Thursday, August 04, 2005

Power players

Edmonton trading for Chris Pronger and Mike Peca?

Canadian teams being front-runners (though ultimately unsuccessful) in signing reigning Norris trophy winner Scott Niedermayer? Mike Modano circumventing his agent and signing for $3.5M per year? For five years?

Columbus landing Adam Foote? Atlanta signing Bobby Holik?

Who are you and what have you done with the NHL?!

The dizzying array of free-agent and transactional activity since August 1st has officially announced the arrival of a new economic order. Marquee talent has already dispersed significantly around the league, with normal weak-sisters and sellers such as Columbus, Florida, Atlanta, and Edmonton acquiring rather than selling talent and salaries. Edmonton traded prospects and a young defenseman for arguably the best blueliner in the game: either I woke up in Oppositeland or the new CBA is already showing significant promise for economic and competitive balance.

In addition to smaller markets suddenly becoming competitive in the free-agent market, players are signing for not only far less than they made under the old CBA, but also making contract decisions not purely based on the bottom line. Instead of the number preceeded by the dollar sign at the end of the contract, players are making decisions based on where they want to play, who they want to play with, and how competitive the team they are signing with will be. Jarome Iginla, after signing a 3-year, $21-million pact with the Flames, said: "as a free agent, you take into account the pay, no question, then you take in the living and then comes winning and winning might be near the top." While similar platitudes may have been uttered in the last 10 years, one gets the feeling that the athletes actually mean it these days.

Jarome Iginla is not the only star talent that could have opted for a short term deal to make use of the liberalized free agency rules but signed for the long-term instead: Chris Pronger in Edmonton committed for a 5-year tenure that had Oilers GM Kevin Lowe's harshest critics nodding their heads approvingly.

It is interesting to note that the Flames' splashes in the UFA market, Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty, both seemed contingent upon Iginla committing for the long term; General Manager Darryl Sutter noted that "we wouldn't have been able to sign Tony Amonte or Darren McCarty without them knowing that Jarome was under contract." Reports out of Anaheim note that Scott Niedermayer's signing there was partially influenced by -- or was the influence of -- brother Rob Niedermayer also committing to a four-year deal there. By all accounts he could have settled for similar, if not more, money from the Devils but opted to play slightly closer to home and on the same team as his younger brother.

The two best free-agent signings so far? This writer will nominate the Atlanta Thrashers' signing of gritty two-way center Bobby Holik, and Philadelphia's surprise acquisition of Peter Forsberg on the cheap (relatively speaking). The Thrashers have long needed a player such as Holik to tend the defensive zone while wunderkinds Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk put the puck in the net at the other end; a player like him might be what they needed to make that push for their first-ever playoff spot. The addition of Peter Forsberg to what was already arguably the deepest and most balanced line-up in the NHL has pushed the Flyers into the spot for early favorite Cup contender. While they had to move media darling (cough cough) Jeremy Roenick to make space under the cap, signing one of the league's top-3 players for under $6 million per year -- yes, you heard that right -- is going to make the Flyers' Atlantic division rivals more than a little unhappy.

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