Exposing the lies of NHL free agency


The biggest lie NHL free agents tell themselves is that their team is their family.

The dressing room can be a band of brothers. Lifelong friendships are forged through daily routines and long playoff runs, through wives and children bonding with others in the organization. All of this is true, and all of this feels familial. But this is a business. A cruel, harsh, unyielding business, made all the more unforgiving when the economy is crashing around it.

The fantasy is that your importance to that family can somehow protect you from unsympathetic decisions and shield you from market forces. And then, the next thing you know, you’re scheduling a moving truck and joining a new family.

“There’s a business part of it. It’s hard from the moment you sign, how things can change. You think things are going to go one way, and then there’s a drastic upheaval in your life,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said.

Schmidt’s family for the past three seasons was the Vegas Golden Knights, part of their expansion draft class of “Golden Misfits.” That family had no more use for him when it signed free-agent prize Alex Pietrangelo to a contract that carried an $8.8 million cap hit, because it needed the $5.95 million in cap space that Schmidt was taking up.

He was the head of the postseason Fun Committee in the Edmonton bubble. He was arguably the second-most popular player in their dressing room, and perhaps among the fans as well. Now, he’s a Vancouver Canuck.

“It’s a business. I get it. We know what we sign up for. These things are hard on us. You try as best you can to be as ingrained as possible where you are. That part was really difficult,” he said.

The Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues and Vegas Golden Knights were all dominoes tumbling into one another this offseason, leaving any fantasies about loyalty and family crushed in their path.

Torey Krug wanted to remain a Boston Bruin. The defenseman received an offer about a year before he became an unrestricted free agency, and then “it was pulled from me … I didn’t have an offer,” he said, adding there was no communication with the Bruins as he hit the market. “When they offered me a year ago and then it’s gone, I don’t know what I’m expected to do. Just being blunt and being honest with you, most people don’t share that side of it, but it is what it is,” he said.

Pietrangelo wanted to remain a St. Louis Blue. Unlike Krug in Boston, the Blues were working to keep him in the family, too.

“I don’t know if frustration is the right word. We tried and we tried and we tried, and it just didn’t work out. I think both sides are disappointed,” he said. “The goal was always to get something done in St. Louis. Look, my kids are here. They’re in school here. My wife is from here. I don’t know anything different. We pushed and pushed, and sometimes things don’t work out the way you expect them to.”

But what could he have expected? When it comes to player transactions, Blues GM Doug Armstrong is as callous an executive as you’ll find in the NHL. This is meant to be a compliment, although we will note the irony of St. Louis putting Olive Garden to shame with its “we’re family here!” messaging, while also editing its roster with merciless efficiency.

Please recall the last time St. Louis sent away a captain. It was David Backes, one of Pietrangelo’s closest friends, in 2016. Again, both sides wanted to work something out. “We’d like to have David back and hopefully as we push in we can get it done, but it has to work for both sides not just one,” Armstrong said at the time. “We’re willing to invest a little bit of ‘thank you’ money, but it has to make sense. He’s earned the right, but only to a level.”

They couldn’t find that level, and Backes was off to the Bruins for what would end up being a disappointing run. He cited “the business side of things” in his inability to get something done with St. Louis.

Fast-forward a few years, and the Blues had another captain nearing free agency. I was in St. Louis doing a feature story on the defending Stanley Cup champions when they made the Justin Faulk trade, and immediately signed the defenseman to a seven-year extension. The reaction on the ground was “um, what does this portend for Alex Pietrangelo?” What it portended: that the Blues perhaps felt both sides were dug in on a no-movement clause and bonus money, both of which the Blues didn’t want to concede, and that perhaps Faulk was both pressure on Pietrangelo to get a deal done and insurance in case he didn’t.

Instead, they turned their attention to a free-agent defenseman who would accept their terms: Krug, who signed a seven-year, $45.5-million deal with a no-trade (rather than no-movement) clause, and nary a dollar of bonus money.

It wasn’t until Krug signed that Pietrangelo knew his time with the Blues family was over, holding out hope that something could get done. Instead, it was on to a new family in Las Vegas.

An increasingly dysfunctional family, if we’re being honest. Like if the Golden Knights were a Thanksgiving meal, the turkey would have a knife stuck through it with the coach’s name written on it. That kind of dysfunction.

It wasn’t always like this. The Knights’ inaugural season was a case study in bonding, both within the team and within the community. Schmidt recalled those early days after the 2017 mass shooting on The Strip, and how that tragedy strengthened those relationships. “For the next couple of days, for the next two years, you feel like you’re part of a fabric,” he said. “[This is] hard because that first year … I hope that another team has a chance to do that. To have that type of group that we had, and to go through everything we went through. I don’t think you’ll ever replicate that. That was that year, and now it’s now.”

What has happened since then: The Knights made the Stanley Cup Final, lost in the first round to San Jose and then lost in the Western Conference finals to Dallas in the bubble. Along the way, they added established veterans such as Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny, Alec Martinez and Mark Stone, who was handed a massive contract and the first no-movement clause in franchise history before Pietrangelo got the second. Inaugural coach Gerard Gallant was fired, replaced by former rival Peter DeBoer. Inaugural general manager George McPhee was kicked upstairs, replaced by assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon. They traded Stastny to Winnipeg after this season. They shipped out Schmidt when Pietrangelo signed.

But the biggest tear in the fabric was the Marc-Andre Fleury saga. Once more, with feeling: They signed “the face of the franchise” to a contract extension, watched him struggle last season, traded for Robin Lehner to “support” Fleury, handed the starting job to Lehner in the playoffs — prompting that infamous “sword in the back” Photoshop — and then handed the newcomer a five-year contract as they sought to trade Fleury’s $7 million cap hit. The market didn’t give them that opportunity, so McCrimmon said this week that he’s rolling with Lehner and Fleury as his goalies, aka $12 million dedicated to one position on the team next season.

Perhaps no team has shattered the “NHL as family” myth better than the Golden Knights this offseason. It’s like Vegas itself: Get past the flashing lights, gaudy hotels, nightly shows and adult merriment and you have a city that exists for the pure purpose of ensuring you leave town with significantly less money than when you arrive. It’s a city of industry.

Owner Bill Foley hated trading Schmidt. “It hurts me that we don’t have Schmitty,” he told Sportsbook Radio on Wednesday. “I think maybe I’m too involved with these guys. It affects me too much. The hockey team is personal and business is business.”

Which is why he has someone like McCrimmon to handle the business.

For Schmidt, those halcyon days of the “Golden Misfits” and the “Vegas Flu” and the novelty of having showgirls distracting opponents during warm-up skates are but a memory of a different team. “That’s something that has since [transformed] into a team that’s in a very much win-now mode, and there are casualties to that,” he said.

Schmidt’s was the last domino to fall in this sequence, getting traded to Vancouver within minutes of Pietrangelo becoming a Golden Knight. He said he wasn’t told a trade could be coming, and found out only when it was finalized. He assumed the six-year deal he signed in 2018 meant he’d continue to be part of the Vegas family, instead of being traded one season into that deal. As of Tuesday, he hadn’t spoken with McPhee, who drafted him in Washington, selected him in the expansion draft for Vegas and signed him to that deal.

“It was hard, given the previous communications in the past vs. what had happened,” Schmidt said. “It’s a fresh wound right now. Emotions are running in every direction. I need a little more time to digest.”

Schmidt, who declared himself “Forever a Misfit,” didn’t want to leave Vegas. Pietrangelo, who replaced Schmidt, didn’t want to leave St. Louis. Krug, who replaced Pietrangelo, would have rather remained in Boston.

It’s said that you don’t get to choose your family. A team does get to choose its defensemen. Therein lies the subtle yet substantial difference, as these three players undoubtedly understand.

Three things about Dani Rylan Kearney

1. Dani Rylan Kearney stepped down as commissioner of the National Women’s Hockey League this week, with Tyler Tumminia — chair for the NWHL’s new Toronto Six team — taking over. Rylan Kearney will continue on with the league as president of the group seeking to find independent ownership for four of the league’s six teams. But this is the end of an era in women’s hockey.

I first spoke with Rylan Kearney in 2015, after attending one of the NWHL’s inaugural games in Connecticut. She’s a trailblazer: The NWHL was the first professional women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary. There was understandable skepticism about revenues and funding being able sustain those payments, which were a max salary of $25,000 and a cut of the merch sales. What struck me was the vitriol the NWHL attracted from those skeptics, who rooted against its very existence. I asked her about it.

“For every one negative thing I read, there are 100 positives. There are mothers saying that they’re happy their daughters can have the same realistic dream of playing hockey as their sons,” Rylan Kearney told me then. “Most boys grow up dreaming of scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Right now, girls grow up dreaming of playing 60 minutes every four years in that [Olympic] gold-medal game. What we want is for little girls to want to dream about scoring that game-winning goal in Game 3 of the Isobel Cup.”

I’m a sucker for boundless optimism from people trying to create something inspiring. Every time I spoke to Rylan Kearney, she made you root for the NWHL to thrive, even when things were looking grim.

2. I spoke to her at length in 2019, when the NWHL was at its lowest point.

After the U.S. women won Olympic gold in 2018 — a triumph on and off the ice — the sport had a tough run. In March 2019, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded after 12 seasons. Many assumed the CWHL’s orphans would flock to the NWHL. Instead, 200 national team players from the U.S. and Canada announced they would not play in a women’s professional league “until we get the resources that professional women’s hockey demands and deserves.”

I remember sitting in a small hotel conference room in Brooklyn with Rylan Kearney, and it was a tough conversation. When USWNT players said they refused to play for the NWHL, they were saying they refused to play for a league that Rylan Kearney was operating. But it went beyond that: They believed the NHL would only fund a sanctioned women’s league if the NWHL no longer existed. And she was the NWHL.

So, in essence, you had Rylan Kearney fighting for years to sustain a league for women’s hockey stars to play in; those stars losing confidence in her ability to grow the league beyond its still-humble beginnings; and then actively hoping for her league to die off.

It’s sad that the battle lines here are so burned into the ground. NWHL supporters and PWHPA supporters take up arms whenever the boycott is mentioned — including whether to even call it a boycott. That day in Brooklyn, Rylan Kearney was defiant about the USWNT players’ decision — saying things like “we don’t believe that women’s hockey needs the NHL, or men’s teams, to prove that women’s professional hockey is viable” — but I always wondered if, in her quieter moments, there wasn’t some regret about what led to these players finding her league insufficient.

3. I can’t say I agreed with every decision Rylan Kearney made as commissioner. I can’t say I was a fan of the league’s utter lack of transparency, especially on economics. I can’t say I was a fan of some of the bad partnerships the league had, or the partnerships it stubbornly refused to forge. I can’t say I was a fan of the much-chronicled problems the NWHL had in providing a professional environment to its players.

I can say that one of my proudest moments as a parent was being able to take my daughter to her first Metropolitan Riveters game, buying her that first NWHL gear and watching her marvel at athletes who looked like her, playing a sport that she loves. We owe Dani Rylan Kearney for that.

I’d encourage you to check out The Ice Garden‘s roundtable on the NWHL change at the top for more on this, as well as any other reporters and bloggers that cover the NWHL with more regularity than those of us who just drop in for the big stories and games. They do great work.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Tremendous show this week. Emily Kaplan and I offer reactions to a unique NHL free-agency period (2:20). Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams, who had arguably the biggest catch in Taylor Hall, talks about the beginning of a new era in Buffalo (11:40). That serves as a natural transition into the winners and losers of free agency (26:53). A pair of hockey greats, Meghan Duggan and Cammi Granato, join the show to talk about their legendary careers on and off the ice, and efforts to grow the game (39:40). During Puck Headlines, we address a major change in leadership at the top of the NWHL (56:50). Listen, rate, subscribe and review here.

Winners and losers of the week

The majority of the winners and losers this week are found in our breakdown of NHL free agency, which you can find here. But we have a few more to hand out.

Winner: Outdoor rinks

The Toronto Star reports that Alberta’s Lake Louise is being floated as a possible Opening Day site for the next NHL season, which makes a lot of sense when A) there aren’t going to be any fans, and B) social distancing is required. If the NHL is considering these types of sites, let’s get nuts: Rangers vs. Islanders, Opening Day, Wollman Rink in Central Park. Alexis Lafreniere arrives in a hansom cab for his NHL debut. Let’s go.

Loser: This indoor rink

Nothing says 2020 quite like an ice resurfacing machine catching fire and leaving a trail of red goo behind it in a rink in Rochester. For the record, this is actually what Kyle Dubas sees when he thinks about David Ayres.

Winner: Jake Allen

Jake Allen has yet to play single minute in Montreal and has already earned a two-year extension, with $2.875 million per season under a flat salary cap. Obviously a sound investment, as goalies have never given teams a reason to give up on them after one season and no one has ever wilted under the pressure of playing in Montreal.

Loser: The Brendan Gallagher panic

On Tuesday, Gallagher’s agent said that contract talks between the Canadiens and the forward had broken off. This created a cottage industry of Habs takes and speculation on where Gallagher could be traded … that lasted less than a day, as Gallagher signed a six-year extension on Wednesday. Maybe he meant they broke for dinner?

Winner: Patrick Marleau

Barring an injury or an extremely truncated season, recent San Jose Sharks signee Marleau is going to pass Gordie Howe’s all-time games played record of 1,767, as he has 1,723 under his belt. That he’ll do it as a member of the franchise that drafted him and with whom he starred for decades is just poetic.

Loser: Jan. 1

Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley had a lot to say about next season, from fans getting back into arenas to the likelihood of an “all-Canadian Division” due to COVID-19. But one thing he made clear was that he’s not buying Jan. 1 as a start date for the next NHL season, which is a bummer for all those teams that haven’t played since March.

Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Fare thee well to Meghan Duggan, who pens a retirement essay with Emily Kaplan.

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