Great teams don't last long in today's NHL

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- As a spectacle, this year's playoffs were nothing short of magnificent.

The games featured everything fans love about hockey -- speed, hitting, goaltending and tension. Rarely was a lead large enough to be considered safe, and to wrap up the season two excellent teams went toe to toe with the outcome in doubt until the final minute of Game 7.

But unfortunately, in today's National Hockey League, the off-ice developments are nowhere near as ideal as the off-ice developments.

It must be made clear that the two are not interdependent. An astonishing number of people who should know better seem to think the improved product on the ice was the creation of the lockout.

In fact, the rule changes that made today's game what it is were put forward in February 2004, long before the lockout. If anything, the lockout hindered the imposition of the new game. It certainly did nothing to bring it about -- other than put the players back on the ice.

And now, two Stanley Cup finalists who have great hopes for the future will find that it will be more difficult than ever to turn those hopes into reality.

Both the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes have nine potential unconditional free agents. And human nature being what it is, players who have had long playoff runs expect to get raises.

As a result, many of the key players on these two teams are up for auction. But neither team has given any indication it wants to come close to the mandated salary cap. So it seems safe to assume that the Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes are about to be broken up after one triumph. And the finalist Oilers can't be expected to fare much better.

In Carolina's case, key late acquisitions Doug Weight and Mark Recchi will be gone. Core players such as Matt Cullen, Frantisek Kaberle, Niclas Wallin and Aaron Ward can reasonably expect significant salary increases, so it seems reasonable to assume that some of them have played their last game as a Hurricane.

The Oilers are in a similar position. They also have nine potential free agents including Fernando Pisani, Mike Peca, Sergei Samsonov, Jaroslav Spacek and Dwayne Roloson.

Perhaps the Oilers will be able to renew some of those contracts but not all of them. And even the players who are retained will attain that status at the expense of someone else.

Don't be surprised if the Oilers trade Chris Pronger to free up some money. He has a whopping salary and the return could be significant.

But if that happens, or if some of the other Edmonton fan favourites are moved out so that the team can stay under the salary cap, then the Oilers will undergo the same kind of dismantling that will affect the Hurricanes.

But don't expect anyone in the league offices to worry the least bit about these developments. That's what they want.

One of the underlying purposes of the cap was to create what the people in the magazine business call a churn. Subscribers come. Subscribers go. Similarly, teams come; teams go.

With more and more free agents entering the market at an ever-younger age, team loyalty becomes a mere memory.

A team has a good year but can't keep what now are high-profile players. They slip back into the churn.

But somewhere else, another unexpected contender pops up and, suddenly, the spotlight moves.

One of the biggest drawbacks of a 30-team league is the infrequency of championships -- one every 30 years on average. So the last thing you want, if you run the NHL, is a dynasty which makes the average team's wait even longer.

So you create a system whereby a franchise can build a great team, but can't keep it intact. That's what we have now.


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