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Looming lockout could cost NHL free agents

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Looming lockout could cost NHL free agents


Tuesday, June 29, 2004



Two years ago, Rangers' assistant general manager Don Maloney sat in his car, waiting out the final minutes of June 30 outside Darius Kasparaitis' Long Island home, poised to shower the unrestricted free agent defenseman with gifts and a lucrative contract offer.

When July 1 arrives this year, however, it appears NHL players might be the ones left waiting.

With the free agent market set to open Thursday, there is a buyer-beware sign hanging over the league. Uncertainty about the collective bargaining agreement, which expires Sept. 15, and the long lockout that is expected to follow, make it a good bet that no team will throw monster contracts at unrestricted free agents the way the Rangers (Kasparaitis and Bobby Holik) and Dallas (Bill Guerin) did in 2002.

In fact, some question whether there will be much free agent activity at all. If the new collective bargaining agreement is to include a hard salary cap, which is what the NHL Players Association insists commissioner Gary Bettman is pushing for, some owners and GMs might want to know what their limit is before they spend too much.

The dark cloud of impending doom turned the weekend's entry draft into one of the dullest and solemnest ever, with only a handful of minor trades taking place during the two-day event.

"Teams have some decisions to make," Bettman said last week. "Are they going to protect assets? Are they going to let them go? It's up to the team to make an individual decision. Everyone understands what we're seeking in collective bargaining. We can't tell anyone with certainty what it will be because we have to negotiate it, but, with the uncertainty, teams will make their decisions.

"Some will make good decisions and some will make decisions that will come back and bite them."

Teams began cutting back on free agent spending last summer, forcing some unrestricted free agents to take pay cuts (Paul Kariya, Joe Nieuwendyk) where they may have received big raises in previous years.

Among the big names expected to be available this year are Kariya, Ed Belfour, Gary Roberts, Brendan Shanahan, Mark Recchi, Alexei Kovalev, and Brett Hull. The Devils' John Madden, Sergei Brylin, Turner Stevenson, Grant Marshall, and Scott Clemmensen also are potential unrestricted free agents, though it appears Madden and Brylin are close to re-signing.

Approximately 60 percent of the players' contracts expire at the end of Wednesday.

"I think there will be signings," St. Louis Blues' GM Larry Pleau insisted.

Still, one player agent presented a theory that the teams would not sign any free agents to try to create panic among the players. Another agent expects limited signings.

"I think the top-end guys are still going to get their money," he said. "It's not like the league is going to tell the Rangers [after the lockout] that they can't play because their payroll is too high."

The Rangers insist their days of frivolous spending are over and are committed to rebuilding with young players. That doesn't mean they won't selectively sign a veteran or two, though.

"We were always driving the bus the last few years when it came down to the bigger-name free agents," Maloney said. "Now, I would say we're in a sit-back-and-see mode - No. 1, who gets qualified and who doesn't."

Last year, the Devils saved money by not making a qualifying offer to restricted free agent Oleg Tverdovsky and Anaheim made a similar choice with Kariya, allowing both players to become unrestricted.

The Devils are considering doing the same with restricted free agents Jeff Friesen ($3 million qualifier) and Viktor Kozlov ($2.4 million) this year and more teams are expected to follow their example.

That would flood the market with even more unrestricted free agents.

"I guess if you look at it as simple economics, there's going to be a great supply of players out there this year," one agent said.

"On the other hand, if there's a greater supply, then that means there's fewer guys that are under contract and teams are going to have to get guys under contract. If I was running a team and saw a player that I wanted out there and thought that other teams might be a little more cautious going into this off-season, I'd be a buyer and I'd pick up what I wanted."

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What people fail to realize is that EVERYTEAM is going to be cutting players, so supply will out pace demand. I think most players will resign with their teams at a lower salary or find themselves out in limbo for a while if there is a season.

With teams looking to cut their salary base I dont see a bidding war on ANYONE.

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