Since the early 1990s, the National Hockey League has undergone a major transformation: rapid expansion, two nasty labor wars and teams relocating from Canada to the southern United States.
Result: huge losses and falling television ratings. After canceling the 2004-05 season, the owners enter this year armed with control of player salaries, and the league's best players can more fully showcase their talents, thanks to new rules designed to remove player interference and speed up the game.
In an effort to build its fan base, the National Hockey League made a big push in the 1990s to expand beyond its traditional roots in Canada and the northern U.S. to cities in the deep South.
Although existing owners divvied up $570 million in expansion fees, the game plan failed. As the league grew from 21 teams to 30, heightened demand for players pushed up costs while TV ratings were embarrassingly low.
Result: The league lost $1 billion-plus during the past decade and incurred two vicious labor disputes, the latest resulting in the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season by the owners.
The players, many of whom played abroad for peanuts during the lockout, surrendered, and this season began with a payroll cap ($39 million per team this year) that is linked to revenue. In May, ESPN refused its option to broadcast games (worth $60 million to the league) because of low ratings; the NHL subsequently signed a $135 million, two-year deal with Comcast's OLN channel (formerly Outdoor Life Network) that also gives the cable company the right to stream live games over the Internet.
The salary cap will help mend the league's balance sheet. But it still remains to be seen whether the teams in Atlanta, North Carolina and Nashville have enough fans to survive.
Grading The Players
When the NHL and its players agreed to a salary cap this summer, it marked the end of the free-spending ways of teams like the Rangers and Red Wings.
The $39 million "strict" cap means that owners can no longer pay above market value for a particular player without shedding payroll elsewhere. The NHL's cap is more draconian than the one imposed by the National Football League, where teams can end-run the cap -- at least for a while -- with signing bonuses.
Before the NHL season started, even stars like Chris Pronger and Peter Forsberg changed teams as management fought to get under the cap.
To gauge which players have the most value, we turned to RotoWire.com, the leading player-rating service for fantasy-sports fans. Its ratings look at age, health, role on the team and historical statistics like goals and assists.
We combined these ratings with player salaries to determine which players were the best bargains and which were the most overpriced. See the slideshows for the best and worst values.
Kurt Badenhausen and Michael K. Ozanian are writers for Forbes.com.