John Ahlers: The More Things Change
The league’s latest attempt to mandate helmets, or a cap as it is called could put everyone back on the same plane as they were for the past calendar year. In other words, who will be the first to make a move that could set the marketplace for the upcoming season? Whoever fires the first shot, or offers the first contract, let alone who signs it, will open themselves to a great deal of scrutiny from both sides.
The imaginary bar has yet to be set and while teams have a good idea of what they are going to do or how they WANT to do things, there is bound to be a good deal of waiting and watching by some clubs. “I think that we’ll either see frenzy the first week of August with free agents or it might not be until the first week of September,” one NHL General Manager offered. And therein lays the rub. We’ve already seen a great deal fewer buyouts than many speculated in this first week of the rest of the NHL’s life as team’s wait to see how things will fall.
Equally in question is which player will be the first to negotiate a contract that could be the line in the sand for others of similar ability. Especially if that player is taking a pay cut from his previous deal. The NHL has long been a league that compares statistics when establishing contracts and while a good deal of that was a result of the arbitration system, old habits die hard. “I wouldn’t want to be the first person to sign a player after August 1, nor would I want to be the first player to sign,” said another prominent NHL front office executive/capologist. “Everyone is going to be watching that first deal.”
Making matters worse in this greatest of all waiting games, is the time frame allowed for it all to take place. The NHL off-season has been compressed into a six week sprint from its usual three month holiday, giving both sides a sense of urgency that has been known to create mistakes in past years. Some teams have as few as four or five players on their books in anticipation of this new order while some have as many as eighteen with the same objective in mind. Some GM’s have openly speculated that this season is not the one to be a big player among free agents, but perhaps next season or thereafter, as the declining requirements to be an unrestricted free agent have them looking towards the future. Others still have planned for this season for years, knowing that the crop of free agents will never be as large ever again.
Who is right and who may have missed out will not be known for years to come, but one thing is sure. There are valid reasons on both sides for almost every quandary that has come about from hockey’s new world order. Certainly some players are set to improve their lot while others still will undoubtedly take pay cuts. Some teams will see over 50% turnover on their roster and feel a freedom they’ve never known while others are forced into decisions they’d rather not make.
In the end however, someone WILL make the first move, fire the first salvo, sign the first contract, take the first chance and the games will most certainly begin. There isn’t enough time to take all the time everyone would like. Just don’t blink because you might miss it.