06/30/2015 03:16 EDT | Updated 06/30/2016 05:59 EDT

NHL teams more cautious about free agency given weak crop available

The salary cap killed the free-agency star.

Now a decade into the salary-cap era, NHL free agency isn't what it used to be, and the 2015 unrestricted crop is one of the weakest in recent history.

"It's not a great group," Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said recently. "Your options are minimal."

Options are out there, like centre Antoine Vermette, wingers Matt Beleskey and Justin Williams, defencemen Mike Green and Christian Ehrhoff and goaltender Karri Ramo. But this isn't a star-studded class.

Money will still get thrown around like every July 1, but GMs are conscious of what this time of year actually means in the grand scheme of things.

"You can't grab four or five guys every year and try to be successful," Hextall said. "I just don't believe in it. It's a small tool that can help. You can fill that last box you have to make yourself a top contender, but you can't build like that."

It's almost the perfect time to fill holes. The Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks signed centre Brad Richards to a one-year in free last summer, and the Eastern Conference-champion Tampa Bay Lightning got centre Brian Boyle and defenceman Anton Stralman to complement a young core.

Like Valtteri Filppula in 2014, Stralman was a big hit with a US$22.5-million, five-year contract with the Lightning. He went on to play on the top pairing with Victor Hedman and should be the modern poster boy for smart signings.

"We had a huge, glaring hole in our lineup," general manager Steve Yzerman said at the Cup final. "We needed a right-hand shot defenceman. We have a pretty competitive team. A player like that can make a real difference, and he has in the first year."

Green, the only defenceman in the cap era to score 30 goals, and Williams, who has become known as "Mr. Game 7" for his playoff exploits, could fit the bill this time. For teams looking for depth, winger Michael Frolik and defencemen Cody Franson and Johnny Oduya are available.

Alexander Semin, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, Cody Hodgson and Viktor Stalberg are also unrestricted possibilities thanks to buyouts.

"Top to bottom, (the free-agent pool) might not have the complete depth, but these are players that can help your lineup, depending on what your needs are," Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney said on a conference call Tuesday. "Every team is looking at players that fit into what they're trying to do."

Most teams are trying to keep their own players. The Dallas Stars made sure Jason Spezza got a contract extension, the Ottawa Senators locked up Bobby Ryan, the New York Islanders gave Johnny Boychuk a long-term deal and the Rangers prevented Mats Zuccarello from hitting the open market.

"The free-agency period is slowly starting to change," Stars GM Jim Nill said on a conference call Monday. "We've all looked at the CBA, we've all analyzed it. The general managers are a pretty smart group, and we've all seen what's happened is we're all signing our top players to six-to-eight-year contracts.

"There's two or three good free agents out there, but it's not as strong as it used to be, and there's 30 teams competing for those guys."

Nill wanted Antti Niemi enough that the Stars traded a seventh-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for the rights to the pending unrestricted-free-agent goaltender and signed him. The Colorado Avalanche did the same, sending Boston a 2016 sixth-rounder to beat the traffic and sign centre Carl Soderberg.

Free agency could shake loose some more trades, as the Chicago Blackhawks continue to look to deal Patrick Sharp and the Toronto Maple Leafs entertain conversations about Phil Kessel.

Teams that strike out July 1 could then circle back to fill holes.

"I do believe that, in talking with a number of general managers, the trade market is one that people are pursuing," Sweeney said.


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