Dan Hamhuis is one who regularly counts his blessings.
The Nashville Predators’ defenseman is as earnest as any 27-year-old father of two, solid in his faith and unwilling to take his physical gifts for granted.
In a little more than two weeks, though, he might have to pause to count his money as well. There’s likely to be lots of it.
Hamhuis is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent when the National Hockey League’s next contract year begins on July 1. If he does, he will be one of the most sought-after players available, because of the combination of his age and consistent production over an extended period of time — not to mention that impeccable character.
“I’m at a point in my career where there are lots of options,” Hamhuis said shortly after the season. “I don’t want to close the doors on anything.”
While dozens of players in the league go through that process every year, his situation represents something brand-new for the Predators. This is the first time the franchise risks getting nothing in return for a guy it selected in the first round (in 2001) and developed into a full-time NHL player. The Predators typically cherish their draft choices, particularly the top ones.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, players are eligible for unrestricted free agency at 27 years old, three years younger than under the business plan that was in place when the franchise joined the league.
“If you’re a team whose bread and butter is young players and draft picks, this is part of the system that’s not good,” Nashville General Manager David Poile said. “It’s not good for us at all, but this is the system we have right now.”
Predators’ management and Hamhuis (along with his representatives) discussed an extension at times during the season but agreed to halt talks at the Olympic break so the player could remain focused on hockey. Since Chicago eliminated the Predators in the first round, negotiations have resumed — but with little progress.
“It’s going to be a difficult negotiation,” Poile said. “What they’re looking for doesn’t fit into our budget … and I don’t see it as something we can make work for us right now.”
The closest Nashville ever has come to this scenario was in 2007, when Scott Hartnell, the sixth overall selection in 2000, was traded to Philadelphia less than two weeks before he was to hit the open market. The Flyers immediately signed the rugged forward to a long-term deal, and this season he played a significant role in that team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Goalie Brian Finley, the first-round choice in 1999, was not offered a contract following the 2005-06 season, but he had not established himself as an NHL player, and management had decided that he never was going to be one. Others, such as Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent, were traded years before their free agent eligibility.
“Scott Hartnell was our player and Dan Hamhuis is our player,” Poile said. “Both of them still should be ours, but that’s not the way it works.”
A recent ranking of this year’s potential NHL free agents by one online outlet listed Hamhuis as the fourth-best player overall and second among defensemen.
His appeal is rooted in the fact that he figures to provide a greater degree of certainty than most free agents. In six NHL seasons, he never has missed more than four games. His annual point total never has strayed far from 25 — with the exception of 2005-06, when he racked up 38. His average ice time has been even more consistent.