The NHL free agent market this year is already abnormally large, due to the extra year's worth of contracts that expired during the lockout. But with the new CBA, and its one-time opportunity for teams to cut players loose by buying them out, the bazaar is wide open for NHL general managers this summer. First, the Philadelphia Flyers cut John LeClair
and Tony Amonte
loose, and now the Detroit Red Wings have followed suit with Derian Hatcher
, Ray Whitney
, and Darren McCarty
, who had seemingly earned a lifetime job in Detroit after his incredible run in 1997
. In the days to come, more and more impact-level players will be seeking new employment. For GM's, this may be a hair-pulling nightmare, but for fans, it's the closest thing to a fantasy draft that we'll ever see in professional sports.
The easy part during these contract buyouts is for the high-payroll teams that need to get under the cap to jettison players with outsized contracts (wait until the Rangers get rolling!). The next wave to come will be when the middle-market teams shed players as well, in order to free up shopping room for some of the top-notch free agents that will be available. One could start an expansion team out of the free agent pool, and easily put together a Cup contender, given the depth and breadth of the market. The new criteria by which general managers will be judged is how they maximize the talent they fit under the cap, using other factors than just money to attract players (like high-profile teammates, player-friendly coaches, Miami nightlife, etc.).
The amazing part about all of this is that under the old CBA, the NHL already had competitive balance that enabled pretty much any team in the league to achieve success. During the last three Stanley Cup playoffs, 12 different teams made the conference finals (read: nobody made it twice). With Cup finalists like Carolina, Anaheim, Calgary, and Tampa Bay, the argument that championships were simply a matter of payroll didn't wash. Perhaps the real winners going forward are the teams in New York and L.A., who couldn't put a winner together no matter how much money they spent. At least now, their owners have a limit on how much damage their GM's can do.