In the next few days, there will be a flurry of free agent signings and a good number of players will get tied into big-money, long-term contracts that will almost certainly widen the gap between the NHL’s have and have-not teams, which was one disparity this new system was supposed to address.
Of course, the small-market and also-ran teams will have to throw significant money around in order to get themselves to the salary cap floor of $40.7 million.
Many of those deals will be for terms that were once unfathomable - with seven to 10 years the going rate for a star player in the prime of his career. One thing that obviously hasn’t changed under the new system is the mentality of GMs to get the player now and damn the cost to the franchise later.
Which brings us to the question, what exactly is going to happen to all these long-term deals once the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2011-12 season?
The current CBA has a Sept. 15, 2011 expiration date, but that could be pushed back a year by the NHL Players’ Association and if the players don’t do just that, this writer will eat all 454 pages of the current agreement in one sitting without so much as a single glass of water.
(Note to readers: I really won’t do that. Just trying to make a point.)
It won’t be so much in the name of labor peace as it will be the players trying to get another year out of a system that, once again, has them dragging GMs and owners around on a leash.
But what of the contracts that go on past 2011-12? Prior to the free agent season opening at noon Tuesday, there were 42 such contracts out there worth a total of $218.92 million – almost a quarter of a billion dollars – in cap space. That’s an average of $5.21 million in cap space per player. There’s a good chance those numbers will double by the time the puck drops next season and, obviously, as we get closer to 2011-12, those numbers will grow exponentially.
As of today, there doesn’t seem to be any will on the part of GMs to limit contracts to this CBA because they’re focused at the moment on getting the player at all costs. Although one GM did tell me, “I don’t think it’s a factor at the moment, but you’ve got a good point there.”
Perhaps the owners and GMs know in the back of their minds they won’t have to pay out on all these contracts anyway. Don’t forget, prior to the lockout, the players took a 24 percent pay cut on existing contracts in order to get a deal done. It didn’t work, but the claw back was one of the key components of the new deal.
The only problem with a claw back is that most of these contracts are front-loaded – another win for the players – so any hit to salary will be negligible. Now, if they claw back based on the cap number, that’s a different story.
But mark my words, as the CBA deadline gets closer, the league will direct teams not to sign players past 2011-12, the same way it did prior to the last lockout. And don’t think the owners won’t be looking for big changes in the next deal; there’s little doubt all those contracts that carry over after ’11-12 will be on the table as one of the negotiating points.
Encouraged by the fact they’re actually kicking the owners’ hind ends, the players will undoubtedly say there’s no way they’ll ever negotiate away the rights to players who have entered into contracts in good faith. Yeah, we’ve heard that before. These were the same guys who swore they’d never accept a salary cap either. In fact, prior to the lockout, Bryan McCabe said he’d retire rather than accept a salary cap, which, in retrospect, doesn’t look like such a bad idea.
And, please, don’t believe for a minute the owners won’t once again lock out the players if they don’t get what they want in the new deal. Why on earth wouldn’t they? The bottom line is if the last lockout didn’t prove hockey fans are the world’s biggest suckers, do you honestly think another lockout is going to change that perception? For Pete’s sake, the owners shut their business down for a year and came back with higher revenues than ever before.
And no matter what fans say, the owners will always, always have their support regardless of whether they have the moral high ground or not. That’s because, at heart, fans view players as greedy mercenaries who get paid millions of dollars to do something most of them would do for expense money.
It’s something to ponder over the next few days as more players become wildly wealthy and financially secure. It’s also something for these players – who may see the deals they sign today turn into something else tomorrow – to consider.
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