June 7, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Ted Kulfan

NHL free agency isn't the candy store it used to be

Thomas Vanek had less than an inspiring performance for the Canadiens during the playoffs, which might lower his demand on the free agency market. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Detroit — Occasionally the e-mail will arrive, a little more than occasionally, actually, with the line “the Red Wings need to do this” or “GET THIS GUY.”

We must be getting closer to July 1, the first day of unrestricted free agency.

Sure enough, there will be something about how the Red Wings need to sign Thomas Vanek in the opening minutes of the free-agency frenzy. Or get Matt Niskanen, the sought-after defenseman in this free agent class (although the passion seems to have waned after watching Niskanen in the playoffs).

Heck, there was the one about bringing Ryan Miller back to Michigan.

Didn't expect that one.

But, seriously, take it easy.

The days of unbridled excitement surrounding unrestricted free agency in the NHL are gone.

Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Curtis Joseph, or Brian Rafalski aren't going to saunter in (Rafalski with his aching back) through the players' entrance at Joe Louis Arena.

It's over.

Free agency used to be one way to build a team. An exciting, headline-grabbing, expensive way to construct a roster.

But, two lockouts and a stringent salary cap later, those days are gone.

Let it finally sink in. July 1 is slightly busier than the normal off-season day in the NHL.

But heckuva a lot less busier than in the early 2000s.

"There's this perception that on July 1, there's this hockey store, this fantasy league, and that we can go get superstars," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "Those days are over. That was the league prior to 2005 (the first lockout). Those days are over."

They are, indeed.

In case you haven't noticed, teams are re-signing their franchise players to long-term contracts that pretty much tie them for the majority of their careers.

Superstars don't make it to the free-agent market anymore.

Teams sign their own, get them a little cheaper right before they're eligible for free agency, than someone in the open market. Plus, they know these players and have already invested so much time and money in them.

"This is a league now where you have to draft and you've got to develop," Holland said.

The past few summers, Holland has signed the likes of defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo, forwards Jordin Tootoo, Stephen Weiss, Mikael Samuelsson, re-signed Daniel Cleary.

The returns from those players have been minimal.

With the plethora of promising young players the Red Wings have, or are on the way, better to let those players grow at the NHL level than spend big money needlessly.

"You can have some cap space, but I'm not going to spend money just for the sake of spending money so six months later people can say, 'The decisions we made in July were no good. How can they get rid of that guy?’”

When you look at this particular free agent class, there's so many players who really are gambles.

Vanek is a player who has goal-scoring ability, but his alarmingly uninspired and lackluster playoff performance for Montreal has to cause huge alarms.

And he might be looking for a contract north of $8 million or $9 million per season.

Forwards such at Matt Moulson and Paul Stasny largely failed in the playoffs or have been inconsistent in their careers.

Niskanen is a player who some feel had a career year and whose uneven playoffs could be closer to the player he is.

Don't focus on July 1. Start paying more attention to the Entry Draft, where future players are picked and trades (which have been gradually on the rise around the NHL) are hatched and solidified.

But don't stop sending the e-mails. Never knew Thomas Vanek had so many fans around here.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

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