Teams will live, not learn, through this offseason

This season in the NHL has been mostly about learning under the new salary cap system imposed as part of last summer's collective bargaining agreement.

This summer, however, 30 teams will begin the more trying process of living under the cap.

For some, it's not going to be much fun.

Take the New Jersey Devils, for instance. The decisions GM Lou Lamoriello made last summer -- specifically, opting to sign veteran defenseman Vladimir Malakhov and forward Alexander Mogilny -- are going to put a pinch on the club this summer and next season, despite the fact neither player skated for the team after Jan. 3 or figures into Jersey's plans for next season. The combined $7.2 million of salaries for the two players, you see, will count against the Devils' payroll figure next season as the cap is expected to rise from $39 million to between $43 million and $45 million.

With star winger Patrik Elias about to go on the open market, that's called starting off behind the 8-ball.

Then there's the Tampa Bay Lightning. Signing Brad Richards to a huge five-year, $39 million deal keeps the talented center with the Bolts for the conceivable future, which was the objective.

But now, Tampa GM Jay Feaster has $20 million tied up in Richards, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. With the remaining $23 million to $25 million, Feaster has to fill out the rest of his roster and find a goalie, and this for a franchise that is still losing buckets of money under the new economic system.

Lamoriello and Feaster are clever guys, and more than likely, they'll figure a way out of the box in which they find themselves.

But they're not alone, and the concept of teams having to come to grips with the harsh realities of the salary cap system, including decisions they have made already, is a major reason the looming free-agent season appears to be utterly unpredictable.

It used to be fairly straightforward. The teams with the big money -- Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia, Toronto, Colorado and the New York Rangers -- would compete for the most expensive free agents; the smoke would clear; and the rest of the league would divvy up the remainder of the talent.

Now, everybody is theoretically in the game and nobody can simply go out and outspend everyone else.

There are teams with cap room that either don't want to spend or might have trouble finding players to take their money.

There are teams that would love to use free agency to build themselves into a contender, but teams have been furiously re-signing their own players in recent months, thus depriving the open market of most of the more appealing athletes.

What will be left will be a lot of aging stars (Joe Sakic, Doug Weight, Brendan Shanahan) or a large number of midrange players hoping to hit a financial home run because teams will be looking to add well-known players, regardless of their potential productivity, to sell their teams in their individual markets.

Many teams, meanwhile, are going to be forced to make an excruciating choice.

They can look at the example of the Buffalo Sabres, emphasizing youth and speed while still staying well south of the cap limit, and hope that eventually will make them as good as the Sabres.

But in the new NHL, where the Final Four consisted of the Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks, there is going to be a win-now sentiment in each and every market.

In the last season before the lockout, none of those four teams was even in the playoffs, let alone considered serious Stanley Cup contenders before this season began.

Yet there all four were in the conference finals, and you can bet there are more than a few owners wondering why their teams can't go from the bottom to the top in similar fashion next season.

Two Original Six teams, the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, are facing that precise conundrum in an acute way, putting their respective management teams in very precarious positions.

The Bruins, without a Stanley Cup in 34 years, made all kinds of poor free-agent decisions last summer after several prime stars, including Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano, turned their noses up at the notion of skating for the B's.

They have about $25 million to spend and a new, young general manager in Peter Chiarelli to spend it, albeit not until July 15 (two weeks into the free-agent season!) under the terms of the deal struck between the Bruins and the Ottawa Senators, Chiarelli's old team.

Given that the Bruins dumped their top offensive players (Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov) this season, they might have trouble luring a topflight attacker such as, say, Elias to play in Beantown next season.

But if they step back and build patiently with youth and cheaper players to avoid making the same horrific spending errors, the iffy relationship between the Bruins and their once-rabid supporters will only become more lukewarm.

That could lead Chiarelli into spending more than he would like to attract some of the name veterans who will be available or going all-out regardless of cost to ink a player such as defenseman Zdeno Chara.

Then there's Toronto, a team that hasn't won it all since 1967. Like Tampa, the Leafs are moving dangerously close to spending an uncomfortable chunk of their payroll on just a handful of veteran players.

Assuming the rumors of defenseman Bryan McCabe signing a new contract for five years and an estimated $27.5 million are true, the Leafs soon might have more than $16 million tied up in McCabe, Mats Sundin and Tomas Kaberle, and that will be the case for at least the next two years.

The difference, of course, is that Richards, Lecavalier and St. Louis combined to win a Cup for Tampa two years ago. The Leafs trio hasn't come close to doing that.

Like the Bruins and Devils, meanwhile, the Leafs did poorly last summer on the free-agent market, signing Jason Allison, Eric Lindros, Alexander Khavanov and Mariusz Czerkawski. Allison and Lindros were both reasonably productive offensively before being lost to season-ending injuries, but the team played much better after all four of last summer's free-agent signings were no longer available to play.

The good news for GM John Ferguson is that he's not committed to any of those players for next season. Moreover, the $1.5 million the Leafs are expected to spend to buy out goalie Ed Belfour can be split over two years, meaning the club will only have to count $750,000 of it against the cap next season.

The Leafs have about $15 million to $17 million to spend on 10 players to fill out their roster, assuming Ferguson wants to leave a little room below the cap for in-season acquisitions. If the club can add six players, let's say, for an average of $500,000 each per season, that would leave it $12 million to $14 million to spend on three or four free agents, one of which probably has to be a veteran goaltender.

A whole lot of cap room, then, gets squeezed very quickly, and a team such as Toronto, which made poor free-agent choices last summer, has to be a little gun-shy this summer.

The Leafs and Bruins, two teams facing large and probably unrealistic short-term expectations in the new NHL, look to be two of the clubs facing the most daunting choices heading into free agency. For both, smart trades might be the better answer, but free agency has become the preferred pain-free method of acquiring players.

Sure, both teams have money to spend, which means they have choices.

But between them, they have 73 years of making the wrong ones.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.