In the NHL, business is about to pick up.
General managers are heading back to their offices and starting to work the phones again with agents. At least one team is assembling its coaching staff this week to begin prep for training camp, which begins around Sept. 21.
This is good news for the players that remain on the open market with contracts, hoping for clarity about their NHL future. Some have been told to wait as teams clean up their salary caps through mechanisms like long-term injured reserve. Some are expecting to come into camps on tryout contracts, either with the promise of a job or the promise to compete for one. Some are waiting to see whether that one perfect situation opens up to justify their patience or, in some cases, to entice them to return to the NHL for another season.
Yet these are nervous times for players who didn’t find a home during last month’s free-agent frenzy; or, in some cases, didn’t heed the advice from agents like Jerry Buckley.
“Don’t get greedy. Find a place to play at a good number and get going. Because these musical chairs can get taken really quick,” he told ESPN this week.
That’s especially true under a salary cap that rose only $1 million to $82.5 million for the 2022-23 season. The “flat cap” has impacted the free-agent market and overall player salaries.
“The unfortunate part of this year in general is that the marketplace has shifted because of the cap,” one NHL agent said. “You have a weird situation where you have 16 or 17 teams that want to lose and you’ve got the rest that want to win. The cap has incentivized losing in a way: ‘Hey, if I’m not going to make the playoffs, I could do better by selling my cap space.’”
Leaving little for free agents still seeking contracts, for example.
Here’s a look at seven significant names that are still on the free agent market with less than a month before the start of training camps.
P.K. Subban, D
Age: 33 | 2021-22 cap hit: $9 million
At the end of the New Jersey Devils‘ season, P.K. Subban met the media with a voice ravaged by a head cold and a mind focused on becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
“Mixed emotions. It’s exciting,” he said. “Probably the biggest eye-opener is that eight years has flown by already. Should be a fun summer.”
Subban, 33, completed an eight-year contract that he signed in 2014 with the Montreal Canadiens. He made $8 million in base salary last season and $9 million against the salary cap. His ice time dropped by nearly four minutes per game on average this season. He had 22 points in 77 games for the Devils, but his underlying numbers were strong, if overlooked due to the mediocrity of New Jersey’s season.
Even the strongest analytics can’t turn back the clock for Subban or give him the explosive skating he had in his Norris Trophy contention years. He’s not an $8 million defenseman anymore, obviously. But he wants to play, and he can help the right team.
His agent, Don Meehan, recently told the Montreal Gazette that one reason Subban is still on the market is that he’s earned the chance to be selective.
“Without sounding too aggressive, I think he’s earned the privilege to be somewhat selective in terms of where he would play so that it works for the team and it works for him,” Meehan said. “In other words, he doesn’t just want to play anywhere. He has that measure of independence.”
The agent said that he’s had “expressions of interest” from teams on Subban, that the teams that have expressed interest “aren’t in a position to contract now because they’ve got other things in play.”
Subban hasn’t appeared in the playoffs since the 2018-19 season and is still chasing a Stanley Cup ring. He has been off the radar, skating with a lottery team for three seasons. He’s ready to make a difference if the fit is right.
“My tank’s never empty. That’s just the way I am and the way I feel,” Subban said. “There’s still a lot of hockey I have yet to play before I step away from this game.”
Evan Rodrigues, C
Age: 29 | 2021-22 cap hit: $800,000
Rodrigues, 29, remains one of the buzziest players without a contract. Fans wonder why the former Pittsburgh Penguin hasn’t been signed yet, while also fantasy casting the versatile center on their team’s roster.
His agent, Darren Ferris, told ESPN that there are “a good seven or eight teams” he’s having discussions with about Rodrigues and hopes to have something done soon.
“There are two or three teams that we feel he’s a good fit with, but there are cap restraints. There are guys trying to move [money] to make room for it,” said Ferris, who took over representation of Rodrigues from Peter Fish during the offseason.
One of those teams is the Penguins, who are capped out at the moment after a summer of reuniting the band (new contracts for Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust) in addition to bringing on defenseman Jeff Petry. The Calgary Flames have shown interest in Rodrigues, and Ferris said they “may be in that conversation as well.”
Rodrigues had 19 goals and 24 assists in 82 games for the Penguins last season. He played behind Crosby and Malkin. When either or both were out of the lineup, Rodrigues stepped up and put up numbers in their absence.
But the best contractual case to be made for Rodrigues is an analytics one. He had 11.6 goals scored above replacement last season to lead Pittsburgh, according to Evolving Hockey.
“He’s an analytics darling, and teams know that,” Ferris said.
How to quantify that could prove difficult in this marketplace: Whatever contract Rodrigues ends up signing probably won’t reflect his true value. As the season nears, it’s looking more likely that Rodrigues should ink a one-year contract, prove himself and then circle back next summer for something with term. It’s the same path that forward Andreas Athanasiou, another Ferris client, took in signing a one-year deal this summer with the Chicago Blackhawks worth $3 million.
Keith Yandle, D
Age: 35 | 2021-22 cap hit: $900,000
Yandle had a season of emotional highs and lows with the Philadelphia Flyers.
He played in his 965th consecutive game to break the NHL’s “ironman” record — although Vegas Golden Knights winger Phil Kessel is just eight games away from resetting the record. Yandle was also there to support Flyers teammate Kevin Hayes after the tragic death of his brother Jimmy Hayes, as Yandle had been a friend of the family since growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
“Keith would say, ‘Maybe it’s God’s work putting me there, because He knew Kevin would need me,’” said Yandle’s agent, Jerry Buckley.
Yandle had multiple offers last summer before signing with the Flyers on a one-year deal. From the start, things didn’t go as planned. Yandle was supposed to partner with defenseman Justin Braun, but an injury to Ryan Ellis forced a reshuffling of the defense group. Instead of a steady veteran in Braun, Yandle spent the majority of his minutes with Nick Seeler and Kevin Connauton. Yandle finished the season with 19 points and a minus-47 in 77 games.
Many wondered whether that would be Yandle’s last NHL season, based on his numbers, and having finally broken Doug Jarvis’ 34-year-old ironman record. But Buckley said Yandle hasn’t made a decision on his future yet.
“We’re still kind of working through all that stuff. He hasn’t made any determination,” he said. “I’m still actively talking to [teams], so he hasn’t made a decision not to play.”
Buckley said that Yandle wants “the right fit” to continue his NHL career, not just an open job.
“To be honest with you, it’s fluid,” he said. “He’s going through it. Staying in shape and being ready.”
Buckley said that he “highly doubted” Yandle would take a professional tryout contract (PTO) to attend a training camp. Not having a deal at the start of camp wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of his career, either.
Yandle has been in Florida spending time with his family. He’ll head to Las Vegas for some social media work with the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour, which could provide a preview of the post-retirement media jobs the personable Yandle could land.
“I’ve had a lot of people checking in on that,” Buckley said with a laugh.
Joe Thornton, C
Age: 43 | 2021-22 cap hit: $750,000
According to Florida Hockey Now, Thornton’s wife, Tabea Pfendsack, revealed on Instagram that he wouldn’t be returning to the Florida Panthers, where he played in 34 games last season. The 43-year-old center registered only 10 points in those games, posting the lowest points per 60 minutes (1.6) of his storied career.
“I have no plans. It’s kind of exciting that way,” he said after the Panthers were eliminated from the playoffs, continuing Thornton’s career-long Cup drought. “I’ve been privileged to play this game for a long time, so I don’t take anything for granted. But I never think ‘what ifs’ to be honest, I just try to live in the moment and go from there.”
If this is the end for Jumbo, he may already have another gig lined up. Reports in Switzerland indicate that Thornton will move into a managerial role with the Spengler Cup tournament.
Sonny Milano, LW
Age: 26 | 2021-22 cap hit: $1,700,000
Milano was a surprising addition to the free agent pool this summer. The Anaheim Ducks didn’t give the 26-year-old forward a qualifying offer — they weren’t interested in keeping him at the salary level the arbitration process would have handed him — so Milano went from being a restricted free agent to joining the unrestricted free agent masses.
He had 34 points in 66 games last season with 14 goals, one of which came on the receiving end of Trevor Zegras‘ over-the-cage pass. The door isn’t closed on Anaheim for Milano, but there are other teams that have inquired about this talented offensive player.
Milano is one of the forwards stuck in a “free agent logjam” at the end of the offseason, as teams try to free up cap space to fill out their rosters ahead of the next pressure point at the beginning of training camp.
“There are a lot of teams interested. It’s just that no one’s pulled the trigger yet,” one NHL source said.
Danny DeKeyser, D
Age: 32 | 2021-22 cap hit: $5 million
Back in 2019, DeKeyser probably thought this summer was going to be a financial windfall. Back then, he was playing over 21 minutes per game on average with the Detroit Red Wings and making $5 million against the cap. It wasn’t outrageous to think that he would be due for a raise as a 32-year-old free agent in 2022 as an established NHL defenseman.
Then came the back injury in late 2019, followed by the back surgery. That basically derailed DeKeyser’s career. He was limited to eight games in 2019-20 and then saw his ice time drop by nearly four minutes per game on average in the following season. He played in 59 games last season, passed through waivers and saw his 10-year run in Detroit end in a whimper, even as he felt better physically while the season progressed.
Agent Matt Federico and O2K Sports Management started working with DeKeyser a few weeks ago after the veteran defenseman was unable to latch on with a new team. The biggest questions they had for DeKeyser were about his health and his expectations. They found a player feeling good about his physical status, but one who might have been priced out of the market initially this summer. There were just too many question marks to justify a $5 million AAV deal for DeKeyser under a flat salary cap.
So expectations were adjusted and the interest started to build, Federico said.
“We weren’t sure what the landscape was going to be. But we’ve been pretty encouraged,” the agent said. “The interest has been good. We feel pretty confident that he’s going to get a deal before training camp here. It’s going to take some time to shake out. Hopefully we know more this week.”
Federico is confident that DeKeyser will have a deal in place before training camps open next month. It could be in the range of a $1 million “show me” contract, as DeKeyser attempts to rebuild his reputation.
“It’ll be a lower money deal, but it’ll be a chance to showcase himself outside of Detroit,” Federico said. “We kind of look at him as a Jack Johnson type, where he had to kind of reinvent himself and play at these lower numbers. But [Jack] is getting more years out of his career having done it. Danny has to reestablish himself.”
Zdeno Chara, D
Age: 45 | 2021-22 cap hit: $750,000
New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello said last week that there have been no discussions with Chara about a return to the team, and that the 45-year-old isn’t in consideration for a spot on their defense this season.
That wasn’t exactly a shock, given that Chara created an Instagram post after the 2021-22 season that profusely thanked the organization and the players. “Thank you, guys, for everything you did for me and my entire family. I couldn’t ask for better group of guys and all the help we got from you. I am so grateful for all of relationships and I will cherish our time together,” he wrote.
Now, the hockey world waits for another Instagram post from Chara that lays out his hockey future. He’s still available. He hasn’t retired. But speculation around the NHL is that the all-time leader in games played among defenseman may have played his last one.