Making Roster Fit A Challenge

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - August 03, 2005
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Now that the hockey big heads have put away their daggers and an actual season of NHL hockey is set to begin, the question is what will this new league look like? It’s anyone’s guess.

The new salary cap of $39 million means teams can no longer stockpile talent. Fan favorites will be swapped for the young and inexpensive, while others may end up in places no one could have imagined. How does Peter Forsberg in Detroit sound? Not very likely to happen, we must admit, but the thought is intriguing.

During the 2003-2004 season - yes it’s been that long - 16 of the 30 teams were over the current salary cap. For a team like Ottawa, getting below that number won’t be much of a problem. But for salary-bloated teams like Detroit, Colorado, Dallas, Philly and the overpaid, underachieving New York Rangers, it’s not going to be easy.

The lowest of the aforementioned big spenders, the Avalanche, had a payroll of $68 million. The Red Wings topped off at more than $77 million. During this week, hundreds of players will be put on waivers then become free agents through a buyout of their contracts. Detroit has already dumped Derian Hatcher, Ray Whitney and megapopular defenseman and Claude Lemieux retaliator Darren McCarty. Currently the Wings have a roster of only 12 guys, who are scheduled to draw some $25 million in salary. That doesn’t include 21-year vet Steve Yzerman nor young studs Pavel Datsyuk, who may return to Russia, and Henrik Zetterberg.

The Avalanche has decided to keep Joe Sakic and Rob Blake, but as of this writing they’re still unsure if they will be able to maintain the services of Forsberg and Adam Foote.

The newly authorized collective bargaining agreement sets free agency when a player hits 31 with at least four years of service, meaning anyone reaching athletic middle age better be wary, even if his employer was one of the frugal few when the puck was last dropped. Tampa Bay, who last paid out $34 million, is in a bind because of free agents Nikolai Khabibulin, league MVP and scoring champ Martin St. Louis and center Vincent Lecavalier. All are in line for a pay raise, especially St. Louis, who last played for $1.5 million. Atlanta was cozy under the cap with a $28 million roster, but has the NHL’s second leading scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk, a type II free agent and who will be looking for a significant bump in his $1.1 million salary.

The Penguins, never an organization to toss money around and one that was facing bankruptcy, will be spending due to its winning of the draft lottery. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby will only be able to pull in $850,000 for three years, so it shouldn’t be too much of a burden for the team which boasted the second lowest payroll in the league.

Another interesting problem involves those clubs that may like to dump a large salary, but are limited by their financial options. To buy out a player’s contract the team must pay two-thirds of that amount. For teams struggling with the bottom line, it’s becomes especially difficult to buy out one guy then turn around and pay another.

St. Louis, though not a team in tremendous peril, said it would not buy out the contracts of Keith Tkachuk ($7.6 million) and Doug Weight ($5.7 million) because of the money it would take to do so. Scott Niedermayer has already told the New Jersey Devils that he will check out what free agency has to offer. So the prospects that he returns to the Garden State are questionable. St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger was offered a deal, but don’t be surprised if he joins Niedermayer on his free agent fishing trip. Jaromir Jagr,who has not been shy in expressing his tremendous dislike for the new agreement, may decide to skip out on the Rangers and head back to the team he played for in Russia. Jagr, the league’s highest-paid player, would have to take an approximate 40 percent pay cut if he stayed in the NHL. Avangard Omsk owner Roman Abramovich has already shown that he is willing to spend big bucks to secure top talent.

Of course, all this could change tomorrow.

Opening day is set for Oct. 5. Wondering who’s going to don the home sweater? Join the club.

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