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New CBA Presents New Challenges

Tuesday, 26.07.2005 / 9:51 AM / News
Toronto Maple Leafs
by Alan Adams

July 26, 2005

Commissioner Gary Bettman wasn't kidding when he called the end of the lockout a seminal moment for the National Hockey League.

The labour agreement between owners and players represents a radical change from what fans have known as the NHL and NHL economics. The labour agreement is transformative. The NHL wanted to smother salary escalation and Bettman has done exactly that.

Essentially teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs are starting from scratch. There is a salary cap to work with and one of the short-term difficulties of the new system will be figuring out the new market value, be it a fourth-line centre, a 40-goal scorer, or a stay-at-home defenceman. The bottom line is if a team pays too much for top talent, they won't have enough money to round out the squad.

Teams will find it a lot harder to go out and buy the Stanley Cup. Fans were accustomed to teams loading up with high-priced talent at the trade deadline. We all remember how last year general manager John Ferguson went to ownership and asked for money prior to the trade deadline to take a run at winning the Cup. He went out and traded for Brian Leetch and Ron Francis but making deals like that will be next to impossible.

With a $39 million cap, look for big-spending teams like the Maple Leafs, Red Wings and Flyers to commit to about $36 million in salary at the start of the season, giving them some wiggle room at the trade deadline if the player or players they need to take a run at winning the Stanley Cup are available.

And at the other end of the economic spectrum, look for so-called small market clubs like Nashville, Florida, Pittsburgh and Phoenix to land somewhere in the middle of the salary grid. If Nashville has a salary total higher than $28.6 million, for example, that would eliminate the Predators from the second tier of the league's profit-sharing plan where the 10 most profitable clubs give money to subsidize the lowest 15.

What the new system also does is put renewed emphasis on the job of the Leafs' amateur and pro scouts. Building from within will become all the more important because it's expected the NHL will get younger and faster in quick order.

But the days of seeing an 18-year-old join the team are also over unless you are talking of a prospect like Sidney Crosby or someone of that caliber. The age for unrestricted free agency will drop to 27 in a couple of years and a new criterion for unrestricted free agency is seven years of NHL service. That means a player who joins his club at 18 will be free when he's 25, so there is no rush to bring along a prospect unless he can make a significant impact. The idea is why lose a player in the prime of his career (ages 24-29).

At the same time, dropping the age for unrestricted free agents also creates another pressure point for clubs like the Maple Leafs. It will be difficult to rebuild a team because of player movement. The open-door philosophy dictates that teams almost have to play for the moment rather then build for a run at the Cup in a couple of years. How GMs deal with this will be interesting to watch.

There is a feeling in the NHL that the six-year deal provides the right footing for the renewal of the league because clubs will become partners with one another through revenue sharing and players will have incentive to help the league and promote the game because payrolls will be tied to revenues.

That's all fine and dandy, but essentially the collective agreement has made for a radical switch. Every team worked with a budget, but the budgets were pliable, depending on the circumstances.

Those days are over and this correspondent is not sure that's such a good thing for the NHL.
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