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"We had the lockout and the new [collective-bargaining agreement], and that's why we went through all this, so teams like the Buffalo Sabres could survive and keep all their players. We'll see if the CBA is really working or we're back to the same thing as it was before." - Daniel Briere, Buffalo Sabres, in a June 26th interview with The Buffalo News.

This summer will be the first true measure of the impact of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement upon unrestricted free agency and team payrolls.

While the summer of 2005 was technically the first summer under the new CBA, it wasn't a true measure of the its impact upon the UFA market.

Last summer there were several big market teams forced into drastic payroll cuts due to the $39 million salary cap. Conversely there were other clubs, usually small market, that had considerable salary cap space available (in some cases, nearly $30 million) to pursue big name players ordinarily unavailable to those clubs.

This summer, however, an entire NHL season has been played under the new CBA, meaning most rosters are set for the most part, and there are several key issues that will affect this summer's UFA market more than last year's, and what the respective rosters of the NHL clubs will look like come next season.

First, obviously, is the cap itself, set to increase from $39 million to $44 million for next season, a jump of $5 million.

Don't, however, expect most NHL teams to spend up to that amount on payrolls, and that includes the big market clubs.

Most clubs saw the difficulties the Atlanta Thrashers, Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils had last season when those teams maxed out their payrolls.

All three struggled to fill the void left by prolonged absences of key players due to injury or illness, and in the case of the Thrashers and Canucks, it cost those two the opportunity to qualify for the 2006 playoffs.

The smaller markets won't spend up to the cap ceiling because they either can't or won't, depending on ownership and the marketplace. Expect some of these clubs to spend close to the cap minimum of $28 million in order to qualify for larger revenue sharing dollars, while most will likely spend between $32 -$36 million.

The big market teams will spend as close to the ceiling as possible but I suspect the management of those respective teams will wish to leave a "cap cushion" of $1.5-$2 million as insurance in the event trades need to be made to replace injured players.

Next is the 20 percent maximum salary rate that teams are allowed to pay their players, in this case, $8.8 million.

If we go by the recent re-signing of Brad Richards by the Tampa Bay Lightning, most teams will probably try to spend no more than $8 million on their best players, indeed, I suspect most will try to bring those salaries in at around $7.5 million.

In that way those salaries would still be more than those signed by the top players last summer (Iginla, Thornton and Lecavalier) but still within a "reasonable" range without biting too hard into the payroll.

By all accounts the Detroit Red Wings are hoping to re-sign Nicklas Lidstrom at a "hometown discount" of around $8 million, rather than the maximum.

Patrik Elias is considered by some to be the top UFA player in this summer's market after Lidstrom, but he's unlikely to get that top salary. I'll hazard a guess that he signs for around $7 million, still a considerable raise.

I realize folks will point this out as proof that the CBA is keeping salaries low. Admittedly it is acting as a drag on the marquee salaries but it's not keeping them artificially low.

In fact, compare those salaries to those earned by the NHL's top players just a few short years ago, and most are in line with what the top salaries were back then.

As the cap rises (and it should continue to do so over the course of the CBA, although it's difficult to know at this point how much the increases will vary from season to season), so too will the salaries for the top tier players. It's not far-fetched to assume the cap could hit between $9.5 -$10 million per by the tail end of the agreement, which was what the top salaries were in the final two years of the last CBA.

Just like under the old CBA, this deal will over time make it difficult for small market teams or those unwilling to spend up to the cap maximum to retain their best players. Indeed, Daniel Briere's fears could start coming to pass this summer.

Another factor that'll be more noticeable this summer is the lowered age for qualification for UFA status. It was felt last summer, but with the age now lowering to 29 this summer, and eventually to 27 in a couple of years, plus the fact players with eight consecutive seasons of NHL service are now eligible (and starting next summer, seven seasons) the impact is going to be more acutely felt this summer.

It'll also make it more difficult for teams to re-sign key players eligible for UFA status next summer to long-term contracts. Martin Havlat and Marian Gaborik are two prime examples. In the case of the former, his stated intent to re-sign a one-year contract for next season and then test next summer has forced the Ottawa Senators into shopping him, but his intentions are killing any potential interest thus far from other teams.

Gaborik meanwhile has publicly chafed under the Minnesota Wild's defensive system, and his threat to also test the market next summer led to the Wild trading for Gaborik's friend Pavol Demitra to keep their young star happy, prove to him that the club is serious about bolstering its offensive game, and hope that'll entice him to re-sign long term.

Another good example is Roberto Luongo, whose refusal to re-sign a long-term deal with the Florida Panthers resulted in his trade last Friday to the Vancouver Canucks.

It's a gamble on the part of Canucks GM Dave Nonis, who could also face losing Luongo for nothing next summer, although preliminary discussions between Nonis and Luongo's agent toward a potential long term contract have sounded promising.

One potential carry-over from last summer could be the trend toward players re-signing for less money but over a longer term, meaning deals of four or five years length rather than two to three years.

Teams will have to be careful, however, for while those deals do mean the players are taking less money, the salaries are still expensive, and that could mean a team could be saddled with an expensive contract for a potentially underachieving player eating up precious cap space.

There is consensus amongst most pundits and analysts that the CBA will still ensure the top players get top dollar but it could be difficult for lesser lights to garner more money than their true worth.

Possible in theory, unlikely in real life.

As I've constantly pointed out since the dark days of the lockout, you can't legislate against stupidity, meaning there will be bad deals made by inept management. The Chicago Blackhawks deal with goalie Nikolai Khabibulin is living proof, and there will be more bad deals in the future. Bank on it.

Lesser talented players may feel the salary drag more than perhaps the highest paid, but I suspect it's still not going to be as much of a handicap as originally believed.

The ones who'll feel the bite the most acutely will be those players on entry level salaries and veterans at the tail end of their careers. That was apparent last season and will carry on throughout the remainder of this deal.

Finally, there's a potential wild card in all this, the offer sheet to restricted free agents.

While offers sheets were a rarity under the last CBA (only four players got them, the last being Sergei Federov back in 1998), there's a growing perception the salary cap could make it easier to rival clubs to bid for a team's top RFA players, especially if a team is under tight cap constraints which would make it difficult to match an offer from a rival club.

Under the previous CBA, offers sheets were unsuccessful ventures because each time those offers were matched.

This summer, however, it's entirely possible that a team could dip a toe in the water with an offer sheet, and if that club successfully signs away another team's key RFA player, it coud open the floodgates for more offer sheets.

Daniel Briere was absolutely correct in his assessment that now we'll find out if the new CBA will work or if things will return to the way it was under the old deal.

I have a sinking feeling, however, that this summer some teams, particularly small market clubs, could find this new CBA isn't the saving grace it was touted to be a year ago.


Chris Pronger's decision to request a trade from the Edmonton Oilers caught the hockey world off-guard last week.

I can certainly understand the shock felt by Oilers management and fans, and the sense of betrayal by the latter.

After all, Pronger happily signed a five-year contract with the Oilers last summer and was arguably the Oilers best player throughout last season and their amazing playoff run. Then scant days following the Oilers painful Game Seven loss in the Stanley Cup Final to the Carolina Hurricanes, Pronger reportedly requests a trade for personal reasons.

Some in the blogosphere suggest this is a kick in the guts or nuts (pick your part of the anatomy where you think this does the most damage). Unquestionably, this news is very upsetting and led many hockey fans (not just Oilers fans) to slam Pronger for this decision.

Although we don't know the full story behind this, it's believed Pronger is making this trade request (and it's a request, not a demand. He asked to be traded, he didn't demand it) because his wife, a native of St. Louis, wasn't happy living in Edmonton.

Pronger didn't request to be dealt back to St. Louis, indeed, as Oilers GM Kevin Lowe pointed out, Pronger doesn't have a "no-trade" clause in his contract, meaning he has no say where Lowe deals him.

It's entirely possible Pronger could end up dealt somewhere else his wife doesn't like, so he's taking a risk in doing this.

Naturally, Pronger's trade request has fans heaping abuse upon Pronger's wife, drawing comparisons to Janet Jones Gretzky for her supposed influence on Wayne seeking a trade from Edmonton nearly twenty years ago (those folks need to brush up on their history. In a nutshell, Gretzky was dealt because then-owner Peter Pocklington needed the cash.)

As for Pronger, he's been called a wimp and a pussy for not standing up to his wife and telling her to just put up with it.

I've had a running debate/discussion with some folks on James Mirtle's blog on this topic. Here's my comments:

"Pronger himself seems to have had no qualms with playing in Edmonton, but the love of his wife trumps loyalty to a team anytime. Pronger has done what any husband worth his salt would do, put his wife and family first. He at least was enough of a man to give the Oilers one season and didn't allow any of this to be a distraction throughout the playoffs, helping them come to within one game of winning the Stanley Cup. Oilers fans need to remember that before they start heaping abuse on him. This isn't about money or greed, it's about keeping his family happy."

"Why did Pronger's wife not complain when he signed his big contract? Probably because she'd never had to follow her husband before (she's a St. Louis native). She tried it, didn't like it, and wanted to leave. He loves his wife and wants to make her happy. That doesn't make him less of a man, folks.

As for his contract, he could've made public waves during the season or in the playoffs regardless of the contract but he didn't, which was a mature decision. He didn't act like a petulant spoiled brat.

He's not a traitor, a wimp, or a pussy. He's merely trying to do what's right for his family. Why stay in a city if you're not happy there? That's not a knock against Edmonton, it's just unfortunate, is all.

Hopefully Lowe can either trade him for a good player or sign one who wants to play in Edmonton."

"I get a good chuckle out of the comments from folks suggesting Pronger should've put his wife in his place. From my experience, anyone who publicly proclaims a man needs to put his wife in her place is one who wouldn't dare try that with his own wife.

As for Pronger's committment, obviously when he signed it he thought everything would be fine. The situation has since changed and that's life. Plenty of folks commit to something initially only to discover later on it's not for them for whatever reason.

The only thing I'd concur on is if Pronger and his agent were the ones leaking this to Al Strachan just after the playoffs. If true that wasn't a classy move at all."

For the record, folks, I'm not a big fan of Chris Pronger. I acknowledge he's currently one of the best defencemen in the game, but he's never been a player that gets me excited about hockey like Bobby Orr or Guy Lafleur or Mario Lemieux used to and Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Dion Phaneuf do today.

I realize sports fans tend to be possessive with players on their favourites teams. I understand why they might see a player's request or demand to be traded as a betrayal.

What's forgotten is that these players have personal lives, which usually involves spouses and kids and parents and other issues. Just like the rest of us.

And sometimes they have to make decisions on what's best for their family over what's best for their team.

Pronger isn't betraying anybody. Anyone making that suggestion needs to grow up. This is a sports league, and he's merely a player seeking a trade for personal reasons. He's not doing anything that's going to seriously damage the city of Edmonton, and if you're an Oilers fan, he's not doing anything that's going to adversely affect your quality of life.

You wanna talk betrayal? Real betrayal? I know what that is, having experienced it seventeen years ago. Betrayal is having your first wife leave you for another guy while you're out of town, tell you over the phone she wants a divorce and coming home to an empty house.

What Pronger's doing doesn't even come close to real world betrayal. Perspective, people!

The bottom line, folks, is that a hockey career doesn't last forever. Like any career, eventually it comes to an end. Careers end and no job is permanent.

But your family will hopefully still be there once your career ends, and ultimately you have to do what's best for them, which of course is what's best for you.

I realize Pronger signed a contract with the Oilers, but it's nowhere near as important to him as the marriage contract with his wife.

Oilers fans may not like it or understand it, but at the very least, they should respect it, hope that Kevin Lowe gets a great return for him, and look to the future.

Don't forget, he helped your team not only make the playoffs but come to within one game of winning the Stanley Cup, which nobody thought was possible heading into this season.

Let that be your lasting memory of Chris Pronger.


With the Stanley Cup playoffs finally at an end, the NHL Awards will be awarded. The show is schedule for June 22nd (8 PM EST) on CBC television for those of us fortunate enough to get it.

Well, fortunate if you don't mind scripted cheesy award show banter between B-list entertainers and obviously nervous NHL stars prior to each presentation.

Anyway, here's the list of nominees for each award and my pick for each. Feel free to e-mail me your comments, I'll post them (as long as they're clean!) in a future "Fans Speak Out" update.

CALDER TROPHY (BEST ROOKIE): Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Dion Phaneuf, Calgary Flames.

Ovechkin will win this because he was the most exciting rookie player of the group. Crosby and Phaneuf are great young players who'll be winning plenty of hardware down the road, but the dazzling Russian forward brought a much-needed shot of excitement to the NHL this season, putting many in mind of Pavel Bure in his prime, and emerged as one of the most explosive forwards in the game.

SELKE TROPHY (OUTSTANDING DEFENSIVE PLAYER): Rod Brind'amour, Carolina Hurricanes; Mike Fisher, Ottawa Senators; Jere Lehtinen, Dallas Stars.

I'll give the nod to Fisher on this one. His plus-minus stats were superior to Brind'amour and Lehtinen, he had 7 points shorthanded, two more than Brind'amour, and he logged lots of ice time on the penalty kill and against top opponents on even strength situations.

HART TROPHY(MOST VALUABLE PLAYER): Jaromir Jagr, New York Rangers; Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks; Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames.

I know there was a lot of calls for Thornton in the second half of the season when he helped carry the Sharks into the playoffs, but the Sharks were expected to make the playoffs this season. The Rangers weren't, and the biggest reason why they did was Jagr, who for most of the season was the NHL's best offensive player.

JACK ADAMS TROPHY (OUTSTANDING COACH): Peter Laviolette, Carolina Hurricanes; Tom Renney, New York Rangers; Lindy Ruff, Buffalo Sabres. All worthy candidates but Laviolette gets the nod over these two, not because his team won the Cup as this is based on the regular season, but their respective records speak for themselves. The 'Canes made the most improvement of the three teams, thanks to Laviolette's coaching.

JAME NORRIS TROPHY (OUTSTANDING DEFENCEMAN): Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings; Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim Mighty Ducks; Sergei Zubov, Dallas Stars.

It's a close call between Lidstrom and Niedermayer but I'll give the nod to Lidstrom. He's been the long-time anchor of the Wings blueline and remains one of the reasons they're still among the league's elite. His all-around game makes him simply the best d-man in the NHL this season.

LADY BYNG TROPHY (MOST GENTLEMANLY PLAYER): Brad Richards, Tampa Bay Lightning; Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings; Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks.

If we go by penalty minuties, Datsyuk wins this one because he had the fewest of the three. I have a feeling, however, it'll be Richards winning this one again.


While I think Jagr is deserving of the MVP award I think the players may vote for Thornton because of his big run in the second half of the season.

VEZINA TROPHY (OUTSTANDING GOALTENDER): Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames; Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils; Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers.

It's "Kipper" in a walk, folks. He was first in goals-against average and shutouts, second in wins and third in save percentage. No offence to Brodeur and Lundqvist, who were outstanding this season, but it'll be a miscarriage of justice if Kiprusoff doesn't win this. Put simply, he was the NHL's top goaltender this season.


-Occasionally a reader will write in and comment on the number of ads on this website, usually wondering why I have so many and complaining these ads are a distraction.

The reason why there's so many ads is because I need the money.

No, I'm not destitute or starving to death, but I do have to pay web-hosting fees and my cable bill to keep my site running.

Since I retired from the Canadian Forces last month to do this full-time, those ad dollars take on even more significance.

I could hold a "beg-a-thon" every year or every few months to ask you good folks who regularly check out this site for donations, but thanks to the ads I don't have to do this.

The more you folks click those ads, the more money goes toward the cost of keeping this site going, meaning I don't have to seek donations or charge a monthly access fee.

For those of you who have clicked the ads in the past, my sincere thanks. You're helping keep this site and my just-realized dream of being a full-time free-lance hockey commentator alive.

- So two weeks ago it appeared the Toronto Maple Leafs had Bryan McCabe locked up to a five year contract worth close to $29 million.

But nothing's happen since, giving rise to recent speculation over why McCabe's signature isn't affixed to that contract.

Regardless of the reason, it's quite possible that McCabe may not return to the Toronto Maple Leafs next season.

Two weeks ago, I would've considered that a bad thing. For all the outcry that McCabe wasn't worthy of such a big contract, Leafs management in my opinion had little choice but to make this move at the time.

There was little guarantee that impending UFA blueliners such as Ottawa's Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara and Vancouver's Ed Jovanovski, all of whom are worth what the Leafs offered McCabe, would even be available.

But the salary cap might leave one or two of those guys available, and if McCabe spurns the Leafs, it could give management a shot at landing one of them.

If not, it gives the Leafs a shot at adding more depth by signing two of the supposed "second tier" UFA d-men, like Pavel Kubina, Jay McKee, Willie Mitchell, or Ruslan Salei.

The longer McCabe waffles, the more likely he won't be back, and by doing so, he could certainly make life easier for Leafs management, which would've suffered a serious backlash from their fans if they'd failed to even make a decent offer to McCabe.

- Three more teams, the Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, recently announced ticket price increases for next season.

Those clubs join the Minnesota Wild, Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators, which also announced price increases for next season.

A Ducks spokesman claimed the team wasn't reneging on its promise to fans not to raise ticket prices, but that it was charging a facility fee, something "that's pretty much standard in our business", according to the spokesman.

As the LA Times recently noted, teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets include facility fees in their ticket prices, and the club has announced that despite its strong season it'll lose around $15 million this season, which would justify such a fee.

Still, the fee is leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of some of their fans.

The salary cap and the fact the Ducks are anticipated to spend around $38 million on payroll (far below the anticipated $44 million cap) next season means the team cannot pin the blame on player salaries.

The San Jose Sharks aren't losing as much money as the Ducks (around $5 million according to a spokesman) but this club will also raise ticket prices, going up between 6-8 percent.

The Flyers meanwhile are charging a five percent price hike across the board, telling the Philadelphia media it was "an inflationary move to keep pace with the cost of living".

The Flyers already charged on average the highest ticket prices in the league, so this increase doesn't sit well with some of their fans.

These clubs won't be the last to raise their prices, as the LA Kings have already served a "heads-up" to their fans that ticket prices will increase for next season.

Betcha inflation and cost of living will be trotted out as an explanation. Start getting used to hearing that, hockey fans.

Before and during the lockout, the league and the team owners blamed the players salaries for high ticket prices. When hockey fans were polled during the lockout as to why the majority of them supported the league's demand for a salary cap, the main reason given was that the salaries of the players were far too high and were responsible for driving up ticket prices.

When the new CBA was signed with a salary cap in place, the expectation was that ticket prices would drop. At the time, I doubted most teams would lower their prices. I belonged to a minority that knew the "high salaries=high ticket prices" formula peddled by the league and swallowed blindly by most fans was bunk, that ticket prices are based on what each market will bear.

I was surprised last summer when most teams lowered their prices, resulting in plenty of mocking e-mails from my critics, but I knew those prices wouldn't stay down for long, especially if the league did better at the gate than anticipated, and said as much at the time.

When the league kept trumpeting their increased attendance numbers throughout the season, I knew prices would start going up.

Team owners can charge whatever they want for ticket prices based on their respective markets and some of them undoubtedly would be justified in doing so. Inflation does happen. The cost of living fluctuates. Maintaining facilities can be expensive. Teams can lose money.

Those reasons have always been around and are usually valid, but the NHL and the owners never told their fans that during the lockout. No, it was better to demonize the "greedy players" and make them responsible for the high cost of attending games.

But with the owners now getting the economic system they wanted, with a salary cap as its centerpiece, the players salaries can no longer be blamed for high ticket prices, which may have robbed the owners of their best propoganda ammunition the next time there's a labour dispute.

If there's any good that can come out of these and future increases (and there will be more ticket price increases over the next six years, fans, bank on it), it's that it'll finally educate the majority of fans that player salaries aren't to blame for those rising costs.

- There's plenty of speculation that top UFAs like Nicklas Lidstrom and Patrik Elias might command the league maximum this summer, expected to rise to around $8.6 million for next season.

But I'm wondering if that kind of money will be available to those players, either from their own clubs or on the open market.

Yes, the salary cap is rising to around $44 million for next season, an increase of nearly $5 million over this season, which should free up plenty of cap space for teams to land the top UFA players.

But I think most general managers learned from this season that it's best to keep a "cap cushion" of around $2 million available as insurance in case trades are needed to fill gaps in the roster throughout the season from injuries.

The Atlanta Thrashers inability to land a quality goalie early last season when their top two goalies went down to injury was directly a result of having maxed on available cap space, which probably cost the Thrashers a real shot at making the post-season for the first time in team history.

That's a prime example of why it's a bad idea to spend up to the cap maximum, and if I were a general manager, I'd be keeping that in mind when planning my payroll for next season.

I'm sure that most of this summer's top UFA players will get significant raises either from their current clubs or from others if they hit the market, but I think they'll have a tough time getting the cap max.


Surfin' through the internet on Monday, I found an article titled "The NHL's Quiet Rebellion" by Greg Wyshynski of The Fourth Period.

Wyshynski makes a compelling case that the NHL has had nothing but negative coverage regarding its popularity in the all-imporant American sports market by the American sports media.

Overall Wyshynski is correct in his assessment that too often the NHL product has been the subject of unfair cheap shots and a lack of respect from the American media establishment.

However, I must point out that he's wrong about the league's decision to sign with OLN:

"I'll tell you why the OLN decision was a good one, ratings be damned: because it’s the first time the NHL has done anything under Gary Bettman that has resembled a giant raised middle finger to the sports media establishment. "

Actually, the OLN decision was the only viable one available to Mr. Bettman, and had nothing to due with flipping off the American media.

Last May, in the midst of the NHL's self-destructive war with its players, ESPN declined to pick up the option year in its broadcasting contract with the league, leaving the NHL without a venue to regularly televise its product.

Bettman had no choice but to find another network willing to broadcast NHL games.

His choice of OLN was less than fortuitous, considering it's owned by cable giant Comcast, which coincidentally is the majority owner of the Philadephia Flyers.

Comcast saved Bettman from the potential embarrassment of having no major cable venue with which to broadcast his product.

But this is not, as Wyshynski suggests, an act of rebellion against the supposed "slavery" of the corporate media.

It was a move of desperation, born out of the fact that without a major television contract of some kind, the NHL risked sinking even further out of the consciousness of the American sports market and those which cover it.

Wyshynski also writes:

Back in 1996, Bettman referred to the NHL as a work-in-progress, a league building steadily in the United States. It's in the same place now, thanks to a decade of bungled marketing, labor strife, and the continued inability of television to capture the excitement of the game. But what's different in 2006 is that hockey is suddenly self-sufficient, able to exist outside the ESPN incubator and without being a slave to what the corporate media believes it should be. The revenues and attendance figures fib, but they don't lie.

He then goes on to suggest the NHL could become "the Pearl Jam of sports", that by staying true to its product and selling it to its hard-core fans, it might become relevant again without "pandering" to big media.

I have no argument with Wyshynski's points about bungled marketing and the labour strife, but I disagree about "the continued inability of television to capture the excitement of the game".

The reason why hockey ratings were in decline over the last ten years was because the on-ice product sucked on toast. Big time. Years of obstructionist hockey robbed the game of its speed, which in turn robbed it of its offence, which in turn resulted in too many games that for too many years were good cures for insomnia but rarely generated excitement.

Had the NHL's best offensive players been allowed to strut their stuff over most of the last ten years prior to this season, TV ratings in the United States might've improved or at least stabilized, rather than sinking to the point where not one but two major networks jettisoned the sport over a ten year period.

Maybe Wyshynski is right about the NHL possibly gaining relevance over time without the help of the US sports media. Right now, it's the only option the NHL has left to build on its popularity and grow the sport in the United States.

If not, then the only other possibility is to hope that it can at least continue to be strong as a "regional sport", that is, to remain highly popular in the American cities that have NHL franchises.

Sure, the league won't be growing the game, but at least in that way it can hope to remain stable and operational without the threat of contraction or relocation of franchises.

If that turns out to be the worst case scenario, I think all hockey fans would be satisfied with that, even if the NHL continued to be treated with disdain by the American press.

But does the NHL want that scenario, with 24 happy little fiefdoms, or does it want to continue trying to make in-roads into the US sports market?

It's up to the powers-that-be which run the NHL to decide what they want their hockey league to be.

Perhaps the NHL is forever meant to be a regional sport in the United States, a curiosity in the American sporting culture and nothing more.

But if the temptation and the lure of big bucks are to be had, if poker and spelling bees and skiprope competitions no longer sell and interest in hockey should actually increase down the road, ESPN could come calling again with a much bigger offer than $60 million per season.

And if that happens, I think I can safely say that Gary Bettman won't be flipping ESPN the bird.


So there I was this past Friday night, checkin' out the latest updates on my favourite blogs before callin' in a night after enjoying a couple of wobbly pops, when I came across this gem , courtesy of Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press.

Now I'm not trying to start a war between myself and Mr. Sharp nor do I question his feelings about the state of the NHL. Indeed, I decided against commenting on this in a fit of pique, wisely opting to wait until Saturday morning when the effect of the ales had worn off.

The fact remains, however, that Mr. Sharp's article contains perhaps the dumbest suggestion I've ever read about resolving the league's current popularity woes in the United States.

To be fair, he starts out ok, pointing out the obvious problems:

The NHL's marketing woes were best summarized in the expression on my wife's face when she asked me recently who was playing in the Stanley Cup finals.

The contemplation of Carolina versus Edmonton brought a facial contortion reminiscent of your mother assuring you as a child that the sludge disguised as cough medicine tasted just like candy.

She's not necessarily a hockey fan, but she recognizes brand names. She knows certain players and certain teams. And if there's at least marginal interest, she might watch some of the games.

And it's the trivial fan that drives American television ratings for sports properties, and until the NHL develops a strategy for marketing the game to those non-game ticket buyers, the league will basically remain in lockout mode.

A valid point. Most casual or "trivial" sports fans in the U.S. aren't likely to get excited over the prospect of a Carolina-Edmonton Stanley Cup final. Can't say I blame them, or Sharp's wife, for not having any interest because the two teams aren't easily recognizable "brand names" in the American sports market.

This is worse than the owners-driven lockout because games were actually played, and yet nobody paid attention.

Actually, the lockout made an already bad situation worse. Shutting down for a season caused further, perhaps permanent, damage to a sports league that had already suffered declining ratings and interest in the United States. Taking it away and out of the American sports fan's vision didn't help matters.

The competitive equity of the Stanley Cup playoffs provides drama unmatched in other sports, but a league's success is ultimately measured through its capacity as a television spectacle and that demands building an identity through its teams.

Another good point by Sharp, although it could also be argued that the sports visibility was already in serious decline during the days when big market clubs like the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and the Detroit Red Wings were winning the Cup in the late 90s and at the turn of the century.

If Carolina wins Saturday night, they should just roll out Lord Stanley's hallowed chalice and give it to the Hurricanes. Spare everyone the further pain of watching the Oilers muddle through the futility of survival without their most valuable player through these playoffs, goalie Dwayne Roloson.

Most hockey fans will feel the same way since it's so rare that any team rebounds from an 0-3 series deficit.

Just end it so the NHL can truly address its problems. In some respects, it's no different than the NBA and major league baseball in that its overall health is directly tied to the competitive strength of its elite teams.

What good is creating a faster, more exciting product with anonymous teams that are easily ignored?

It's the situation the NHL finds itself in because of over-expansion. Contraction isn't an option at this point so the league has to trumpet a supposedly improved product.

The Original Six and a second-generation franchise such as the Philadelphia Flyers have to be the league's strongest teams because they have the name recognition and historical cache necessary for attracting even modest television audiences for later playoff rounds.

If that means pulling some behind-the-scenes strings, then so be it.

Here's where Sharp starts going off the rails. As I noted previously, the NHL's ratings were in decline during the late 90s and into this decade even when Original Six franchises like the Red Wings and "second generation" franchises like the Flyers were the league's strongest teams.

Sure, TV ratings may be lower with so-called "anonymous franchises" having success in recent years, but let's fact facts, the damage was already done long before those clubs rose to prominance.

The league is now saddled with 30 franchises, probably at least 8 more than it should have, but to suggest "stacking the deck" to make many of those clubs into little more than "feeder systems" for the big franchises is no solution. Indeed, it's a ridiculous statement to make and offers no real solution.

Superstar-in-waiting goaltender Roberto Luongo wants out of Florida. He's likely to sign a one-year qualifying offer that would make him an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2007.

The last sentence is probably true. The first one is pure conjecture with little substantiation.

How does Sharp know Luongo wants out of Florida? Has he spoken directly to him or his agent? Have they gone on the record claiming that to be their intent?

Much has been made of late of the news that Luongo's agent is seeking a one-year contract, rather than a long-term deal, but that's based on the fact that the CBA prohibits players in their final season before their eligibility for UFA status to sign deals with "no-trade" clauses. That clause is something Luongo wants because he doesn't want to risk signing a long-term deal, only to have the Panthers deal him next season to a franchise he doesn't want to play for.

The key point here is Luongo's agent claims his client still wants to remain with the Panthers and that he'll continue to negotiate a long-term contract for the goalie.

Nothing was said about Luongo wanting out of Florida, in fact, he's apparently building a new home near Miami. I don't know about you, but if I were Luongo and wanted out of Florida, I wouldn't waste money - even if I've got millions to burn - building a new home in Miami or anywhere else in the state.

Luongo is a genuine asset that the NHL can't afford to waste somewhere in the netherworld.

Panthers fans can address their rebuttals to Mr. Sharp at dsharp@freepress.com. And please, keep 'em clean and civil, no profanity or questioning the man's sanity or hockey experience.

The Panthers will likely trade Luongo long before next summer, ensuring they get something in return.

Again, conjecture with no basis in fact. Indeed, most observers (myself included) believed Luongo would be long gone last season, until the Panthers re-signed Olli Jokinen. That changed his tune big time. At this point, it's far too early to suggest that the Panthers will be shopping Luongo.

And the league should steer him to Detroit.

Sure, it's duplicitous. (Yeah, like professional leagues have never done that before with their valued commodities.)

So lemme get this straight: Sharp is actually suggesting the NHL break its own anti-tampering laws to ensure Roberto Luongo gets dealt to Detroit.

This is the point where Mr. Sharp's article became the dumbest one on fixing the NHL I've ever read.

There's also the little matter of the salary cap and how the Wings would fit Luongo under it. After all, the Wings hope to re-sign Nicklas Lidstrom, which should cost 'em close to $8 million per season, which would take a big bite out of the roughly $20 million in available cap space the Wings would have for next season, plus the club would still have to sign at least a dozen more players to flesh out the roster.

Even if the Wings traded, say, Pavel Datsyuk and another player or two for Luongo (which won't happen, but let's frolic on Fantasy Island here for a moment), the goaltender still won't come cheap, probably seeking around $6 million per season at the very least.

Even by moving Datsyuk and his almost $4 million per plus another player or two, that still wouldn't leave enough wiggle room for the Wings to fill out the remainder of the roster.

Indeed, Luongo's salary demands would make him very difficult for another club, even ones with historical name recognition, to absorb that salary under today's cap system.

The NHL must improve the odds of its marquee teams advancing through the playoffs regardless of the financial parity of the new salary cap.

Why the hell should marquee teams, especially those that are poorly run (hello there, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks) be rewarded for their ineptitude? Why punish well-run smaller market clubs, like the Hurricanes and Oilers?

The odds were in favour of big market teams under the last CBA, when those clubs had unlimited payrolls to load up their rosters with the best available talent. At first it succeeded but over time other clubs, notably smaller market teams, found other ways to be successful.

"Improving the odds" for marquee teams is no way of ensuring those clubs will actually improve. Ask the fans of the NY Rangers.

Prime-time coverage of the national spelling bee two weeks ago will probably draw a television audience four times greater than those watching Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals tonight on NBC.

And that's spelled E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S-M-E-N-T.

As is an article actually suggesting the NHL should violate its own anti-tampering laws to stack the deck in favour of its big market teams.

There's already speculation that this might be the lowest-rated prime time broadcast network program in history.

According to USA Today, a Saturday evening ABC broadcast of a 2004 finals game between Tampa Bay and Calgary scored the second lowest network prime-time rating ever _1.4. That meant that only 1.4 percent of American homes watched that game. It barely beat a 1.3 garnered for a snowboarding competition on NBC in 2002.

And the factors that doomed that series as a U.S. television draw - a Canadian team, a non-traditional American hockey market and no transcendent stars - killed this series.

No question, the NHL ratings are in sad shape, but the current teams participating in the Finals aren't to be made the scapegoats. As I noted earlier, ratings were already well in decline prior to a lockout that only worsened matters.

The NHL remains shortsighted. It must get its head out of the ice and look beyond the arenas that filled up in record numbers this season and find a marketing path that attracts the casual mainstream.

I agree, and it would've been nice to see Sharp make an reasonable suggestion toward accomplishing this, instead of suggesting the league break its own laws to tilt the balance back in favour of marquee teams only one year after the league emerged from a season-killing lockout with a CBA supposedly designed to prevent that sort of thing.

If not, then all the painstaking efforts in restoring financial order to the league will have been wasted because if nobody's listening - or watching - then who'll even hear the NHL taking its last breaths on the major sports stage in this country?

Contraction would make the most sense for the NHL, but obviously that's not going to happen, at least not over the life of the current CBA. In the meantime, the NHL is stuck with 30 franchises, for good or ill, and has to try to generate excitement over those franchises and the on-ice product.

So it's taking the only logical stance it can, trumpeting the product's improvements and hope that with enough publicity over time the game will sell itself and its visibility will improve in the US sports market.

Of course it didn't have to be this way, as the NHL's current braintrust took a product that Sports Illustrated back in 1994 proclaimed was hotter than the NBA and ran it into the ground with its short-sightedness.

But the situation is what it is, and now the league has no recourse but to improve the quality of the on-ice game, proclaim that unlike the NBA and MLB all 30 franchises have a legitimate shot at winning a championship, market itself like hell and hope that over the next five years it can undue the damage of the last ten.

A tall order but nevertheless a more sensible course of action than that proposed by Mr. Sharp.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, the NHL isn't going to grow much more than what it was in its early 90s heyday. For more lucid words of wisdom, I'll close with Don Cherry's latest interview with ESPN:

Some have talked about how there isn't much interest in these Cup finals. What do you think about it?

Cherry: In Canada here, we're doing sensational. Yeah, it's a small market. I honestly believe it's going to be very tough for anybody to get a big [draw] on television in the States because a lot of people don't know hockey. Nebraska, Georgia. There's nothing wrong with the game and there's nothing wrong with the way it's being presented. There's just some people in some areas of the States that just don't know hockey and they don't care.

Do you think it will change in the U.S.?

Cherry: I don't think so. It will be very strong where it's strong. There will be some places where hockey outdraws basketball. But like I said, I can't see people in West Virginia picking up hockey.


NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave his annual press conference on the state of the league on Monday, his first since the start of the first NHL season following the lockout.

What follows are the key points (italicized for your protection!) followed by my analysis. Enjoy!

''The issue people point to if they're looking to take a shot at us is how we're doing on (U.S.) national television,'' Bettman said prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. ''This year we changed partners, on the cable side we gave up some distribution in order to get better coverage. That's a trade that I would make again if I had to or had to make that change again because we love the way OLN is covering us.''

The biggest criticism of the U.S. cable TV deal is that OLN is hard to find on the dial in this country and certainly not available in most hotels and sports bars.

But Bettman pointed to the fact that OLN has grown from being in 64 million U.S. homes last summer to 70 million homes today. The NHL's former cable TV partner ESPN is in 90.7 million homes while ESPN2 is in 90.2 million homes, not too mention its place as the No. 1 sports network in the world and a fixture in sports bars.

''We needed a partner that was going to treat us with greater importance than we were getting,'' said Bettman. ''That's what we're getting with OLN and it will grow. I just think people need to be patient.''

The league has a two-year deal with OLN but Bettman is giving no hint of wanting to leave the network.

''We see the relationship with OLN as a long-term relationship,'' he said.

On the one hand, Bettman had no choice but to pursue a new deal with OLN. The league's contract with ESPN had expired and the US sports channel wanted a new deal comparable to the meagre revenue sharing one Bettman negotiated with NBC.

Bettman's little dig about needing a broadcast partner willing to treat the league better is accurate, as in the final years of the deal with ESPN the number of NHL game televised were scaled back and were sometimes pre-empted by lesser sports.

But on the other hand, who's to blame for the NHL losing ratings which resulted in ESPN treating the league so shabbily?

During the first ten years of Bettman's tenure as NHL Commissioner, the league lost a contract with Foxsport, gained and eventually lost ABC and then lost ESPN.

Low ratings was the reason, in no small part because the state of the game deteriorated during that period.

Much has been made this season of the new rules opening the offensive game and bringing excitement back to the game, but why did it take a season-killing lockout to implement these rules? Why weren't these new rules implemented five, six, or seven years ago, when it was obvious the NHL product was in trouble?

Perhaps if those rules had been implemented back then, the NHL might still be on ABC and ESPN.

As things stand now, Bettman and the league have to hope that over the next five years the NHL product can attract the interest of American sports fans and ratings will hopefully begin to rise if OLN expands into more households.

- The NHL's own investigation in the alleged gambling ring involving Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet is still ongoing. ''It was slowed down dramatically because of certain people that could not be interviewed until we got approval from the authorities,'' said Bettman, who added that Tocchet remains on leave of absence from his Coyotes job.

It remains to be seen if Tocchet will stand trial for his alleged involvement in this gambling ring, but it strikes me as unusual that something that was trumpeted with such fanfare by the New Jersey State Police last February and eagerly seized upon by some pundits as a "black eye at the worst time" for the NHL quickly disappeared from the headlines. If the case against Tocchet and others was supposedly a certainty, why have we heard nothing further about it?

As for the league's handling of this affair, I cannot say one way or the other if they've done a good job of conducting their own investigation, but I'm willing to take their word on this unless further information emerges to the contrary.

- The sale of the St. Louis Blues may finally be approaching completion after a tentative agreement was first announced in March.

''Transactions that go into the hundreds of millions of dollars don't happen overnight,'' said Bettman. ''Those corporate lawyers tend to get bogged down. (New owner) David Checketts and his partners met with the (Board of Governors) executive committee on Friday and if everything continues as it appears to be it will be on the agenda for the June 21 Board meeting for the Board's consideration.''

These things take time but most of what I've heard from St. Louis is that this deal will eventually get done. Here's hoping sooner rather than later so the rebuilding of this once-proud franchise can begin in earnest.

- The salary cap as previously reported will rise from the current $39 million to about $43 million or $44 million, Bettman said thanks to revenues that will be ''at an all-time high for this league.''

Revenues are much higher than anticipated at the start of the season, but are they really at an all-time high?

The inimitable Tom Benjamin provides an excellent analysis of this topic.

Something interesting from this is the cap for next season (probably around $43.5 million) is being seen as a compromise with the NHLPA so that escrow payments by the players for next season won't be as high as if the cap rose to, say, $45 -$46 million.

- The NHL's free agency period is expected to begin July 1 as expected. There was talk the NHL Players' Association would possibly ask for a delay if it contemplated possible changes to the way the salary cap was calculated.

''My guess is there won't be a delay, my guess is that it will start on time. That could change but I doubt it,'' Bettman said.

If the cap for next season is set at $43.5 million as noted earlier, that would probably forego the need for the PA to request pushing the UFA deadline ahead by two weeks.

- The NHL's competition committee will meet again this summer and look at possibly other rule changes.

''I like the rule change that you can't change your players when you ice the puck and I'd like to also see that considered for when the goaltender freezes the puck,'' said Bettman.

I like that icing rule too, and I wouldn't be upset to see the same thing for when the goalie freezes the puck.

I would, however, like to see that stupid, inane, asinine "delay of game" penalty for inadvertently clearing the puck over the glass abolished.

- The NHL's unbalanced schedule, which saw teams play eight games within their own division but none against some teams from the other conference, will be kept for next season. The 2006-07 playoffs will also end earlier than this year. A possible Game 7 in this final would go June 19.

''We would be done in June single digits if it weren't for the Olympics, that cost us at least two weeks,'' said Bettman.

Even without the Olympics, the NHL season and post-season are far too long. Scaling back the schedule from 82 to 78 games and making the first round of the playoffs a best-of-five would go a long way toward wrapping up the playoffs by around mid-May. It would also save the players from considerable wear and tear over the course of the season.

But sadly, we won't see this common-sense solution. Money talks and the owners want to squeeze every cent they can from the schedule, hence the reason we have an 82 game schedule and four best-of-seven playoff rounds.

Bettman didn't mention anything about a rumoured proposal to expand the playoff qualifying number from 16 teams to 20 and adding another round to the post-season, nor was he asked about it at the press conference. Here's hoping the NHL doesn't embrace that nonsense.

- The NHL in Winnipeg: ''We're not looking to relocate any franchise and we're not looking to expand ... but I do agree that the ability of a Winnipeg with the right building and ownership to not just survive but be competitive under the new system isn't something I would rule out although we haven't investigated it. But I don't want to get anybody's hopes up because we're not planning on going anywhere.''

I'm against further expansion, 30 NHL teams is enough. That being said, however, I'm not against relocating a struggling franchise to a more stable or traditional hockey market, like Winnipeg, or Quebec City, or Hamilton, or Portland, Oregon.

That being said, don't get your hopes up, Winnipeg hockey fans. I commend you for keeping the dream alive, but it could take another ten years before you see a glimmer of reality from this.

Hey, I hope I'm proven wrong, I'd be thrilled to see an NHL franchise back in Winnipeg (hopefully as the Jets!), but I'm not optimistic of it happening soon.

- Bettman sounded less than pleased with the issue of compensation for clubs losing an executive under contract to another club, the most recent controversy coming when Ottawa and Boston battled over Senators assistant GM Peter Chiarelli becoming the new Bruins' GM.

It ended up costing the Bruins a conditional draft pick in the 2007 NHL entry draft. The Los Angeles Kings also had to cough up a second-round draft pick for hiring Philadelphia Flyers pro scout Dean Lombardi as their new GM.

''That's something that has troubled me on two fronts: one, we have a procedure in terms of how you're supposed to do these things and it hasn't always been adhered to by the clubs, and that tends to cause a little bit a problem when it's not adhered to; and two, there's the issue of whether or not it's a good idea at all. I don't have a problem with clubs holding their personnel to their contracts if they choose to, but this issue of what happens if you open the door a little and the problem is causes. This is something I'll probably address with the board of governors (June 21).''

I'm glad to see this bothers Bettman as much as it does me. This was an embarrassment, particularly for the Bruins, and hopefully this will be properly addressed by the BOG to ensure it doesn't happen again. Surely to Buddha there's enough qualified hockey people out there that teams should have to get into paying compensation to another team to hire away one of their hockey people.

"Market size has become irrelevant," he said before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final between the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes last night.

"We have, in effect, levelled the playing surface. It's about the hockey now, not the markets."

With four "small-market" teams — Edmonton, Carolina, Buffalo and Anaheim — having made it to the conference finals, Bettman said that big-city teams like Toronto, New York and Philadelphia no longer have a built-in advantage.

"We've learned you don't have to spend all the way to the cap's upper limits to succeed," he said.

Folks, I've railed about this myth since the new CBA was signed a year ago, and I'm not about to bring it all up again.

Again, I'll defer to Tom Benjamin to sum this up:

"It is almost like the lockout never happened and in more ways than one. The economic problems are exactly the same. By the time revenues get back to $2.2 billion, salaries will also be back to about $1.8 million a year on average.

The only real change is the distribution of the money going to the players - the salary structure - the age of free agency, and how the talent will be distributed across the league. Those changes are profound, but it will be years before we see the kind of damage it inflicts on the game."

Suffice to say, folks in the small markets are going to be in for major disappointment in the coming five years. Believe Bettman's "level the playing surface" myth at your peril!

On the rules front, Bettman said he is not in favour of repealing the rule that automatically penalizes a player for shooting the puck over the glass in the defending zone, although it's up to the competition committee to examine the issue this summer.

The rule came under criticism in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final when Buffalo defenceman Brian Campbell was penalized in the third period, leading to the game-winning power-play goal by the Hurricanes.

"Personally, I don't have a problem with the rule," he said.

D'ya think the Buffalo Sabres and their fans feel the same way, Gary? Or the Montreal Canadiens, who also lost an important playoff game as a result of this rule?

Maybe you'd might wanna check with HNIC's Don Cherry, TSN's Pierre McGuire or Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos to see if they're fans of this rule?

I'm with Cherry on a solution for this madness, that being if the puck is shot over the glass, the team of the player that did so cannot make a line change, just as with the icing rule.

But if Bettman's saying he "doesn't have a problem with it", I don't think that bodes well for this silly-ass rule being abolished.

As with the old crease rule, this is going to come back to bite Bettman and the league in the butt. Count on it.

''We've learned that you don't need to spend all the way to the cap's upper limit to succeed and we think that's positive because a lot has been made about market size and the teams that have reached this final. If these playoffs demonstrate anything it's that market size has become irrelevant. The hockey played by the Carolina Hurricanes and the Edmonton Oilers is fast, entertaining and exciting and we are delighted to have these two teams competing for the Cup.

''It's about the hockey, it's not about the markets.''

It should be about the hockey and not the markets, but if revenues continue to rise under this CBA, so too will the cap floor and ceiling, and that's going to expand the distance between the big and small market teams.

If the league had actually gotten a hard, fixed cap set at $39 million or $42.5 million for every season over the life of this CBA, it would've been the unqualified victory the critics of the NHLPA proclaimed Bettman and the owners achieved.

But that floating cap was obviously done as much to appease the big market owners as it was the NHLPA, and that means they'll be the ones taking advantage of that increased ceiling rather than the smaller markets.

Yes, the cap does prevent those big markets from running up huge payrolls and driving up players salaries, but only to a point.

Next season, the cap is set at $43.5 million, but if revenues should increase over the life of the CBA, by the time the final year of the deal rolls around, a cap ceiling of $50 million is not out of the question.

Yes, it's still more important to build a team wisely rather than by throwing money around, but let's face facts, gang, if a GM of a big market team with a cap ceiling of $50 million is presented with an opportunity to sign away a young UFA superstar from a small market team (like, oh, say, Sidney Crosby from the Pittsburgh Penguins), does anyone really believe that small market club will be able to out-bid the bigger market for his services?

Didn't think so, and that's going to be a reality very, very soon.


Usually around this time of year, a reader will ask me what I'll be doing once the playoffs are over.

The perception seems to be among some NHL fans that things quiet down for me in the summertime, particularly in the month of June.

Sure enough, this past Friday night, while enjoying a couple of fine raspberry ales at the Gahan House, one of my buddies asked the inevitable.

"Guess there won't be much for you to do once the Finals are over?"

If I covered solely the NHL's regular season and playoffs games, then yes, I'd be gearing up for a summer vacation.

Covering potential NHL player movement like I do is a year-round job.

In my line of work - and yes, this along with my gig as a free-lance columnist at Foxsport.com is now my full time line of work - the summers tend to be the busiest time of year for covering the NHL, and June is traditionally the busiest month.

The week leading up to the March trade deadline is a frenzied time, but it's only seven days, and once it's over, I can relax a bit and shift my coverage toward non-playoff clubs and the fall-out of the deadline deals.

But June and the first two weeks of July are the busiest six weeks of the year for my coverage of NHL player movement.

I do cover the playoffs on my Foxsports.com blog, but by the time the Stanley Cup Finals roll around, 28 of the 30 NHL clubs are no longer playing, which means a significant increase in trade and free agent rumours.

One reason for the increase in trade rumours is the annual June entry draft weekend, traditionally a time when clubs either swap draft picks or players.

In the past there's been some blockbuster moves and that always whets the appetites of hardcore hockey fans.

Thanks to the new CBA a twist has been added to potential player movement, that of the contract buyout period in the last two weeks in June.

For teams carrying expensive underachievers on their rosters, this is the only chance during the year to dump most of those salaries, although the team is still on the hook for one-third which counts against the salary cap spread out over the life of the contract.

The status of potential unrestricted free agents also attracts significant interest from die-hard fans in June.

Another interesting wrinkle from the new CBA is that teams now have exclusive negotiating rights with their impending UFA players only up until June 15th, compared to midnight of June 30th under the old deal.

That means teams can still negotiate with those players but cannot actually re-sign them to new contracts until July 1st. The players can now entertain offers from other clubs, although they cannot sign contracts with another team until July 1st.

After the end of June, the focus shifts in the first two weeks of July toward the UFA market, as the majority of major signings tend to occur during that period.

Throughout the remainder of the summer, it's the status of the remaining UFAs and the contract talks of RFA players -along with the potential for those players to be dealt if their negotiations drag - that dominate the rumour mill.

By September, training camp commences and that also generates more rumour activity, as promising young players threaten the status of aging veterans. If a key RFA player's contract talks with his team have stalled, it generates speculation of a holdout, which in turn fuels speculation of potential trades.

Before I know it, October and the start of the new NHL regular season has begun, and the beginning of tracking trade specualtions throughout the season, culminating in the March trade deadline.

Hockey may be out of most fans minds by summer, but for me, it's the busiest - and best - time of the year.

Yes, it can be a busy, sometimes demanding job, but I wouldn't give this up for the world.


- I don't care what anybody says, having the Stanley Cup Finals in June is just plain wrong!

The playoffs have gone on far too long in recent years. Once upon a time, they'd end by mid-May, but as the early elimination rounds got longer, it took longer for the post-season to end.

Still, even when the Finals ended in late-May, that still seemed appropriate. Baseball season is in full swing by then, football season is just around the corner and most hockey fans are thinking about heading outside by that point, rather than sitting indoors on a nice afternoon or evening watching a winter sport that should've ended months earlier.

But now the Finals start in June, and thanks to the Olympic break, the Finals won't start until June 5th and end by June 19th at the latest.

I know the ice at Edmonton's Rexall Place is considered the best in the NHL, but it's likely to start getting mushy if this year's Finals lasts the full seven games.

This is yet another reason why I'm against the NHL participating in the Winter Olympics. Shutting down the season for over two weeks pushes an already too-long post-season far too close to the start of summer.

- I saw the NY Post's Larry Brooks and the Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons poo-poo'ed the Tampa Bay Lightning re-signing Brad Richards to a five-year, $39 million contract.

Yet I wonder what their reaction would've been if, say, Richards had been a Ranger or a Maple Leaf re-signed to a similar deal?

Betcha we wouldn't have read about how Richards wasn't worth it.

- Speaking of big contracts, I thought that's what the new CBA was supposed to prevent?

I'm not gonna beat this one to death as I previously touched on this when I commented on Richards' contract.

Something else that's become apparent under this new CBA is that it'll make it very difficult for successful franchises to keep a winning roster together.

The 2004 Stanley Cup champion Lightning are a perfect example. GM Jay Feaster had three big stars to re-sign in Martin St. Louis (the Hart and Ross winner, you'll recall), Vincent Lecavalier and Richards (the 2004 Smythe and Byng winner).

But now he'll have to chop elsewhere on the roster because the salary cap prevents him from spending more to build around those three stars.

The cap was supposedly implemented to prevent big market teams from overspending and thus pricing small and mid-market teams out of the bidding for the best UFA players or to retain their own best players.

That's a load of crap, of course, the real reason for the cap was so the owners could keep player salaries under tighter control and thus increase their profits.

But the unintended consequence, as the Bolts have clearly demonstrated, is that it's now become very difficult to keep a winning roster together.

Remember, the Bolts are considered a small market team with a limited fan and revenue base. This CBA was supposed to help a team like that, not hurt it.

Now it could be argued that ownership probably wouldn't have wanted to fork out the money to push the payroll into the mid-$40 million range for this past season to keep the Bolts together or into the upper $40 millions for next season. After all, the Lightning are a small market club whose owner wouldn't or couldn't pay out the big bucks on payroll.

If so, then fans of the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers are in for a very painful surprise in the near future.

The Sabres have 19 key players to re-sign for next season. The club's payroll was barely around $30 million for this season. Only three players earned over $2 million. The majority of those players earned under $1 million per salary for this past season.

Some of those free agents (Afinogenov, Briere, Connolly, Dumont, Kotalik and Miller) will be seeking substantial raises over their 2005-06 salaries.

Sure, the salary cap is going up to somewhere in the $45 million range, and it's a good possibility the Sabres ownership could spend up to $40 million to keep this team together.

But is Sabres ownership willing to spend that much? Remember the hue and cry during the lockout from the NHL side over the NHLPA's suggested $44 million salary cap? How that was supposedly too rich for small market teams? Remember how that contributed to killing the 2004-05 season?

The Sabres made a go of it this season because they had a predominantly young roster whose best players had yet to blossom into stars. Now, however, most of those good young players are going to look at what comparable players earned and will want at least that much for next season.

It's going to cost Sabres ownership plenty to keep this roster together, and if it becomes a winning franchise, it's going to cost even more, possibly much more than ownership is willing to spend.

Turning to the 2006 Western Conference champion Edmonton Oilers, there are ten key players eligible for UFA status this summer and three key players eligible for RFA status.

The Oilers spent just over $35 million on this season's roster, and more than a few pundits and fans have praised the salary cap and the new CBA for this.

Without the new CBA and the salary cap, the experts claim, there's no way the Oilers could've afforded to acquire Chris Pronger, Michael Peca and Dwayne Roloson, nor could they afford to retain Pronger by re-signing him to a long-term contract lower than his supposed market value.

What's overlooked out of this is the fact that the summer of 2005 was a unique situation for the NHL. With some teams chopping their payrolls to get down under the $39 million cap for the upcoming season, certain high-profile players were available who wouldn't have been in prevous years under normal circumstances.

Teams that, thanks to the 24 percent salary rollback and other unusual variables, had in some cases well over $20 million in available cap space and could for the first time afford to snap up those players.

Unfortunately, it's led to the misguided perception that this unique situation will be the norm throughout the life of the current CBA.

Most big market franchises won't be paring down payrolls this summer because the salary cap is going to increase for next season, meaning those clubs won't be dumping name players to be snapped up by small market teams at bargain prices.

Sergei Samsonov and Dwayne Roloson will be seeking big raises they'll be able to get on the UFA market, and Fernando Pisani will likely seek upwards of $1 million to remain an Oiler.

It's a good bet Ales Hemsky,Jarret Stoll and Shawn Horcoff won't be re-signing for under $1 million per season, seeking salaries worth far more than what they got for this season.

Now obviously none of these two teams have players on their rosters that'll be seeking the equivilant of what Richards, St. Louis and Lecavalier got from the Lightning, but to do so could push their respective payrolls far closer to the cap ceiling than ownership would like.

And if any of those promising young players on their respective rosters break out into big stars, it's going to cost them much more to retain them, which could have the Oilers and Sabres facing the same scenario as the Lightning.

The willingness of ownership to invest in the roster, not the salary cap, is going to determine if those teams can stay together and build on their surprising success of this season.

- Is it me, or is the backhand shot becoming a dying art?

We hear time and again that the backhander is the most difficult shot for a goaltender to stop. That's probably because today's goalies see it so infrequently that they're unprepared whenever one comes their way.

Countless times I'll see a player come around an opposing net , swing out in front and, rather than fire a backhand shot, turn and try to fire a wrist shot.

And too many times we'll see that effort either deflect harmlessly away off a defenceman's stick or easily blocked and smothered by a goalie.

If the Montreal Canadiens' Claude Lemieux had done the same thing in overtime of Game Seven of the 1986 Conference Semifinals against the Hartford Whalers, he probably wouldn't have score the winning goal.

But Lemieux walked out in front and roofed a backhander over the glove of Whalers netminder Mike Liut (hat tip to "Don" for the save!) to win the game and the series, which also continued Montreal's march to the Stanley Cup.

Few skilled players use the backhand nowadays, more content to attempt a "wraparound wrister" but hopefully under the new NHL rules we'll start to see it make a return.

- Something else that's also become a dying art is the hip check.

When done right it's a thing of beauty, but too often nowadays those who try to hip check are accused of dirty play, of "submarining" an opponent in a deliberate attempt to injure a knee.

Heck, even when it's done right more often that not it results in an obstruction penalty.

That's too bad, because a hip check when done well can be one of the most exciting plays in hockey.

- Patrick Roy's stock as a future head coach or general manager in the NHL took a huge surge this past weekend when his Quebec Ramparts won the Memorial Cup this past weekend over Ted Nolan's Moncton Wildcats.

Roy's a very competitive guy, just as he was during his NHL playing days, and at times that competitiveness boils over into the occasional shouting match with an opposing coach during the heat of a game or catty sniping at rival coaches and players via the press.

Love him or hate him, but there's no denying this guy learned his lessons well during his playing days on how a winner is built and coached.

Expect Roy to be back in the NHL in either coaching or management within the next five years.