Sure, there will be some players who may give more consideration to getting a chance to win a Cup or play closer to home, but most will be more than happy to simply sign on the dotted line for whichever team is willing to break out the biggest check. That's as true now as it ever was in the NHL, even with a salary cap in place. The big-market teams still hold the advantage by being able to spend to that limit, while their smaller-market counterparts are often constrained by much tighter internal budgets.
But on Saturday there was no way for those big market teams to buy the top free agent available. Defenseman Justin Schultz earned his early freedom when he was declared an unrestricted free agent on June 24 after Anaheim, which drafted him 43rd overall in 2008, was unable to sign him.
Schultz was free to sign with any team, but no one could offer more than a two-year deal at the entry-level max of a base $925,000 salary and bonus structure totaling another potential $2.85 million. That's a hefty investment for a player yet to take a pro shift, but Schultz found no shortage of suitors.
As many as 26 teams expressed interest in obtaining his services, but none could woo the Wisconsin blueliner simply by throwing more money at him. Instead, it was an opportunity to play a prominent role immediately and the lure of joining a talented young cast of potential stars that won the day when Schultz elected to take his talents to Edmonton.
The Oilers haven't had much luck in reeling in high-profile free agents in recent years. In fact, they've had trouble just keeping their own stars, with Chris Pronger forcing his way out of town in 2006 the most prominent example. That came after Pronger helped lead the Oilers to an unlikely run to the Cup Final the previous spring.
Edmonton hasn't made it back to the playoffs since, and earned the No. 1 pick in the draft in each of the last three seasons. It took a lot of losing to accomplish that dubious feat, but those picks do provide some hope for the future. Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have already established themselves in the league over the last two seasons, and this year's top pick Nail Yakupov has the potential to do the same. The Oilers also have another budding young star up front in 2008 first-rounder Jordan Eberle, who led Edmonton with 34-42-76 totals last season.
But there's a common theme there. All of those bright young stars are forwards. Edmonton desperately needs help on defense, where just three Oilers managed even 20 points last year, led by Jeff Petry's 25. Schultz had 16-28-44 totals in just 37 games last year at the University of Wisconsin, where he was a Hobey Baker finalist. That followed an 18-29-47 campaign in 41 games in 2010-11.
Schultz won't necessarily be able to duplicate those numbers right away in the NHL, where the learning curve for even the most talented defensemen is steep. But on an Edmonton defense that features the motley crew of Ryan Whitney, Nick Schultz, Andy Sutton, Ladislav Smid, Corey Potter and Colten Teubert returning, plus possibly restricted free agents Petry and Theo Peckham, Schultz will have a chance to win a spot right away.
That, plus a little extra wooing with calls from Hall and Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey, was enough for Schultz to spurn offers to play for the Kelowna, British Columbia native's hometown team in Vancouver, as well as the likes of Ottawa, Minnesota, Toronto and the New York Rangers, who rounded out his short list of finalists.
Those last two Original Six teams in Toronto and New York couldn't lure Schultz despite having some of the deepest pockets in the league. They may have better luck tomorrow when the bidding opens on the rest of the UFAs, and they still have chances to acquire help on the trade market that other teams could never consider with their ability to take on the massive long-term deals of players like Rick Nash and Roberto Luongo.
But for one day at least, money didn't reign supreme in the NHL. Instead, it was an opportunity to play right away that carried the day as small-market Edmonton picked up a rare win in the free agent wars.
Photo via Facebook/Justin Schultz