Leafs foresee a spree

Maple Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe makes certain that Jeff O'Neill doesn't get thirsty during...

Maple Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe makes certain that Jeff O'Neill doesn't get thirsty during yesterday's practice. (Toronto Sun/Craig Robertson)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- What every National Hockey League governor heard yesterday was great news.

What the Maple Leafs' representatives heard was fantastic news.

The league is doing so well financially that the $39-million US salary cap will be raised next year, probably to somewhere in the $42.5-million range.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday that, based on the projections presented to the board, he expects the cap to be "anywhere from $41 million to $43 or $44 million. It varies. I don't like to get pinned down on a number because we're only dealing with estimates."

But Bettman did say that league-wide revenues will be in excess of $2 billion. Again, he didn't want to be too precise, but when asked about the final number, he conceded: "I think it looks pretty clear that it's going to start with a 2."

If that's the case, then using the formula established in the collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap has to be at least $41.6 million.

If league revenues should reach $2.1 billion, which is not at all inconceivable, then teams would be granted a $43.4-million salary cap.

Although every team is pleased by the resurgence of the business, to many teams, the prospect of an increased cap level is irrelevant. They keep their payrolls well below the maximum and don't intend to change that strategy.

But for the Leafs, it means an opportunity to get back to the formula of old -- trying to win by outspending the competition. And in this era of tight budgets, it might work.

As Richard Peddie, the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., put it: "Hopefully, it will restore a little more of the competitive advantage we had on the financing side which will be nice."

Translation: Any high-priced free agent should check with us before signing elsewhere.

Not only will the Leafs enjoy the increased cap room that will accrue to all teams, they will be absolved of the Jason Allison encumbrance. Because of bonus clauses in Allison's contract, $4.5 million in cap space has to be kept open to cover the unlikely eventuality that he cashes those bonuses.

As a result, general manager John Ferguson easily could have more than $8 million in new money to play with next season, even if he were to re-sign all the other current players -- which he won't.

Peddie sees no reason why Ferguson shouldn't make the most of the opportunity.

"If the cap goes up," Peddie said, "and John thinks he should spend that money, which I'm sure he will, then the vote will be unanimous.

"If you study it, Pat (Quinn) and John and Ken (Dryden) have never been turned down when they went to the board."

"It does provide a different landscape," Ferguson said. "We negotiated some deals last summer and stayed out of some, frankly, because of that uncertainty.

"It doesn't sound like it's going up a whole lot if it ends up on the lower end. But if it ends up on the higher end, we'd have a little more room to spend, providing our budget would permit us to go to that number. And I think it's safe to say we'd be approaching it."

The increased cap is also good news for the players, not only because there will be more demand for their services, but because it means a decrease in the escrow amounts that the league has been withholding from their paychecks.

To this point, the players have lost 12% of their salaries, but at league revenues of $2 billion, that figure drops to 1.9%.

"It's conceivable that if we come in high enough, that there wouldn't be a need for any money to come back," Bettman said.

That's good news for the players. They're almost as happy as the Maple Leafs.


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