SUN Hockey Pool

Moves a hint deal is close

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

If the National Hockey League had indeed reached a deal in principle with its players, it would have been announced by now.

Both the league and the NHL Players Association know that it makes no sense to try to keep such a development from public scrutiny.

But the fact that an American newspaper has made the latest claim of a done deal is of some merit, even if it's not accurate. It's one more indication that the deal is close.

Everybody who is interested already knows that. The hiring of general managers, the shuffling of coaches (look for Anaheim general manager Brian Burke to go after Mike Johnston, assistant coach of the Vancouver Canucks, now that he has forced his incumbent, Mike Babcock, out of his post) and the over-all gearing up of the league, are all indications that a new collective bargaining agreement is not far away.

Nothing is finalized yet, but a lot of concepts are very near to agreement. They might change slightly as the tit-for-tat shuffling of concessions continues, but in essence, the deal will be pretty much the way Bruce Garrioch spelled it out in Monday's edition of the Toronto Sun.

The players will take a significant drop in salaries, but that's no surprise. Their first meaningful foray into the bargaining waters was a 24% rollback. They were always aware that they wouldn't be able to maintain the levels that the owners had established over the previous decade.

Team salaries will be capped in the $39-million range and for most teams, that won't represent a major hardship.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, for instance, had a payroll of approximately $55 million when the owners started the lockout.

Reduce it by the 24% that has long been accepted as part of the deal and that leaves a payroll in the $42-million range. Subtract the $5.5 million salary of Alexander Mogilny who never had any intention of playing again, no matter what he might have said in radio interviews, and the Maple Leafs' payroll is down to $36.5 million.

That leaves $2.5 million to find a replacement for Mogilny.

Curiously, getting over the salary cap figure might prove to be more difficult than getting under it. The floor will be in the range of $24 million -- which represents a payroll of almost $32 million in pre-rollback terms.

Season-ending payrolls are a bit misleading because of deals made at the trading deadline, but probably at least six teams will have to increase their payrolls -- after the rollback -- to meet the $24-million minimum.

There's no doubt that the new CBA will create some problems around the league.

Hockey is, after all, a game that lends itself well to retribution, and some of the players who undermined the efforts of the majority will, on occasion, find themselves becoming the centre of attention.

Also, the low entry-level salaries could see the league lose some of its best young players to Europe.

By virtue of its status as the best league in the world, the NHL represents the aspirations of most youngsters. But do they necessarily want to play in the NHL as teenagers, or do they want to do a transitional term in Europe?

For Europeans, it's not a tough decision. The top draft pick of 2004, Alexander Ovechkin, can earn a lot more playing at home in Russia than in the NHL. The second pick, Evgeni Malkin, reportedly has already agreed to stay in Russia rather than report to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As a North American, Sidney Crosby will probably opt to stay here, even though he can earn more in Europe. But he too could decide to postpone his NHL debut.

Those are decisions that will be made in the near future, once the clauses of the deal are officially released.


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