No Christmas in July for the NHL this year: How expansion rained on the free-agency parade

The Rangers gave defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, the top free agent on the market, plenty of reasons to smile -- with a four-year, $26.6 million deal -- but they still got the New Rochelle, New York, native at a relative discount. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Although free agency can often be described as hockey's Christmas in July, this year some fans, teams and free agents found a lump of coal in their stockings.

The first expansion draft in 17 years, an almost flat salary cap, a somewhat thin free-agent class and players choosing competitiveness over compensation all led to a relatively tame July 1.

"It's a unique situation. I'm not sure you're going to see too much like that again," said Ryan Miller, a goaltender who signed with the Anaheim Ducks in part to be closer to his wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, who has been living in Los Angeles with their toddler son.

Miller, a Vezina Trophy winner with the Buffalo Sabres, said there was more movement and uncertainty as a result of the expansion draft, in which each team lost at least one player. The latest in a series of very slight increases in the salary cap -- the ceiling rose just $2 million from 2016-17-- also put teams in a bind, including some top franchises.

The Chicago Blackhawks, winners of three Stanley Cups since 2010, had to trade away a star, winger Artemi Panarin, along with key and trusted supporting players in an effort to become cap-compliant. The Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals parted ways with three significant players during free agency, including "Mr. Game 7," Justin Williams, and traded forward Marcus Johansson in a cap-dump deal. The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins sustained significant losses, such as defenseman Trevor Daley, center Nick Bonino and four-time Cup winner Chris Kunitz.

"We're making a lot of changes. We have some good players -- not only from a playing point of view, but a character and leadership point of view -- who have gone off our team," said Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford. "Some of those changes were dictated by [the] expansion draft, by where guys are in their career [and by] free agency."

A decade ago, the Philadelphia Flyers alone signed two players, Daniel Briere (for eight years, $52 million) and Kimmo Timonen (six years, $37.8 million), to contracts that were more lucrative and longer than any deal signed by an unrestricted free agent so far this offseason. The Flyers also inked Scott Hartnell to a six-year, $25.2 million deal.

Those high price tags came during an offseason with a lower cap ceiling. This summer, winger Alexander Radulov's five-year, $31.25 million contract with the Dallas Stars has been the richest for a free agent. Defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner, both former Capitals, signed deals spanning four and five years, respectively, each with a total payout below $27 million.

Shattenkirk is widely considered to be the best defenseman and perhaps the best player to have changed hands. The New York native took a bit of a hometown discount to play for the Rangers, but a massive deal might not have been out there for him. Alzner, who landed with the Montreal Canadiens, was the next most coveted defenseman on the market. While defensemen salaries have risen steadily -- see, for example, the jaw-dropping deals Shea Weber and Ryan Suter signed in 2012 -- this year they were clearly curbed by expansion.

Most teams went with a 7-3-1 protection scheme -- seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie -- that left defensemen such as Marc Methot, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Alexei Emelin and David Schlemko exposed. All four of those veterans were drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights and then traded to other franchises, who took advantage of a sort of subject-to-financing arrangement. Rather than sign blueliners on the open market, teams acquired them at modest trade prices while retaining the reasonable terms of their existing contracts.

"Vegas had some great opportunities to acquire some players and use some leverage, which I think [Vegas GM] George McPhee did a great job of," said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson, whose team lost Schlemko.

Shattenkirk and Miller were not the only players to choose a desirable situation over the most lucrative payday, which further affected the market. While some veterans have weighed hefty offers after being bought out, such as Vincent Lecavalier in 2013, Hartnell hopped on a one-year, $1 million contract with the Nashville Predators. He had played in Nashville previously under GM David Poile and in Philadelphia for current Preds coach Peter Laviolette. Nashville used the remaining savings from the departure of winger James Neal in the expansion draft to snatch Bonino away from Pittsburgh, the Predators' opponent in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.

Stars GM Jim Nill -- who snagged Radulov, Methot, goalie Ben Bishop and center Martin Hanzal -- said that players are now recognizing free agency as an opportunity to determine their destiny rather than their salary.

"Do you want to go to a good team? Is it the city you want to go? Is it where your family wants to be? You've got to make a decision because of every team's cap situation. They might have room for you, but it might not be the most money," Nill said. "In the end, players find the right fit for where they want to be and having the money that they can live with."

Executives also zeroed in on players who could fill specific roles and diminish positional needs in their lineup, some of which were created by the expansion draft. Rob Blake -- a Hall of Fame defenseman during his playing career -- assumed control of the Los Angeles Kings' front office in April. His first challenge was to turn a good possession team into a scoring team while adding speed up front, but Blake was also forced to look for an extra defenseman after losing Brayden McNabb in the expansion draft. The Kings signed former Minnesota Wild rearguard Christian Folin to a one-year, $850,000 contract. They were able to make only a minor investment in their forward corps, a one-year, $1 million deal for veteran Mike Cammalleri.

"I don't know if we would have been focused on a depth defenseman in free agency hadn't it been for the expansion draft," Blake said. "I do think that opened up some needs on other teams, because you lose a player off your roster, in our case a pretty good player."

Another factor was that a handful of teams made offering extensions to their franchise players who are headed for free agency in 2018 their first order of business. The Edmonton Oilers signed center Connor McDavid to an eight-year, $100 million contract. The Montreal Canadiens locked up goalie Carey Price to the tune of $84 million over eight seasons. The Ducks laid to rest any rumors surrounding defenseman Cam Fowler by doling out $52 million over eight years.

Fowler, like Nill, recognized that the expansion draft had an impact on last season's maneuvers as well as this offseason's, including both the entry draft, where Vegas held more selections than any other team, and free agency. While Fowler was pleased to take a major step toward playing his entire career with one team, he also noticed how many of his contemporaries were affected by the upheaval surrounding expansion.

"You definitely saw some teams making some moves that they pretty much just had to do in order to protect the core of their team," Fowler said. "So, obviously that's going to have kind of a ripple effect throughout the league."