NHL roadmap: What to expect


OK, it's done, at least in principle. A new collective-bargaining agreement between the National Hockey League and its players.

But now what?

Here's a rough road map of how the frenzied post-CBA summer is likely to unfold.

Now that there's agreement on a deal, don't expect anyone to rush onto Broadway and burst into song. The two sides issued releases about the tentative deal, but further details will wait for ratification.

The league's ratification process involves what is expected to be rubber-stamping of the agreement by the NHL's board of governors who are expected gather in New York within a day or two of the tentative deal being reached. A simple majority is needed to ratify the deal. Consider that a fait accompli.

The players' ratification is a bit more cumbersome and not necessarily a sure bet. The NHLPA will hold a membership meeting/ratification vote, likely in Toronto. Those players who can't attend will register their votes through individual team player representatives. It's expected it could take anywhere from two days to a week to organize and hold such a vote.

A simple majority will ratify the deal on the players' end. Expect angry discussion and recriminations about the concessions the players have made, and the union's strategy throughout. But in spite of any grumbling, it would be a huge shock if the deal isn't accepted, largely because going back to the table would almost certainly mean a worse deal in the end.

Within a day or two of ratification, look for the dog and pony show -- a media event likely to include the startling sight of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow standing shoulder to shoulder, shaking hands and putting on baseball caps emblazoned with the league's new bounce-back catch phrase, "It's a whole new game."

The event, likely to be held in New York, will formally announce the new deal, but will also focus on wide-ranging rule changes and plans for an enhanced experience for fans across the league. There could also be the announcement of league-wide fan initiatives. This will be the first public unveiling of the crucial new partnership between the league and its players. Watch for lots of public hatchet-burying between the sides.

In the meantime, general managers and agents will be poring over the new CBA, rumored to be in excess of 600 pages. One source told ESPN.com the section dealing with the salary cap is 100 pages. Both managers and agents say they expect a moratorium on signing players for a week or 10 days after the deal is ratified. It's expected agents will be assisted by the NHLPA in understanding the nuances of the complex new deal while the league will meet with GMs in small groups or offer some other form of CBA tutorial.

Once the moratorium is over, GMs will be given a short window of a few days to sign unsigned 2003 draft picks. Those who aren't signed would be added to the 2005 draft. There has been some noise that some of these draft picks, fearful of being tossed back into a rich draft in a summer of unprecedented player movement, would sue to become free agents, but that's unlikely to happen.

Following closely on the heels of this signing period will be the 2005 draft -- or, as it's come to be known, the Crosby draft. If the NHL is looking to keep itself on sportscast highlights, they will save unveiling the much ballyhooed draft order for the day or two before the actual draft, likely the last weekend in July or first weekend in August.

The lottery, in which all 30 teams have at least a chance at earning the right to select mega-prospect Sidney Crosby with the first overall pick, should draw at least some interest in hockey markets across the continent. Expect at least an abbreviated draft weekend to be held in Ottawa. City officials have already told the league they could host the event on short notice.

Although some GMs feel there will be little in the way of trading under the new system, the draft should provide the chance to create some cap room without buying out a player -- or similarly, adding a useful piece without having to get into a bidding war if he becomes a free agent.

Speaking of buyouts, at some point either immediately before or immediately after the draft, the league will establish another short window in which teams will be given a one-time opportunity to buy out existing contracts. Players who are bought out (New York Rangers center Bobby Holik, Dallas's Pierre Turgeon and Toronto Maple Leaf Owen Nolan are among the obvious candidates) will be paid 75 percent of their existing contracts and become unrestricted free agents. They will not, however, be allowed to re-sign with the team that buys them out for at least one year.

In the days before and after the draft GMs will make qualifying offers to unrestricted free agents.

Once the buyout opportunity has passed, the free-agent market will open, likely sometime during the first week of August. The union reports that only 288 players are currently under contract and that number will decline even further once the buyout option is exercised. It's not inconceivable then, that there could be upward of 450 restricted or unrestricted free agents on the market.

One agent anticipates the signing period to be "controlled pandemonium. It's going to be nuts."

Teams such as the Boston Bruins, which has four NHL players under contract, will need to move quickly to ensure they are able to plug the many holes in their lineups. Teams such as Phoenix, which has 21 players under contract, might be more patient in finding the right fit under the new cap.

"I think it's going to be filled with a lot of uncertainty," one agent said of the new marketplace. "There are no comparables anymore. You're starting from a clean slate."

Added one GM: "It's going to be a very interesting scenario. Some players might want to wait until the market is established."

But with a cap in place, players who wait too long might find teams don't have room, or only at a much lower level.

"Or they could find themselves with teams they don't want to play for," the GM said. "If I was a player I'd be trying to get a two-year deal at a fair number."

Even if there is a controlled period during which free agents can be signed, it's a given that agents and GMs will be in contact from the moment the tentative deal is announced.

"They're going to be trying to sign deals no matter what the dates are," one GM said. Another GM said he knows some of his players who are not under contract already have been approached by rival GMs.

Regardless of the strategy employed -- buy early or buy late -- GMs will have about a month, perhaps five weeks, to fill out their rosters while staying under the new salary cap of between $37 million to $39 million. If, as expected, the NHL allows its players to take part in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, the league will almost certainly start the regular season earlier than normal; likely the first week of October, meaning training camps would start the week after Labor Day.

So hang onto your helmets, the NHL's coming back and it's going to be a wild ride.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.