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UFA Shopping Spree to Trigger Other Moves

Rick Charlton

July 2, 2001

After the detonation of a nuclear bomb, you can be assured there will be fallout.

With Dominic Hasek joining the Wings, Chris Osgood is as good as done in Detroit.

Joe Nieuwendyk is finished in Dallas after the Stars inked Pierre Turgeon to a long-term deal.

Eric Lindros is rapidly running out of potential homes with the Stars effectively ending their involvement by signing Pierre Turgeon. Toronto no longer has the space and Washington and LA are the only two places remaining that could seriously meet the combination of Lindros' contract demands and have the assets to make the exchange. The Flyers, meanwhile, appear to be one of the most improved teams in the Eastern Conference.

The Rangers look to be the only team seriously in the running for Jaromir Jagr which means Penguins GM Craig Patrick is in a tough spot.

Where does Adam Oates end up?

Can Boston, which made the same offer that Jeremy Roenick eventually signed in Philadelphia, keep both Jason Allison and Bill Guerin, each reportedly intent on asking for $8 million?

The Avalanche are basically the same team that just won a Cup and in spite of the large splash yesterday have so far seen only a modest increase in their payroll thanks to the retirement of Ray Bourque.

The Blues represent the puzzle of the last week and a half, exchanging Roman Turek for Freddie Brathwaite and Doug Weight for Pierre Turgeon while losing useful Jochen Hecht. If anything, the Blues actually look weaker this morning in spite of bumping their payroll from $36 million to $55 million.

The last point is significant. For when this is all said and done the Blues, Islanders and perhaps the Capitals at a later date, may well be the only teams which will have dramatically added to their payroll. Even the Rangers will likely emerge somewhat flat after buying out some contracts and trading others before adding Jagr and other parts.

As hard as it may be for fans to comprehend after the spending spree of yesterday there remains a secondary story yet to happen. For every Doug Weight there is a Brett Hull or Val Kamensky on the other side of the equation, players destined to sign for less than they were playing for the previous year, headlines that have yet to be written.

It was no surprise to see a first day feeding frenzy at the top of the pile for unrestricted free agents but as the initial euphoria begins to subside the rest of the summer should be a long one, with supply overtaking demand.

Of immediate interest is the fact that our premise of two weeks ago seems to be coming to fruition, that a great deal of player movement would occur, making up for the dead zone of last season. Secondly, such rapid rolling over of rosters should and will eventually generate a second wave of movement, payroll dumping of the likes we haven't seen in some time.

The good news and the bad news for the NHLPA and owners will eventually break down like this:
For the NHLPA the bad news first. Where's the next $11 million to $15 million player? With Sakic's contract in Colorado now finalized, such a player isn't likely to materialize, at least not this season, marking the fourth consecutive year that owners seem to have capped the top of the salary grid.

The good news for the NHLPA is the rather sinister revelation that Doug Weight , Jeremy Roenick, Sakic and Blake seem to have received front-loaded contracts, ensuring a lockout will impact them less than it might most members of their union brethren. You will remember the contract afforded Owen Nolan last summer which effectively guaranteed the San Jose winger would be paid through a work stoppage, a contract that sent NHL commissioner Gary Bettman through the roof. The Roenick and Weight deals are probably the closest less disciplined owners could come to defying Bettman any further.

It is of overriding importance in any labour dispute - the impending NHL shutdown of 2004 as an example - that both sides have something to lose when entering a negotiation, thus ensuring good faith bargaining by both sides. If the NHLPA membership were to all have contracts effectively paid through a lockout then owners would be cooked before they had even started.

The other victory for the NHLPA, almost pre-ordained, has yet to happen. The collective poor decisions of years past by owners will begin showing up in arbitration hearings in coming months, most notably that of Boston's Allison should he go that route. In truth, the contracts of Sakic and Blake are something of academic interest only since UFA contracts cannot be used in arbitration to settle disputes involving restricted free agents. But the Allison situation will be a big victory for the NHLPA as it will have a trickle down effect throughout the salary grid for the majority of NHL players.

On the ownership side, the best that can be said of the current situation is a $10 million cap seems to be in place for the best players in the game. In addition, when we finally do the calculations in November, it would not surprise to see the overall rate of salary inflation falling once again in the 5% area, a far cry from the 20%+ percentages regularly put in the first half of the 1990's.

For every Sakic there are four Andrew Brunette's or Dave Andreychuk's, turned loose by Atlanta and Buffalo respectively and under pressure to find employment at a lower cost.

The bad news for owners is the league is more two-tiered than at any time in its history. It wasn't so much that players like Weight, Turgeon and Roenick were tossed around, with Lindros, Jagr and potentially Peter Forsberg still to come, but rather the fact that only six teams or so seem capable of participating in the derby.

Twenty-four other teams are sitting on the sidelines patiently waiting for the scraps while the lead wolves eat their fill.

Therein lies the paradox. On the surface costs seem to be under control but the reality is those same expenditures are driving the league towards different tiers of competitiveness.

The NHL isn't nearly as bad as baseball - witness the unconcerned non-participation of the New Jersey Devils as an example - but it is becoming increasingly difficult for even middle-level teams like Pittsburgh and Buffalo to continue to participate.

This goes to the heart of what we might expect to see happen in 2004. The NHLPA - or any professional sport players association for that matter - has always had the advantage of negotiating not with one set of owners but three. The people who run franchises tend to be lumped together but in reality there are groupings of large, medium and small capitalization owners. NHLPA President Bob Goodenow and other pro sport union executives before him have been able to consistently find the seam that groups the medium and large owners together, thus isolating the desperate small markets to the fringe.

That appears to be changing in a big way. With some 22 of 30 NHL teams losing money consistently now the pendulum has swung fairly decisively to the point where the medium and small markets will have a common agenda in 2004.

The hope on the NHLPA side is that concessions of a salary cap will be accompanied by unrestricted free agency beginning at an earlier age, say 25. With medium and small cap owners on the same page that is probably a pipe dream. The NHLPA has been a little too successful for its own good.

GM's like Kevin Lowe are no longer reluctant to voice their true belief that 2004 will be an event that will re-shape the game of hockey and most importantly, return a level of balance to the NHL.

Fans who value a league where every team can be competitive can only hope so.

To emulate baseball is to invite disaster.

Meanwhile, a second feeding frenzy, this time involving the scraps, will occupy the attention of the lesser teams for the remainder of the summer.