- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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So if Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow surprise us, meet on Prince Edward Island and decide on terms of a new collective bargaining agreement that enables the NHL to play a full season, it better not include an immediate hard salary cap of, say, $42 million.
Or if it does, the Colorado Avalanche will be scrambling, trying to figure out how to get under that figure.
Most likely, this is all moot, of course, given the Players Association's stance that a hard salary cap is a "non-starter," and the likelihood that even some sort of modified form of a salary cap would include provisions for "grandfathering" existing contracts. And that doesn't even get into the possibility that the entire 2004-05 season could be scrubbed, in effect wiping out the many one-year contracts on the Colorado payroll. The latest of those is Vincent Damphousse's $2 million deal, which represents a 50-percent paycut for the veteran center who helped knock the Avalanche out of the playoffs in the conference semifinals last spring.
But heading into the final fortnight of the old CBA, the Avalanche already had locked up what would seem to be its potential 2004-05 roster, and the contracts of the 22 players involved already totaled $51.6 million. Then toss in that if Peter Forsberg eventually decides to accept the Avalanche's qualifying offer of $9.5 million, and the season goes as scheduled, Colorado's payroll would be about $61.1 million.
There is an outside chance Paul Kariya still could re-sign with Colorado, which most likely would toss another $5 million into the mix. All of those figures would be pro-rated, of course, if the season is shortened. If the season is eliminated, it is expected that one-year deals would be considered expired, but the unprecedented nature of a lost season makes any assumptions risky, subject to terms of the next collective bargaining agreement.
"It's business as usual,'' GM Pierre Lacroix said. "We haven't changed anything we're doing this summer, as opposed to the past.''
But is Lacroix worried about what he might have to do -- or at least try to do -- under terms of a new CBA?
"No," Lacroix said. "I trust the people who are representing ownerships. And we're not the only team in this situation."
It's all very risky because of the unknown. The Avalanche haven't had an unsold ticket (at least officially) since November 1995. Adding to the pressure, the Stan Kroenke sports empire (Nuggets, Avalanche, soccer Rapids, a share of indoor football's Crush) is trying to get its own cable television network up and running, and the absence of the Avalanche would leave a huge void. That all helps explain and probably justifies Lacroix's continued aggressiveness in the offseason, and the caution and inertia of other teams, plus a market correction, meant there were bargains out there.
"We did what we have done knowing that we would have to face the terms of the next CBA,"' Lacroix said.
Most notably, the Avalanche re-signed Steve Konowalchuk, Alex Tanguay, David Aebischer, Karlis Skrastins, Bob Boughner and Chris Gratton, and accepted the arbitration award ($5.7 million, one year) to Milan Hejduk. Then, primarily because Andre Nikolishin wanted to return to Russia for family reasons and Matthew Barnaby signed with Chicago, the Avalanche signed Antti Laaksonen and Ian Laperriere. Finally, facing the likelihood that Forsberg will play at least next season in Sweden, the Colorado signing of Damphousse provides insurance.
"He's versatile, he adds depth and we need to be prepared for alternatives in case Peter decides not to come,'" Lacroix said. "If Peter Forsberg's here, (Damphousse) will have one role, and if Peter isn't here, it will be a different role. He's the kind of guy who can do that. He's done a great job against us in the playoffs, too. We all know him, and we think he's a perfect fit for us."
Lacroix, the longtime player agent before becoming the Nordiques' general manager just in time to work through the 1994 lockout, is walking a tightrope in some ways, balancing between unequivocal support that the current system "no doubt" needs to be overhauled, yet taking advantage of it. Where he can seem almost defensive at times is when he points out that while Colorado has been near the top of the NHL payroll lists for nearly its entire stay in Denver -- the Avalanche was fifth at the end of last season -- his moves have been reactive, not directly inflationary.
By that, he means that Colorado's major signings usually have involved retaining its "core," and those involved external pressures -- such as the Rangers' front-loaded offer to Joe Sakic in 1997 -- and league benchmarks. That can be splitting hairs, as when deadline potential "rental" deals turn into offseason signings, as happened with Rob Blake, for example. But even Colorado's ill-fated signings of Kariya and Teemu Selanne a year ago came at bargain rates, as they offered themselves up as a package deal.
The "old" system has worked for the Avalanche, at least in the sense that -- despite playoff disappointments the last two seasons -- it has remained among the league's elite franchises. But the backdrop is that ticket prices in the $86 range for good, not great, seats make for a razor-thin margin of error. If this franchise ever goes into the tank for an extended period, the honeymoon is over. So it would have been folly for Lacroix to be paralyzed in the offseason by the possibility of a salary cap.
"The directives from the league are pretty general," Lacroix said. "It's been, 'Trust us on being the people leading the way in order to find a new CBA that can make it work for all of us.' I'm comfortable with that, and I have confidence in the people who are doing what needs to be done in order to correct the situation.
"It's a league situation. Even though I have an opinion, it might not apply to 20 or 30 other teams. When you have a market like we have, and as we have done for 10 years, you make decisions about what to do to offer a good product to our fans. But in this case, it's much more complex and it is a league-wide issue."
Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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