There's no more excuses

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:28 AM ET

The National Hockey League decided it would not trot out its "Game On" approach this time around.

There were other options, but the 2005 slogan will come later. The best suggestion might be, "No more excuses."

Under the new collective bargaining agreement that finally was hammered out between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, the owners got what they wanted -- a salary cap of $39 million US with a floor of $21.5 million.

They got 24% rollbacks from the players and a whole bunch of other concessions that should provide them with what they always have said they needed -- cost certainty.

At the same time, the deal gives their general managers what they have said they needed -- a level playing field.

So now, if all those owners and general managers are to be believed, fans are about to get what they got last year when the NHL was shut down for the season -- a 30-way tie for first place.

No more excuses.

There are so many unconditional free agents available that every GM should have a crack at getting some good ones. And with the salary cap in place to prevent all those free agents from heading to the usual locales, every owner should be able to afford his share.

As a result, each NHL team is entering the most crucial period it has seen in years -- perhaps ever.

For many teams, it will be the defining moment in their immediate future. It may even determine whether or not the team survives.

At the very least, it is not unreasonable to assume that decisions made in the next few weeks will determine the success -- or lack thereof -- of a team for five, or even 10, years.

Call it whatever you want. A clean slate. A fresh start. A new world. A changed order. The first day of the rest of your life.

At this moment, the average NHL team has five players under contract. Therefore, in effect, almost every team is building from scratch.

Even many of those players under contract will be bought out as teams, realizing that this is the perfect time to be ruthless, will jettison older players who are considered to be too expensive and too far past their prime to fit into long-term plans.

And make no mistake. Over the next few weeks, any GM who hopes to be successful has to be implementing a long-term plan. The short term won't cut it.

With a salary cap in place, teams won't be able to fall back on the standard approach that is so popular with governments -- rectifying mistakes by over-spending.

If you're a GM and you sign the wrong people now, you're stuck with them. The cap won't be increased, and your fellow GMs never have been known for their benevolence when it comes to helping out struggling colleagues.

With salary caps of this nature, the big dogs always get their space at the food bowl. The tactic employed by most GMs will be to try to sign a few high-salaried players then offer the lesser lights a take-it-or-leave-it deal that eats up the rest of the payroll. Many of those offers will be at the new league minimum salary of $450,000.

This means that those higher-priced free agents who took up most of a team's cap space had better be worth their contracts. If a team is built around them and if they don't live up to their billing, you can't expect the minimum-wage guys to get a team into the playoffs.

The new CBA does allow some opportunities to overcome errors. Players will be allowed to become unconditional free agents after seven years of pro experience. And over the course of the CBA, the free-agency age will be dropped from the current 31 down to 27.

But any GM who screws up in the next few weeks won't be around to take advantage of those clauses. He'll be gone long before they kick in.

Under the new CBA, there can be no excuses.


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