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NHL free agent wars set to begin

The July 1 start of the NHL free agency period is usually marked by an extravaganza of excessive contracts and questionable moves and this year should be no difference despite a declining economy that will put the brakes on team salary increases. The leagues salary cap was boosted by just US$100,000 to US$56.8 million, and that was only because the NHL Players Association voted to increase the cap by 5% rather than see it dropa right they earned in the last labour agreement.
That said, some teams, such as cash-strapped Phoenix and Tampa Bay, would likely rather spend less than the lower limit of US$40.8 million anyway, all but ensuring they will be at the bottom of the NHL next year. Not that opening up the wallet is any guarantee of success. Toronto has $44.5 million committed to 17 players, and only two of them could be even remotely be considered top-line material. The Leafs have about $12 million to spend on free agents this year, but the team is still likely to end up out of the playoffs as it has for the past four years while being one of the leagues top-spending teams.
The bigger issue for teams, says Doug MacLean, Rogers Sportsnets Hockeycentral analyst and a former NHL general manager with the Columbus Blue Jackets, is what will happen to the salary cap in 2010-11. The economy isnt likely to bounce back too much before the start of that season, which will force companies to rethink their sponsorship dollars. Professional sports is an expensive marketing vehicle and there are only so many companies willing to pony up hundreds of thousandsif not millionsof dollars to be associated with hockey.
I would be nervous for anybody that goes over $50 million in long-term deals this summer, says MacLean. I think youll see GMs try like crazy to sign smaller-term deals, but Im not sure theyre going to be too successful, especially for the top guys. A lot of mid-range and low-range guys will get short-term deals, no doubt about that.
Some players have already signed such deals. Forward Bill Guerin resigned with the Pittsburgh Penguins on a one-year, US$2-million deal; defenceman Rob Blake resigned with the San Jose Sharks for one year at US$3.5 million; and Jussi Jokinen resigned with the Carolina Hurricanes for two years at an average of US$1.7 million per season. Another 300 free agents await contract offers.
But the top guys will always get the lucrative long-term deals they want, except for the odd player such as Marian Hossa, who took substantially less than market value to play for the Detroit Red Wings in an attempt to win the Stanley Cup. The irony is that he left the eventual champions, the Penguins, to play for the Wings. Hell have to do the same again this year if he wants to stay with the Wings.
MacLean doesnt believe many players will follow in Hossas skates. I dont expect that to be the norm, especially not for a player of his caliber and his age, he says. Taking a little less is one thing, but going from US$79 million to US$7 million? I dont think so.
One thing MacLean does expect to see is GMs keeping or taking on short-term, high-salary players, because they want to be more flexible down the road. Such decisions are already well established in the NBA, where teams take on expiring salaries to balance trades (which generally have to be roughly equal in terms of salary) as well as to free up cash for the following years free agent crop.
It used to be you didnt want to give up prospects or draft picks for a guy that would walk as an unrestricted free agent, says MacLean. All of a sudden, were seeing teams take that player because hes only got one year left at US$6 million. All of a sudden, expiring contracts are something GMs are moving into, which weve never had before.
But dont be surprised if a few NHL teams get caught up in the bidding wars starting July 1 at noon and overpay for middling talent. You can follow the action on Sportsnets website.
Heres a list of teams and how much they had committed (as of June 25) to spend next season (all figures US$):
Montreal Canadiens ($23.5 million, 11 players) Phoenix ($32.2 million, 15 players) New York Islanders ($32.4 million, 17 players Nashville ($33 million, 13 players Atlanta ($33.3 million, 15 players) Vancouver: ($33.8 million, 13 players Chicago ($34.5 million, 11 players) Florida ($38 million, 13 players) New York Rangers ($38 million, nine players) Anaheim ($38.9 million, 17 players) Dallas ($39.5 million, 19 players) Los Angeles (39.9 million, 19 players) Tampa Bay ($40.2 million, 17 players) New Jersey ($40.4 million, 14 players) Carolina ($42.3 million, 15 players) Edmonton ($42.8 million, 19 players) Columbus ($42.9 million, 19 players) Minnesota ($43.6 million, 15 players) Toronto ($44.5 million, 17 players) Washington ($44.6 million, 15 players) Colorado ($44.8 million, 15 players) Calgary ($45.4 million, 15 players) St. Louis: ($46.2 million, 19 players) Buffalo ($46.5 million, 15 players) San Jose ($46.7 million, 13 players) Pittsburgh ($46.8 million, 14 players) Ottawa ($50.5 million, 20 players) Detroit (51.2 million, 16 players) Boston ($51.29 million, 16 players) Philadelphia ($51.4 million, 17 players)
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