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Decoding NHL Free Agency: Why Players Sign

With the summer drawing to a close, that means NHL free agency is also winding down. While some teams made giant splashes with signings and trades this summer, others were relatively quiet, leaving several players without a contract.

The most notable of these is Cody Franson, a right shot defenseman coming off a $3.3 million dollar, one-year deal. Rumored to be in talks with the Boston Bruins, fans are becoming more and more agitated that he hasn’t yet landed anywhere.

But free agency is a two-way street. Not only does a club have to want to sign a player, but because they are “unrestricted,” UFAs can negotiate with anyone and put their own needs first. These needs vary from player to player, and frequently change as they move through the stages of their career.

After watching years of both hockey and soccer free agency, I have found there are four major motivators for UFAs to sign with a team.


Money and Term

The first is the most obvious, and the most common: cash. Going into the offseason, defenseman Andrej Sekera was optimistic about re-signing with the L.A. Kings. He had joined them at the trade deadline, in what was a productive relationship for both the defender and the club. Per NBC, the two began extension talks at the end of April, yet nothing happened.

Sekera was coming off a career high 44 points just the year before, and put up 23 points between the Kings and Hurricanes in 2014-15. He was being paid an exceedingly reasonable $2.75 AAV, which led to just one conclusion: he was due a big raise. With the Kings pushed so tight against the cap–and both Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez jumping from $1 million per year to a well-deserved $4 million–they just didn’t have the space to pay him what he wanted.

Instead, Sekera signed with the Edmonton Oilers on July 1 for $5.5 million a year over six years for a cool $33 million total.



One of the other big name defenseman on the market this summer was Johnny Oduya. The former Chicago Blackhawk was rumored to be in talks with several different clubs, with the Buffalo Sabres aggressively pursuing him for their blue line. Reportedly, they offered the 34-year-old $15 million over 3 years–a huge contract for someone his age who typically is a second pairing guy.

For comparison, Duncan Keith has an AAV of $5.5 million.

Instead, Oduya signed with the Dallas Stars for only a $3.75 million AAV for two years, a total of $7.5 million. Or half of what the Sabres offered. But why?

He wants to win. As a two time Stanley Cup champion, he knows what it takes to do that, and he sees the potential in the current Stars squad, saying they’re on the verge of taking that “next step” towards being serious contenders.


Respect and Playing Time

Just like with most jobs, in hockey, there can be conflicts with the upper management. Usually only the really nasty ones get reported, but more often these issues are quieter–guys wanting to do more for the club and just not getting the chance. Such was the case with Shawn Horcoff and the Dallas Stars. Horcoff was traded to the Stars in 2013, and since then has been a key part of the leadership with the organization.

While many disliked his admittedly bloated contract, it was nearly impossible not to like the man himself. He worked hard on the ice, taught the young players some new tricks and was new Captain Jamie Benn’s mentor. Still, in June, GM Jim Nill announced they wouldn’t be bringing Horcoff back, saying the veteran wasn’t ready to accept the reduced minutes he would be given with the Stars.

The 36-year-old center found a place elsewhere, signing with the Anaheim Ducks for one year at $1.75 million, where he’ll likely get the kind of role he wants.


To Go Home

Much is often made of the guy taking the “hometown discount” (usually by fans who are upset they didn’t), and just this past week Curtis Glencross made news by regretting his contract with the Flames. Still, there comes a time in your career where your priorities change, and for many that means family becomes more important. Martin St. Louis famously asked for the trade to the Rangers to be closer to home, and this offseason, the topic came up again for another UFA.

Justin Williams signed with the Washington Capitals for two years and $6.5 million ($3.25 AAV) when it became clear he wouldn’t be able to rejoin the cash-strapped Kings. Williams had multiple offers, but this deal was the best fit for both parties. The Caps got a former Stanley Cup winner with tons of playoff experience (and a great nickname) and Williams got to go home.

In the offseason, his family lives in New Jersey, and his in-laws are from Philadelphia. As a player with children who is nearing the end of his career, taking the pay cut to prioritize his family’s needs was the right move for him.

There are many factors that go into contract negotiations, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that players are human, and that their priorities are what drive them to sign on the dotted line.

So where does this leave Franson? Well, if rumors are to be believed, he’s looking for a long term deal, which means lots of cash, but he also wants to join a winning team. Since most contenders, like the Bruins, are already near the Salary Cap, that’s probably what’s delaying his signing. To get a contract done before training camps start, it’s likely he’ll have to decide between the two. Which does he want more, the money or the glory?

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