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Cap crazy
Will the Sharks dive into the fray?
8/2/05 - by Ken Smyth

As a consequence of the recently ratified Collective Bargaining Agreement, NHL teams had until 5 PM Eastern time Friday July 29th to buy out player contracts at two-thirds of their 2004-05 value and not have the buyout count against the upcoming salary cap. This is the first stage of what promises to be the NHL's biggest free agent chase since they stopped busting the hookers around Maple Leaf Gardens. Players who are bought out are then free to sign with any other team. This is every general manager's one chance to get under the $39 million dollar salary cap by dumping those players who are over-age, over-paid, or would otherwise be considered prime New York Ranger material.

Add in the higher than normal numbers of restricted free agents who will be let go by their teams to get some cap leeway and the players who normally turned free agent under the old labor agreement. A lot of teams' rosters will look like some 15-year-old's fantasy league invention as compared what they were a year ago.

The maximum salary is still a respectable $7.8 million, which will limit signings by some formerly free-spending teams who are already in cap trouble and force some of the high-end guys into very strange jerseys. Imagine John LeClair or Derian Hatcher in that Nashville baby-poop yellow. There will be a salary floor of $21.5 million and the minimum salary was raised from $180,000 to $450,000, keeping the league from suddenly "discovering" a hotbed of hockey talent in Wangzhang province where players are eighty cents a pound.

The Sharks are in a good position compared to the cap. They're at slightly over 1/3 the cap with most of the core players signed, including goaltender Evgeni Nabokov (who looked sharp in some Russian games I saw on TV) and two (Scott Hannan, Kyle McLaren) of the top four defensemen. Rob Davison, Niko Dimitrakos, Nils Ekman, Jim Fahey, Alexander Korolyuk, Patrick Marleau, Scott Parker, Tom Preissing, Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, and Marco Sturm are tied as restricted free agents if they receive qualifying offers from the Sharks. Primeau may, under the new free-agency rules, declare himself as an unrestricted free agent even if he gets an offer.

The rules changes, especially the elimination of center-line off-sides, will add another dimension to this free-for-all. Will they really open up the ice and let the shots fly out like back in the '80's? It's very possible that the GM's will take a wait-and-see approach before signing any high-priced offensive talent since there may be some talent already on their roster that will flourish under the new rules. For example, if the referees really enforce the rules as written Korolyuk should get 40 goals, though you could argue that he should've gotten 30 in 2003-04 with the same qualifier.

There may also be less need for the man-mountain tie-you-up-with-stick-and-arms defensemen and more demand for ones who can carry the puck and make a good pass across the neutral zone to that winger who's waiting by the opponent's zone. This definitely impacts the value of Sharks' defenseman Mike Rathje. Rat is an unrestricted free agent and it's hard to see him skating in another uniform, despite the moments when it was hard to watch him in ours. But, how much will his game be worth in the new order of things? At the same time, the smaller, puck-handling defenseman, like Fahey or Stuart, could see more ice time.

This is all idle theory right now, the puck drops for real in October, and the new schedule concentrates play against divisional rivals at the expense of inter-conference play. Teams will play each team from a selected division in the other conference at home and another division at home. The Sharks play the Southeast at home and visit the Northeast, meaning that Sidney Crosby (latest Savior of Hockey) won't be coming to the Shark Tank this season. He'll still sell a lot of tickets all over the Atlantic Division and that will be just fine with the suits in the NHL who want to show full arenas to the media in the hopes of getting some kind of TV exposure.

Most Valuable Free Agent- Mike Modano (NY Rangers, perhaps?)

Least Valuable Free Agent- Bob Goodenow, who just resigned as head of the NHLPA. Goodenow stood firm just like he was told to, but the goaltender still gets the loss when the guys around him cave in.

Strange Coincidence- NHL labor agreement signed just after a visit to Toronto by representatives of the San Francisco Comedy College. Is there no connection or did it really take some professional fools to clean up the mess made by amateurs?

More cheap shots at the Rangers-The Rangers held a fan festival at the Madison Square Garden box office last Tuesday with the first 1,000 fans in attendance receiving a voucher good for two free tickets to a game during the 2005-06 season. This proves that that the early bird does indeed get the worm and defines the exchange rate as two Ranger tickets being worth one worm.

The strange case of Owen Nolan (or Maple Laffs, chapter 227) - The Sharks' former captain was either fit to play last non-season, according to the Maple Leafs' medical staff evaluation done last November or needed more surgery according to an evaluation completed last Monday. By deeming him fit to play after an injury that sidelined him in March 2004, the Leafs saved quite a bit on his salary last season despite a contract that took into account the possibility of a lockout. This also lets them buy him out at 2/3rds of his contract for 2005-06, which works out to a bit over 3.7 million dollars. But if Nolan really was unfit to play then they can't get off that cheap, and may need to buy him out at the full value remaining on his contract- something like $12 million.

Nolan's agent, J.P. Barry, has filed a grievance about this, charging that the misdiagnosis was letting the Leafs avoid paying the full $6.5 million salary that Nolan would've been due last season since injured players can't technically be locked out. (Nolan's contract is the same one that he signed with the Sharks before being traded which had certain guarantees he'd be paid even if there was a labor dispute.).

The Leafs fired their doctors and trainers recently, amid stories that players (including Shark-for-a-moment Ed Belfour) were getting medical treatment on the side. The doctor who operated on Nolan's knee last Monday, Dr. Tony Miniacci of the Cleveland Clinic, is the same one who cleared him to play last fall. Do we add knee surgery to the list of things where "you keep trying till you get it right!"?

Anyway, the NHL hearing is supposed to review the medical records and determine just how long the knee had been injured. This wouldn't be the first or last time that a team manipulated a player's injury status. Owen is lucky that he did not have an opportunity to lace them up last season, and if you'd like a good example of why I say that watch Bobby Orr walk, or try to, at one of those All-Star events. The league has also indicated that if Nolan is injured that the clause in the salary cap that gives a team some break if a high-priced player suffers a long-term injury will be invoked and his salary will not count against the cap.

Out in Toronto, there's a lot of media spin including suggestions that Nolan was doing most of his rehab at the dinner table. This may be true or not, but isn't it odd a) how if Nolan was healthy last November, he re-injured himself the same way while NOT playing and b) how some writers who break stories favorable to management are always getting their meals comp'ed at the buffet table in Air Canada Centre? Anyway, those Shark fans like me who chafed at how little we seemed to get for Owen Nolan in the 2003 trade can now accept management's desire to dump that contract at all costs.

Contact Ken at

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