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False promise

So much for the salary cap leveling the playing field

Posted: Tuesday July 3, 2007 5:46PM; Updated: Tuesday July 3, 2007 5:46PM
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After seeing his team come painfully close to the Cup, Darcy Regier could only watch as two key players left for big-market bucks.
After seeing his team come painfully close to the Cup, Darcy Regier could only watch as two key players left for big-market bucks.
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The more things change, the more they stay the same. If you're looking for a theme around the NHL since the July 1 free agency frenzy began, it has to be that old saying.

All of the post-lockout proclamations of a new economic landscape where all markets would compete equally have come crashing down. Just ask the Buffalo Sabres.

Immediately following the year of lockout darkness, the Sabres burst onto the scene as a model of the New NHL: competitive despite their small-market location; a skating-based team that embraced the new standard of rules application with a well-stocked minor league system in sync with the style of play at the NHL level, and stability within the coaching and management ranks.

Two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals indicated that the Sabres were close to the Cup. Now, after losing their top two players to big market free spenders -- Chris Drury to the Rangers and Daniel Briere to the Flyers -- GM Darcy Regier succinctly, and with an air of resignation, stated the painfully obvious when he said that his team is less competitive today than it was last week.

The big bucks teams set the market by front-loading contracts to put them out of reach for smaller markets. The cap game is average-based, but real dollars spent is a cold hard fact that the Rangers and Flyers exploited. That's why Scott Gomez from the Devils -- another mega deal signee by the Rangers -- is too pricy for most teams at $10 million this year even though his average salary and annual cap charge is closer to $7 million.

Never mind the fact that Gomez scored 13 goals last season. Forget for a moment that salaries increased an alarming 27 percent from year one post-lockout to year two. Throw in arbitration and comparables as a beneficial upwardly mobile scale for all other players and the net effect is obvious and immediate: big name players will command big dollars from the big budget teams. With the cap escalating to over $50M this year -- certainly a sign of healthy revenues since the cap is tied to league-wide money gathered -- some teams have the wherewithal to chase that number, while most will look to the roughly-hewn $34 million floor as a starting number for their budgets.

Oh, yeah, what about budgets? Lost in this notion of league-wide economic viability is the reality that budgets vary by individual market capacity. Spending limits exist at a localized level, with an across-the-board view of revenues having little to do with viability. So, teams like the Rangers, Flyers, Red Wings Avalanche and Maple Leafs -- free spenders prior to 2004 and major players in this free agency period -- can spend to the max without inhibition or conscience. After all, the new cap is less than the payrolls for those teams prior to the work stoppage.

All of which is great for the players and outstanding for long-established and successful franchises. But, with that inherent advantage, GMs are offering players both long-term and top-dollar contracts. Guaranteed. But, as a league, if your cap number exceeds the reach of most member clubs and contract precedent is set for both term and dollars, economic and competitive viability as part of the post-lockout vision becomes a false promise.

Ah, yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.