NHL free agents take high-priced hit in stagnant cap era

Aside from defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner attracting $20 million-plus contracts, NHL free agency isn't what it used to be. Not in a stagnant salary-cap era.

Though plenty of players switched teams once the signing period opened Saturday, missing were the high-priced, long-term contracts that were once the norm.

Shattenkirk, considered the top free agent available , signed a four-year, $26.6 million contract with the New York Rangers. And after nine seasons in Washington, Alzner signed a five-year, $23.1 million deal with Montreal.

Shattenkirk noted he turned down a more lucrative offer to sign with the Rangers, in part for the opportunity to play closer to his hometown of New Rochelle, New York. And Alzner noted he had few options beyond Montreal, which was the only city he visited this past week.

The expansion Vegas Golden Knights stayed busy by trading defenseman Alexei Emelin to Nashville for a 2019 third-round draft pick. Vegas selected Emelin from Montreal in the expansion draft last month. The Golden Knights also addressed secondary depth needs by signing six free agents, including forward Stefan Matteau. He's the son of Stephane Matteau, a member of the 1994 Stanley Cup champion Rangers.

The most lucrative deals inked were a pair of contracts to retain young stars. San Jose Sharks locked up defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic with an eight-year, $56 million contract, and Anaheim signed defenseman Cam Fowler to an eight-year, $52 million deal. The Sharks also extended the contract of goalie Martin Jones by signing him to a six-year, $34.5 million deal.

That's a drastic change from a year ago, when three free agents signed seven-year contracts, including aging veteran Milan Lucic's $42 million deal with Edmonton.

''There's a whole lot of factors,'' Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said, noting age was one and so were the moves by teams to sign their players to extensions well before they might have hit the market.

As for a primary factor, Holland said: ''The cap used to go up $4-5 million a year.''

Long-time player agent Steve Bartlett said teams are handcuffed by long-term deals and a flat cap, while Rangers GM Jeff Gorton noted there was a limit on how high he would go to sign Shattenkirk.

''We try to stay away from those five, six, seven, eight-year deals right now and figure out where the cap's going,'' Gorton said.

Stars general manager Jim Nill said the expansion draft also played a role because it added another element in which teams had to shift assets - including draft picks - to protect certain players from being selected. That led to teams having to fill those losses with short-term fixes.

The cap has barely budged, going from $69 million in 2014-15 to $75 million next season.

Teams are instead resorting to a payroll model used by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. It's one in which teams commit high salaries to their best players - such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane - and fill secondary needs with youngsters and lower-priced journeymen.

That's the approach Sharks GM Doug Wilson took in re-signing Vlasic, Jones as well as Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Brent Burns in November.

''These are guys who fit for now and the future,'' Wilson said. ''They are core pieces for our team at key positions. Getting these guys under contract was a really high priority.''

And they were signed at the risk of San Jose losing aging stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in free agency.

The Edmonton Oilers will soon find themselves in a similar fix with youngsters Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl both completing their fixed, entry-level rookie deals.

The pace of signings didn't change with more than 30 players switching teams within the first 90 minutes.

Nick Bonino left the Stanley Cup-champion Penguins to sign a four-year, $16.4 million deal with Western Conference champion Nashville . The Predators freed up cap space to sign Bonino by trading center Colin Wilson to Colorado for a 2019 fourth-round draft pick.

The Penguins restocked by signing defenseman Matt Hunwick and goalie Antti Niemi. Hunwick takes over after Ron Hainsey signed with Toronto. Niemi fills the spot vacated after Marc-Andre Fleury was selected by Vegas. Pittsburgh also re-signed defenseman Justin Schultz, a restricted free agent, to a three-year, $16.5 million contract.

The Wild lost center Martin Hanzal when he signed a three-year, $14.25 million contract with Dallas.

Vancouver was busy. The Canucks signed center Sam Gagner (three years, $9.45 million), defenseman Michael Del Zotto (two years, $6 million) and goalie Anders Nilsson (two years, $5 million).

Several players returned to familiar surroundings.

Like Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp is back in Chicago. He signed a one-year $800,000 contract after the forward spent the previous two seasons in Dallas.

Justin Williams signed a two-year, $9 million contract to return to Carolina, where he won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2004. Williams spent the past two seasons with the Washington Capitals, where he combined for 46 goals and 100 points.

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AP Hockey Writers Larry Lage, Stephen Whyno and Greg Beacham, and Sports Writers Josh Dubow, Joedy McCreary and Pat Graham contributed to this report.

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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