June 30, 2015

Now a decade into the salary-cap era, NHL free agency isn't what it used to be.

And the 2015 unrestricted group is one of the weakest in recent memory.

''It's not a great group,'' Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said recently. ''Your options are minimal.''

Options are out there, such as center Antoine Vermette, wingers Matt Beleskey and Justin Williams, defensemen Mike Green and Christian Ehrhoff and goaltender Karri Ramo. But this isn't a star-studded class.

Money will still get thrown around as it does every July 1, but GMs are conscious of what this time of year actually means in the grand scheme of things.

''You can't grab four or five guys every year and try to be successful,'' Hextall said. ''I just don't believe in it. It's a small tool that can help. You can fill that last box you have to make yourself a top contender, but you can't build like that.''

It's a good time to fill roster holes. The Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks signed center Brad Richards to a one-year deal last summer, and the Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning got center Brian Boyle and defenseman Anton Stralman to complement a young core.

Similar to Valtteri Filppula in 2014, Stralman was a big hit with a $22.5 million, five-year contract with the Lightning. He went on to play on the top pairing with Victor Hedman.

''We had a huge, glaring hole in our lineup,'' general manager Steve Yzerman said at the Cup Final. ''We needed a right-hand shot defenseman. We have a pretty competitive team. A player like that can make a real difference, and he has in the first year.''

Green, the only defenseman in the cap era to score 30 goals, and Williams, who has become known as ''Mr. Game 7'' for his playoff scoring, could fit this time. For teams looking for depth, winger Michael Frolik and defensemen Cody Franson and Johnny Oduya are available.

Alexander Semin, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, Cody Hodgson and Viktor Stalberg are also unrestricted possibilities because of buyouts.

''Top to bottom, (the free-agent pool) might not have the complete depth, but these are players that can help your lineup, depending on what your needs are,'' Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney said on a conference call Tuesday. ''Every team is looking at players that fit into what they're trying to do.''

Most teams are trying to keep their own players. The Dallas Stars gave Jason Spezza a contract extension, the Ottawa Senators locked up Bobby Ryan, the New York Islanders gave Johnny Boychuk a long-term deal and the Rangers prevented Mats Zuccarello from hitting the open market.

''The free-agency period is slowly starting to change,'' Stars GM Jim Nill said on a conference call Monday. ''We've all looked at the CBA, we've all analyzed it. The general managers are a pretty smart group, and we've all seen what's happened is we're all signing our top players to six-to-eight-year contracts.

''There's two or three good free agents out there, but it's not as strong as it used to be, and there's 30 teams competing for those guys.''

Nill wanted Antti Niemi enough that the Stars traded a seventh-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for the rights to the pending unrestricted free agent goaltender and signed him. The Colorado Avalanche did the same, sending Boston a 2016 sixth-rounder and signed center Carl Soderberg.

Free agency could shake loose more trades, as the Chicago Blackhawks continue to look to deal Patrick Sharp and the Toronto Maple Leafs consider discussions about Phil Kessel.

Teams that strike out July 1 could then circle back to fill holes.

''I do believe that, in talking with a number of general managers, the trade market is one that people are pursuing,'' Sweeney said.

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