Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

GMs girding loins for lunacy

NHL free agency sexy, treacherous business

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July 1 used to be the most dangerous day on the calendar for NHL GMs, but now they have five more days to blow their brains out on a sexy but treacherous free-agent signing.

In the summer of 2011, the scene at the Toronto office of Brad Richards' agent was something like this: NHL executives milling outside like cheesy suburban kids trying to get into a Manhattan night club. Inside, Richards and his legion of lawyers reviewing offers with their feet resting on glass-topped tables, chomping pistachios and sipping chilled drinks.

The New York Rangers won the sweepstakes that day, signing Richards to a nine-year deal worth $60 million. On Friday they admitted their blunder, exercising a compliance buyout on Richards with a $20-million hit, making him an unrestricted free agent once again.

Richards, and his 51 points from last season, ranked fifth in scoring among this year's UFA class and will be back at the trough.


And someone will feed him. Well.

The perils of the free-agent market, especially on July 1, are beyond clear. A team is most often overpaying for a player with a limited understanding of his entire package. As Jets coach Paul Maurice says, "You never really know until you own it."

The market was already tilted in favour of players and their agents under the previous system. But adding a five-day interview period to get fans and owners salivating, will in some cases result in more pressure on GMs to spend, spend, spend.

This convention was in place last season, but was compressed due to the lockout. This will be the inaugural five-day session of legalized tampering.

With all 30 GMs gathering in Philadelphia next week and with the interview period opening at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, there is potential for some backdrops right out of Jerry Maguire. GMs getting their licks in before free agency officially opens on July 1.

Agents getting the opportunity to crank up the price of their clients, with the luxury of time on their side.

Maybe Thomas Vanek will be camped out at The Rittenhouse Hotel. Marion Gaborik at the Ritz. Maybe even Olli Jokinen at the Four Seasons. Big-name free agents open for business in the City of Brotherly Greed next week.

Jokinen had 18 goals and 25 assists with the Jets last season and showed very well for Finland at the Olympics and world championship.

He's 35, but 2014 was a rebound season for him, and his commitment to fitness is well known.

When anyone was last willing to comment, talks between the Jets and Jokinen had not begun. Maybe something is cooking now, but with a thin class of UFA centres, Jokinen's agent is likely looking for a deal similar to the two-year, $9-million pact he just finished with the Jets.

Maybe Winnipeg doesn't pay that freight, but someone will. And you can bet his people will be doing the rounds at the draft like an over-served insurance salesmen at a swish wedding.

The Jets, it has been argued, have been duds in free agency. That's one way of looking at it, but from this perspective they've mostly saved themselves from costly mistakes.

Free agency is a valuable tool to be used by a franchise when the time and price is right. But it can also use a franchise and turn a team into a cash machine.

Let the agents play the music. Just don't join them in the dance. Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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