A sign of the times

Alexander Mogilny, by letting it be known he is willing to take a cut in pay, is relying on himself...

Alexander Mogilny, by letting it be known he is willing to take a cut in pay, is relying on himself rather than the union in these troubled times for NHL players. (Toronto Sun File/Fred Thornhill)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

Alexander Mogilny has let it be known that he would accept more than a $3-million US pay cut to play next season for the Maple Leafs.

While Mogilny remains a locked out player -- and the Leafs are not allowed to communicate with him until a collective bargaining agreement is done -- his willingness to take a giant financial step backwards is quite telling in these troubled times for National Hockey League players.

Mogilny's situation, in some ways, speaks volumes about the unsettled yet optimistic state of negotiations between NHL owners and players. He may be a free agent in the brave new world but just in case, he's looking out for himself.

Among the many issues that still need to be agreed upon between players and owners is the status of the unfulfilled contracts from the lost season of 2004-05 contracts. The Players' Association, looking for something positive to sell its membership on through these humbling negotiations, would like to back date all contracts by one season.

Typically, the league wants nothing to do with this. And, in fact, teams would have great difficulty reaching salary cap levels with all of this season's contracts in place.

PROACTIVE

Now enter Mogilny, coming off hip surgery, 36 years old, smarter than your average bear, who doesn't necessarily know what his status is -- but wants to be proactive on his own behalf.

So rather than worry about whether his $5-million contract is in place for next season, (although typically Mogilny, he has told others he plans to retire) he lets out whispers loud enough that he will play for one-third of his previous salary. What he's doing is what enough players haven't been doing throughout the lockout: He's relying on himself rather than his association.

And this could end up interesting, divisive and potentially nasty if more players act similarly.

Take the Leafs situation, for example. Mogilny, a $5-million free agent (assuming his contract expires on July 1), now has set a price that he will accept assuming the Leafs are interested. At the same time, Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, both of whom made significantly less money than Mogilny last season, want to remain with the Leafs.

But suddenly, with Mogilny setting his own level, he is unknowingly or knowingly lessening the bargaining position of Roberts and Nieuwendyk.

"You might see a guy like Joe Nieuwendyk retiring under this new system," a hockey source said yesterday. "Not just him but a lot of older free agents. If the value of free agents will be that low and say someone offers him $600,000 to play when he has been making $2 million of $3 million a year, he might just say it's time to quit."

These are among the many unanswered questions hockey is about to face, not just in this market but everywhere. With confusing economics, a sliding salary cap and teams like the Leafs possibly caught in a position where 16 players need to be acquired and there's less than $8 million to spend to do so, there are any number of significant factors still to be worked out in the bargaining sessions.

Free agency is one key issue, which works both ways for the players. In the past, the more liberal free agency was, the more the players benefitted. But under a salary cap system, the free agent market could easily be oversaturated, leaving any number of players without jobs.

Also significant will be the formula for buying out player contracts and how that will impact teams. Will a buyout count against the cap in a way the Hakeem Olajuwon contract tied up Raptors money for two seasons he wasn't here?

There is so much still to be worked on, but as the agreement gets closer, so, too, does the anxiety level of those involved.

The Mogilny example is just one of many that are bound to unfold. Soon, the game will be musical chairs, hockey style.

Just who is left without a seat when the music stops remains anyone's guess.


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