SUN Hockey Pool

Build a team in five weeks

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:16 AM ET

If the National Hockey League owners finally end their lockout this week as expected, it would seem that there's plenty of time to get the league rolling.

But really that's not the case. The schedule is already tight.

Let's assume that an accord is announced this Thursday. That's July 7.

It would then be sent to both sides for ratification. The governors probably would do it at a meeting, the NHL Players' Association through a telephone vote conducted by the player representatives of the 30 teams.

Assuming that the the process doesn't encounter unexpected delays and that both sides give their approval -- never a certainty -- the clock for the 2005-06 season would start ticking next Monday -- July 11.

There then would be a moratorium on transactions for an extended period, probably two weeks while all involved take a cram course and try to comprehend the intricacies of the most complex collective bargaining agreement in sport.

Following his well-established practice, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made sure that most general managers have been kept in the dark about the nature of the negotiations. With the exception of Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils, who has been an integral part of the owners' inner circle, the GMs basically are starting from scratch.

So in the frantic two weeks leading up to July 25, the GMs will have to try to make plans for their teams, keeping in mind that most of their former roster players are now free agents and that their payrolls must be kept within league-mandated parameters.

But they'll also have to take time off from that endeavour to devote themselves to the draft, which will have to be completed prior to the free-agency date.

In a normal season, eligible players are transferred to the free-agent list on July 1 and the draft always precedes the free-agency date.

Even though this is not a normal year, the GMs will want the events to occur in the same order, so the July 1 free-agency date will be pushed up, probably by a month. So that takes us to Aug. 1.

Usually, the schedule opens on the Wednesday of the second week of October. This year, that would be Oct. 12. But it's virtually certain that the NHL is going to participate in the 2006 Olympics, so the start date probably will have to be moved ahead a week or so to allow for an Olympic window.

Let's say they decide to start on Oct. 5. Working backward, that would mean that if precedent is followed, rookie training camp will open Sept. 1 and the regular training camp will open Sept. 8.

Somewhere between that Aug. 1 free-agency date and the opening of training camp, there will also have to be a waiver draft, although this year, with so many free agents available, it probably will be superfluous.

What this means, then, is that many of the NHL franchises will have about five weeks to build a team, an operation that usually takes place over an extended number of years.

Many of them have fewer than 10 veteran players on the roster at the moment. Some have fewer than five.

To put together an NHL team is a momentous task. It's not just a matter of selecting a few free agents off the list and signing them. Those players will be negotiating with other teams. And their salaries will vary, so if you sign one, that might preclude another.

You may pin your hopes on a player, spend weeks negotiating with him and then lose him. How do you fill the void now with time running out and with limited wiggle room in your salary cap?

Clearly, time is precious, even at this stage of the summer. And the longer the two sides take to conclude the deal, the more precious it will become.


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