Nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The NHL's new math

The economic changes in the NHL as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement are already starting to show, as teams have been scrambling to either get rid of pricey veterans or re-sign their free-agent veteran stars for much less that they were paying them before, while hunting for less-expensive replacements. Wealthy teams like the New York Rangers, who up until now could afford to over-pay for veteran talent every year with the hopes of buying a playoff berth, have found themselves handcuffed by the new $39 million dollar salary cap, and as a result a number of "name" players were, in a sense, released when their inflated contracts were bought out: players like Bobby Holik of the Rangers (who I've always kinda liked, even though I gotta admit that he stunk his one year in New York), Derian Hatcher of the Detroit Red Wings, and John LeClair of the Philadelphia Flyers were sent packing.

Won't you pass the pill to Chris Bobby Holik

While it's crummy that fan favorites like Darren McCarty in Detroit have been forced to go play elsewhere for no other reason than the new cap restrictions, the bought-out players have been making out on both ends of the deal: they get to pocket 2/3rds of their old salary from their former team, and then go sign a contract with a new team, in effect making millions of dollars more than they would've if their old deals were still in place.

The "small market" teams that have been keeping a lower payroll all these years have initially found themselves benefitting in the free agent market because of the new economic environment. Teams that have high-paid superstars can only keep so many mid-level salaries on the payroll and still be able to fit the rest of their roster under the cap (expect to see a lot of AHL rookies sitting alongside bargain veterans at the end of every teams' benches, which might leave the AHL a lot thinner on talent in the short run), meaning that a good amount of quality free agents have been out looking for jobs. The teams that have started out with the most room under the cap to sign these free agents are the Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets of the hockey world, and in the earlier stages of the free-agent signing period they've been able to jump in and get players' names on contracts for a lot less than these players would've accepted a couple of seasons ago.

Your Brains vs. My Tractorbeam Wolf Pack news

For the Hartford Wolf Pack, both of last year's starting goaltenders, Jason LaBarbera (the 2004 AHL MVP) and Steve Valiquette, are gone. Last season, the two combined to give the Wolf Pack the lowest goals-against average in the league; this season, Valiquette will be playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the Russian Super League, and LaBarbera (who gets no credit for being a Metallica fan; if he had Early Man painted on his helmet, that would be a completely different story) will be with the LA Kings organization. Their spots on the goalie depth chart for the Rangers will be taken by Henrik Lundqvist and Al Montoya, both whom signed their first North American pro contracts last week.

They pelted us with rocks and garbage Lundqvist Boredom won't starve as long as I feed it Montoya

Despite saying "so long" to the top two goalies in the AHL, and leaving the goaltending situation in Hartford in a bit of a flux, this will be a good move in the long run for the Rangers; LaBarbera and Valiquette have good minor league numbers but most likely had already reached their ceiling, whereas Montoya and especially Lundqvist can be projected much higher on the NHL level. Montoya, the Rangers' #1 pick in '04 out of Michigan, seems to be more of an unknown quantity (which most NCAA goalies tend to be-- Robb Stauber, anyone?) and the reports on him aren't uniformly enthusiastic, but Lundqvist has a wealth of international experience and was the best player in Sweden each of the last two seasons.

Ironically, the lengthy "draft-and-follow" method that the Rangers used with Lundqvist won't be possible with the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement. Lundqvist was drafted by the Rangers in 2000, but now teams will have only 2 years to get their European draft picks signed. This, along with the higher transfer fees that IIHF countries like Russia and the Czech Republic are seeking for their players (up from $150,000 to as much as $2 million per player), is already reducing the stream of new European players coming into the NHL; the ridiculously low number of Russian players drafted in last month's NHL draft, probably due to the unsettled situation with transfer fees, is one example. Teams in the European leagues wish to stay competitive just like everyone else, and apparently the cycle where the teams invest a substantial amount of time and money developing their best native players into NHL-level prospects, only to see these players jump to the NHL while their hometown team is left with relatively little for their efforts, has worn thin.