The doom that's draped the NHL since rinks went dark and fans went home at the start of the lockout isn't just lifting as owners and the NHLPA work toward a collective bargaining agreement -- it's been replaced by an almost ridiculous sense of optimism.
Hope springs eternal about the likelihood of opening the 2005-06 season on time. After a winter of discontent, it's a time of endless possibilities. Of general managers like Kevin Lowe of the Edmonton Oilers thinking out loud.
It gets almost giddy. Like when Lowe talks about a dispersal draft in which all 30 teams would throw players and prospects in the mix and start over again -- even if it is just somebody thinking outside the box. "The Oilers are proud to select Rick Nash ..." Won't happen.
Like when Lowe talks about the buzz created by the lottery to see which team gets Sidney Crosby. Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants for the Oilers? Or the Canadiens or Canucks? Might happen.
Pie-in-the-sky stuff aside, the talk is about salary caps and sliding scales, of rule changes and a new financial landscape that closes the gap between the haves and have-nots.
For Lowe, the new NHL is about developing players and being able to keep them, having the financial means to afford free agents, being able to compete on the ice. About playing for a Stanley Cup. Did I say giddy?
TIME WILL TELL
"You've got to know Gary Bettman, that's been his plan all along," Lowe said at a media open-house during the annual meeting of Oilers scouts.
"He's gone this far. I can't see them deviating much. Is it going to be exactly what we hoped for? Completely level? Time will tell. Obviously, anything that's better than what we had before is a win for the Oilers."
We won't know what's what until the numbers are in, but Lowe believes the new CBA will look more like what the Edmonton Investors Group has been waiting for than the old system, in which player costs ate up 75 cents of every dollar.
That's what this drawn-out no-pain-no-gain exercise and the $14-million cash call by the EIG was about, wasn't it?
"To compete for free agents. To be able to retain our guys and not have to move guys like we've done in the past," said Lowe. "That's all we ask."
OPERATING WITH A CAP
With a 24% salary rollback and a cap, whether it's $34 million or $36 million -- the Oilers have been operating with a cap, otherwise known as a budget, for years -- maybe the days of selling off Doug Weight and Bill Guerin are over. Likewise, the days of eyeballing free agents like Jason Allison with no chance of affording them.
"We never used it as an excuse," Lowe said. "We've competed on the playing field, but the disparity was getting to a point.
"I've used Weight as the best example. There's a guy who wasn't homegrown, but the Oilers made a significant deal for him. Ever since we dealt him, which we would've never done under what we're hoping for in this new type of system, we've (been without) that elusive first-line centre.
"Cap management, I understand, in the NFL is huge. That will be a part of the new wave of the NHL. We've had some experience in that. The Weight trade was cap management. The Guerin trade was cap management."
As for Crosby, the lottery is a product of the lockout and the Oilers are in the running.
"I don't dream in Technicolor," smiled Lowe. "If it happens, it's huge. Don't get me wrong. I'd love to have Crosby, but if we got anyone in the top eight or 10, that's higher than we've picked the last five years."
As for a dispersal draft, not a chance.
"There's even been some managers jokingly say, 'Let's throw everything back in the pot and start over,' " Lowe said. "It's not going to happen, but when you think about creating excitement for fans and media, holy (bleep)."
Giddy. Holy bleep, indeed.