NHL Free Agency Costly for Have Nots

By Jason Menard

The silly season that is NHL unrestricted free agency is well underway. And with it comes the very thing that the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to avoid – the establishment of the haves and the have nots.

The usual suspects are falling into place: Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, check – your penthouse suites are booked and packed to the rafters with all kinds of luxurious new toys. We’ve sprinkled a little Brière here and a splash of Drury and Gomez over there. Oh, and Dr. Detroit, yes – I think you’ll find the Rafalski we’ve recently added to your collection to be quite exquisite.

Mr. Sabres? Oh, sorry – this floor is restricted access. You’ll have to take the bus down the street to our low-rent district. Yes, we thank you for living in the same city as us, but you’re really not right for this neighbourhood.

Of course, there’s also the eclectic neighbours – the ones who have the money to reside comfortably in the ritzier areas, but lack the right taste when it comes to decorating properly. Yes, we’re talking about you Mr. Maple Leaf, with your two matching goaltenders – unfortunately, there’s too much goalie and not enough crease. And let’s not get into the overpaying for complementing pieces. You added a Blake, yes – Jeff, not Rob… $4 mill is a little pricey for that.

With a salary cap over 50 million US – about six million more than what the NHL teams were claiming represented Armageddon for their franchises – teams have the financial wherewithal to stockpile talent. And we’ve seen outrageous sums of money thrown at various players by clubs looking for that quick fix.

Danny Briere is a nice player. Not eight years nice. Not $10 million in his first year nice. Ryan Smyth, late of the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders? Good kid. Captain Canada and all that jazz. Not five years and $31.5 million worth of heart, though. Nobody has that big of heart.

But what’s happened is we’ve come to a point in time where there are again haves and have nots. There are those who are willing to pay up to the max of the cap. Heck, they’re willing to overspend the cap and demote players to the minor league ranks where there salaries don’t count against the cap.

But then there are a number of other teams who have set their own caps. They can’t – or won’t – spend to the max. They’ll return to their status as feeder teams for the big boys of the NHL. And they won’t have a chance to win.

Although I love what teams like Montreal and Pittsburgh are doing, eschewing the free agent route and preferring to build from their own farm system, one wonders how long they can do that? After all, wasn’t that the model the Buffalo Sabres tried?

Think about it. Darcy Regier had figured out where the NHL was going before anyone else. He built a team from within, drafting wisely, and adding other people’s castoffs for high-priced vets. He created a team that was perfect for the new NHL – fast, mobile, and talented from line one to four. And how was he rewarded? The heart of his team has been removed – and it’s going to take a long time for the good hockey fans of Buffalo to recover.

Sure, owner Tom Golisano could have opened up his wallet and matched or exceeded those offers. But just as one can’t blame the players for taking these exorbitant salaries, nor can we begrudge an owner who finds that the market is too rich for his blood. After all, if he sunk all that money into two players, what would happen in the coming years when that crop of talented youth reaches free agency? Even restricted free agents could be attractive as a capped-out club wouldn’t have the resources to match.

So again we come to a time where some teams can buy their way to glory, while the fans of other teams may feel that they’re unable to compete on a level playing field because of finances. Hey, I’m all for capitalism and paying full market value. But the NHL isn’t an open market – it’s a collective. Having 30 competitive clubs is good business and it’s exactly what the new CBA was supposed to fix.

Wasn’t that why we lost a year of hockey?

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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