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Tuesday, June 29, 2004
GMs taking two paths to uncertainty

By Jim Kelley
ESPN.com

Scroll through the list of offseason signings so far and it's apparent there are two schools of thought on how to approach free-agency season, which begins July 1.

One encompasses a rather small group of teams that are proceeding as if it were business as usual, signing players whose contracts are about to expire or at least making qualifying offers to retain the rights to restricted free agents.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are an obvious example. The Leafs already have re-signed veterans Darcy Tucker and Ken Klee, and general manager John Ferguson is said to be working hard to get Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk back in the fold before Thursday.

The Colorado Avalanche have signed veterans Steve Konowalchuk and Darby Hendrickson and tendered a qualifying offer to star forward Peter Forsberg, one worth approximately $11 million, despite persistent rumors that he will play in Europe next season.

The Detroit Red Wings are passing on Brett Hull and Steve Thomas, but have made moves to sign several other players. The New York Rangers, after populating Canadian franchises at the trade deadline, insist they will qualify virtually all of their players before the deadline. St. Louis Blues GM Larry Pleau said he is "99.9 percent sure" he will extend a qualifying offer to defenseman Chris Pronger, a move that will boost Pronger to almost $10 million per season.

The Calgary Flames already have made a $7 million qualifying offer to Jarome Iginla, albeit for one season. The Philadelphia Flyers signed captain Keith Primeau to a long-term contract, albeit at a slight discount. The rest of their key players are already under contract.

Most of the rest of the teams are going in a different direction.

"My expectation is that you'll see a record number of veteran players not get qualifying offers because teams won't want to expose themselves to arbitration," player agent Steve Bartlett said this past weekend at the NHL entry draft. "I also think you'll see a much greater trend to go shorter-term on contracts."

A player who receives a qualifying offer, and is eligible for arbitration, has until July 15 to accept or reject the offer. If he rejects it, he can file for arbitration yet continue to negotiate with the team until the arbitrator's decision is rendered. Players who don't receive qualifying offers become unrestricted free agents.

Bartlett thinks almost 300 of the league's approximately 750 players could be looking at free agency before the stroke of midnight on June 30. If he's right, it will be an all-time record.

The reasons for the projected flood are simple. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, and many teams have been planning for the new economic environment they expect will exist under the new one. As a result, teams have structured many player contracts to expire July 1 so they'll have flexibility under whatever type of "cost certainty" is struck. A second line of thinking is that by not qualifying certain players, teams can avoid arbitration and still have a rather large pool from which to pick. If there truly are that many free agents on the market, it's likely the price will be lower because an overabundance of supply usually drives down the cost.

The players who get offers, such as Iginla, likely will receive ones that are for a single season. Some, such as injured Buffalo Sabres forward Tim Connolly, likely will get a qualifying offer that includes a separate, lower salary should he clear waivers and play in the minor leagues. It's a difficult decision for NHL players, one not many of them have had to make before. If a player accepts the deal and is assigned to the minors, he would make significantly less money, even if claimed by another team and sent there. If he rejects it, he might not get any offer at all.

These are tactics few general managers are willing to discuss publicly, but many will explain privately.

A few others, including most of the second group mentioned above, have taken a different tack. They believe that whatever form of cost containment the new CBA contains, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association will agree to some sort of phase-in period, during which either players already under contract will be exempt from a cap structure or provisions will be made to spread any overages out during a period of time.

It's a risky proposition, said commissioner Gary Bettman, and teams that continue to spend do so at their own peril.

"Some are making good decisions; some are making decisions that will come back and bite them," Bettman said.

He may be right, but it will be awhile until it's revealed which ones are which.

A source close to the still-sporadic bargaining between the two sides tells ESPN.com that Bettman has been insistent that all clauses of a new agreement will go into effect immediately and that there won't be any transition period.

If that's the case, some teams will be over any agreed-upon payroll limit with only a few players under contract. Some observers believe that the commissioner, for reasons of competitive balance and big-market demands, couldn't possibly let that happen.

For now, it's a moot point because the players' association says it will never agree to any sort of cost containment. As a result, any discussion of how teams will or should proceed is based upon speculation.

As if to hedge their bets, some teams that traditionally have put big dollars into play still expect to make some cuts. Colorado isn't expected to make a qualifying offer to Paul Kariya, making the talented winger, a perennial All-Star, an unrestricted free agent. It's also believed that the Blues will do the same with Pavol Demitra, using at least a part of his projected $6.5 million to pay Pronger.

But that only comes into play if other high-payroll players -- such as Pronger and Forsberg -- accept the expected short-term deals. If they do, they'll have a year of earnings in their pocket before they're forced to navigate the new CBA, which may reduce the time required to qualify for unrestricted free agency. If they pass on the offer, they may not get another one until after the new CBA is signed, one that won't be as lucrative. Or they can play in Europe.

Blues GM Larry Pleau summed up his position at the draft, saying: "Unless or until someone tells me differently, I'm operating as if we're going to have hockey next season."

But he'll also be watching his bottom line.

"We started saying last year we were going to cut our payroll back, and we have," he added. "And we're going to cut it back again this year."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.