Kevin Shattenkirk could’ve gotten more money but took less to join the New York Rangers.
Joe Thornton could’ve gotten a multiyear deal from someone but wanted to stay with the San Jose Sharks.
Brian Campbell and Patrick Sharp could’ve gotten more money the past two summers but took the Chicago discount to return the Blackhawks.
The NHL is becoming more like the NBA with top players forgoing longer, big-money contracts to pick their preferred destination, a trend that has added a new wrinkle to free agency.
“It’s their opportunity to go to where they want to go and sometimes you might have to take a little bit less money to go there,” Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill said. “Do you want to go to a good team? Is it a city you want to go to? Is it where your family wants to be? … It’s players finding the right fit for where they want to be and having the money that they can live with.”
Shattenkirk is not exactly LeBron James, but the New Rochelle, New York, native filled that role on Saturday when he turned down offers of seven years and more than $30 million to sign with the Rangers for $26.6 million over four years. The 28-year-old defenseman felt like it may be his only opportunity to “fulfill a lifelong dream” and wants to help pull off what LeBron did in Cleveland.
“No matter where you go you’re trying to win your team a Stanley Cup,” Shattenkirk said. “There’s no better place to try to do it for me than in New York.”
Rangers GM Jeff Gorton praised Shattenkirk for leaving money and years on the table, and even New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero — who made a strong push to sign the top free agent available — gave him credit for signing in New York because it was “where he wanted to be.”
The NHL’s hard salary cap and players re-signing to so many long-term deals means superteams like in the NBA won’t happen. But where and who matters more and more to hockey players than simply how much and for how long.
Thornton had more than half the 31-team league reach out to sign him at age 38 and signed for $8 million for one year because he simply wanted to stay in San Jose.
“It was nice getting courted by all these teams, and I felt bad saying, ‘Hey I’m going back to San Jose,’ but that’s where my heart is and that’s where I’m happy,” Thornton said.
Likewise, Sharp couldn’t pass up returning to Chicago where he was part of three Stanley Cup teams, even if his contract is worth just $850,000 with performance bonuses. Sharp said he was “coming back to make some more great memories and try to help this team win another Stanley Cup,” which Campbell tried last offseason, too.
Justin Williams and his wife bought a house near Raleigh, North Carolina, before signing a $9 million, two-year deal to go back to the Hurricanes. Ryan Miller called it “pretty ideal” to sign a $4 million, two-year contract in Anaheim, close to Hollywood where actress wife Noureen DeWulf needs to be often for her work.
Familiarity with Nashville and coach Peter Laviolette led Scott Hartnell to return to the Predators on a $1 million, one-year deal, after playing his first six NHL seasons with them.
“Absolutely love coming back to Nashville,” Hartnell said. “I wish it was October already.”
That kind of natural excitement doesn’t happen everywhere. Executives around the league don’t begrudge players for making personal choices.
“Players have priorities on where they want to play: family reasons, where teams are, whether they’re on the verge of winning a Stanley Cup or a rebuilding situation,” Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill said. “I think that happens every year.”
Some money factors could play a role, such as Alexander Radulov making more in Dallas than he would have earned on the same contract in Montreal or Vegas, with Tampa Bay and Florida having a leg up in states with no income tax. But the Stars wouldn’t have attracted Radulov if they weren’t contenders.
“Trying to win is a huge component to players picking places,” said veteran winger Chris Kunitz, who won the Cup three times with the Penguins and signed with the Lightning. “I think we’re all pretty fortunate in what we do, but we also want to go out there and compete and have a chance to win.”