Saturday, July 03, 2004


Mad Season - Free Agent Craziness Begins

The upcoming CBA negotiations and a league-wide mandate to acheive 'cost certainty' have led to an unusual flood of marquee free agents onto the market.

As hockey has a very restricted marketplace (31 is the age of pure free agency for most players), the laws of supply and demand work to the effect that the relatively few quality free agents available freely in the marketplaces are bought at exhoribitantly high prices.

Normally, teams, fans and the media would be creaming their pants dreaming about the possibilities and scenarios that could occur.
In past years, things were quite different than they appear to be now.
If you are a fan of the Ranger$, Flyer$, Red Wing$, or $tar$, you could generally revel in the fact that your team would open up the bank vaults and contend for just about any free agent. If you are a fan of the Flamers or Penguins, the Mad Season was more about who was leaving, rather than who might replace them.

and now? We're seeing teams walk away from contract options and letting their more expensive free agents test their luck in the market. If economic theory holds, this market floor will lead to reduced prices on all types of players available, and the NHL has thus created some form of salary deflation.

I mean, just look at the list of names available.

Peter Bondra
Pavel Bure
Pavol Demitra(!)
Brett Hull
Paul Kariya
Mike Knuble
Alex Kovalev
Zigmund Palffy
Mark Recchi
Teemu Selanne
Jason Allison
Craig Conroy
Ron Francis
Mario Lemieux
Mark Messier
Petr Nedved
Michael Nylander
Robert Reichel
Mike Ricci
Brian Rolston
Jozko Stumpel
Steve Yzerman
Sergejs Zholtoks
Dominik Hasek
Kevin Weekes
Chris Chelios
Mathieu Schneider
Teppo Numminen

Of course, this isn't just a result of teams suddenly becoming more fiscally responsible. Really, until a new CBA is in place, teams suffer from a lack of information, and cannot budget accordingly since they do not even know what the new rules will be. It's better to be safe than sorry.

That said, there are still teams out there that have reverted back to old habits.

Case 1: Kris Draper - 4 years / $11.2 million

Wings owner Mike Ilitch has never been afraid of spending Little Caeser's money to buy his way to the top. The Wingees dumped a big pile of money in front of Derian Hatcher to lure him from Dallas, and now they are going to be in bad shape if a new CBA introduces a luxury tax or salary cap.

Enter Kris Draper, a fine organizational soldier who won himself his first Selke trophy and produced atypical offensive numbers... Or did he?

67GP 24-16-40
82GP 14-21-35
82GP 15-15-30
75GP 8-17-25
51GP 5-7-12

Looking at his last 5 years, Draper has been able to increase his offensive output every season, while providing fine defensive play.

Draper, however, is 33 years old, and not likely to continue such offensive growth. Draper is a 3rd line center for the Red Wings, and would be a 3rd line center for most any team in the NHL.

As Draper gets older and the NHL tries to instill it's form of 'cost certainty', the Wings will feel the pinch of paying a 3rd line center $2.8 million per season, especially as he'll be 37 when the contract expires. Speedsters like Draper, who rely purely on their speed, don't tend to age well. I wonder when Draper will experience his Russ Courtnall-like dropoff.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs -

The normally cheap Leafs, owned by the Ontario Teachers Federation Pension Fund, went out and resigned 3 old chaps for some hefty dollars.

Belfour - $14mil/2 years
Roberts - $3.5mil/1 year
Nieuwendyk - $3.0mil/1 year

Not surprising, Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun thinks the Leafs are stupid and are undermining Bettman's attempts at a new CBA.

Hmm... really?? Maybe yes...maybe no.

The Leafs are an old team, and even their lemmings (fans) know that their window at the cup is rather short. These are one year deals for proven veterans who can still produce (In Belfour's case, he still carries the team quite a bit).

It's also foolish to think that nobody knows the Leafs are a rich franchise playing in a lucrative market. It would look quite suspicious if the Leafs started slashing salary left and right like Ginsu, and the NHLPA would have some grounds to charge the NHL with collusion (Just ask the MLB owners all about that).

With the flood of free agents hitting the market, I can see Garrioch's point that the Leafs didn't have to pony up raises to guys to some of the leagues' senior citizens.

And we can also see that certain individual teams will never want to play by the same rules as the other teams. Why would the Leafs want to be capped on the amount of money they could spend? Why would the Leafs want to share revenue with the poorer clubs? Bettman's biggest challenge will be getting the Rangers, Leafs, Wings, and Flyers on his side. If he cannot do this, then the NHLPA will play the rich owners against the poor owners and 'divide and conquer'.

I always looked forward to seeing the 'midnight' deals signed on July 1st, even though it always made me sick to my stomach. While the Canucks had to shop in the bargain bin for the Murray Baron's of the world, the usual suspects like the Wings would buy up all the shiny toys. This year, it's just so much different, and there is so much uncertainty.

One thing is for sure, it's nice to see the market has expanded, at least artificially. Things just keep getting more interesting...

Oh, and Pavol Demitra is free...I'll have more on that later...

The Penguins Message Board says that the Maple Leafs screwed themselves over. They have no idea if there's going to be a cap or what next season. I'm glad for them keeping the team together, but, why blow all that money away now?

News also in Pittsburgh is that Mark Recchi's days in Philly are done and he may sign with Pittsburgh soon.

Take Lemieux off of the list. Though his UFA contract status may be true, he's not going to sign with another team when he still is an owner. Therefore, he's not a "real UFA".
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