When Ben Chiarot waded into the NHL’s free-agent market last July in search of a new contract, he remembers feeling anxious and nostalgic.
But mostly, the defenceman was buzzing with anticipation.
“You’re anxious to figure out where you’re going and start a new opportunity. You’re a little sad, too, because you’re leaving your old team and your friends and the people who you built relationships with,” Chiarot said during a conference call with reporters this week from his home in Waterloo, Ont.
“Free agency brings a whole different bunch of emotions, but I’d say excitement was the biggest one that I had.”
For Chiarot, the free agency process worked out well.
He signed a healthy three-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens, worth more than $10 million US, and not only did he land the paycheque he was looking for, he also found a team where he fit in well.
On the ice, he was on pace for a career-best season before the league went on pause due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Now, he wonders if this year’s crop of free agents will enjoy the same positive experience.
“As far as free agents go, I think it’s going to be a little different for the guys not getting exactly what they expected to get, or the money is just not going to be out there for guys to get,” Chiarot said.
‘No one knows what the market is going to look like’
NHL player agent Allan Walsh says it’s still too early to say how much this year’s marketplace will be affected by the disruption because there are too many unknowns.
“When I talk to GMs, when I talk to people at the NHLPA, when I talk to players, when I talk to coaches, no one has answers. No one. No one knows what the market is going to look like,” Walsh said from his home in Los Angeles.
It’s not clear if the salary cap is going to go up as it was projected to before the outbreak, or if it will stay flat, or even go down.
“You cannot have free agency until we know what the upper limit of the salary cap will be next season,” Walsh said, adding it is fair to expect a new financial landscape.
By his count, the league could already be looking at more than $1 billion in lost revenue from 2019-20 if it’s unable to complete the current season.
He says returning to play in arenas without fans, as has been suggested, would be one way to limit the fallout, but the losses would still be significant.
Walsh estimates the NHL could lose up to 60 per cent of future earnings if it returns in a made-for-TV model with empty arenas.
“Given the NHL’s reliance on being a gate-driven league, it might be more at risk right now than all the professional leagues in North America,” Walsh said.
“The NBA could go back and play in an empty building and they have this monster TV deal. The NHL doesn’t have that. So I think the NHL is much more impacted with what is happening.”
Under the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, the players will be financially on the hook for some of the lost money through the league’s escrow program.
Walsh speculates that for his clients who are negotiating new contracts, it might mean making compromises.
For example, instead of insisting on longer-term deals, players might consider signing one- or two-year contracts so they can hit the market again when revenues return to normal.
Or instead of negotiating for front-loaded deals with big signing bonuses up front, players might opt for back-loaded contracts with their bonuses due to be paid a few years from now.
Focus on health and safety first
Pierre-Luc Dubois is due for a big raise this off-season.
The 21-year-old Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., native plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets and was in the last year of his entry-level deal, on pace for his third consecutive 20-goal season, when the league went on pause.
He is set to become a restricted free agent, but his contract isn’t his top priority.
“Health is the priority now,” Dubois said from his father’s home in Winnipeg, where he is waiting out the pandemic with his family.
“The goal is to have [a deal] done and for me to be ready for next season’s training camps. But we’re a long way away from that.”
Players like Chiarot empathize with Dubois’ situation.
“As far as the guys turning free agents this summer, it’s kind of an unknown. No one would have expected this. Obviously, it’s going to impact the whole process and how it would normally work. I definitely feel for those guys a little bit,” Chiarot said.
Walsh says despite the growing financial uncertainty, many of the players he speaks with are also thinking big picture, like Dubois, and putting safety first.
“Clearly not 100 per cent of guys are gung ho to play. Anyone who says that isn’t talking to players. But I say it’s a healthy 70 per cent who are in favour of playing right now,” Walsh said.
Like this year’s free agency, whether the league can return its players to the ice to complete the season is very much uncertain. But in the end the players, the agents and the league need to negotiate a new path forward together.