Moving Targets

BRUCE GARRIOCH, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:21 PM ET

While some NHL teams have their hands full with the playoffs, others are already looking ahead to July 1 ... and it's not because of the Canada Day fireworks.

It's NHL free agency day, where teams can do an expensive remake ... or in some cases, cause severe damage that will have long-term repercussions.

"While it's important, mistakes can be made," said Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. "I think it's as important as the trade deadline, but what you're seeing now is GMs approaching July 1 with a lot more caution."

It's because, there has been plenty of good money thrown after bad gambles. This will be the fourth year NHL teams have negotiated contracts with the salary cap in place, but it's going to be the first time there's a threat of a drop in the cap.

While the members of the NHL Players' Association haven't made a decision, the 30-player executive board is expected to vote next month to accept a 5% growth factor in the cap for next season.

If that's the case, the cap is will stay at its current $56.7- million (all terms US) level or rise slightly. The GMs of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, who don't have a lot of money to spend, probably want the NHLPA to accept the growth factor, which is automatically built in if revenue expectations are met.

The NHL isn't expected to get hit hard by the worldwide economic downturn until the 2010-11 season. It's been suggested the cap could fall as low as $50 million because revenues for advertising and ticket sales will likely take a huge hit next year in markets where the economy has slowed, the Canadian dollar has fallen and sales are tough.

"The initial indications are that the cap will go down, but with the growth factor it would at least bring the cap to where we're at today," said Glenn Healy, director of player affairs for the NHLPA.

But don't think for a minute there won't be some hefty paydays come July 1.

Big money is going to be thrown around. But you may not see contracts like those given to centre Daniel Briere (eight years, $52 million) and defenceman Wade Redden (six years, $39 million).

Briere and Redden were both available at last year's NHL trade deadline because the Flyers and Rangers were trying to get out from underneath the heavy cap hits.

It's believed teams are going to try to get UFAs signed to short-term deals (three years or less).

Contract length

"Those longer-term deals can hamstring you a lot as far as future planning goes," said Chiarelli. "It's going to come down to this: Whose concept of a short-term will prevail? A player might think a four-year deal is short-term and a team may think a two- or three-year deal is a short-term."

There aren't a lot of teams with money to spend. Only seven franchises -- Atlanta, Chicago, Montreal, Nashville, N.Y. Islanders, Phoenix and Vancouver -- have committed less than $35 million in salaries next season. The Thrashers, Isles, Predators and Coyotes won't spend to the cap.

"Any time you're a free agent, there is a degree of uncertainty," said Healy, a former NHL goalie. "The year I was a free agent, I wondered if I was going to have any offers and I had four teams bidding on me. Teams have to decide how they're going to build their club.

"The average difference between the top five (point-getters) last season and the bottom five (point-getters) is an average of $1.8 million. So, it's not how you spend your money, it's who you spend it on. Teams that are well managed will typically do well."

"The top players are still going to get their money and their term," said Boston-based agent Matt Keator, who counts Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara and Montreal's Mike Komisarek among his clients. "It's the middle and lower classes that might get squeezed.

"For the middle-class players, there probably will be (shorter-term deals).

You look at a guy like Henrik Zetterberg in Detroit (who recently signed a 12-year, $73-million extension). There's still long-term contracts in the marketplace. If a player is a premium player, then a team is going to want to lock him in for a long time."


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