Cap rules bring equality, but its effects do not

7/20/2006 - NHL

What is the most important decision Tampa Bay Lightning GM Jay Feaster made this offseason?

Signing Brad Richards to a five-year deal worth almost $40 million?

Trading underrated, two-way forward Fredrik Modin to Columbus for much-needed starting goaltending help in the form of Marc Denis?

Signing defenseman Filip Kuba to a long-term deal to fill the void left by the departure of Pavel Kubina?

Or was it signing Nikita Alexeev to a one-year deal that will pay him the league minimum $450,000?

Nikita who? Exactly.

But if you picked the Alexeev option, you have a keener understanding of the new NHL than many. Certainly, Feaster points to the deal as one that will have significant ramifications.

Six years after the Lightning drafted Alexeev with the eighth overall pick in the 2000 draft, the native of Murmansk, Russia, has played in just 81 NHL games and scored just eight times. But stretched to the breaking point under the salary cap, Feaster is counting on Alexeev and other lesser lights to play 12-15 minutes a night, chip in offense and otherwise shore up the Lightning's crumbling middle-class as the team hopes to return to Cup contender status.

Welcome to the new NHL, where the rules apply equally to all 30 teams, but the effect of those rules on each team is as distinct as a snowflake's pattern.

In the wake of a free-agent spending spree that saw salaries approximate pre-lockout levels, there has been a seismic shift in the landscape. Five years ago, it was entirely possible the top 20 free agents would have been more or less equally divided between five or six clubs. Now, they are scattered across the NHL community, where the haves and the have-nots are indistinguishable and where those roles can be reversed almost overnight.

New St. Louis Blues president John Davidson acknowledged that defenseman Jay McKee came at a high price (four years at $4 million annually). But in trying to rebuild a team that missed the playoffs last spring for the first time in 26 years, Davidson is looking to build a solid defense and McKee, whose value went through the roof during Buffalo's run to the Eastern Conference finals, is the kind of player he and GM Larry Pleau identified and went after regardless of the relative cost.

Like every other team, the Blues are trying to build for today because success can come more quickly than at any time in the league's past, but remain cognizant that long-term success is built on homegrown talent.

"We haven't made one deal where we lost a draft pick or a prospect," said Davidson, whose Blues added three Cup winners in Doug Weight, Dan Hinote and Bill Guerin via free agency and may yet add a veteran goalie.

"I think it's always been about fit," said former Calgary GM Craig Button, now a senior scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs. "In the past, it was almost like a world of gluttony [for some teams]. You could get all those players because you could."

Now, you have to make a choice and you hope it's the right choice. Button points to Chicago's recent signing of promising young defenseman Duncan Keith to a four-year deal as a way of building a strong foundation for the future.

The Blackhawks, unlike in the recent past when they overspent for underachieving players, appear committed to letting a talented collection of youngsters and newly acquired Martin Havlat lead them.

With the possible exception of Washington, which seems intent on forcing Alexander Ovechkin to score or set up every single Capitals goal this season, each of the 14 teams that missed the playoffs last spring appears to have closed the gap on those above them. And with top teams such as Ottawa, Carolina and Detroit struggling, on paper, to maintain their places, the battle for playoff berths next spring promises to be even greater.

But as the distribution of talent has changed so, too, have the challenges facing all GMs in terms of assembling and then maintaining a winning team. A system that benefits teams such as Phoenix or Nashville, that have yet to enjoy any meaningful success, has become a nightmare for teams such as Ottawa and Tampa Bay that have developed winning teams but now must make hard choices about how to move forward.

Take Pavel Kubina. The Toronto Maple Leafs did.

A Lightning draft pick a decade ago, the product of the team's sweat, blood and money, Kubina became too good, too pricey for Feaster, who has cast his financial lot with the triplets -- Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Richards -- who will account for more than $21 million or almost half of the $44-million salary cap next season.

The Leafs missed the playoffs last season, shed salary and quickly pounced on Kubina, while Feaster tried to fill that gap by bringing in Kuba. And so the merry-go-round goes.

"I absolutely think it's working the way the commissioner wants it to work," Feaster said in a recent interview. "It's still, for my tastes, a little too much like rotisserie hockey."

A system that forces a team to choose among homegrown assets runs completely contrary to the basic philosophies of team-building, the GM said.

But if Feaster was able to keep all of his assets, including Kubina, Modin and defenseman Darryl Sydor, whom he dealt back to Dallas to free up salary, the Bolts' payroll would look like that of the pre-lockout Detroit Red Wings. As it is, pending a playoff run of some length, the Bolts will lose $8 million to $10 million this season.

Not that Feaster is expecting any sympathy from his 29 colleagues.

Ottawa GM John Muckler, who couldn't sign Zdeno Chara and then traded burgeoning star Havlat because he couldn't count on the Czech sniper to sign a long-term deal, has warned Senators fans to get used to the exodus of good players.

But that is the price of success, of having drafted and traded well. You get a shot at the Stanley Cup, but you can't have it both ways. And everyone in the league would give their eye for just one shot at the ring.

Wouldn't they, Mike Barnett?

The Phoenix GM has made a series of bold choices designed to build a team that should qualify for the playoffs for the first time in four playoff years. Those choices included signing blue-chip defenseman Ed Jovanovski hours after the free agency period began on July 1, acquiring via trade Nick Boynton and signing what the Coyotes hope will be a rejuvenated Jeremy Roenick. Barnett also has opted not to sign the team's most talented forward, Ladislav Nagy, to a long-term deal. Nagy has the potential to be a 90-point player, but he has been prone to injury, and Barnett is opting to let Nagy go to arbitration rather than risk tying up $4 million or more a year for the next three or four years. It might cost him a talented player if Nagy decides to pursue free agency, but these are the hard choices every GM faces.

Is there the potential for young players that you draft and develop to end up propping up another team?

Yes, said Barnett. "But is it good for the league? I think you can only say yes," he said.

Because the salary cap limits the bottom line in how much can be paid out, the decision-making process for GMs, agents and players is more complex than ever; meaning a deal has to make sense on a host of levels if it's going to work.

Alyn McCauley, a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy in 2003-04 and one of the game's character guys, had considered returning to the Eastern Conference to be closer to his family and his wife's family, both of whom are from Eastern Ontario. But most of the attention on July 1, when he became an unrestricted free agent, was from Western Conference teams. After discussing the relative benefits of being at home versus what made sense in terms of McCauley's career, McCauley ultimately signed in Los Angeles. The man who signed him there, new Kings GM Dean Lombardi, was the man who brought McCauley to San Jose from Toronto at the trade deadline in 2003. The two had never met, Lombardi getting the ax before McCauley landed in California, but Lombardi made it clear he viewed McCauley as an important part of the Kings' future.

To make that point, new coach Marc Crawford and new director of player personnel Ron Hextall both called McCauley in the hours before he signed a three-year deal that will pay him $2 million annually to express their interest in having McCauley join the Kings.

"It's nice to feel wanted that much," McCauley said. "Of course, the money is a factor. But I don't think it's as great a factor as where you fit in on the team."

Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough figures it's all about timing.

You want to sell your franchise as a "place of distinction," Risebrough said. "And that definition could mean different things depending on timing."

That is, a franchise might be able to offer an opportunity for an aging veteran or a first-time free agent in his late-20s or a role player looking to expand his role, but might not be able to offer all those opportunities at the same time for financial reasons or simply because the team is at a different point in its evolution.

Last summer, the Wild preferred to see what the game looked like post-lockout and, more importantly, where their prospects fit in as opposed to loading up on free agents. In hindsight, it didn't turn out well as the Wild missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. But give Risebrough and ownership credit for understanding that they risked alienating one of the best fan bases in the league if they didn't make moves to improve the club. Risebrough brought in Pavol Demitra from Los Angeles for prospect Patrick O'Sullivan and a first-round draft pick, then signed puck-moving defenseman Kim Johnsson from Philadelphia and veteran rearguard Keith Carney from the free agent pool. Risebrough also signed free agent Mark Parrish, a native of Minnesota.

Just as the view of the new system varies from franchise to franchise, the projections of what might happen next year and beyond cover the gamut. If revenues continue to go up, the movement of players is likely to continue unabated, especially with the age of free agency dropping.

But if revenues plateau or even decline, the movement of players will slow, Barnett predicts.

"I don't think you'll see that again," he said referring to this summer's signing orgy.

Of course, if the circumstances are repeated next summer, Barnett hopes he faces the same challenges as that of his colleague Jay Feaster -- trying to maintain a Cup winner.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.