A World Upside Down

CBA Looms Large on NHL Front

June 25th, 2003

D'Arcy McGrath

An alternate universe?

Remember that wacky old Star Trek episode when Kirk flip flopped reality coming through the transporter and ended up on an Enterprise with a beatnik Spok and a ship full of pirates?

That's one good theory to explain why the climate and terrain of the National Hockey League is unbelievably different just three weeks after crowning its 2003 Stanley Cup winner.

Things are really, really strange.

The Detroit Red Wings are playing hard ball with long time wing Sergei Fedorov, and softer ball but still ball with captain Steve Yzerman and Darren McCarty.

The Dallas Stars are basically walking away from captain Darrian Hatcher siting his wish for a long term deal as the deal breaker that will end their almost decade long association.

Just to prove gravity does indeed still point down, we can at least still count on the New York Rangers to continue to add salary at an alarming pace, but still find a way to lose as evidenced in this morning's rumour that they've added Jaromir Jagr to a fold that already includes Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, and Bobby Holik, among others.

Simply put, teams just don't want contracts that are big, or contracts that are long that's the result of a lot of pre-CBA angst driven from uncertainty and an overbearing desire to not paint oneself into a corner.

Why take on a series of long term players that you may end up stuck with if a hard cap is put in place?

It's a fact made even more acute with only one year left under the current system.

The somewhat amusing angle of this trend is its timing.

Many of the teams that are now walking away from superstars, or playing tough in contract negotiations for the first time in recent history are the very same teams that made a farce out of the March 11th trade deadline by acquiring heavily compensated players while giving little in return.

Why is Pat Quinn so afraid of Hatcher's contract now, when he added Owen Nolan's pact without blinking an eye?

Like change in any facet of life, anticipation of the consequences and an ability to react to a new system can quite often give you a huge advantage over your competitors.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in some serious financial strife, and have basically folded the tent with regards to winning with less than a year to go to the new CBA. Their payroll is actually only 57% of the Flames total, a fact few envisioned even 12 months ago.

The Phoenix Coyotes are doing a somewhat less alarming thing in the desert, also in preparation for the labour Armageddon.

In Calgary however, things are somewhat different.

There are no fire sales, and Darryl Sutter seems to be standing alone in writing his name across long-term contract after long term contract.

While it's true that many of the deals have involved second tier, non-star players, he did ink stud defenceman Robyn Regehr to an unprecedented five-year deal.

Though his counterparts are free to catch up at any time, it appears that Sutter is acting under a different principal than most of the other National Hockey League general managers.

A good guess at his brilliance, or madness depending on your angle, is that Sutter envisions a cap, but also a huge lessening of the unrestricted free agent age and is acting fast to lock up the younger pieces of his puzzle so that he can add without worry of subtraction when the dust settles on the other side.

If 26 and 27 year old players are walking away Scott free in the new system, what better situation could one have than to have your own players locked down leaving you free to shop?

Other Opportunities

The CBA will come to a screeching halt in less than 15 months, and the teams that read the topography first will be in great position to take advantage.

One can only wonder what a trade deadline on the eve of a long lay off will look like.

One possible opportunity may come in the form of the emerging unrestricted free agent.

In past seasons it was wise to move an unrestricted free agent before he enters the final year of his deal. Acting at the trade deadline the season before was often the best way to get the most from a soon to leave asset.

However, with long-term deals scaring managers silly this off season, it would only make sense that a short term deal, may in fact, do the opposite.

Picture a trade deadline with a soon to be free agent capable of giving considerable help to a top team's playoff hopes, but without sending said team into the CBA with another financial burden.

We might see the value of a Bob Boughner or Craig Conroy go through the roof in the coming months.

Every NHL season brings with it a myriad of challenges for general managers. From budgets to team performance, these men are paid a pretty penny to be on top of many an issue.

This summer however, you can count on this pressure getting ratcheted up another notch or two.

The rules are about to change.

The last one to the dance may not find a partner.



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