Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets won't be flying the free-agent skies anytime soon

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NHL teams and their GMs have lost the power of the unknown in negotiations with their pending free agents.

From 11 p.m. Tuesday night to 11 a.m. Friday morning, representatives and unrestricted-free-agents-to-be will be the most informed people in the marketplace.

The NHL's new free agent "interview period," does guarantee teams like the Jets get to talk to the biggest fish in the market, but it also allows Winnipeg's pending UFAs to test the market and remove any speculation from their valuation.

The new CBA instituted an interview period where pending UFAs can talk to every team in the league prior to free agency opening. One agent called it, "tantamount to legalized tampering," and it gives the players a new edge.

Agents can shop their clients around the league and find out exactly what the market is for their player. They can then go back to the rightsholder and say, 'if you want to keep him, here's the price.'

Agents can also make verbal agreements with teams but cannot have their clients sign with a new team until after the opening bell on Friday.

"You can make verbal agreements but nothing is done until it's done," said former Tampa Bay Lightning GM and longtime agent Brian Lawton. "I can guarantee you there will be agents that say, 'Yeah, it's done at $4 million a year,' and then have Team B call them and say, 'we'll give you $6 million a year.' Then they'll go back and say, 'now it's six.' "

For the Winnipeg Jets, a team that has yet to develop the needed cachet that attracts high profile UFAs, it means potentially overpaying prior to the interview period in order to keep their own players.

The Jets signed defenceman Grant Clitsome late Tuesday night just prior to the opening of the interview period.

"The conversations with Grant and his agent have been ongoing for sometime. But as you get closer to a deadline you have to make some decisions. You look at what might potentially be out there and you forecast what that might cost and you look at what you have at home here and that's when we made the decision to go in this direction," said Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

The Jets signed Clitsome to a three-year deal worth $6.2 million. That's a little over $2 million per season for a player that was claimed off waivers two seasons ago.

Did the Jets overpay? That's subject to individual perspective but Clitsome did have leverage and his agent no doubt exercised it.

The Jets determined they didn't want Clitsome talking to anyone else, which comes at a price.

Clitsome likely wasn't going to get half a dozen offers but it only takes one to drive the price up.

Agents can now take the temperature of other teams and give their clients a clear and absolute picture of their value.

Representatives can take whatever offers they've been able to collect back to their client to pick the deal and city that suits them best. No more speculation.

Expiry date

Previously, players would have to go into an unknown market and hope there were offers for their services higher than the last made by their old team. Now, depending on the expiry date of the last offer made by their current club, they can put that deal in their pocket and go and try to do better.

The high-end UFA market is even less friendly to the Jets than it has ever been, in particular where players whose rights they own and want to retain are concerned.

The Jets must prevent their best players from getting to UFA status, making long-term deals for core players and restricted free agents such as Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler invaluable.

Some will argue the Jets now have the chance to pitch their organization to the high-profile free agents with whom they previously didn't a chance to talk.

"This will allow time for people to review and give everyone a chance to get in their offer," said Lawton. "Before, if you weren't cheating and I don't think a lot of people were cheating but some definitely were, there were a lot of teams that were not getting an opportunity to present. This will allow everyone the ability to do that. You won't be able to go back to your owner and say, 'I never even got to talk to the damn guy. He's already signed with such-and-such."

Sure, and this will help the Jets if they ever add the lustre of being a contender to their sales package. But right now it's really only a courtesy listen. The Jets just aren't a top-end destination right now and the elite players with multiple choices aren't coming here.

"Players have in their own mind, and I know this having represented players, a vision of where they are going to go before they even talk to anybody," said Lawton. "The better-weather places, teams that are well run and have won, they will still have the advantage. But everyone will get to bid."

Someday this new wrinkle will perhaps work to the Jets' advantage but in the here and now it puts them at a disadvantage where prized UFAs are concerned.

The best UFAs are only going to cost more and have their choice of where to collect their cash going forward.

All of this underscores Cheveldayoff's mantra of draft, develop and retain even more.

The UFA market may be just heating up, but it's the RFA market the Jets must hit their home runs in.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2013 D4

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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 www.winnipegfreepress.com
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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