SUN Hockey Pool

Playing field not exactly level

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

Before long, the National Hockey League will get its "level playing field."

In theory, because of the impending salary cap, every team will have an equal chance to build a winner, regardless of its financial situation.

But just because there's a level playing field doesn't mean that every team has the same starting line for the race to the other end.

For one thing, the New Jersey Devils have a huge advantage over the pack. Their CEO and president, Lou Lamoriello, took part in every meaningful meeting as the new collective bargaining agreement was being hammered out.

As the same time, the league intentionally kept general managers in the dark.

But Lamoriello also happens to be the general manager of the Devils, so while the rest of the GMs now head for their league-sponsored crash courses and try to comprehend the intricacies of the most complex document in professional sports, Lamoriello will be building the Devils, fully aware of all the nuances that his colleagues may not catch up to until next year -- if then.

But the biggest advantage falls to the truly wealthy teams -- the likes of Toronto, Philadelphia, New York Rangers, Detroit and so on.

A clause in the new CBA allows teams to buy out players during the course of the coming moratorium with no penalty for the 2005-06 season. All the team has to do is fork over two-thirds of the amount left on the contract and they're free of any further encumbrance as far as that player is concerned.

It has been reported that teams buying out players with contracts longer than this coming season will have a portion of that contract counted toward its cap space.

Although the team absorbs a financial hit, it's a one-time hit and, compared to the profits those teams will be making under the new deal, it's virtually insignificant.

Once the grace period ends, which is believed to be approximately two weeks from now, a player can still be bought out, but his salary counts against the cap.

So right now, if you're rich, like the Flyers, you can unload the likes of John LeClair, Tony Amonte, Donald Brashear, Danny Markov and even Eric Desjardins.

The Wings can unload Ray Whitney, Derian Hatcher and Robert Lang. The Rangers can get out from under the whopping salaries of Bobby Holik and Jaromir Jagr.

But if you're a poor team, such as the New York Islanders, you're stuck with the millstone of Alexei Yashin, to whom they are committed for roughly $45 million US on a contract that runs to 2011.

The Islanders can't afford to spend $30 million to buy him out, so they not only have the monumental encumbrance of Yashin himself, they have the further restriction of having to allot a good portion of their salary cap allowance to the covering of Yashin's paycheque.

But the rich teams can afford to dump their stars because they know other stars are available. The league is awash in free agents and once again, those rich teams have the advantage.

The poorer teams will be trying to keep salaries low. The $39-million cap is after all, an upper limit, not a requirement.

The wealthier teams can be expected to weigh in around the $35-million mark, not wanting to use all their cap room at the moment. When the trading deadline approaches in March, they'll want to be able to make the traditional late acquisitions for the Stanley Cup run.

TRIM DEADWOOD

But right now, for nothing more than the outlay of some cash, they can trim all the dead wood, bring in the top-line free agents and create a much better team than anything their less wealthy counterparts can put together.

And then, with that nice head start, they can make their charge down the level playing field.

Al Strachan says some teams, such as the Devils, still will have an advantage this season


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