In a normal year, July 1 is a date circled on calendars of fans around the National Hockey League as the "Free Agent Frenzy" usually earns long hours of blowout coverage on Canadian television and teams look to make a splash quickly as newly-minted unrestricted free agents can sign with new clubs on that date.
However, for a lot of teams this year, there isn't going to be a whole lot of frenzy going on when the calendar flips to July on Sunday. Instead, with the labor uncertainty around the league, a pretty thin group of unrestricted free agents will be available for teams who look to improve their team by opening their wallets. Even Canada's flagship sports network, TSN, has reduced its free agency coverage to just a two-hour window this year in anticipation of a weaker batch of signings.
The cream of the free agent crop is Devils forward Zach Parise and Predators defenseman Ryan Suter, who both figure to command a king's ransom in a very thin market of difference-makers available.
After those two names go off the table, the talent level drops off considerably. Teams will have to decide to hand out large contracts to players who might not quite fit a specific need or play a dominant role, or to pass on overpaying for mid-level talent and opt to improve via a different avenue.
While Washington General Manager George McPhee already said veteran forwards Jeff Halpern and Mike Knuble won't be back and Dennis Wideman's rights were shipped off to Calgary to sign with the Flames, one key veteran who likely will be priced out of the Capitals' range on the open market will be Alexander Semin.
"We've talked to him and we'll see where it goes, but not sure," McPhee said Wednesday of Semin's status.
Semin likely will benefit from the lack of depth to the forwards available, as those up for grabs could get some hefty offers - despite carrying some big question marks for teams willing to put together large contracts for them.
Semin certainly one of the most talented players to play in Washington since the lockout, but the big question lies in terms of his effort level. Some nights, Semin can dominate a game like the league's best, and light up the scoreboard with his pure talent. Other nights, he can play a half-hearted style of going through the motions, even taking undisciplined penalties to detract from the club.
Semin's agent even fired a shot at the Caps before the league's offseason began, as Rich Gandler went on 106.7 The Fan in May to question how the Caps were using his client.
"The point is not about the offer, the point is there's no reason to discuss money or terms if they really don't need the guy," Gandler said in the interview. "If you look at the situations: 4-on-5, he doesn't play. 4-on-4, he doesn't play. Overtime, he doesn't play. Usually, first power play he doesn't play. He basically has become a role player by design, and that's not something he's prepared to accept."
While it's certainly not out of the question that Semin would return to Washington, it also seems far more likely another NHL club - or even a KHL squad in Russia - would be more likely to offer a more lucrative contract package. Washington had signed Semin to two consecutive one-year deals in seasons past - the last worth $6.7 million - they didn't do the same this past year.
The current market already showed that demand far outstrips supply, as the Capitals were able to trade Wideman's rights for another rights for another restricted free agent, Jordan Henry, and a fifth-round draft pick less than five days before Wideman was set to become a free agent and available to all 30 NHL clubs. The defenseman, who earned an average of $3,937,500 per season in his last four-year deal - originally signed with the Bruins before being dealt to Florida and Washington - got a hefty raise to averaging $5.25 million over five years in Calgary - and a no-trade clause - despite a significant second-half slide.
Wideman, who was an All-Star for the first time in his career this season, also had a significant drop in play following the event. The blueliner scored just one goal in Washington's final 31 regular-season games - and none in the team's 14 playoff games. Wideman also had his troubles defensively, getting caught out of position several times, turning over the puck on occasion and recording a team-worst -7 plus/minus rating in the postseason.
With Wideman's former junior coach in London Dale Hunter not returning for next season, it seemed unlikely he would return to Washington. And with a weaker crop of free agents, Wideman was priced out of the Caps' future plans.
"Based on what we had to do in putting all the payroll models together, it would have been hard to keep him," McPhee said after making the deal to send Wideman west. "He plays right D and we have two other [restricted free agent] right defensemen in [Mike] Green and [John] Carlson that need new deals - and need to play a lot."
Now, in terms of new free agents on other clubs the Capitals might sign, while McPhee usually holds his cards close to the vest - opting to keep his intentions quiet until after making a signing - he certainly has indicated he was much more likely to go the trade route than free agency.
"I prefer to make a trade than sign free agents," McPhee said last Friday in Pittsburgh. "That other process is expensive, and usually more term than you want, and by the end of November, you're asking yourself 'What did you do here?'
"You battle for the player and then trying to trade him two months later."
But, of course, despite downplaying free agency's value, the Caps also haven't traditionally sat out the frenzy either.
McPhee has also signed at least one free agent on July 1 in all but one year since 2007, signing Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and Halpern in last year's edition. And, while the market this year is thin, you can figure that Washington will at least add some player depth with an estimated $20,805,428 space under the new $70.2 million cap for next season - at least before the new CBA is signed - per CapGeek.com.
With the coming deals of Green and Carlson alone to take up more than a quarter of that available space, there still seems to be space for a signing or two, perhaps a forward to compliment the trade for Mike Riberio or a defenseman to bolster the club's depth.
But McPhee said Wednesday despite having the cap space, they weren't necessarily going use it right away.
"[Having the space] doesn't mean you have to use it all now," he said. "You can use it during the season or at the [trade] deadline. It's expensive to use it now. If you do something, it's always more than the guy's worth."
But, with a pretty thin market when free agency is open for business, it seems far more likely the Caps acquire some depth players rather than difference-makers via the free-agency route.
"I think we're in pretty good shape," McPhee said. "We have good young goalies, the [defense] is complete, we added a skill guy [in Riberio]. We'll get into [free agency] like everybody else does, but if we don't do anything I wouldn't be disappointed. And if there's something there that makes sense at the right price, then we'll do it."