Free-agent ground changing for NHL veterans

Updated: July 1, 2006, 10:47 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

It's not a fear of commitment.

It's an acknowledgment that it can be mutually undesirable in the "new" NHL.

That was one of the side issues raised when Joe Sakic signed a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche last week, long before the Saturday opening of the free-agency period.

At 36, he was sticking around for an 18th season with the Quebec/Colorado franchise, giving him an opportunity to be one of the rare players to spend his entire career with a single team.

Sakic's $5.75 million salary for 2006-07 was moderate, but a bit misleading. When he and Rob Blake re-signed with Colorado in 2001, twin $3 million bonuses due five years later were part of their deals. Those bonuses will be shaved to $2.3 million because of the 24 percent rollbacks under the new collective-bargaining agreement but will count against the Avalanche's cap next season. It means Sakic will take up a shade over $8 million under next season's $44 million cap. Put another way, the bonuses effectively will eat up the increase in cap space for the Avalanche and definitely were an issue when Colorado, fearing a potential $5 million-plus arbitration award to Alex Tanguay, shipped him to Calgary.

Also, nobody would talk about it, but that $5.75 million figure also was significant because although it was lower than the $6.7 million Sakic earned last season under the rollbacks, it was slightly above the $5.5 million Jose Theodore will pull down in 2006-07, the second season of his three-year, $16 million deal. (His cap number will be the average, $5.3 million.)

The Theodore acquisition was a high-wire risk for many reasons, more so the financial commitment and the establishment of his salary as a benchmark than his continuing ability to make it into trashy "celebrity" reports in the offseason. It would have been a travesty if Sakic's 2006-07 salary were lower than Theodore's, and Blake, acting as his own agent, undoubtedly has the same standard in mind. From now on, no salary can be written off as aberrant (e.g., "That's the former GM's fault"), whether in discussions with agents, the players themselves or even the public. Slotting is more prevalent than ever, even as the parameters slide.

Beyond that, Sakic said he agreed to only a one-year deal because all agreed it wouldn't be wise to saddle the Avalanche with a long-term commitment that could come back to haunt the franchise if he suffers injuries or an erosion of skills. Taken at face value, that's refreshing realism, but there undoubtedly was a component tied to the possibility that he could be a veteran wanting to pick his spot down the road, for the final season or two of his career. In an ideal world, he would play at least through the 2009-10 season, taking him past the 2010 Olympics in his hometown of Vancouver.

That point is the one that, if it becomes a trend and is the leading edge of future developments under the new CBA, could affect the rest of the league.

Veteran 35-plus players going year-to-year?

That certainly isn't unprecedented. But it makes sense now, more than ever.

In the past, multiple-year deals didn't have as much potential downside. Teams could live with the possibility that the final season of multiyear deals could involve salaries turning into honoraria for past service more than compensation for current contributions in pared-down minutes and career twilights.

That's wildly impractical now. And we'll see the onset of these one-year deals come at younger ages than before. Sakic, for example, is a "young" 36, and it's hard to imagine him significantly deteriorating in the next couple of years. But it's possible, and it's only smart for both sides, team and veteran, to keep the options open.

To be perfectly blunt, I hate crunching numbers and dollar figures. I hate talking about them so much. I'd rather write about the game and the people in it, not the contracts and the numerals in them. And I think most followers of the game think the same way, right? But here's where I'll again give the NHL credit for, at great cost and through a strategy and a process I found objectionable, ending up with a system that avoids the most disgusting elements of the NFL and NBA cap systems.

In the NFL, without guaranteed contracts (that's not a bad thing), there is so much maneuvering and spreading out of money and renegotiation and restructuring, the capologist should be wearing a visor and shuffling three coconut halves with a pea underneath one of them, challenging the league front office to pick out where the pea ends up.

In the NBA, there are so many exceptions, the Portland Trail Blazers probably were shocked to find out they didn't get "arrest exemptions" as they went way above the cap with a terrible team of suspect character.

At least so far, the NHL cap seems relatively simple and airtight. No players are getting endorsement deals from arena naming rights sponsors to "add" to their deals and circumvent the cap. Renegotiation isn't allowed, so teams can't go to stars (old and new) and ask them to take pay cuts under existing contracts to open up cap room. (The NFL reaction: "Take a cut or we'll cut you.")

So, in a marketplace in which fantasy leagues have taken off -- with many of them tied to bidding and salary caps themselves (for a great example, check out the "Arli$$" episode "The Client's Best Interests" the next time it runs on ESPN Classic) -- this is becoming more intriguing and straightforward bang-for-the-buck maneuvering than absurd sleight of hand. It doesn't strike me so much that it's fair per se because the Blackhawks still are the Blackhawks and, although the league rarely admitted it in presenting the sky-is-falling scenario, the NHL always had more competitive than financial parity.

As the NHL approaches its first full free-agency signing period under the new CBA, then, that's all good.

And it's even better if the 35-plus veterans, whether still among the elite or after having slid (e.g., 36-year-old Jeremy Roenick), acknowledge that having year-to-year options is the way to go at the end of their careers. That means a lot of things and recognizes "free" agency doesn't have to signify the freedom to take the highest offer.

It means leaving open the option of making a twilight choice based on a city, not just a franchise.

Terry Frei 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."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei 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."