For Richards or poorer

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

Okay, so why exactly did the NHL have a lockout? That's the question a lot of fans are probably asking in the wake of the Tampa Bay Lightning giving centre Brad Richards a five-year, $39-million contract Monday.

That's almost $8 million a year -- the second-highest salary in the league after that of New York Ranger Jaromir Jagr. For a lot of fans, it probably just doesn't make sense to give a 26-year-old restricted free agent close to top dollar under the current salary cap.

Senators fans must be thinking now there is no way the Senators will be able to hang on to players like defencemen Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden, at ages 29 and 28 respectively -- and set to become unrestricted free agents.

If Richards got the max under this cap as a restricted free agent, why wouldn't Chara and Redden as unrestricted free agents? The fact is Richards might as well have been an unrestricted free agent under the terms of the new CBA.

It's a situation in which Senators winger Martin Havlat finds himself as well.

The players took a salary cap and a 25% hair cut in the last CBA and looked like the losers, but the story is going to be same: The top players are still going to get top dollar, perhaps at the expense of their less-talented colleagues in the long run.

"Everybody was saying the players got hammered in the last deal and in some ways they did," said Rochester-based player agent Steve Bartlett. "But this is one area they didn't -- earlier free agency. Teams are not going to want an asset in which they've invested heavily leave. That landscape will change. When a player is one year away from unrestricted free agency, he's virtually holding the team hostage."

While it's true players are restricted free agents for the first seven years of their careers (three under the entry level system and then another four after that), depending on when players' second contracts expire, that seven-year window gets closed a bit.

Richards was just another season away from becoming an unrestricted free agent. He had arbitration rights, so based on his regular season (first on the Lightning in scoring; 12th overall in the NHL), he would be in an enviable bargaining position. He would likely be able to win a sizeable raise in arbitration over the $4.35 million he earned last year and then be in a position to become an unrestricted free agent after next season.

NASTY BUSINESS

That would likely be the case, too, because an arbitration hearing can be a nasty bit of business with the player finding out about all his shortcomings and why he's not worth the salary he and his agent feel he deserves. A player hold a grudge? It's happened.

So, from the Lightning's standpoint, better to pay Richards now than lose him later.

"Those fortunate few are going to continue to be paid premier dollars," said Bartlett. "From our standpoint as agents, it's nice to see and I'm sure it raised an eyebrow (in the Havlat camp)."

Agents will be smiling and owners and GMs gritting their teeth over the Richards deal. In a new, unchartered marketplace, Richards' deal will now be the standard agents will bring to the table for this summer's arbitration hearings.

"This could have a huge impact on potential arbitration cases," said Bartlett. "This is a new market and there are not a lot of new deals out there.

Usually there are a number of deals out there to offset or mitigate (the effect of a big deal). The first few deals this summer will have a huge impact. This deal is setting the tone for the marketplace."

There is a downside for the players, however. The top players will get their money, but even if the cap goes to $43 million for next season -- that's the most popular guess -- it still means there is going to be more of a gap between the haves and have-nots in the NHL.

More than a few insiders said the problem with the old NHL was not the big stars making big money, but the second-tier players getting almost as much.

The middle class might start disappearing now.

Look at the Lightning: they now have almost $34 million committed for next season to just 13 players -- and they need a front-line goalie.

That means they will be filling out their roster with a lot of players making the minimum or close to it.


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