From the player's side of things, it's likely incredibly stressful. Hockey players are creatures of habit, and creatures of habit don't like the uncertainty of trying to figure out what to do next. Thankfully, they have agents to help them out with that, but it's still probably pretty nerve wracking.
First, it comes down to teams reaching out to agents to see if they're interested. Or sometimes, it's agents reaching out to teams - and, seriously, it never hurts to ask - if the player so requests, from what I understand. Oftentimes, players don't realize that they're a part of the equation and have a say in what they want to do, so they leave it up to their agents. But the agent works for the player, not the other way around, so players can totally steer their career in the direction that they'd like to.
Once there are offers, then the sorting begins - and this is where players can screw themselves over. Take Vinny Lecavalier, for instance. Any fan knows that the Philadelphia Flyers are not a great place for an over-30 player to go. It's a total no-brainer, in fact. But he let his wife decide where she wanted to live instead of him deciding where he wanted to play, and now he's in a position where he's with a team that no longer wants him despite him still wanting to play.
It isn't just about location; it's about what's best for your career and what work conditions you're willing to put up with. Playing for the San Jose Sharks, for instance, might seem like a good idea since they've still got a decent team and a new coach. But there's a lot of locker room drama going on there, and if that's going to be something you're not willing to deal with, then maybe the Sharks aren't for you.
Naturally, everyone wants to play for contending teams - the point of playing the game is to get your name on the Stanley Cup, after all. But not only is the competition for the few open spots available insane, it may not be the best option for a career. Especially for a younger player, who's still trying to establish himself in the league.
I think that what's best for a player's career should come first, followed by the team's culture, their ability to contend, and then the location for a younger player. For older established players, then probably ability to contend moves to the top of the list - depending on their age and where they're at in the careers. Rarely, if at all, will all four of those things line up into a perfect situation, though, so it's best to not even expect that to ever happen.
So the teams to avoid (from the fan's perspective), if you were an unrestricted free agent, are:
- Boston Bruins
- Dallas Stars
- Edmonton Oilers
- Philadelphia Flyers
- San Jose Sharks
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Vancouver Canucks
- Winnipeg Jets
Still, a player has to do what's best for him and his career. And hopefully, he's got people who know the league that can help advise him. But the bottom line is that it's his decision, and he has control over his own career - not his agent, not his wife or girlfriend, and not his parents.