On the cusp of the National Hockey League’s free agency period, it looks as if talk is the only thing that’s cheap.
Nashville Predators’ general manager David Poile said the unwillingness of players to re-sign — here or with the other 29 teams around the league — is an indication that those whose contracts expire at the end of Tuesday are out to get as much as they can right now before an expected drop in the salary cap for the 2010-11 season.
“If the players think they are undervalued, they go to July 1 (because) they think they are going to get more money,” Poile said. “It’s a little bit of a game of chicken, and we’re going to have to see how it plays out for us and for everybody else.
“…We’re going to find out the market on (Wednesday) and everybody is going to have to react and jump in there accordingly.”
Eight players who spent all or most of last season with Nashville are scheduled to become free agents, which represents 40 percent of a game-day roster. Additionally, two others who spent time with the Predators, forwards Ryan Jones and Cal O’Reilly, are scheduled to be restricted free agents.
Nashville touched based with all of them, but as the start of free agency loomed, the team did not come to terms any of them — most notably forwards Steve Sullivan, Vernon Fiddler and Joel Ward and defenseman Greg Zanon.
“We’ve tried to sign some of our players, obviously without any success to this point,” Poile said. “If you look around the league there have been virtually no players who have signed contracts since the end of the season, which I find very, very unusual.
“That clearly tells me … we don’t know what the market is because what we’re offering is not enough to get these players signed.”
The Predators had 11 players who earned at least $1.5 million in salary last season, and eight of them were signed through at least 2009-10. The top five earners (none are headed for free agency) combined for $25.5 million, roughly 53 percent of the salary total.
With the cap set at $56.8 million (a mere $100,000 higher than in 2008-09), the financial makeup of the Nashville roster is not likely to change much. Each team must spend a minimum of $40.8 million, and the Predators are likely to fall somewhere between the so-called “floor” and the mid-point of $48.8 million.
“I have a budget I’m operating with,” Poile said. “… It has to all add up to a certain number so I’m juggling things.”
The team is sure to create some room with the departures of veterans Radek Bonk and Greg de Vries, who made a combined $4.35 million last season.
Alexander Sulzer, who is signed to a one-way contract, which will play him $600,000 in 2009-10, is in line to assume a roster spot — possibly that of de Vries at a savings of $2.15 million. Two other young defensemen, Cody Franson and Teemu Laakso, also look to be nearly NHL-ready and could provide some cap flexibility.
Still, the number of dollars is only part of the equation.
“Most players when they reach free agency want two things: One is money and (two is) they usually want term,” Poile said. “I think teams have to really careful on both fronts, especially on the second. You may get locked into high contracts and (if) the cap goes down you have no flexibility to sign anybody and to move anybody. Whether you give them a no-trade contract or not, they may be un-tradable just because their signed for too many years and too much money.
“So we’re in a little bit of a gray area, certainly a new area.”
Until then, they’re all in a holding pattern.
Players scheduled for Unrestricted Free Agency
(2008-09 salary in parentheses)
Steve Sullivan ($3.2 million)
Radek Bonk ($1.6 million)
Vernon Fiddler ($900,000)
Scott Nichol ($750,000)
Joel Ward ($500,000)
Greg de Vries ($2.75 million)
Greg Zanon ($750,000)
Ville Koistinen ($700,000)