Two sides to CBA sword

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

Be careful what you wish for ...

The theory of the level playing field that's being sold as part and parcel of the tentative CBA is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a $39-million salary cap allows have-nots and small-budget teams to compete payroll-against-payroll, or close to it, on the ice and to bid for free agents.

At the same time, narrowing the financial disparity between free-spenders and frugal franchises means built-in excuses teams like the Edmonton Oilers have had in failing to topple big-budget outfits are out the window. Gone.

Fans longing for a winner are eye-balling their coaches and general managers and thinking, "OK, smart guy. You've got your level playing field. You can add a big-name free agent or two. Let's plan the parade route."

Nowhere will that be more true than here, where fans hopeful of a Stanley Cup ring or two for the other hand will expect nothing less from GM Kevin Lowe and coach Craig MacTavish. And they should.

So, is it unsettling to lose the, ahem, asterisk that's been available in the past? Not a bit. At least not talking to MacTavish, who doesn't sound at all like a man feeling unsteady about having that crutch yanked away when the deal is ratified by owners tomorrow after players vote today.

Bring it on.

GOOD PRESSURE

"It puts pressure on the organization for sure, which is good," said MacTavish, who will arrive in town next week to begin preparing for training camp.

"We've been talking for a number of years about putting ourselves in a good situation when this thing was wrapped up. I think we've done that and now it's time to deliver the goods. We're excited about that type of pressure."

With the Oilers having missed the playoffs in two of MacTavish's four seasons, there'll be greater expectations from the ticket-buying faithful. And, while I don't recall MacTavish or Lowe ever playing the small-market card when things went sideways, it's always been in the deck.

Not anymore. Like chairman Cal Nichols, who surprised some people this week when he talked about actually being able to bid on some marquee free agents, MacTavish is convinced the Oilers will flourish under this CBA.

"I think even our players are going to realize that, from a competitive standpoint, it's going to be a deal that helps us," he said.

"Our fans will realize that almost immediately when we can go out and get a player or two who can help us. Once we do that, our fans will quickly come to the conclusion this is why we went through the process."

POSITIONED TO BID

With a dozen players inked to contracts worth just under $13 million, the Oilers are well-positioned to be bidders when free agency begins Aug. 1. With a budget for players expected to be $33million-35 million, Lowe will have money to spend, perhaps $10 million or so, after getting deals done with his own restricted free agents - Ryan Smyth, Eric Brewer and Mike York being the key guys.

The glaring and ongoing hole in the roster, as anybody who's been paying attention is well aware, is the need for a No. 1 centre. Almost as high on the wish list is a puck-rushing defenceman.

Having money to spend doesn't guarantee that a Peter Forsberg or a Scott Niedermayer will end up draped in Edmonton silks - the Oilers aren't the only team that will be in hot pursuit - but it'll at least allow Lowe to take a run at the kind of impact player who's been lacking since Doug Weight left town.

If it's not Forsberg, maybe it's Jason Allison, or left-winger Pavol Demitra, or, if he's bought out by St. Louis, Weight. If it's not Niedermayer, maybe it's Sergei Zubov or Brian Rafalski. One way or another, being able to upgrade isn't pie-in-the-sky stuff.

What more can a coach ask?

"I think everybody is energized by it, except maybe Gary (Bettman) and Bob (Goodenow)," laughed MacTavish, talking about the pending deal. "From our perspective, it's going to be evident early that it's been time well-spent."

Bring it on.


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