With the draft behind them, NHL teams are now looking toward free agency. As usual, there is a ridiculous amount of money waiting to be spent.
This year, though, the players available are worth only a fraction of the cash.
The salary cap, instituted for the 2005-06 season, is going up for the eighth consecutive year. Estimates have it rising to $70.3 million, up $6 million from last season. Official totals will be released by the NHL this week.
The numbers come with a huge caveat, however. They will be based on the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires Sept. 15. If the league gets its way in negotiations, the players will no longer receive 57 percent of revenues and the cap number would go down. The NHL Players' Association will fight to keep at least the current breakdown.
Despite the uncertainty of CBA talks, teams plan to attack Sunday's opening of free agency based on the current numbers.
"We're going business as usual," Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke said this weekend in Pittsburgh. "That's what the league has instructed teams to do. We're operating under the terms of this collective bargaining agreement, and we'll see what the future brings."
Based on numbers crunched by CapGeek.com, the league's 30 teams have a whopping $678 million in salary cap space. They won't come close to spending that, of course, but there will be more rich hockey players next week than there are today.
The Buffalo Sabres are expected to have $9.82 million in cap space for 2012-13, according to Buffalo News evaluations. That factors in the 20 regulars under contract — forwards Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Ville Leino, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Cody Hodgson, Nathan Gerbe, Cody McCormick, Marcus Foligno and Matt Ellis; defensemen Tyler Myers, Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff, Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber, Brayden McNabb and Alexander Sulzer; and goaltenders Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth — plus the minimum required to sign forwards Tyler Ennis and Patrick Kaleta, restricted free agents who have received qualifying offers of 105 percent of their previous salary.
"July 1 will come, and I suspect it will be just like other July 1s," said Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier, who signed Leino to a six-year, $27 million deal on the opening day of free agency last July.
Regier also got the jump on the money madness last year for the first time during his tenure. He shipped a fourth-round draft pick to the New York Islanders for the right to negotiate with Ehrhoff before the market opened. It was a successful venture as the sides agreed to a 10-year, $40 million deal.
"It's not something that we've focused on yet, but it may be a possibility," Regier said of trading for the rights to pending unrestricted free agents. "There's nothing in the hopper right now, but there's still time, too."
This year's free agent class is smaller than previous years. The lack of depth and influx of available cash could result in bidding wars for second-tier talent, in addition to the usual races for stars.
"It should be very interesting," Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman said. "There's not a lot of players and the cap's going up, so I would expect it's a good time to be an unrestricted free agent."
The top names on the unrestricted market are forwards Zach Parise of New Jersey, Alexander Semin of Washington, Ray Whitney of Phoenix and P.A. Parenteau of the Islanders, and defensemen Ryan Suter of Nashville, Dennis Wideman of the Capitals and Jason Garrison of Florida.
There figures to be substantial movement in the goalie market, but only at the backup position. The only notable starter whose contract is expiring is Martin Brodeur, and he will either re-sign with New Jersey or retire.
The Sabres will allow forwards Jochen Hecht and Brad Boyes to test the open market. Other players in the organization set to become UFAs are forwards Travis Turnbull, Derek Whitmore, Colin Stuart and Michael Ryan, and goalies David Leggio and Drew MacIntyre. Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn has already signed to play in Russia.
The Sabres bolstered themselves at center during the draft, with Mikhail Grigorenko having a chance to make the team. If they seek a middle man in free agency, other available players include Olli Jokinen of Calgary, Kyle Wellwood of Winnipeg, Jason Arnott of St. Louis, as well as former Sabres Dominic Moore of San Jose and Paul Gaustad of Nashville.
Because of the limited availability at every position, only a few of the teams looking for a quick fix via free agency will be able to find it.
"It's going to allow a couple of them to improve," Burke said. "It's not a deep group. What's happened is in this system everyone's envisioned that liberalized free agency would allow teams to improve more quickly, but in response teams have started locking guys up."