One by one, so many unrestricted free agents re-signed with their current NHL clubs, letting even more depth out of the pool of players who will be available when free agency opens July 1. The accompanying background noise to all those signings is the sound of phones ringing and general managers talking up trades.
It’s that time of year, and the NHL draft, which begins with the first round Friday night in Pittsburgh, is expected to be the scene of much wheeling and dealing.
“Historically, there’s always this talk. I don’t know if there’s this much talk, but it always kind of ramps up right now because there’s draft picks that will be available on Friday and Saturday,” Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said on a conference call. “Specifically to this year, I think it’s a function of the shallow pool of free agents and so that you’ve got teams that may not delve into the free agency or they’re trying to be proactive and trying to acquire guys prior to the free agency because when the pool is shallow, the prices get pretty high.”
The Washington Capitals have a league-high 11 picks, and GM George McPhee expects to use a lot of them. But to improve the team for next year, it’s what he does on the trade front that could play a major role.
McPhee said his colleagues are more open to sharing their needs and surpluses than in the past, partly because it’s difficult to make deals within the constraints of the salary cap. But Chiarelli and others say the volume of trade “chatter” is higher than it has been recently.
“It’s a real busy time for trades and everything else, because as we’ve all learned, trades are difficult to make during the season now,” McPhee said. “It used to be you could call a club and some GMs would say, ‘Listen, I’m trying to do this or that,’ but most guys would hold things pretty close to the vest because they didn’t want everyone to know what they were doing with their ammunition. But now most teams say, ‘Listen, I’m deep here or there and I’m trying to move this for that.’ Guys are much more open about what they want to do to get the message out there to clubs because this is the time to deal.”
It has been the time for McPhee to deal lately. He has made trades at the draft in each of the past four years, including last year when he dealt the Caps’ first-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for right wing Troy Brouwer. Eighteen trades took place during the two days of last year’s draft, including three that didn’t include 2011 picks.
McPhee said last week his preference would be to keep his two first-rounders, Nos. 11 and 16.
“Thinking that way right now, yeah. Because that’s the way you build a team and that’s the way we’ve built this team,” he said. “We sort of built in the traditional manner; we built from the net out, and we have two terrific young goaltenders that we drafted, we have a terrific young defense of mostly all homegrown drafted players. You have to draft well in this league to have a good team. I think we’ve been drafting well so why not keep making picks?”
Because most of these prospects aren’t ready to immediately contribute at the NHL level.
“Any player that goes in the top three or four picks, they’re going to get the opportunity to play in the league next year,” said Dan Marr, head of Central Scouting. “It’s not a normal progression for an 18-year-old to step right into the National Hockey League.”
The expectation is for the Caps to win now, and though they’ll likely have in the neighborhood of $16 million to fill out the roster, the options available when free agency opens aren’t plentiful. A majority of teams have lots of money to throw around, even though the drop-off from forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to everyone else is severe.
“When you’re dealing in the free agent market you’re competing with other teams, so usually the term and the dollar amounts go pretty high and that’s OK, that’s not necessarily a deterrent to us,” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said on a conference call. “It might lead to different other moves you might need to make to accommodate that, but that’s not a bad thing either because you’re dealing from a position of strength at that point. We’re not going to be afraid to improve our team.”
McPhee won’t be either, though it might take a handful of trades to make it happen.
“It’s a busy time of the year. Obviously, it’s a big movement time for players: this time of the year and the deadline,” he said. “So everybody’s engaged, everyone’s talking to see what might develop out there.”