In a few weeks, the new NHL will be upon us and it will be a profoundly different animal from the one we have all grown to despise.
Forget about goalie pads and red lines. Those are cosmetics. Here are 10 ways the league will be different.
1. The NHL will have fewer Russians and more American Leaguers. With entry-level salaries curtailed and limited resources devoted to franchise players instead of support players, second- and third-line European players probably will opt to stay at home. The Russian Elite league is far and away the most lucrative gig available. And who will take their place? Expect a new premium on serviceable players who didn't lose a year in the lockout. "We placed about 120 players in the NHL two years ago," American Hockey League Commissioner Dave Andrews said, "and we'd expect to put another 100 players, or four players a team, on top of that number next year."
2. Don't expect to see your favourite player at the club's charity event.
Players have just had a lockout and a humiliating defeat shoved down their collective throats. Team-sponsored events will have to wait for at least a year.
3. The mother of all free-agency seasons is coming. With buyouts and teams walking away from qualifying, perhaps as much of 40% of the league's personnel will be changing addresses. Agents have been figuring out who is on the block for the past year. Expect an initially tepid flow of players changing teams to give way to a flood of movement. We are talking about the closest thing to a rotisserie draft ever held in pro sports.
4. The days of rookies earning more than $3 million US thanks to inflationary bonuses (a device patented by current Phoenix Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett by the way) are gone. Assuming a lightweight team lands Sidney Crosby in the draft lottery, he will receive a maximum of $1.8 million, including all salary and bonuses. With rigid entry-level controls in place, there will be no point in refusing a contract and re-entering the draft.
5. General managers, none more than Leafs boss John Ferguson, will endure an unprecedented level of scrutiny. The Leafs, historically, have been able to spend through their mistakes and deliver a contender. Now, the team's standing as the preferred destination among Ontario-raised free agents will largely be irrelevant. Inauspicious results from the scouting system, and Lord knows, the Maple Leafs can speak to that, will result in a losing team even with the almighty in goal.
6. Thanks to a minimum salary cap of around $22 million per team and an upper cap near $36 million, including $2 million in health benefits per team, even the light spenders should be competitive.
Traditional tightwads will be signing players who wouldn't have golfed in their towns, let alone agree to play there. Pittsburgh, Calgary and Carolina are soon going to look like lovely places to play. Toronto, not so much.
7. Perhaps as a bone to the players, it is believed qualifying offers will be left at 100% of the previous contract. Of course, those salaries are all subject to the 24% rollback already agreed to by the players, so the actual qualifying standard is 76%. Still, the players had to get something.
8. Since a salary cap profoundly will influence when and where that player will perform, the age for unrestricted free agency now is largely moot. Expect to hear the phrase "it was never about the money for me" from players who will be signing for a fraction of their old contract.
9. Brace yourself for the usual creative solutions around the salary cap. That includes teams backloading the deals to commit more money later in the deal. For the folly of such an endeavour, we refer you to the roster of the Toronto Raptors.
10. Get ready for more cheap seats. In Buffalo, for example, ticket prices have been reduced between 12% and 28%. New $10 upper-bowl and $21 lower-bowl season tickets were introduced. Deep discounts will be dragged out to regain the fans. Not in Toronto, of course.