Teams preparing now to win later

I suspect some fans (especially the ones that bought season tickets) in the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area have been verbally skewering Craig Patrick.

After all, the Penguins general manager sent scorer Martin Straka to the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday for two little-known players -- defenseman Martin Strbak, 28, and left winger Sergei Anshakov, 19.

The fans seem to have cause, too. The eminently talented Straka, 31, is another big name on the ever-growing list of big-name (read: expensive) players Patrick has opted to trade or not re-sign in recent years. Alexei Kovalev is on that list. So too is Robert Lang, Jaromir Jagr, the beloved Ron Francis, the talented-but-quirky Petr Nedved and the quirky-but-talented Darius Kasparaitis. In some circles that's a "who's who" of hockey, a core group of players one could build a team, perhaps even a Stanley Cup team, around.

Not me, though. I'd put Patrick in the Hockey Hall of Fame if he weren't already there. Given the way the Hall has taken to arbitrarily rewriting its honored members' clause in recent months, maybe settling for one reporter's "attaboy" isn't such a dubious honor after all.

You see, in the game within the game, the one where economic realities dictate everything except U.S. war policy and the Hilton video buyback budget, Patrick is like that kid in the Xerox commercial, the one who gets a family reprimand for printing everything in color only to find out that he's actually ahead of the curve.

Not only has he dumped another salary well before the market is expected to be flooded with high-priced talent, he did it while he could still get something in return.

Granted, Strbak and Anshakov moving up ice aren't going to cause Penguins fans to forget the time when Mario Lemieux and Jagr played pick-puck-go together, but Strbak is a serviceable defenseman who likely can play for the Penguins now while Anshakov is a legitimate prospect who offers some hope for the future.

For a great many teams (and likely many more to follow later this season), playing the futures game is all that's left.

The futures game is a bit complex and hardly ever talked about openly, but we'll do our best to explain.

At the core of the game is the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players Association on Sept. 15, 2004. That document is the basic framework for how the league does its business. Because there is reason to believe a work stoppage will occur when the CBA expires, teams are acting either for the now or for the future.

The "now" teams think they are Stanley Cup contenders today or, with a player or two, could be one by season's end. Those are teams like Detroit, Colorado, New Jersey, Ottawa, Philadelphia and a handful of others. Throw the Kings into that mix now that they've acquired Straka. With Straka up front, the healthy return of some key players and Roman Cechmanek in goal, Los Angeles has to like its chances.

On the flip side are teams folding their cards this season in hopes that the next one -- whatever shape it takes and whenever it might come about -- will allow for a better hand.

The uncertainty of that manifests itself in different ways on different teams, but a list isn't hard to work up.

Chicago is certainly doing it. The Blackhawks have been beset by injuries this season, having lost two of their top scorers (Eric Daze and Alexei Zhamnov) to back injuries and their No. 1 goalie, Jocelyn Thibault, who is recovering from hip surgery. But at the same time the Blackhawks haven't bothered to hire a new general manager to replace the fired Mike Smith, or traded for replacements for their missing players.

The stand in Chicago is that longtime handyman Bob Pulford will be the GM until broadcaster-turned-trainee Dale Tallon finishes his learn-as-you-go program. Since neither man plays center or goal, Hawks fans are not impressed.

In not making trades, the Blackhawks may be sending a white flag up the pole this season, but they also have given themselves plenty of room to sign high-end free-agent talent when the time comes. According to The Hockey News, the Blackhawks began the season with just seven players under contract beyond this season and for a league-low total of $5 million -- a clear indication of its futures policy on the ice as well as off it.

Washington appears to be in a similar bind. While moving Jagr (who has all but publicly begged for a trade) might be difficult because of his oversized contract, the Capitals seem to be writing off the season because they haven't made a coaching change despite falling to the bottom of the NHL standings.

It's not that the Capitals can't afford to fire Bruce Cassidy; the bigger issue is how they entice a new coach to come into a situation where the Capitals won't want to commit to a contract beyond this season.

And why should they? Players may have to take a financial bath if there is no hockey next season, but any coach brought in now is going to want a contract that goes beyond this season. If the Capitals agree, they'll have to pay him and Cassidy even if there's no hockey next season. That's like taking out a car loan when you know the state is preparing to revoke your driver's license. It doesn't make much sense.

But, you say, didn't Florida GM Rick Dudley shoot a hockey puck through the scenario by firing Mike Keenan? In a word: no. Dudley might say he's looking for a new coach and that the search for the perfect one might take longer than O.J. Simpson's oft-stated quest. But in stepping behind the bench, Dudley has done more than get rid of a nemesis and end a power struggle. He is also saving the Panthers the cost of hiring a replacement -- no small expense considering the team is paying Keenan millions not to coach.

One gets a sense that Carolina coach Paul Maurice is surviving for largely the same reason.

Regarding personnel moves, a great many clubs have taken a similar stance. A rough estimate has the number of unrestricted free agents available at the end of this season at 168. That's an unprecedented figure. Boston, for example, has just four players under contract after this season. The unsigned players aren't all unrestricted free agents, but with just $6.8 million committed to the contract till, the Bruins are in excellent position for whatever comes their way under a new CBA.

There are some teams -- Tampa Bay, for instance -- that have operated as if the CBA won't pose an issue. Those teams are betting on liberal rules for easing in under a salary cap or a luxury tax. Others, like Dallas (11 players, $47 million) and Philadelphia (13 players, $40.5 million) appear to have done the same, but the majority has tried to plan for the future by having as few contractual obligations as possible.

That stance has prompted a good deal of speculation that even more teams will try to unload contracts as the season progresses and they deem themselves not likely to be a Stanley Cup contender or even a playoff threat. If that happens -- and some say it's not so much a matter of "if," but "when" -- the market could be flooded with quality players, thereby driving the return price to historic lows.

If that's the case, then Patrick really is ahead of the curve. His coach might not like it and the fans may howl, but in moving Straka, Patrick shaved what remains of Straka's $4.35 million salary for this season and half of the $4.7 million he's due next season. And he got two players in return.

It's not a pretty deal, but then the Penguins aren't in it for the now. They're in it for the future. For them and others, it's almost like this NHL season doesn't even count.

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