TAMPA - The free-agent market officially opens at noon on Friday.
But in a new wrinkle starting this year, teams may begin lining up at the starting line ahead of time.
As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are permitted to hold discussions with pending unrestricted free agents two days ahead of the opening of the free agency period. That means as of 12:01 a.m. today, general managers were free to gauge the market, see which players are potentially interested in joining their teams and what sort of contracts players might be seeking.
In previous years, teams were not permitted to make contact with players until the free-agent market opened for business.
Getting a head start allows more time for both sides to weigh the options.
"I generally think it's a good idea,'' Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "You will know what players are looking for, players will have a better idea and a couple of days to consider their options. Generally on (the first day of free agency) things happen so quickly, the players don't have time to think through their decision and where they go. I wish this window was even longer.''
While teams are allowed to talk to free agents and potentially come to agreements on the terms of a deal, contracts may not be signed until the free-agent market officially opens. But being able to gain a feel for the situation ahead of time will be an advantage, according to Yzerman.
"Ultimately we still have no idea whether we would get the player we might like, but this gives everybody a better idea,'' he said. "It's hard to plan until you have the player signed and to make any other plans, so this will give you an idea of which guys you can pursue and save everybody time on July 5 so neither party is wasting time chasing something you know you are not going to get.''
Yzerman said he fully intended to take advantage of the window of opportunity to get a read on any players he may look to bring in via the free-agent route. Tampa Bay has a hole to fill at No. 2 center after the buyout last week of captain Vinny Lecavalier and may look to add some help on defense, though there is no guarantee bringing in a potential high-priced free agent is the way the team will look to fill any roster voids.
Should the Lightning dip into the free-agent pool, it might be for a forward, but don't expect any big-name, long-term contracts.
Though the amnesty buyouts have added some more players to the free-agent list, this is not considered a deep pool of players, which makes it a more likely the prices will be driven up to acquire the bigger available names.
"We'll make the calls potentially on the players we can see helping us, but realistically we are not looking to do a lot on July 5 this year. We are not in position to do that,'' Yzerman said. "There are some forwards out there in free agency (that) are interesting. I just don't believe that we are in a position to go long term for lots of money on a forward.''