One by one, the supplicants trooped into the inner sanctum of Newport Sports Management in suburban Mississauga to make their pitches.
Representatives from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning made their cases Friday, caps in hand, each hoping to convince Brad Richards and his agent Pat Morris that their city was where he should play out his NHL career. Other teams, which surprisingly included the Calgary Flames, made their bids by conference call, among them the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens.
By the end of the day, Richards, 31, wisely chose to spend at least the night studying the offers instead of making a snap decision. He is expected to announce by Saturday afternoon where he will play next season, although Morris said he is not sure of the timing.
Whichever team he picks, and the betting is the Rangers since they wrangled from Richards the right to match any offer, he will be a wealthy man. The extraordinary prices paid for ordinary goods when the NHL's free-agent market opened Friday made sure of that.
James Wisniewski, a middling defenceman, didn't even get to market, signing for six years and $33-million (all currency U.S.) with the Columbus Blue Jackets an hour before the bidding began. The Blue Jackets traded for his rights earlier in the week. Scottie Upshall was among a group of average players to hit up the Florida Panthers for big money, in his case $14-million for four years.
Maple Leafs senior vice-president of hockey operations Dave Nonis, who noted Richards gave no indication where the Leafs rank in his affections, said some of the deals would have been "foolish" for the Leafs. But, he added, those deals make sense to teams trying to get to the cap floor.
The frenzy means Richards will be the highest-paid player in the NHL next season, even if he is 31 years old and with a major concussion on his medical records. But he was the only centre on the market with 77 points last season.
Richards will have the highest salary in the NHL next season because it was clear by the end of the day all the big contracts will be frontloaded to ease the salary-cap hit over the length of the deals and to minimize any troubles with a new collective agreement next year. Thus, Richards can expect to be paid the maximum for one player of 20 per cent of a team's payroll – in this case $12.86-million based on next season's cap of $64.3-million. He should make the same amount in the second year, with the salary diminishing over the length of a contract expected to be a minimum of eight years in order to get the cap hit to a more palatable $8-million or so.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman summed up what most of his colleagues said to Richards when he told reporters, "I let him know where we're coming from and what we're trying to do. We'd love to have him, but he has options." But a little while later, Yzerman declared the Lightning out of the running.
Yzerman also said he was hoping to get the Lightning's youngest superstar, forward Steve Stamkos, under contract soon.
No decision from Richards meant a slow day for the Maple Leafs, which left their fans arguing on Twitter and elsewhere about general manager Brian Burke's decision to visit Canadian troops in Kandahar, despite the big day on the NHL calendar. Burke monitored the situation electronically, while Nonis, consultant Cliff Fletcher and assistant general manager Claude Loiselle made the in-person pitch to Richards.
The Leafs did lose two players to free agency, though neither will leave a hole in the roster. Centre Tim Brent signed with the Carolina Hurricanes for two years at a total $1.5-million, while goaltender J.S. Giguère went to the Colorado Avalanche.
Once 22-year-old James Reimer came on last season for the Leafs, the veteran Giguère was squeezed out of the picture, as the Leafs also have young goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. Giguère was signed by the Avalanche to back up and mentor Semyon Varlamov, 23, who came in a trade with the Washington Capitals.
The Canadiens had a quiet but expensive day. They signed forward Erik Cole for four years at $18-million and backup goaltender Peter Budaj for two years at $2.3-million.
By the end of the day, the Sabres sat at the top of the NHL's payroll list, a highly unusual position but one that confirmed new owner Terry Pegula's vow to be an aggressive spender. After signing forward Ville Leino for six years and $27-million, the Buffalo payroll was just under $63-million.
The Florida Panthers' efforts to climb to next season's minimum payroll of $48.3-million also drew a lot of attention. General manager Dale Tallon signed defenceman Ed Jovanovski, forwards Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and Scottie Upshall, goaltender Jose Théodore and traded for winger Kris Versteeg to take his payroll to $47.3-million.
The floor is now in sight but Tallon didn't quite convince everyone he improved his team, especially since goaltender Tomas Vokoun appears to be a casualty of the Theodore signing.