- Craig Custance
It was a situation that utilized the spirit of the 48-hour interview process almost perfectly. The Columbus Blue Jackets wanted forward Nathan Horton, but Horton knew little about the team or the area.
Two days before the start of free agency, he flew to Columbus. He met with Blue Jackets president John Davidson and GM Jarmo Kekalainen, two impressive hockey executives. Because of the extra time built into free agency this year, they weren't rushed in explaining the process in which the two plan on building the Blue Jackets into a winner.
From Columbus' perspective, there was another benefit. The team asked for and received Horton's medical information, detailing his shoulder injury along with his history of concussions. The team could examine the risks and make a calculated decision without racing against a free agency clock that was already ticking.
That afternoon, Horton and his wife toured the area. During the season, most players fly in to Columbus, stay at the team hotel, walk over to the arena and fly out. It's not a great way to get to know a region, especially if you played in the East and you rarely made the trip to Columbus at all.
This new window gave Horton the opportunity to get comfortable before committing the next portion of his career to a team.
"It was tremendously beneficial for Nathan Horton," his agent, Paul Krepelka, said. "He started seeing the city, got away from the hotel and rink and into the communities where people live. That's what sold him."
In this case, everything worked out great. When free agency officially opened, Horton signed a seven-year contract worth $37.1 million. He found a city in which he felt comfortable. The Blue Jackets got the much-needed scoring help their forward group lacked. It was the first indication that this window could be most beneficial to small-market teams that might have trouble attracting free agents otherwise.
It worked for Nashville and forward Matt Hendricks, too. Hendricks visited Nashville and was picked up at the airport by Mike Fisher, who gave him a tour of the area. He met with the coaching staff and the front office, ultimately signed a four-year deal with the Predators. The runner-up to landing Hendricks? The big-market Philadelphia Flyers, who might have had a better chance at landing Hendricks if the Predators weren't given that opportunity and time to recruit.
The interview window wasn't perfect, though.
Negotiations technically weren't allowed during the 48-hour window, although not every team realized that, which created a disadvantage for those playing by the rules and an advantage for those moving forward with the impression that detailed negotiations were permissible.
"It wasn't a window, it was full-fledged, door wide open," one GM said. "All it ended up being was the barn door is open and the bell goes off."
On Wednesday night, one general manager I spoke with openly talked about the negotiations he had already conducted, clearly unaware that he was breaking any rules.
"Truthfully, it felt a lot like July 1 of the past," he said that night. "You felt like you needed to get in the game right away. The one positive is you didn't have that ax hanging over your head, like if you didn't get to that number right away, the player was signing elsewhere."
The next day, a memo went out. The league clarified any confusion, reminding teams that negotiations were not allowed before July 5. But at that point, the horse was out of the barn.
It raises the question as to whether or not teams that negotiated before the memo should be punished in some form, especially if a team felt like it lost a player because of it.
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse," one team executive said. "You can't tell me, my interpretation was logical, therefore it's OK to harm another team. The fact of the matter is it was wrong. Therefore, what are the repercussions when other teams play by the rule and know the rule?"
There may not be repercussions, but there will be changes. The 48-hour window this year was a transition rule because of the shortened season and condensed calendar. Next season and beyond, it's expected that it will be a longer period of time.
In the new CBA, it specifies that agents and players can speak with interested teams starting one day after the NHL entry draft or no later than June 25. The window closes on June 30.
Since the 2014 NHL draft is June 27-28 in Philadelphia, an NHL source confirmed that the interview window next summer will be open during the draft, in a five-day stretch from June 25-30.
What exactly can be said during that window has yet to be determined. The vague wording in the CBA's critical date calendar that says that unrestricted free agents may meet and interview with new clubs, but may not sign new standard player contacts (SPCs) until the opening of the signing period will be clarified.
According to an NHL source, the NHL will consult with the NHLPA on specific guidelines for this process so that there is no confusion moving forward and both sides are aware of what is permissible and not permissible next year.
The reality is that you'll never completely eliminate some sort of negotiations or even the borderline tampering that exists on some level now. If you're a player and a team wants you to visit its city during an interview process, you're not doing it unless you have a pretty good idea they're willing to pay you something in the range you expect. Both sides are going to want some understanding of financial expectations before going through the process of visiting neighborhoods.
That's the challenge moving forward for the league and the players' association in specifying the guidelines for this process, one that is still evolving.
"It was a trial run here," one GM said. "Obviously, there was a lot of confusion."
Craig Custance examines the NHL's new free-agent interview window and how it created some issues in the offseason signing process.