Tables have turned

Players such as the Buffalo Sabres' Daniel Briere could be in for a huge payday if he winds up on...

Players such as the Buffalo Sabres' Daniel Briere could be in for a huge payday if he winds up on the open market, writes Al Strachan, because general managers have continued to spend wildly under the NHL's new CBA. (Ottawa Sun File/Sean Kilpatrick)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:12 AM ET

The shakedown precipitated by the National Hockey League lockout is still in full swing.

Last season, the game itself underwent a radical change. The manner in which it is managed is still changing.

And it is evolving at such a pace that it changes from month to month.

A few weeks ago, there were those who suggested that it was nothing short of sublime folly to re-sign stars at high prices to prevent them testing the free-agent market.

For a local example, think back to the furor that erupted when the Maple Leafs signed Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe.

But since then, other general managers around the league have coughed up some whopping deals -- even though not every player signed for the maximum amount available.

GIVING IT AWAY

There have been instances of players leaving millions of dollars on the table because, for one reason or another, they felt like playing somewhere else for less.

And even though a lot of analysts were unable to see this extravaganza coming, it really isn't a surprise.

Just think back to the pre-lockout era, when owners spent more than they said they had. Then, along comes the lockout and the players sign a deal which says, in effect: "You can still spend stupidly, but if you do, we'll reimburse you."

So, it's a surprise that the owners are over-spending again?

The wise GMs saw this coming and locked up their most valuable players when they had a chance.

Others waited, clinging to the faint hope that this time, the owners might succumb to an acute attack of common sense.

Over in Buffalo, for instance, Sabres general manger Darcy Regier thought he could take Daniel Briere to arbitration and, using his colleagues' restraint as an example, hold on to Briere for a relatively mediocre return.

But another player recently on the market has an almost identical career profile to Briere's. That is Martin Havlat. The Chicago Blackhawks just gave him $18 million US for three years.

So it would appear that Regier is soon going to be facing a major dilemma. Does he cough up the $6 million that the arbitrator is going to award for Briere's upcoming season?

Or, does he walk away from the settlement -- which is his right -- and effectively give away his captain?

The Sabres, after all, are firmly committed to a cause. No, not the Stanley Cup. That is their second priority.

They are committed to being one of the NHL welfare cases, one of the teams that qualifies for the subsidies that are also part of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Yet the intriguing part is that it is the players who will be providing much of those subsidies. As a result, payrolls are going to go higher still.

Because the league is almost certainly going to increase its revenues by no more than a minimal amount this year, the players are going to get tagged with escrow payments of at least 10%, probably 12%.

So watch the fun when someone such as defenceman Chris Pronger -- who thought he had a great post-lockout deal at $6.25 million a year for five years -- gets told that he has to give back roughly $700,000 this year to cover the pay raises of people like Briere, McCabe and Kaberle.

Pronger is just one of many players facing that type of circumstance, so we'll probably see players under long-term contracts asking to renegotiate their deals.

We'll definitely see the elite players who come on to the market next summer asking for a bonus of 10% or so over the anticipated market price so that they can compensate for the escrow payments they'll have to make.

The average salary is almost right back where it used to be prior to the lockout, but since the owners can, in effect, stick the players with the cost of their high-priced colleagues, the cycle will continue.

And the GMs who got in early got the bargains.


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