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Friday, August 5, 2005
Updated: August 8, 3:36 PM ET
NHL free agency a reversal of fortune

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

In Edmonton, Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe got a little choked up when he swung the deal for elite defenseman Chris Pronger.

In Toronto, the media has used the term "choke" in a much less complimentary fashion when assessing the work of Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson during the free-agent blizzard of the last week.

Welcome to the new world order, NHL style.

As frantic and topsy-turvy as many expected this first free-agency period under the new collective bargaining agreement to be, few imagined it would unfold as dramatically and quickly as it has.

Imagine that Robin Hood took a vacation from Sherwood Forest and wandered into the NHL, plucking the league's best players from the greedy, big-market teams and dispersing them to the poor and needy.

Bobby Holik in Atlanta.
Adam Foote in Columbus.
Pronger in Edmonton.
Tony Amonte in Calgary.
Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim.
Sergei Gonchar in Pittsburgh.
Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts in Florida.
Alex Kovalev in Montreal.

Whew.

If these guys weren't still pulling down a king's ransom in salaries, one might have expected to find a special appendix to the new collective bargaining agreement titled Bettman's Socialist Manifesto.

"Already, three days into the new system, you see a much more competitive balance emerging," said Columbus GM Doug MacLean, who lured one of the top defenders in the free-agent crop, Foote, to Columbus by challenging him to help mold a winner as he did in Colorado.

MacLean then added offensive rearguard Bryan Berard and competent backup netminder Martin Prusek to complement an explosive forward contingent that includes Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev.

"There's no doubt that it's generated excitement [in Columbus]. No doubt at all. And there should be excitement," MacLean said.

The excitement hasn't been limited to nontraditional hockey markets such as Columbus and South Florida, where the Panthers have established themselves as a playoff contender with the addition of Roberts, Nieuwendyk and playoff scoring machine Martin Gelinas. It extends north and west to hockey nerve centers in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.

Lowe was especially excited about being on the receiving end of a one-sided trade for a change. After years of selling off prime talent like Doug Weight and Bill Guerin for a clutch of prospects he had little hope of keeping in the long term, Lowe brought in former MVP and Norris Trophy winner Pronger and signed him to a long-term deal. The whole scenario would have been pure fantasy just two years ago, and Lowe acknowledged that Oilers fans had, under the old CBA, become "wrapped up in the inevitability of their own fate."

"We're turning a page and heading into a new part of Oiler history and maybe the NHL's future, too," said Lowe, who also added more salary with the acquisition of Islanders captain Michael Peca.

There was similar enthusiasm in Calgary. The Flames added Amonte and Darren McCarty, both bought out by their former big-spending teams, Philadelphia and Detroit, then locked up captain Jarome Iginla with a three-year, $21 million deal.

Vancouver captain Markus Naslund, one of the most gifted offensive free agents on the market, also opted to return, and he expects to finish his career in Vancouver after signing a three-year deal worth $18 million. In the past, neither the Flames nor the Canucks would have been able to retain those players' services.

"When we bought, it was on the assumption that there would be a new system and it was on the assumption the new system would enable us to compete to get and retain topflight players," said Bruce Levenson, a member of the Thrashers' new ownership group. "That was always a mantra for Gary Bettman, and I think what's happening now is really a testament to just how right he was."

The NHL marketplace has always acted like a physics experiment: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the same holds true in this new laboratory.

Under the old system, only a handful of teams -- the Rangers, Toronto, Colorado, Philadelphia, Detroit and Dallas -- could compete on the open market for free agents such as Holik, who earned a four-year, $45 million salary when he hopped across the river from New Jersey to the Rangers back in 2002. Those teams regularly swallowed up the best players on the market, either buying them outright as free agents or trading for them in the months before they became free agents, often giving up little in return to their poorer, small-market cousins.

The fact that those big-market teams didn't always win is moot. The fact was they kept the talent from being dispersed equally, forcing teams like Edmonton and Calgary to remain in a perpetual rebuilding phase.

Atlanta, Columbus and Florida continue to stock up on talented veteran players (the Thrashers are rumored to be after perennial point producer Peter Bondra), while Colorado and Toronto are hamstrung by their own history.

Colorado essentially traded Peter Forsberg and Foote for Pierre Turgeon and Patrice Brisebois, a huge step back for a team that has made the playoffs 10 straight years but now figures to have dropped to the middle or lower part of a suddenly ultracompetitive Western Conference.

Toronto added Jeff O'Neill at the draft, but that was an anomaly, a deal motivated by O'Neill's desire to be closer to home in the aftermath of his older brother's death. The Leafs were outbid for the services of childhood buddies Nieuwendyk and Roberts (Toronto-area natives who had little interest in leaving) and every other free agent in whom they've shown interest.

Ferguson has been flayed in the Toronto media recently for being ill-prepared for this new landscape. Unless the GM can pull a rabbit out of a hat in the form of a reborn Eric Lindros, Jason Allison or Paul Kariya, the Leafs will enter the season as a postseason long shot, this after qualifying for the playoffs for six straight seasons.

Before we get all misty-eyed at the misfortunes of the Avalanche, Leafs or even the Blues -- who had to unload Pronger or face the prospect of playing the entire season with about 11 players because of cap problems -- remember that the recent movement of players isn't a one-time event. Fluidity will be the norm going forward for all 30 teams, and many of the teams that locked in players for three, four and five years this week might rue those decisions when younger, more-talented free agents enter the market next summer and the summer after.

"This is not a reset the table and we're all going to play from here," one agent said.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell said that for the first few years of the team's existence, the only way to attract a free agent of any kind to Atlanta was to grossly overpay. Now, players like Foote and Holik are surveying the landscape, seeing that the old order is gone and making decisions based on criteria beyond the bottom line.

Adrian Aucoin talked about the sales pitch delivered by Chicago GM Dale Tallon before he signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the normally backward Blackhawks. Scott Niedermayer turned his back on more money to stay in New Jersey for a chance to play with his brother Rob in Anaheim, and Holik was enticed by the youthful Thrashers and the style of play endorsed by coach Bob Hartley even though the Devils reportedly also offered more money.

"We had a lot of interest," said Holik, a two-time Cup winner in Jersey who signed for three years in Atlanta. "But I knew what I wanted, and as soon as this came up it was like, forget about the rest, just tell them we are all set."

And forget about the old NHL order, too. It's been shattered.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.