, which means even he might have to trim his expectations in order to get something done.
At this point, it’s almost impossible not to.
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