SUN Hockey Pool

Players in bargain bin

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:36 AM ET

One of these mornings, we're going to wake up to a new collective bargaining agreement in the NHL.

Be skeptical about that statement, if you choose, and you will have plenty of company. Understandably so, given the fact that an entire season was lost because of ego-driven obstinance on both sides of the issue.

But let's just imagine, for a moment, that the scuttlebutt is true this time; that an agreement is coming within the next month and it's not going to be a pretty thing to behold if you're a player.

What then? Would you believe, mass chaos?

With, say, two months remaining before 2005 training camps are to open, NHL teams will have to solidify their local sponsorships, convince their alleged fans to buy season tickets, re-stock their rosters, conduct an amateur draft, figure out what kind of rule changes the new league will incorporate and, for many teams, how to put together a payroll about half the size they are used to.

A couple of months ago, the NHLPA was hoping for a salary cap of just under $50 million US per team. In reality, when the deal is done, it will be far less than that. Perhaps as low as $32-35 million.

There are 30 teams in the NHL, with 2004 payrolls ranging from $23.2 million (Nashville) to $77.8 million (Detroit).

Somehow, the teams like Detroit, the New York Rangers, the Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars and, yes, the Maple Leafs, will have to cut their payrolls about in half or pay what is expected to be a dollar-for-dollar penalty. That is, if you're $5 million over the cap, then you'll pay a tax of $5 million. In light of that, it is conceivable that you will not be able to recognize much that is familiar when the smoke has cleared at the Air Canada Centre.

For those previous free-spenders, it will tax their hockey departments to remain competitive in this new landscape. Of course, it will help them tremendously to have the comfort level of an immediate, across-the-board 24% salary rollback.

The average payroll in the NHL at the end of 2004 was $44 million. Remove 24% from that figure and you're left with something in the vicinity of $33.4 million in salary. And don't forget that a few high-priced greybeards in the league will be retiring, replaced with fresh-faced, eager cheap labour.

But the process is going to be a wrenching experience for many players who will be faced with extreme sticker-shock when their new contracts are placed before them. Indeed, there are 300 or 400 free agents who are going to have to make some snap decisions without the benefit of being able to scope out the market. Expect some ghastly mistakes to be made, both by management and by players.

The big prizes on both sides of this once-in-a-lifetime circumstance will go to the most nimble. Every general manager in the league is going to be under the gun to make dozens of critical decisions based on only an expectation of what the landscape will be.

If the rules changes that are expected to be adopted are designed to take the shackles off the league's skill players, as they should be, then it will drastically alter the makeup of most of the league's teams. Speed and skill may very well become commodities prized above size and brute force. But a general manager will gamble on that happening at his peril.

Time is of the essence. Unless an agreement is reached before the end of June, a whole new can of worms will be opened up July 1 when agents of Group II restricted free agents start declaring their clients as unrestricted free agents. And what about the players drafted two years ago who have not yet signed contracts? Do they simply go back into this year's draft -- if there is one?

Ah yes, the draft, headlined by wunderkind Sidney Crosby, the best prospect in 10 years. It will have to be organized with haste, simply adding to the burden for every executive in every city.

In the midst of all this, though, the real stars in every NHL hierarchy will have to be the marketing executives because it is up to them to entice fans and advertisers back into the fold, after having treated them like dirt the past year.

All in all, it promises to be a thoroughly miserable summer for the NHL and its players. And why the heck not? They've earned it.


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